Monday, October 29, 2012

Writing Harry

Straight from Pakistan's 7-0 drubbing by Australia at the Olympic Park, still wearing my green Pakistan cricket team t-shirt, I took the tube to King's Cross St. Pancras to catch The British Library's 'Writing Britain' exhibition. I didn't think wearing a particular team's t-shirt right in the thick of Olympic season would be considered any kind of curiosity. But it was. For the first and only time in London I got a lot of pointed glances on the street, mostly amused. I suppose with the racist slur 'Paki' in England, a Pakistan tee becomes an automatic statement, intended or not.

There isn't an English writer I can think of who wasn't represented at the 'Writing Britain' exhibition, except P.G Wodehouse, and that is a notable omission. I took many pictures of the rivetting things on display but was made to delete them all by a rather rude security guard, who I was predisposed to view as racist considering the aforementioned Pakistan t-shirt. So, I have no pictures to share of John Lennon's scribbles or Jane Austen's neat but illegible handwriting.

However, there is this picture of a small portion of the 6th chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that The British Library made available on its site:

I love the way Rowling has doodled those inverted hearts around the margins in that squiggly, childlike fashion. It is a glum realization that these insights into writers' personalities will no longer be available in the age of the word processor. For me the most fascinating aspect of this particular manuscript was the bits Rowling had crossed out. What made her do so? Also, Hedwig was called Widicombe at this time!
I noted down one chunk of text that Rowling had crossed out, since I found the hows and whys of it so fascinating. Here it is:
"He fixed a piece of paper on the wall with the days left before September the 1st marked on it and he ticked them off every night. On the 31st of August he thought he'd better speak to his uncle about getting to King's Cross next day, so he went down to the living room where the Dursleys were watching a quiz show on television."

The difference between the first and final draft of the first page of Hanif Kureshi's The Budha of Suburbia was a soothing sight for any aspiring writer. The first was horribly amateurish, the final one polished and captivating.

There was so much to see that despite spending nearly 3 hours inside I couldn't really process everything properly, at least not without the aid of pictures to remember it all by, or visiting often to really interact with all it offered. But it was a temporary exhibit so even if I were a permanent London resident I would not have been able to access all of it whenever I pleased. And this all was apparently just a fraction of The British Library's treasures. I have no clue why they keep it all hidden away most times and what the point of this whole proprietorial attitude is.

In any case, just to chronicle it for myself:

  • First edition of Five on Kirrin Island Again by Enid Blyton.
  • A draft of William Blake's 'Tiger' written in his personal journal that originally belonged to his late brother.
  • Manuscript of Persuasion opened to a description of Bath, a passage I clearly recalled from my reading of the novel (so particularly thrilling).
  • Philip Larkin's handwriting. I have written in the notes in my diary that I'm uncomfortable with the notion of author as rockstar. And so I am, but this exhibit turned something that could have been an exercise in mere celebrity-worship to a lesson in history, since it chronicled England's changing landscapes through the writing it showcased.
  • Manuscript of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle's handwriting (though not a Sherlock manuscript.
  • Virginia Woolf's neat handwriting from a chapter of  'To the Lighthouse'.
  • The manuscript of Thomas Hardy's Tess, a text I read in my MA and I kind of love/hate.
  • The strange, strange manuscript of James Joyce's 'Uleysses', all crossed out in red and blue crayon through which the words were still legible. 
  • Manuscript of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss turned to the last boat scene. The scene where the author kills Maggie off and reveals her inability to deal with the larger than life female character she had created.
  • There was also something by Dickens that I wasn't able to look at clearly since the menacing bodyguards had called out time.
  • An unbelievably meticulous manuscript of Alice in Wonderland with elaborate cartoony drawings by Lewis Carroll. 

I loved this little line I read at the exhibit. It made me think of all the marginalized:
Berger notes how 'poor and therefore uneasy districts...are pushed in the imagination of those who are prospering, further away than they really are', and thinks 'today's Islington is far closer than it used to be'.
(Islington being a London neighbourhood considered a dump at one time, but now a hip and happening place.)


  1. That's the trouble with libraries and museums..too much to see/digest but too little time :)
    Still, you're such a lucky lady to have seen all that! (Oh boy, am I jealous)

  2. Wow what a wonderful experience that must've been.....i wish i could go there and see all this!

  3. awwww ... I want to get lost in it all ....

  4. That line at the end. It deserves to be framed. Pure gold. Credit?