Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

The new Featured Writer is Mark Totterdell whose lovely poem was a prize winner in the Barn Owl Trust competition( judged by me and my daughter). There’s much more ‘Britlit’, as Blake Morrison called it, at the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition which drew me like a magnet on its opening day. First up: Simon Armitage reading his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the Green Knight makes his dramatic entrance, so green he is a complete heart-stopper – his hair, skin, armour is all green as well as his horse and its mane and tail ‘down to its tippety-tip.’ Did I hear that right? Armitage has made the poem come alive with his Pennine voice and turn of phrase, the alliteration and rhythm of the poem just fitting his tongue and teeth. He makes it as fresh as if the ink wasn’t yet dry, even though it was originally written in the 1400s. And I experienced an extra thrill listening to it because it is the voice of the landscape where I was born. Later on, hearing Chaucer read in the original by Neville Coghill was also delicious.

Image The exhibition is bursting with wonderful things: A.E Houseman writing that in May 1891 ‘the hail was as big as cherry stones’ and that on May 16th there was snow – somewhat similar to our own May weather; Stella Gibbons’ handwritten Cold Comfort Farm in what looks like an exercise book, the last sentence of which is ‘Tomorrow would be a beautiful day.’ To my delight she had then written THE END in capital and underlined it with a flourish; then, Haneif Kureishi saying that ‘finishing  a novel is like reconciling questions in your own life which is why it’s so difficult’ made me gasp out loud again.

The fact that Winnie the Pooh was written in 1925, not long after the First World War made me see the book quite differently: as a rural idyll where Pooh and Piglet and friends could live in secret not far from London, despite what they had all just come through, A. A Milne included. Fay Godwin’s photos were displayed with Ted Hughes’ Elmet poems and showed how the poems and the images worked on each other over time.  I learned about Auden’s love of lead mining country in Derbyshire, that Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London and I delighted in the chaotic opening pages of J G Ballard’s Crash. It was amusing to read John Berger writing of London – ‘Islington is far closer than it used to be.’ One particularly fascinating recording was of Iain Sinclair talking about what lies beneath the M25, the research he used to write London Orbital. There were sea-sides and in pencil Larkin had written of “the small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”.and there was Dover in particular; rivers and the Thames in particular, including a poetic waterman called John Taylor who wrote The Sculler in 1612. And, of course, Alice Oswald who read the beginning of her long poem, Dart.

Be warned it’s a huge exhibition: they aren’t keen on you leaving for a restorative cup of tea in the middle and you need lots of time to enjoy it, and physical stamina (nowhere to sit). But it isn’t over-busy and you aren’t having to queue up behind people with those constipating audio headphones.


About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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6 Responses to Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

  1. I haven’t heard about this exhibition, Becky, but you make it sound so interesting – I’d love to go! Thanks.

  2. elly says:

    Oh Becky – thanks for touring us around with you. I would have LOVED to see the GREEN KNIGHT & HORSE!! I went to the web site and found this map. Have you pinned on a tale yet? I’m going to explore some more. http://writingbritain.bl.uk/writing-britain-pin-a-tale-map.aspx E x

    • Becky says:

      It wasn’t actually a picture: it was hearing Simon Aritage’s voice reading it (a recording)which certainly created a picture. You can read his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but, as you are in Canada, you probably can’t visit the exhibtion!
      Pinning a tale on the link you give certainly looks fun but I need time to think about what to choose!

  3. elly says:

    Oh and I love Mark’s poem – and the “wood cave” and the “feet standing on tree feet”. Enjoyed reading both the poem and what he wrote about himself. He’s inspired me to forge ahead with my own efforts. Thanks, Mark.

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