Reading London

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 Kirk use 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.

1. 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 walk and let your imagination transform them.