Yesterday I made the trip from Somerset to London to meet Sarah Whittingham, author of the wonderful Fern Fever and Wendy Wallace whose recently published The Painted Bridge is my favourite fiction book of the year so far. Although we were looking forward to much tea and cake and friendly chat we were there to visit the wonderful British Library Exhibition Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands.
It is brilliant, and I would recommend it to anyone who can make the trip to see it before it ends on 25th September. Exploring how the rural and urban landscape has influenced, shaped and inspired some of Britain’s greatest poets and authors to create classic works of literature (right up to the present day) it includes original manuscripts and early editions of work from Chaucer and Shakespeare to G.K Chesterton, J.G Ballard and J.K Rowling. To see the original handwritten copies of Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland; the tiny handwriting of Emily and Charlotte Bronte and the flamboyant flourishes of Ted Hughes was exciting and inspirational. And of course there was the original letter written by John Keats to his brother Tom during his trip to Scotland in 1818…
One of the pieces that Sarah Whittingham and I found most moving, as we went round to see the exhibits we had missed earlier when we had to retire for tea and lemon and poppy seed cake is the following poem by Harold Pinter. I am sure Wendy would have loved it too, had she not had to leave early, as it is a wonderful tribute to an English teacher with whom Pinter used to walk the streets of London. Joseph Brearley died in 1977 when Pinter wrote this, recognising the influence of the man who taught him during his time at Hackney Downs School.
Joseph Brearley 1909 – 1977
Dear Joe, I’d like to walk with you
From Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill
Through Manor House to Finsbury Park,
On the dead 653 trolleybus,
To Clapton Pond,
And walk across the shadows on to Hackney Downs,
And stop by the old bandstand,
You tall in moonlight,
And the quickness in which it all happened
And the quick shadow in which it persists.
You’re gone. I’m at your side,
Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park,
And on, and on.
The poem will always sum up the day for me. Wendy and Sarah were lovely companions around what is a memorable exhibition. The one disappointment was the book that accompanies it – it doesn’t include significant exhibits and fails my ‘Keats test’ – including two of his early poems that are far from his best and which don’t represent his best work in relation to the theme of the exhibition. At £17.99 in paperback it is no replacement for a personal visit.
If you can go – do.