Interview: Tanya Kirk

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Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition poster
Tanya Kirk is lead curator of printed English Literature at the British Library and co-curator of their exciting new exhibition, Writing Britain.

Looking back over several centuries of British and Irish literature, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands celebrates the way in which the British landscape has inspired great writers over the years, and permeated our most cherished literature. With a huge range of literary treasures on display, the exhibition allows visitors to learn more about famous works, and sheds light on how they were written. With works from the likes of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens to modern writers such as Ted Hughes, George Orwell, and JRR Tolkien, on display, there is plenty to see and experience.

Writing Britain, which is open now until the 25th September 2012, has already received wonderful reviews. Here, Tanya talks about curating the exhibition, and what she learnt about literary Britain and its landscapes in the process.

The exhibition looks wonderful – in a big year for Britain, what made this the right topic for an exhibition?

We knew that this would be a big year for London – we’ll have a lot of visitors from all around the world – and we felt that literature is one of our greatest strengths. We chose to base the exhibition around the idea of literature and the landscape of the British and Irish Isles because we thought this would allow people to see some of the Library’s (and the nation’s) greatest treasures in a new light. Also hopefully they will be inspired not only to visit places they’ve read about but also to discover or rediscover novels, poems and plays.

There are so many highlights, but what’s your favourite part of the exhibition?

My favourite area would have to be Beside the Sea which is part of the final section about rivers and coastlines in literature. Beside the Sea explores the creation of seaside resorts and towns, from Jane Austen’s depiction of a new resort in her unfinished novel Sanditon, through nostalgic depictions of bucket and spade holidays by Philip Larkin or RC Sherriff, to the idea of seaside as a seedy backdrop to crime in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I’m from near Bournemouth so reading all this seaside literature made me feel a bit homesick! This area of the exhibition also features projected black and white flickering films of Victorian bathing beauties, and a soundscape made of recordings of crashing waves and rushing rivers, so it’s really atmospheric.

As you mention, the exhibition is full of multimedia – the literary map indicating areas of literary activity in Britain sounds particularly exciting; how will it work, and how can people get involved?

Selecting items for this exhibition was so difficult – we all had enormous lists of books that we thought we absolutely had to include but it became obvious really quickly that there was no way it would all fit in the gallery. We knew that an exhibition like this could never be totally comprehensive, so Pin-a-Tale was our way of including everything else. It’s an online map where people can nominate a book, song, poem or play that they think evokes a particular place in the British and Irish Isles, and we’ve asked people to write something about why it should be included and pin it to the right place on the map. Many of the submissions are displayed in the gallery on a giant interactive map, and you can see all of them on our website at http://writingbritain.bl.uk/

The exhibition spans quite a time period, capturing the evolving ways in which the British landscape has been depicted. What are the major changes you'd draw out?

I think at times we were actually more surprised at what hadn’t really changed at all. For example we show Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 poem The Deserted Village next to Richard Adams’ Watership Down from 1972. Written almost exactly 200 years apart, they both have the exact same concern – the destruction of rural areas for redevelopment. So in many ways I think the way we view the landscape hasn’t changed as much as you might think. Even psychogeography, which is often considered to be a new way of looking at place, can be traced back to the 18th century with writers like Thomas de Quincey.

Writing in The Guardian, Blake Morrison has argued that it’s not possible to accurately represent a landscape in literature. Do you agree?

In terms of something being absolutely accurate in every respect then maybe not, but what we wanted to show with this exhibition is that often the version of the landscape that exists in our imaginations when we read a book can often be even more powerful than the reality. So while Irvine Welsh’s version of Edinburgh isn’t necessary THE Edinburgh, it is AN Edinburgh, and in a way it’s just as valid. I love the quote we used on the label for Trainspotting, which was from a spokesperson for the Edinburgh City Tourist Board: “The image of Edinburgh portrayed in Trainspotting is not one we would wish to focus on.”

Do you think the British, authors in particular, tend to look on the landscape as endangered and thus something to be sentimentalised?

I think the British do have a really acute sense of the importance of our landscape, and that’s probably partly because of the way it’s been preserved through art and literature. We did talk about having a section of the exhibition called Vanishing Places which would look at ephemeral spaces that have been transformed from one thing into another, but we realised that actually it needed to be represented in all the sections – so you have Tolkien’s representation of the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as being a version of rural England under threat, but you also have the idea in John Berger’s ‘Islington’ that as London grows the suburbs are swallowed up and ‘Islington is far closer than it used to be’. And change isn’t always just one way – in the Dark Satanic Mills section there is literature which describes what happens to industrial landscapes when the industry leaves and they start to revert to nature.

As the exhibition clearly shows, the British landscape has helped shape England's literary heritage, but how do you think literature has helped, in turn, to shape the landscape?

You could argue that literature was the main catalyst in setting up the Lake District national park, for example – when tourists started flocking there in the nineteenth century, a lot of them did so because Wordsworth and other poets had popularised it as a place of literary pilgrimage. Wordsworth had a very strange view of this whole thing because whilst he wrote a guidebook about the area, he actually wasn’t keen on the idea of it being overrun by random people and campaigned against the Kendal to Windermere Railway because it would make it too easy for people to travel there. My other favourite piece of literary tourism in the exhibition is Bram Stoker’s Dracula – after a holiday to the town, Stoker wrote the scene where Dracula enters England by leaping off a shipwreck in the form of a black dog – and now as a result there’s a Goth tourist industry in Whitby, with its own regular festival.

Our rich literary heritage means that the British landscape has been written about a great deal; do you think it holds an unusual or unique interest or is its prevalence in fiction more of a coming together of circumstances?

It’s an aspect of literature that I’d always been aware of but once I started working on this exhibition I found that in everything I read, the setting had suddenly taken on this massive sense of importance. Maybe one of the reasons why the British and Irish Isles lent themselves so well to the subject is that our landscape is incredibly varied for such small islands – we’ve got mountainous bits, flat bits, untamed wildernesses, urban sprawl, not to mention a vast length of coastline. It’s inspiring in its variety, and it’s become part of our heritage.

Undoubtedly, the exhibition will be visited by tourists from all over the world. What do you hope they take away from it and where would you recommend they start their exploration of the British landscape?

I think if there’s one thing we took from curating this exhibition, it’s that there are literary gems set all over these islands. But since they’ll be in London when they see the exhibition, it seems like a pretty good place to start – it’s surely got to be one of the most literary cities in the world. And the British Library is just around the corner from King’s Cross Station, the home of Platform 9¾…

Writing Britain:Wastelands to Wonderlands is open at the British Library until 25 September 2012. 

For a limited time-period visitors can get a curator-led tour (highly-recommended) of Writing Britain for the normal ticket price of £9. The curator-led tours will take place on Tuesdays between 6.30 and 7.15, and Thursdays between 3.30 and 4.15. They start on 7 June and end on 5 July. The special tour tickets can be booked online now.

Useful Links
Writing Britain at the British Library
Book Tickets
Tanya Kirk on Twitter

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