Landscape is very important to me, both generally, and in my writing. Different landscapes reflect and inspire different moods, different thoughts - in fact, the same landscape can occasion different moods. I was in France recently, in La Rochelle, a seaport on the Atlantic coast. It has a small artificial beach. One day, the sea was a dull greenish grey, the sky a mass of bright blue-grey cloud. The sand was pale, almost white, and there were were one or two white sails out on the water. There were two vivid spots of colour: a coat, and a buoy, both bright scarlet. There was something striking about the limited range of colours: something ominous and strange.
The next day, I saw the same spot in sunshine. The sky was mostly blue, with innocent puffball clouds. The sea was a much darker blue, and it looked calm and inviting; there was no hint of threat. You can imagine the different types of story - or different points in the same story - in which those two variations of the same scene could feature - could, in fact, become central to the narrative. I don't have a picture of the beach, but here's one of the towers of La Rochelle in that very special evening light you sometimes get. (They are beautiful, the towers of La Rochelle beautiful, but one of them was a prison in Napoleonic times and earlier - the walls are scratched with graffiti, carved painstakingly with images of the ships from which the prisoners had been captured.)
An exhibition at the British Library explores the way in which the British landscape has inspired writers for the last thousand years. It shows how authors not only record what they see, but their ' novels, poetry and plays can shape our perceptions and transform our places through imagination.'
Of course, if there's one thing the British Library has plenty of, it's books. But how do you go about creating an exhibition out of them? Well, first you decide on different types of landscape: Rural Dreams, Dark Satanic Mills, Wild Places, Beyond the City, Cockney Visions, and Waterlands. Then, you sift through the extraordinary range of manuscripts and printed books you have at your disposal - and you realise that for each category, you can display a fantastically eclectic mix of writers. So, for instance, with Beyond the City, which explores the suburbs (are they an idyll? A threat? A refuge?), next to a gorgeously illuminated centuries-old volume of the Canterbury Tales (click here to see this), you may find an excerpt from one of J G Ballard's books about the 'edge-lands', or something from Betjeman. Rural Dreams has examples from Hardy, a manuscript of Edward Thomas's poem Adlestrop, and the manuscript of Alan Garner's The Owl Service, along with a recording of Stella Gibbons talking about how she came to write one of the funniest books I've ever read, Cold Comfort Farm. Dark Satanic Mills includes a fascinating display about Ted Hughes' book, Remains of Elmet, which was inspired not only by the industrial remains in the Calder Valley, but also by Fay Godwin's wonderful, atmospheric photos of this landscape: recordings and letters offer a fascinating insight into how each of them fed off the other's vision.
There are videos, too, with writers such as Simon Armitage and Robert MacFarlane discussing the part landscape plays in inspiring their writing, and images and soundscapes - the ones which illustrate Waterworld are particularly atmospheric and imaginative.
The exhibition is called Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands. If you can make it to the exhibition, be sure to go to the cafe to restore yourself afterwards - it has its very own collection of treasures, including a pear and chocolate tart which I recall with deep affection and not a little longing!