Living by the pen: British Library explores history of writing

Angry telegram by playwright John Osborne and 2,000-year-old homework among exhibits

Any modern child fretting about messing up their homework can be reassured – the ancient Egyptians could be just as hopeless.

“It is a bit of a disaster … it’s not good,” said the curator Adrian Edwards, referring to the nearly 2,000-year-old Greek homework of an Egyptian child, on display at the British Library.

The wax tablet is part of a new exhibition telling the 5,000-year story of what curators argue is one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the act of writing.

Objects include an ancient Egyptian limestone stela, which was recently identified as the oldest in the library’s collection; Alfred Tennyson’s bent quill; and a spectacularly angry telegram from the playwright John Osborne to a theatre critic.

The homework will resonate with almost everybody. “It captures something that we’ve all been through and then perhaps forgotten about,” said Edwards. “When you look at it, it brings it back. It reminds you of what you did as a child when you were learning to write.”

Florence Nightingale’s appointment diary, June 1877.
Florence Nightingale’s appointment diary from June 1877. Photograph: British Library

In this case, the teacher has scratched two lines of Greek into the tablet for the child to copy. The results are not great. The child omits the first letter and runs over the right margin. They miss the same letter in a second attempt and again run out of space.

“They’ve copied it out twice and both times made terrible mistakes,” said Edwards.

The exhibition includes a 3,600-year-old limestone slab covered in hieroglyphs. It entered the collection in 2006 as part of the archive of the pioneering 19th-century photographer Henry Fox Talbot.

A 3,600-year-old limestone slab covered in hieroglyphs, the oldest object at the British Library.
A 3,600-year-old limestone slab covered in hieroglyphs, the oldest object at the British Library. Photograph: Tony Antoniou/British Library

Curators knew the stela was ancient Egyptian but only recently discovered its age. It has overtaken 3,000-year-old ox bones bearing the earliest known examples of Chinese writing to take the title of oldest object in the collection. Both are on display.

Edwards said it was a particular thrill because the hieroglyphs contained a hymn to Osiris, god of the underworld. “The hymn is known but the version here includes passages at the end which have not been recorded anywhere else before,” he said.

The exhibition argues that writing and writing tools have always changed, and that fears over handwriting becoming a lost art are nothing new.

The show opens to the public on Friday and follows the library’s popular and critically acclaimed Anglo-Saxons exhibition. There will also be related pop-up displays in 20 partner libraries across the UK.

The exhibits range from carved stone inscriptions and medieval manuscripts to calligraphy and emojis. There are also typewriters, an old Apple Macintosh II computer and several pens, including a Mont Blanc, Bics and Tennyson’s quill.

One section touches on telegrams, brilliantly represented by Osborne. In 1966, 10 years after his success with Look Back in Anger, the playwright had a flop at the National Theatre. The reviews of A Bond Honoured were spectacularly terrible but Osborne was not a man to ignore them and move on.


Writing: Making Your Mark is at the British Library from 26 April until 27 August.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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