Back in May this year, I promised to report back on the Writing Britain 'Wasteland to Wonderlands' exhibition at the British Library, and now, I finally can. I waited for the perfect afternoon, you know.
Let me start by painting you a picture. London. Rain. Brightly striped girly umbrella. Retro green sneakers. Bespoke Mac. Perfectly attired for a perfectly wet afternoon, I traipsed across the bleak city, my leather sneakers hitting dirty pavements, splashing their way towards Kings Cross, a grubby part of town, where classic architecture and contemporary street art collide. The rain fell heavy, the wind blew wildly. I passed three distinct piles of vomit, each a different hue of pink, each spattered against the redbrick walls of St Pancras station's cathedral facade. I resisted an overwhelming urge to 'cross myself' and hurried away. Taxis swished by, I ducked into alcoves, hoping for respite from the wet, wet, day.
It was a dramatic journey, any of Jane Austen's heroines undoubtedly would have cried out for smelling salts long before the end. Being made of stronger fibre though, I made it safely through the doors and into the enormous lobby of the British Library. Nothing a little gin couldn't cure later. Inside the vast building, it was surprising quiet, and a little dark. Pockets of people stood, scattered in corners, speaking in whispers, folding battered umbrellas, patting down damp clothes. Dishevelled but feeling triumphant at arriving in one piece, I tip-toed across the marble and purchased my ticket from the friendly ticket chap. "Just one?" he asked, peering expectantly over my shoulder. "Yes, just me... I like to wander alone..." I replied, peering over my own shoulder too, wondering if someone had miraculously appeared. "Well, you'll enjoy it..." More chit-chat whilst the sale was rung up. "Can I help you with anything else?" he enquired, a wolfish grin on his face. "Um, no...thanks, I don't..." I grabbed my ticket and fled.
So, the exhibition? A cavernous space, dimly-lit just enough to allow you to navigate your way through. The place was teeming with literary junkies, reading quietly, taking notes, lingering possessively over manuscripts, eyeing you suspiciously as you made your way over. I wasn't sure which end to start so my strategy was this, - look for the quiet spots, head over there, back track later. Now, there's a little power-play at busy exhibitions, where you eventually need to put manners aside and elbow your way in. Or cough, cough as loud as possible, apologise in between spluttering. I waited patiently for a good two minutes... behind one particular lady who stood, trance-like, in front of the glass-cased Tolkien drawing. I waited, and waited, walked around, tried my hand at patience and then I returned. It was now a good twenty minutes and the same lady was still standing in place. A statue, herself, save for her elbow movements. She was sketching his drawing, in her own sweet time. And everyone else was made to walk around her. I coughed.
And, which pieces would I take home with me? At the top of my list, would be the original hand-written manuscripts, notes, letters, poems, scribblings. All that faded ink work, scrawled, crossed-out, and re-written. The dainty penmanship of the Bronte sisters, Wordsworth, and the drawings in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Notebook'. I found myself returning several times to view the magnificent copy of a 14th century manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury tales. Seriously, -like, vintage, vintage eye candy. Another unexpected surprise, for me, was a recorded interview of Daphne du Maurier, in which she explained her inspiration behind 'Jamaica Inn'. And, my god, her voice, her voice! It was like listening to all of my great-aunts-long-since-passed-on. I was riveted to the spot and yes, I hogged the enormous headphones for a good twenty minutes or so. That was the highlight for me.
Overall, the exhibition was immense, I scribbled my own notes and left Kings Cross, feeling invigorated, inspired, greatly impressed. All these literary giants under one roof, they all lived fairly normal lives and drew inspiration from places they visited, landscapes, houses, their own surroundings. I felt a sense of relief, really. Sometimes, we put our literary heros on such high pedestals, we forget, they were just like us. I couldn't help smiling on the train journey home, it was definitely worth the trek through London town that day.