Writing Britain: the nation and the landscape

Chaucer's Canterbury, Emily Brontë's moors, Graham Greene's Brighton, Kureishi's suburbia … The British Library's new exhibition explores how literature has responded to the varying landscapes of these islands

Can Britlit be said to exist? Britart is an accepted term, and Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing et al were happy to be known as YBAs, if only for the publicity it brought them. But YBWs? Or OBWs? Or even M-ABWs? They're harder to imagine. Writers living in northern and western parts of our archipelago identify themselves as Scottish or Welsh (or Cornish), not British. The term is also unacceptable to Catholics in or from Northern Ireland: "British, no, the name's not right," Seamus Heaney politely demurred, when Andrew Motion and I included him in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry 30 years ago. Most English writers, meanwhile, use the word British at best half-heartedly: it sounds inclusive – free of master-race arrogance, antagonism towards Celts or National Front jingoism – but it doesn't describe what we think we are or where we come from.

Britishness, in short, is a troublesome concept. But for a couple of weeks this summer, any troubles will be packed up in a red, white and blue kit bag as athletes from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland smilingly compete under a common flag. Alongside the events in the sporting arena, there'll also be the Cultural Olympiad, with a range of plays, concerts, exhibitions and readings. Until 1948, cultural olympiads used to be competitive, with poets, musicians, artists and architects vying for gold (in that year Finland topped the medals table). Nowadays the emphasis is on global togetherness. Still, attention inevitably focuses on the host nation's artistic achievement. For the next few months we're under the spotlight. What do we amount to? And what makes our culture quintessentially British?

If the Hockney and Hirst exhibitions are the British art world's contribution to 2012, in literature it's the exhibition being mounted at the British Library. Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands will display 150 works spanning 1,000 years – books, manuscripts, letters, sound recordings, videos, photos, maps, drawings. The exhibition doesn't pretend to be linear or completist – 150 items in a single room cannot allow for a comprehensive history of our literature. But the hope is that the show will allow visitors "to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works' creation".

There's already a little slippage there, with "English literature" used as a synonym for writing from Britain. But the curators, headed by Jamie Andrews, are pretty relaxed about this. National boundaries and ethnic origins aren't the point. There's room for Yeats, Joyce and Heaney here, as well as for Conrad, Verne, Poe and TS Eliot. The focus is on writing in English from or about these islands that evokes a sense of place: the literature of landscape. By putting writers from different eras in surprising conjunction, the exhibition highlights some revealing continuities in how our islands have been portrayed.

When politicians come up with quotes that effuse patriotic sentiment, they invariably cut them short, so as to lose the sting in the tail. The dying John O'Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II is one of their favourites:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …

Stirring stuff. But what Gaunt goes on to say is often forgotten – that this glorious England "is now leas'd out … like to a tenement or pelting farm" and "bound in with shame, / with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds". In Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, xenophobic triumphalism is similarly undermined through the figure of Podsnap. "No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country," he boasts to a Frenchman. "This Island was Blest, Sir, to the Direct Exclusion of such Other Countries as – as there may happen to be." Podsnap is an absurd figure, whose blindness to the failings of his country affords Dickens a lot of fun.

Angela Carter hankered "to live in a place that does not now, nor ever has had, the consciousness that it has been singled out for a special fate". But she was right to suspect that such a place doesn't exist. Every country has its myth of exceptionalism, and national character is one way of locating it. Podsnap talks of "a modesty, an independence, a responsibility, a repose", Orwell of "decency", others of civility and fair play. Others again mention our gentle, stoic defeatedness: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way," as Larkin might have put it if Pink Floyd hadn't got there first. But the British can also be bellicose – John Bullish – and other far from flattering qualities have been assigned to the national character ("a gluttonous race … lumbering about in pot-bellied equanimity", said Carlyle). We're one thing but also the opposite. Uncertainty about what it means to be British is part of what Britishness means.

On the face of it, landscape is a less contentious means of definition, since our islands have distinct and indisputable features. But as well as large differences in climate and geography, there are politico-economic divisions too: Hull and Halifax have no more in common with the Highlands than they do with the Home Counties. When, in 1938, Orwell returned from Spain to the south of England ("probably the sleekest landscape in the world"), he was both moved by and contemptuous of the prettiness: "The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens." Only bombs could shatter "the deep, deep sleep of England", he thought, and shortly afterwards they did.

Orwell tries to resist the English pastoral idyll because he thinks it unfair to the rest of the country. John Clare feels no such awkwardness, only delight: "I love to peep out on a summer's morn / Just as the scouting rabbit seeks her shed". Edward Thomas delights in pastoralism too: when his express train pulls up at Adlestrop, he sees willows, willowherb and grass, and hears all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire sing – a transcendent moment before the train moves on. "Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales, / All the air things wear that build this world of Wales," sings Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems in praise of the "sweet especial rural scene" urge us to enjoy it while we can: "Have, get, before it cloy, / Before it cloud".

The British invariably perceive the countryside as being under threat, whether from bombs, developers, tourism, climate change or the passage of time. This makes our literature nostalgic – a land of lost content. There are legends of Arcadian plenitude – of Albion, Mercia, Elmet; of life under the greenwood tree, or in the highlands before the clearances, or in green valleys before the coming of industry; of shepherds piping to their flocks and milkmaids dancing in the dew; of Sir Gawain, King Arthur, John Barleycorn, Robin Hood, Rob Roy and (from the Welsh Mabinogion) Math, son of Mathonwy, who liked to rest his feet in the lap of a virgin. The gods of the earth seem to be extinct but then pop up again, rudely healthy and full of folk wisdom. Edward Thomas meets one such man at hawthorn time in Wiltshire and is told his many different names:

The man you saw – Lob-lie-by-the- fire, Jack Cade,
Jack Smith, Jack Moon, poor Jack of every trade,
Young Jack, or old Jack, or Jack What-d'ye-call,
Jack-in-the-hedge, or Robin-run-by- the-wall,
Robin Hood, Ragged Robin, lazy Bob,
One of the lords of No Man's Land, good Lob, –
Although he was seen dying at Waterloo,
Hastings, Agincourt, and Sedgemoor too,
Lives yet. He never will admit he is dead.

He still won't admit it: in his latest incarnation he appears as the charismatic Johnny (Rooster) Byron in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem.

The question for William Blake was whether Jerusalem could be built among dark satanic mills. The challenge for Rooster is how to stop the local council removing his caravan from its sylvan shade. Rural dwellers are always up against it, and so are rural writers, who by setting their work in the countryside are suspected of being out of touch with the realities of modern life. Books set on farms face a particularly stern test: anyone who has read Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm may feel a giggle coming on. But Ted Hughes's Moortown Diary contains some of his best work. And Nell Leyshon's forthcoming novel, The Colour of Milk, narrated by a farmer's daughter in the 19th century, shows there's life in the genre still.

One landscape all four British nations have in common (as landlocked nations don't) is the seaside. Writing Britain gives it a fair showing, with Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, Alan Bennett, John Fowles, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan and Daljit Nagra (Look We Have Coming to Dover!). Rivers meander through as well – George Eliot's Floss, Alice Oswald's Dart, everybody's Thames – and in the mountains there are glimpses of the Romantic sublime. But the literature of towns and cities looms largest, which reflects where the majority of the population has lived for the last two centuries. Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Arnold Bennett, DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe: this is gritlit as much as it is Britlit, the blackened faces of miners, chimney sweeps and factory hands stirring writers, by the fireside, to complain on their behalf.

Homogenisation and ugliness in town planning – the urban equivalent of the rape of the countryside – are another source of complaint. "The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else", Dickens writes of Coketown, and a century later Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar is similarly dismayed by Stradhoughton, which is "exactly like any other High Street in Great Britain. Woolworth's looked like Woolworth's, the Odeon looked like the Odeon, and the Stradhoughton Echo's [office] looked like a public lavatory in honest native white tile." Dismayed by the ugly advance of industry and the money-grubbing masses, Birkin, in Lawrence's The Rainbow, dreams of living "in the chinks".

The chinks are always there, waiting to be discovered, and one likeable and perhaps defining aspect of Britishness is a capacity to find poetry in unlikely places. The Auden generation of the 1930s found it in pylons, the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon found it in a disused shed in Co Wexford, and his predecessor Patrick Kavanagh found it, variously, in the green waters of a canal, "the functional ward / Of a chest hospital" and "the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard". Thomas Gray got there before all of them with his elegy in a country churchyard, which speaks from an out-of-the-way spot in praise of overlooked lives.

The out-of-the-way and overlooked are the subject of Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts's book of last year, Edgelands, which escapes "the duality of rural and urban landscape writing, to explore [the] unobserved parts of our shaped landscape" – by which they mean (among other things) landfill sites, container yards, sewage works, power stations and radio masts. The notion of edgelands has left its mark on the British Library exhibition. So have the journeys, on foot, that Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and Will Self (among others) have undertaken to places where people aren't expected to walk – in Sinclair's case, for his book London Orbital, round the M25. The French situationist Guy Debord is said to be the father of psychogeography, but the BL exhibits put the art of walking in a context that's earlier and closer to home, one that stretches from John Gay and William Blake to Virginia Woolf, whose little-known book Street Haunting describes an ambling journey through London undertaken on the flimsy pretext of buying a pencil.

Woolf would probably have denied that her ambling, or indeed anything else she did, was connected to her being British. "As a woman, I have no country," she once said. "As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world." But even the most global-minded of writers are sentimentally attached to particular places. And nowhere is quite as anonymous as it first seems. That's true, especially, of the suburbs, traditionally caricatured as a non-place for non-U people – anodyne, featureless, lowbrow, conformist – but now recognised as somewhere writers can live without feeling that they've sold out. Actually, writers have always lived in the suburbs, and the BL exhibition mounts a strong team, from The Smiths of Surbiton to the Grossmiths of Upper Holloway, from Betjeman's Metroland to Ballard's Shepperton, and from Galsworthy and Chesterton to Hanif Kureishi.

In Ballard's later fiction, the terrain is more post-modern than suburban, consisting of shopping malls, flyovers, gated communities, airport terminals and underpasses. But living in Shepperton (just off the M3) was as much a spur to his imagination as growing up in Shanghai. One of the prize exhibits in the BL exhibition is the manuscript of Crash. The opening page is an angry mess of loops, scrawls, arrows, additions, crossings out and "STET"s, with only the first sentence and one later phrase ("the erotic tenderness of a long-separated lover") surviving intact. If you didn't know that the novel was about carnage and disjecta membra, you might guess.

Ballard liked Shepperton because no one invaded his space. Larkin, similarly, said the advantage of living in Hull was that when American research students looked at train timetables and realised how difficult it was to get there, they decided to bother some other poet instead. But literary pilgrims aren't easily discouraged. And a writer doesn't have to be dead to become part of the heritage industry. Ted Hughes's privacy was invaded by Plath fans, who'd gawp into his garden in Devon. Wordsworth suffered similarly at Rydal Mount: on holiday in the Lakes, the 11-year-old John Ruskin and his parents went to chapel in Rydal so as to catch a glimpse of the great man. This was one reason why Wordsworth opposed the building of the Kendal and Windermere Railway: among the sights that the tourist hordes would have access to was him. In 1844, he wrote to Gladstone of his "consternation" at the proposed branch line, feeling it would "destroy the staple of the Country … prove subversive of its quiet, and be highly injurious to its morals". He also wrote a poem calling on Nature to rise up and protest:

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? … if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.

Not all writers are as nimbyist as Wordsworth. The Brontë sisters bought shares in the railways (Branwell even worked on them) and Eliot, in Middlemarch, while sympathising with the suspicion that all innovation is "likely to be against the poor man", lets Caleb put the case for railways to the local rustic labour force: "Somebody told you the railroad was a bad thing. That was a lie. It may do a bit of harm here and there, to this and to that; and so does the sun in heaven. But the railway's a good thing."

Such arguments for and against continue to this day: high-speed rail links, third runways, new motorway links – plus ça change, or rather the one thing that never changes is the fear that change will violate the land. Every nation has its conservationists, not to be confused with Conservatives. But perhaps the fear of what might be lost by change is more pronounced in British literature because our history goes back so far: newer nations have less of a past to be protective of, just as the young have less to be elegiac about than the old.

It's striking how many British writers seem to feel that some irrevocable loss – the end of history – has happened in their own lifetime. "The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village," Laurie Lee writes in the final chapter of Cider with Rosie. "I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life." Hughes wrote something similar to the photographer Fay Godwin, describing how during his childhood in the industrial north "the whole region just fell to bits, the buildings collapsed, the walls collapsed, the chapels were sold for scrap and demolished, likewise the mills … I realise now I was living in the last days of Pompeii." His hope was that her photos, along with his poems, might capture "the way the primeval reality of the region is taking over again from the mills, chapels, farms, pubs, bowling greens and reservoirs". The book they collaborated on, Remains of Elmet, did just that:

Everything became very quiet.

The hills were commandeered
For gravemounds.

The towns and villages were sacked.

Everything fell wetly to bits …

Hughes regarded the first world war as a turning point in his valley, his country and its literature. Larkin said the same: "Never such innocence again." Having previously described himself as "⅝Welsh", Edward Thomas told a friend on the outbreak of war "I am slowly growing into a conscious Englishman". Just as the flower of the nation's youth died in the trenches, so a "native line" of poetry associated with Thomas perished with the arrival of modernism, whose chief practitioners came from Europe and America. Or so it was claimed in the 1950s, by a Movement generation hostile to the influx of foreigners. Today, that influx is seen as a shot in the arm for indigenous literature – a revitalisation through the absorption of otherness. Later arrivals from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia had the same positive effect, enlarging and enriching the canon. Those of black or mixed heritage are still more prevalent on playing fields than on the page but our literary landscape would be unrecognisable without them, as the British Library exhibition is careful to acknowledge.

In the end, all landscapes in literature, however well known to or diligently researched by the author, are invented landscapes. Their hills and valleys may have a basis in fact, but the novelist adds his own gradients. Hardy's Wessex – "a partly real, partly dream country", as he called it – is a good example. Until Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), so he claims in a later preface to the novel, "it had never been heard of in fiction and current speech, if at all, and the expression 'a Wessex peasant' or 'a Wessex custom' would theretofore have been taken to refer to nothing later in date than the Norman conquest … The dream country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from. But I ask all good and idealistic readers to forget this, and to refuse steadfastly to believe that there are any inhabitants of a Victorian Wessex outside these volumes." His readers paid no heed. They still pay no heed. Hardy's Wessex is an essential part of the literary tourist trail, along with the Brontës' Haworth, Bram Stoker's Whitby, Robert Louis Stevenson's Edinburgh, Dylan Thomas's Laugharne, and platform 9¾ at JK Rowling's King's Cross.

Three years ago, in the Observer, the critic Kate Kellaway helpfully drew up a literary map of Britain, based on the places featured in contemporary fiction. Like the psychogeographers, our novelists were going for places not generally featured in books, she found, including Peterborough (Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) and Swindon (Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). Sheffield (Lesley Glaister, Margaret Drabble, Philip Hensher), Birmingham (David Lodge, Jim Crace, Jonathan Coe) and Walberswick/Southwold (PD James, Julie Myerson, Esther Freud) also showed up strongly. As for London's fiction, Hampstead had ceded precedence to Highbury, Brockley, Willesden Green and other once-unfashionable areas.

Now the British Library, too, is planning a literary map of our landscape, with books of all ages and genres eligible for inclusion. The map will form part of the exhibition, and also feature on a website, where readers will be invited to add to it by nominating books associated with particular places. Every town in the British Isles has its scribblers, it's often claimed. Once the little flags have been put out to map incidences of literary activity, we'll discover if that's true.

Thirty years ago Angela Carter wrote a wonderful essay about how Empire Day (long gone now) used to be celebrated at her south London primary school, to the tune of "There'll always be an England". This taught her, she said, that "the idea of Britain was an English invention … Great Britain = Greater England. The greedy flag swallowed up its constituent parts." Soon one of those parts, Scotland, may extricate itself to become independent. Then the long-predicted break-up of Britain will finally happen and English poets can call themselves English again, as Tennyson, Housman, Sassoon, Auden and Betjeman did. In the meantime, there's the British Library exhibition to remind us what Little England and Outer Britain have in common – and what they don't.


Blake Morrison

The GuardianTramp

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