David Blackburn

Culture notes: Our island story

Culture notes: Our island story
Text settings

There’s one exception to the sometimes trivial and artificial events of the Cultural Olympiad: Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands at the British Library (until 25 September). Where other shows emphasise London’s separateness, Writing Britain subordinates the capital to the geography, peoples and history of the British Isles as a whole.

Writers have recorded Britain’s development over a millennium, from the Arthurian myths to the dark satanic mills, from polite society to the urban underworld, from the wild moors to the simple delights of home. Galsworthy’s original drawings of Soames Forsyte’s house at Robin Hill, the archetypal Englishman’s castle, is one of several memorable exhibits, which also include the manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 1865, detail above.

The curators have been at pains to represent the Celtic Fringe, but they can’t repress the historical fact of English dominance. A whole section of the show, Waterlands, is devoted to the peculiarly English pastime of ‘messing about in boats’.

Given the predominance of ‘Englishness’, it is surprising that so little space is devoted to those Englishmen who loathed England and the English. There are a number of writers who might qualify for this category. Byron, for instance, ridiculed the Lake Poets, Wordsworth & co., in the dedication of his mock-epic poem ‘Don Juan’.

A visiting IOC dignitary might visit Writing Britain and learn all manner of things about the British and their isles; but he’ll have to look elsewhere for our famous sense of humour.