Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Writing Britain: The Broads Effect

Writing Britain: The Broads Effect, Norwich, February 2013.

This is going to be a terribly indulgent blog post as yesterday was the official launch for a project that I've been involved with for two and a half years and I am feeling tired, proud and just a little emotional.

I moved to Norwich in September 1998 to come to uni here, UEA was my first choice of place to study and not only for the course choice.  I'd had two holidays to Norfolk in the past - one family trip involving a day on the Broads and then a school holiday where brave teachers took 6 boat loads of teenagers on a week long boating holiday! The county weaves a spell over you and I feel like Marmite you either love it or loathe it.

Unlike Marmite I love my adopted county.

In the summer of 2012 the British Library held an exhibition celebrating the links between the landscape and the literature of the British Isles.  Thanks to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation partner libraries around the country were picked to host their own smaller scale exhibitions and projects.

Norfolk is a county of many landscapes: we have The Fens, The North Norfolk Coastline, the Brecks, Thetford Forest and of course the Broads.  It was the latter that we decided to focus on as they are unique to Norfolk (and Suffolk).

Even the Broads have a wide literary heritage and at first, with my bias for children's literature, I instantly thought of both Arthur Ransome and Anna Sewell as authors to pick.  When we thought more however we decided to take a different tack and showcase some very famous people but whose links to Norfolk may be less well known...

We decided on John Betjeman (who unlike me didn't have happy childhood holidays in Norfolk) and Harold Pinter (a man who refused to consider faking Norfolk when it came to filming The Go-Between).

As well as borrowing items from the British Library and holding an exhibition we also ran a project with a group of young people. They were taken on trips around the county, into our collections, to London and to art galleries and then they all came up with new pieces of literature based on their responses to Norfolk's landscape and history.

My colleague Charlotte took on this role in the project leaving me free to learn how to curate an exhibition.

This experience has been - in the words of many talent shows - a real journey.  And a test of patience. However in the past 10 days it has all come together wonderfully and last night at the launch I was very pleased with the results.

We had new museum grade exhibition cases made as part of the project and their arrival really did mark the start of the final preparations. They arrived a week before the loan items from the BL and so we filled them with treasures from our collection - including a holiday scrap book from the 1890s:

Then on Thursday 7th February a curator from the BL arrived with a secure briefcase filled with the manuscripts we were borrowing:

Before the items arrived the stress levels had been growing but once we saw the items being unpacked all of that melted away and it felt a little like Christmas.  In this folder there were hand written notes by Harold Pinter on how he envisioned scenes from the Go-Between film as well as some annotated, typewritten script pages:

When the curator unwrapped the bound book of Betjeman correspondence, including a draft of the poem 'Norfolk'. John Betjeman wrote this poem after the death of his father and in it he is remembering the holidays they took together:

Friday was a calmer daytime but in the evening Charlotte and I had to install the exhibition, in quite a tight window as it all had to be done between 8pm and midnight.  To ease things we installed the library part first:

After a quick supper we moved out in to the Atrium of The Forum which is hosting the main part of the exhibition, as well as the results of our photography competition and some of the work created by the young people during their adventures:

the space we had to fill

working out what goes where!

just after 11pm - hanging the last panel.

After a calm weekend, including seeing The Go-Between on the big screen, thanks to a local cinema who'd got involved in the project, Monday 11th rolled round and it was launch day.

We started with a talk from one of the British Library curators. Tanya talked us through the London exhibition and how they picked the themes and items for this and then let us into a few secrets from the Library - some of which reassured us after our experiences!

Then last night was the 'gala' launch.  

The eight young people from the creative writing project were the star turn and after a little socialising and some welcoming words they all got up in front of about 100 people and read their own works. There were poems, stories and ghostly tales from some incredibly talented young people and all of us who've worked with this team were so proud.

The 8 have also documented their project and presented the library with a new scrap book to add to our collection. Who knows perhaps in 100 years time this will inspire a new project and inspire a new generations?

The winners of our photographic competition were also recognised last night as two of he judges presented them with their prizes. 

The evening finished with people having the chance to look around the exhibition and to talk to all involved in the project.

We have a week of events to run surrounding the exhibition all of which are just as exciting but documenting the project after such a great day yesterday seems important.

We have so many people to thank for the project that should I list them here I'd be in danger of sounding like a gushing actress at the OSCARs but I do have to thank my dad who did all of the design for our exhibition boards, invitations and fliers. I think you'll agree he did a great job:

I've learnt a lot about the heritage and influence of Norfolk's unique landscape over the last few months, discovered a lot of new authors that I'd probably never have read and also discovered a love of John Betjeman's poems.  

For me I think that the Broads will continue to inspire me as a photographer mostly but I now have a list of new authors as long as my arm to try and many items from our own heritage collection that I'd love to look at in more detail.

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