Strong Magic

The Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library is a wonderland of song lines and astonishment on your doorstep. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once.

I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (my son, Seth, has a line from it on his email signature – ‘highly sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben’); hand written pages from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwed story in the Mabinogi); a 1750 handwritten copy of Gray’s ‘ The ploughman homeward…’; of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest; first editions of Far From the Madding Crowd; A Shropshire Lad: Greenwitch; Edward Thomas’ notebook open at ‘Yes I remember Adlestrop’; letters from Elizabeth Gaskell on the Industrial Revolution; a 1974 lithograph copy of Auden’s poems illustrated by Henry Moore; Auden’s notebook discussing ‘my sacred landscape’; Ted Hughes’ letters and notebooks; a first edition or Little Gidding – ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started’ and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs, and Emily Bronte’s notebook in the tiniest hand imaginable and Sylvia Plath’s notebook on Hardcastle Craggs.

I have seen the original manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte’s hand; a first edition Sherlock Holmes and the manuscript of Lorna Doone, which always takes me back to schooldays and my inspirational headmistress and A level teacher, Lorna Clish and Richard Jefferies After London beside the typed (by himself) manuscript of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World; a page of Wordsworth’s poetry scratched out and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal; Coleridge’s notebook and a letter from him and a first edition of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song; a long letter from Keats and a massive book handwritten by Burns; GK Chesterton’s notebooks and drawings and handwritten Ballard drafts; an unpublished handwritten poem by Evelyn Waugh and letters and poems by Betjamin.

I have read the first page of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘A Suburban Fairytale’ from the book she first wrote it in and an extract of Conan Doyle’s Beyond the City in his own hand, a beautiful, flowing script. I have seen Hanif Kureshi’s writing journal and marked typescripts of the Buddha or Suburbia; James Thomson’s tiny notebook of the poem ‘City of Dreadful Night’ and one of Blake’s notebooks, minutely written and much crossed out; Joseph Conrad’s manuscript of The Secret Agent and original works by Alan Moore and RL Stevenson; a Tom Vague volume on psychogeography; Mrs Dalloway written a huge book by Virginia Woolf; a book of Edgar Alan Poe and an illuminated facsimile of Chaucer from the early 1400s; a Daphe du Maurier notebook containing the first plan of Rebecca; Hardy’s handwritten Tess of the D’Urbavilles; Pinters’s scripts in his hand and Joyce’s notes for Part 13 of Ulysses, nearly every slanting line crossed out in red, a few in blue; Larkin’s ‘To the sun’ hand written in his notebook and the original To the Lighthouse written in columns in a sturdy. Woolf hand; facsimiles of Persuasion and of Alice’s Adventures Underground and Kenneth Graeme’s notebook of Wind in the Willows and Elliot’s Mill on the Floss in her hand.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered the trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connections and the world felt too bright and sharp when I emerged. This is what we do it for, writers and publishers, for this extraordinary intimacy with place, with characters… this strong magic, the trance of words that make worlds.

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2 responses to “Strong Magic

  1. This is an absolute must-see for me. What an inspiration!
    Adelstrop – Sunset Song – just two out of many of my favourites that you mention. As a child I visited The Parsonage at Haworth and was both enchanted and inspired by their miniature story books. And later, was equally moved by manuscripts of Peter Rabbit at Sawry, and Dylan Thomas’s at Laugharne. Seeing them in the place they were written added another dimension – a sense of place which must be missing from The British Library. Seeing so many together must be almost overwhelming. Wonderful though! Yes, there’s definitely something special about reading the handwritten version. The connection between hand and paper – so much more fluid and personal than the connection between lap top and printer.
    But what happens now? How many writers are still writing by hand? Are most of them writing draft after draft on their laptops? Are they even saving their early drafts or are they all disappearing at the click of a button? Will there be anything for future generations to see, read, and like you – be awed, dazzled and dazed?

  2. This has opened up a long conversation between Richard and myself about writers in relation to places. The most striking part of visiting Beatrix Potter’s home was not only the writing – but seeing the dresser featured in The Tailor of Gloucester, and the gate and wall where the kittens played – showing how her surroundings inspired her – a sense of place through art as well as writing.
    And Norman Nicholson, a too-little known poet who captured the essence of Millom in Cumbria. The house where he lived all his life is now a small cafe. They allow you to go upstairs into his former bedroom where you can look down on Walter Wilson’s back yard just as he described it – and you can imagine the pot geranium on his window sill. To walk round the town is to meet his poems, details as clear in words as in reality.So many poems, a lifetime’s work rooted in one place – then you get Adelstrop – a few lines but fixing the image of a moment’s experience just as vividly.
    Capturing the essence of place is the motivation behind my writing. There’s a lot to live up to.

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