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Reading London

31 May 2012 Molly Flatt

The British Library's Writing Britain is a treasure trove of literature with over 150 literary works including some magnificent original manuscripts. Here London Calling's Molly Flatt take us through some gems waiting to be discovered.

I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside and spent my formative years running half-naked in fields, riding resentful ponies and reading on a scratchy blanket my mother had got free from the National Trust under the shade of our orchard’s sticky, half-dead plum trees.
 
At least, that’s how I like to remember it.
 
I have of course edited the inconvenient realities of rain, anxiety, homework, chores, tantrums, guilt, shyness, parental discord, death, obsession, violence, perfectionism and ever more rain out of the Tolkein-via-Blyton fiction of my early life; but brazen bucolic utopianism is, after all, an instinct suckled at the British literary teat. My modest pastoral is part of a long tradition of Rural Dreams, as the first section of the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition so imaginatively demonstrates.  Using over 150 literary works, sound recordings, videos, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawings, this giant summer offering at the altar of the Cultural Olympiad promises to “examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works”: a wildly ambitious aim that is brilliantly fulfilled.
 
Faced with such an unruly topic, curators Jamie Andrews and Tanya Kirkuse six themes – Rural Dreams, Industrial & Cityscapes, Wild Places, London, Edges and Waterlands – to bring an eclectic selection of works into dialogue across the centuries. Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd trudges across muddy fields with Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drew; Ted Hughes dabbles in rivers with Alice Oswald; John Betjeman compares notes with Hanif Kureishi on alienation in the suburbs. In the process, a messy, contradictory but nonetheless entirely recognisable ‘spirit of Britishness’ creeps out between the leaves.
 
For me, the London display is particularly powerful. Landing in Islington aged a young and sheltered 21, my knowledge of the big smoke was entirely mediated by books. Eight years later, although I may be better acquainted with the actual mundanity and mayhem of London life (I do now live in Hackney, after all), I still find my mind wading through the city’s rich literary meta-layer with every step that I take on a real street. So I was delighted to discover the original manuscripts of several of London’s best fictional tour guides behind the Library’s glass; here are five to look out for.
 
·      Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf:  As a newbie rural immigrant, I imagined that mornings in the city would invariably find me striding through Westminster to buy flowers in a feathered hat, exuding a bright, brisk, kingfisherly mystique that would enchant all around me. Even though finding myself in Westminster in a feathered hat now means that I’ve stopped off in Topshop for an impulse buy on the way to a really boring meeting, I still can’t help but believe a little Clarissa sparkle dwells in those commuter-harried grey streets. Don’t believe me? Try the Mrs Dalloway London walkand let your imagination transform them.
 
·      The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer: A parade of painfully trendy blogs with heritage typefaces keep telling me that Southwark is about to be the new Dalston, but this ancient district’s very charm lies in its refusal to become any less seedy and weird, or any more easy to navigate. It is still exactly the sort of place you might meet a procession of strangely-dressed and beer-breathed pilgrims headed to receive revelations at Tate Modern’s latest hallucinogenic show (Yayoi Kusama, I mean you). Farts, burlap, relics and beards: this is the stuff of which Southwark is made.
 
·      Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: The genius of Gaiman’s TV series cum fantasy novelis that it makes you see the stuff you assiduously avoid noticing in London every day: homeless people; mad people; rats on the tube. By immersing his readers in London Below, where those who ‘fell through the cracks’ dwell in a filthy, cod-Victorian magical realm, Gaiman forever transforms our view of ‘London Above’. Every time a pigeon slices past my face on the way to a crumbling dome in the city, I wonder whether it is carrying a message to Old Bailey, Neverwhere’s feather-clad vagrant who crouches mumbling on the rooftops above our heads.
 
·      Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens: Poor Thames. A time-honoured repository for sewage, shoes and shopping trollies, she has always been an unlovely river, and her crème brulée ripples have not aged well. But, peering down from Waterloo Bridge or strolling along the Southbank to the Globe, it is exactly her bruised melancholy that I love, and no-one captures it better than Dickens. Read the opening paragraphsof Our Mutual Friend, in which scrofulous waterman Gaffer Hexman retrieves and robs a corpse, and you’ll never shake off his slippery images of what lies beneath.
 
·      Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling: Oh, don’t be such a snob. Platform 9 ¾ may have become a tourist trap, but there is something inherently magical about the whole Kings Cross/St Pancras area, especially with the unveiled glass roof, the refurbished Gothic hotel, and the fantastic piece of street art newly daubed on the Megaro Hotel by Agents of Change. It’s gives me the same tingly feeling I get when I first read the books, and not because I’ve bought something inappropriate from a erratically dressed and hygienically challenged gentleman lurking in a doorway. Long live the magic of London.
 
The city is a story. Our lives in the city are stories we tell ourselves. Where do your real and fictional London tales connect?
 

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