Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands


The British Library knows how to do its exhibitions. It does them big. The latest, “Writing Britain: Wastelands to wonderlands” (Friday 11 May– Tuesday 25 Sep 2012) explores the literary history of Britain.
The first section “Rural dreams” immerses you in pastoral idealism from pre-Christian times to modern day. There are early symbols and stories from John Barleycorn to Robin hood, poetry inspired by myths, the Mabinoginon, and its progeny The Owl Service. Further on: “earthly paradise” fiction, (Winnie the Pooh) country house literature and protests against urbanization. look out for Tolkien, especially his lovely painting The hill: Hobbiton-across-the-water.

“Dark satanic mills” is a startling contrast after the first sections mix of pastoral idealism and charm. With an soundscape by Mark Peter Wright, you are immersed, not just with accounts of infernos-with the noise too. The literature is reactions to mines, mills and factories. The décor is impressive: black and white prints of industrial life, and mills that would look at home in Dante. Among Trollope and Elliot are surreal surprises; John Dyers The Fleece poeticises the wool industry. Wordsworth’s letter to P.M Gladstone objecting to Windermere Railway-angry sonnet included. Look out for Ernest-Jones’s amazing depiction of an English town-the striking style resembles the set-pieces in Metropolis. Elsewhere there’s George Orwell’s sketch map of his route in The Road to Wigan Pier. The poetry includes Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden (with haunting illustrations by Henry Moore.)

The countryside in “Wild places” is a world away from “Rural dreams”. The best and worst of emotional extremis is showcased, with Wordsworth’s intensely spiritual poetry alongside Gothic romances. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights features. So do the works of  Daphne Du Maurier, and generally any great writer who wrote about passion and peril in countryside. King Lear (look out for the striking illustration) and Dickens’s Magwich are cited as humanity overcome by wildness. Sole blemish on the section: post-apocalyptic novels by Richard Jeffries and J.G. Ballard.

“Beyond the city” explores ideas of the suburbs. Among printed images of the suburbs hung tapestry-style, are surreal, magical, and menacing discoveries. A suspension of disbelief predominates. In a Kafkaesque story The beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh, a shape shifting beetle represents foreign intrusion. Ralph Steadman’s gleeful illustration to Alice in Wonderland depicts the Rabbit as a bowler-hatted commuter. In pride of place was G.K. Chesterton, with  The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who was Thursday. The crowning piece of the section is the striking publicity poster for Notting Hill. There is slight stress on his negative-the notes for  The man who was Thursday, describe the surveillance and paranoia in his books. True, but his books are also wild and funny. J.G. Ballard’s Kingdome Come and Crash are much darker. One unexpected inclusion was Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is more associated with London, surely? He does go to the suburbs, but even so…Is he taking a holiday? If so he chose a nice location.

“Cockney visions” is one of the biggest, best decorated sections; The floor is covered with prints of Victorian and pre-Victorian maps. Others hang from the ceiling.  Showcased work stretches from Chaucer to the handwritten manuscript for Harry Potter. “In different voices” concerns different accents and dialects in London. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Angela Carter’s Wise Children rub shoulders with West Indian and Jamaican writers. In “City of Dreadful night” things get interesting. The dark side of London is explored, with Dore’s haunting engravings for London: a pilgrimage and Thompson and Blake’s poems to the city. The great villains of 19th century literature are displayed: Sweeny Todd, Conrad’s terrorists in The Secret Agent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are there, plus a graphic novel based on the Ripper murders. Odd, among all these villains, is the absence of Conan Doyle; Surely Moriarty can stalk with the worst?
“Street haunting” is intriguing, because of the central idea: The wanderer who really experiences the city. This is certainly a diverse section, mixing sightseeing manuals with De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Among this collection is a character who would be at home in “City of dreadful night”. Poe’s The Man of The Crowd is presented as a “city wanderer” story. In the beautifully illustrated copy on display, the narrators pursuit of an old man takes him through London’s underbelly. It is eventually revealed that the old man is so evil he cannot be alone with himself: he is “the man of the crowd”. Largely “Cockney visions” resembles this story: Interesting, intelligent, dark-and very colourful.

“Waterlands” is the exhibitions crown. Video installations dominate, with a soundscape by Mark peter Wright and archive footage of the Thames and the seaside.  Below in the display cases are the writers you might expect (Austin, Larkin, Greene, Dickens, Kingsley) and the writers you don’t (Stoker: The original illustration of Dracula biting a white-clad maiden certainly catches the eye.) Highlights include “Sweet Thames” poems: John Leland’s Swan Song, where the poet in no way sucks up to Henry the Eighth; Self dubbed “Water poet” and publicity stuntman extraordinaire John Taylor. Best are Edmund Spenser’s 1596 Prothalamaion and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Both poems are gorgeous, and it is interesting to see them together.
There are darker interpretations; In Du Maurer’s Rebecca the sea holds dark secrets. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the Thames is a link British imperialism. However there are far lighter examples here than elsewhere: the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. The notes tell of  the boat trip that inspired the book;


Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, a masterpiece of idyllic Englishness; Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows plus some rather unexpected illustrations for a scene in which Pan appears; different takes on the scene are compared, With Arthur Rackham winning out from sheer peculiar genius. To finish off the section is an artwork by Liz Mathews.
This is not an exhibition about Britain. This is an exhibition about writers, and their relationship with Britain. Perhaps there is a little emphasis on the negative, but “Waterlands” makes up for that. Overall, lovely.


The master and Margarita

Margaria as the queen of the damned – Illustration by Retro Atelier

Demons. Vampires. Witches. Literary critics. Just some of the eerie and menacing creatures that populate Bulgakovs sweeping novel. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s regime, the book combines grotesque comedy with a sense of omnipresent menace and secrecy.  Both a satire on soviet life and a tender examination of the human spirit, this is a book not to be overlooked.

The plot is a complex structure interweaving three stories: The Devils visit to Moscow with his Demons; A woman who sells her soul to save her lover; And the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who had Christ executed. The third story weaves between the other two and provides a moral backdrop for the rest of the action.

The story of the Demons exploits is largely a satire of soviet life, told in the spirit of grotesque comedy. The Demons booze and gun sling their way through Moscow,  savaging the literary Elite. The motive seems to largely be retribution: publishers have fallen in with government policy and suppressed religious literature. Throughout the book bewildered publishers are evicted, beaten up, harassed with menacing phone calls, and set on by Vampires. The action climaxes in a grotesque Seance in which the Demons punish greed and vanity; They give women elaborate dresses-which vanish, leaving the wearer in their underwear. The whole plot presents a picture of mundane reality interrupted by unexplained bouts of violence.

Illustration by Retro Atelier http://www.masterandmargarita.eu

The story of Margarita is more complex and centered. It is a female Faust story centering on a demonic pact and its consequences-but Margarita is more complex and ambiguous than Faust. She represents the meeting point of good and evil, displaying good qualities at the most incongruous moments. True to form, she and her lover end up in purgatory, eternally hanging between good and evil. The couple represent all-too-worldly human love, both un-condemnable and un-savable.

Illustration by Elena Martynyuk http://www.masterandmargarita.eu

The only equal to Margarita in moral dubity is also the only character to reach redemption: Pontus Pilate is the brutal and conflicted anti-hero of the “flashback” plot set in ancient Jerusalem. Travelling through the moral spectrum, his story is the high point of the book, being a fable of guilt, cowardice and redemption. The brutal comedy and the worldly love of the other two plots are set against the third, in which a character is his own tormentor. Pilates story provides a context for Bulgakovs moral that “cowardice is tha greatest human vice”.

In parallel, the three plots represent three examples of sin and retribution, determined by the levels of recognition.  In the first plot, the literary elite are so desensitized to corruption, they are unconscious of having done anything wrong. Their bewilderment at the demonic attacks provides a lot of the comedy, but also defines the story. They represent a society gone morally blind.

The second story concerns guilt conscious but passive; Margarita makes her deal with her eyes open, absolutely complacent provided she gets what she wants. The lovers make no move towards redemption. There is no introspective debate in the story. The lovers do not  recognise that they have done wrong, and so end up in purgatory. Margaritas story presents a moral passivity that Bulgakov considered dangerous, personally and socially the unwillingness to become conscious of wrongdoing.

Pilate, who spends most of the book in a miasma of guilt, is the only one to reach redemption. There is no compromise or Demonic punishment in his story, because Pilate faces his own wrongdoing. There are attempts to make amends, internal debates, and a final reward. Bulgakovs moral is that, individually and  socially , we have to look our crimes full in the face. Then we can set them right.

“The Master and Margarita” may have political meaning, but it also has a far more permanent relevance. Bulgakov examines the moral ambiguity of human nature, the nature of sin, the importance of introspection. It is a lovely book, written with humour and intelligence, and deserves its place among the great classics.

Night watch

‘Night Watch’ is one of Terry Pratchetts phenomenally successful Discworld series, a satirical fantasy franchise covering upwards of forty books and a whole range of cultural subjects. Pratchetts readership is as varied as his subject matter, and he is the second most poplar writer in Britain. Pratchetts trademark is the lettering of his name on all the book covers, in a crooked, quasi-gothic font, with the first name on top of the second. The name is now associated in the readers minds with everything the franchise represents.



The word ‘Discworld’  now conjures up connotations of playful wit, in-jokes, cultural references and an underlying intelligence, mixed with a distinctly British ideology, and love of the underdog. The cerebral nature of the books makes them almost unfilmable, although five adaptations have been made.

When a person buys a Pratchett novel, they are buying an alternative to the usual run of fantasy:  This is why the SF/Fantasy club keeps them under a separate heading. What the franchise represents is a separate genre, falling over itself to re-examine the assumptions society makes; In part, this includes laughing at the assumptions of fantasy and its stereotypes.

The satire comes from the close examination of social ideas, which also allows him to make relevant points; for example, is war just another crime? If so, what if it were possible to arrest the armies? And is money a sort of shared dream? after all, a ten pound note is only paper. The humour is a mixture of Horatian and Juvenalian satire. The former gently calls to attention the less logical aspects of human culture; The latter attacks more serious subjects with the spirit of biting scorn that characterised Juvenals attitude to Roman corruption.[1] Discworld both portrays and

 examines popular culture in a way that appeals to the masses.

‘Night Watch’ could be described as a turning point in Pratchetts writing, as it is the first of a number of darker novels he wrote, employing Juvenalian satire. The exceptional nature of the book is signified on the cover, which, in typical Pratchett style, is also a cultural reference and a parody of a Rembrandt painting.

It is done in a dark, semi-photographic style, suggesting a crime novel more than a fantasy. The cover design is a semiological sign of the dark content.


In ‘Night Watch’ Pratchett examines the real nature of law in a modern context. A policeman is pitched back in time, along with a psychopath. Both find themselves in a lawless city, on the brink of a revolution. The conflict between these characters signifies the struggle between law and crime.

Pratchett uses the criminal as a signifier to express the sign which is his idea of crime in our society; he depicts crime as a mindless and undirected force “blind and mystified”[2], motivated only by personal desire. Conversely, the hero

 comes to full consciousness and recognises the responsibility of his role: he must become the embodiment of law in the face of lawlessness: He thinks “When we break down, it all breaks down”. When the law threatens, it threatens in the name of order, rather than violence, putting it above crime morally and intellectually. Since this is modern Britain, our ideology dictates that crime must be depicted a certain way, and defeated, because we value law and order above violence. Context affects subject matter greatly-in ancient Greece for example, the dominant ideology was different. Pratchetts ideology is British, and modern, which makes this a timely, not a timeless book.

Pratchett presents a picture of society in deep trouble. There is rife corruption, dangerous, stupid laws and officially sanctioned terrorism. There are plots on all levels of society to overthrow the government. All of this leads back to bad rulership. Chaos makes law difficult to establish: When offered a position of power, the hero thinks “In this city?…now? [the watch] would just be another gang.”

This is Pratchetts way of defining what society should not be.

However, to pass, as Barthes would put it, from Semiology to ideology, we can say that we have a writer here who believes that law and order are not so very hard to re-establish, in Europe at least; Compared with American fictional policemen, Pratchetts hero has an easy time of it; For example in the American Die Hard franchise, the hero is nearly always beaten to a pulp, and so covered with blood and wounds that you can hardly bear to look at him.[3]

Conversely, the hero of “Night Watch” only needs a long sleep and a shave to recuperate.

All in all, “Night Watch” signifies the current British perception of law and order.


The man who was Thursday by G.K.Chesterton

Of all the books I have ever read, only two have made me go back straight to the beginning after finishing it the first time. The man who was Thursday; a nightmare is one of those two, which is  strange, because this is actually a rather irritating book, from a writer whose favourite trick is turning an apparently logical storyline into a scene from a very Christian Lord of the rings as imagined by Lewis Carroll.

On the surface the plot is quite simple; Syme, a policeman, infiltrates an anarchist organisation devoted to the destruction of pretty much everything. But the problem (and the charm) of the book is the number of levels it works on; noir adventure story, Christian allegory, psychological thriller, dream and exploration of turn-of-the-century pessimism. Personally I treasure my ignorance of turn-of-the-century pessimism, but it seems to be a mixture of doubt, paranoia and existential dread, which mostly characterises the atmosphere of Symes bizarre adventures.

In most books where the writing is ambiguous and has all sorts of hidden meanings, the levels are consistent all through the book; but the thing about Thursday is that the story changes quality; when I started reading this book it seemed to be a surreal sort of noir story, a Hitchcock-style thriller directed by David Lynch. Here is one scene where the hero is infiltrating the anarchist inner circle:

At first an instinct had told Syme that this was the man he was meant to meet…the man remained more still than was natural if a stranger had come so close. He was as motionless as a waxwork and got on the nerves somewhat in the same way. Syme looked again and again at the pale dignified and delicate face, and the face still looked blankly across the river Then he took out of his pocket the note… Then the man smiled, and his smile was a shock, for it was all on one side, going up in the right cheek and down in the left.

There was, rationally speaking, nothing to scare anyone about this. Many people  have this nervous trick of a crooked smile, and in many it is even attractive. But in all Symes circumstances,  with the dark dawn and the deadly errand and the loneliness on the great dripping stones there was something unnerving in it. There was the silent river and the silent man, the man of even classic face. And there was the last nightmare touch that his smile suddenly went wrong.

The noir atmosphere is perfectly done; the atmosphere is genuinely menacing, and the organisation Syme infiltrates is depicted as almost diabolical. There is also a strain of black humour which mostly comes out in the dialogue, although some may find it a little clunky for their tastes:

“Now listen to me. I like you. The consequence is that it would annoy me for just about two and a half minutes if I heard that you had died in torments. Well if you ever tell the police or any human soul about us I shall have that two and a half minutes of discomfort. On your discomfort I shall not dwell…time is flying. I must go off at once; I have to take a chair at a humanitarian meeting”

This whole atmosphere is gradually dissolved as the book progresses; the humour remains in a different form, but the logic of the book disintegrates at the adventures get increasingly surreal and impossible: a decrepit old man moves impossibly fast; a character removes his face piece by piece; the atmosphere of paranoia and deceit intensifies and changes.

 Here lies the central problem of the book, which is also the point of the book: as the plot shifts from “thriller” to “nightmare” and eventually to “religious allegory” something is lost, just as much as something is gained. But without the shift in emphasis the book would just be a thriller among thrillers, and the end would be completely different. I cant say anything about the end without spoiling it, except that it raises the central ideas of the book to grand, Christian, philosophical levels and makes the adventure elements seem almost irrelevant in comparison. The ending is in fact so sophisticated that it actually requires an endnote to explain the ideas a little.

G.K.Chesterton has achieved a puzzler of a book that is something of a unsung masterpiece. This book has something for fans of Christian philosophy; it has something for fans of surrealism it has something for fans of noir adventure; but the fact is that for me the elements he so carefully deconstructs are my favourites. What comes afterwards is like the first parts of the book, perfect of its type, clever and occasionally witty; but I always grind my teeth when the Christian allegory comes to the forefront and the book sheds all pretence of being anything else. It is lucky for Chesterton that he is dead; if he were alive I would seek the man out, get his autograph and tell him how brilliant his work is: I would then throw something at his head.