Putting writers on the map

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Fourth Street Associate, Tim Ambrose, reflects on the extraordinary literary history and heritage in the UK and how it is used to create, enhance and promote destinations.

Several years ago, I was asked to choose the 10 books that I would like to have with me on a desert island. My immediate response was that it wouldn’t be a desert island if I were sharing it with ten writers. But, metaphysics aside, I began what turned out to be a surprisingly arduous process of deciding what my small library would contain.

One of the books that I chose early on however was Literary Landscapes of the British Isles – A Narrative Atlas produced by David Daiches and John Flower in 1979. It is a marvelous book which explores the many different physical and creative relationships between writers and places and provides information about where writers were born, lived and worked, had particular associations and are remembered and commemorated. It provides an excellent introduction to the geography of Britain’s remarkable literary heritage and a perfect starting point for enquiring how that heritage is being presented and interpreted today for those interested in visiting places associated with particular writers. What the atlas shows is that wherever you are in Britain you are never very far away from a place – house, landscape, townscape, statue, grave, monument, museum or heritage centre – associated with a historic or contemporary writer. Since its publication almost 40 years ago, many more entries could now be added to its gazetteer, especially if one includes locations which host literary festivals of different sorts.

Research has shown that the motivation to visit locations associated with writers varies widely. Many people will visit a ‘biographical location’, like Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House in Rodmell or Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse at Laugharne, because they already know a lot or a little about the author and his or her work, for example through their own reading or through biographical treatment in the cinema or on television. They are looking for physical, intellectual and emotional connections with an author when they visit his or her home or workplace – sites of  literary biography. Imaginatively engaging with the domestic context in which an author lived and worked helps them to develop a picture of the individual behind the work. Looking at the material culture associated with an author – furnishings and fittings, reference works, manuscripts, etc. – helps them see the author in human terms.  Treading literally in their footsteps helps them to engage more closely with the person behind the words. At the same time, seeing and  exploring the physical landscapes or townscapes described in novels or poetry helps the visitor to understand not just the contexts in which an author’s work is set, but how those physical settings have informed the author’s imagination and how in turn the author may have impacted on those settings. Examples of this include Thomas Hardy’s novels and their ‘Wessex’ setting, William Wordsworth’s poetry and its relation to the Lake District, Jane Austen’s novels and their association with Bath or Shakespeare’s plays and their links with Stratford. In all of these cases, the author’s impact on the setting is reflected in the use of their name by tourism agencies e.g. Wordsworth Country, Hardy’s Wessex, Jane Austen Country, and Shakespeare’s England.

How are places and their associations with the literary heritage treated? Looking around the UK, the picture is very varied in terms of quality – quality of presentation and interpretation, quality of programming and quality of marketing. There are many excellent examples of how to inspire people to engage with the literary history and heritage of a place, however large or small that place may be – the list is a long one. At one end of the spectrum this can relate to the former home of a single author e.g. Dr. Johnson’s House in London’s Gough Square; at the other end of the spectrum it may take in a whole city like Edinburgh, which has gone from strength to strength since being designated the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. Here, the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust has created a flourishing programme of events and activities set in a wide range of locations throughout the city and aimed at different audiences that explores the lives, work, times and legacy of historic and contemporary writers associated with the city and Scotland more widely.

What Dr. Johnson’s House and Edinburgh both convincingly demonstrate at micro and macro level is the importance of imaginative programming to attract and sustain audiences, both for historic and contemporary work. Both organisations have excellent websites which provide a wide range of information about the literary heritage for which they are responsible, promote their events programmes and generate valuable resource material as an output of their work. They are also proactive in their approaches to audience development and have strong partnerships with a range of organisations with allied interests supporting their programmes. Literary festivals like those organised annually by the Boswell Trust or the Charleston Trust are also excellent examples of these principles.

Elsewhere in the UK the picture is not always so positive. Many of the National Trust sites associated with writers for example provide only limited events and activities programmes relating to their life, times, work and legacy and tend to be reactive rather than proactive in their presentation of our literary heritage, including the wonderful library collections in a number of the Trust’s properties. Local authorities have often been surprisingly slow to capitalise on the literary heritage that lies within their areas in terms of its intrinsic and extrinsic value for educational and tourism purposes. Literary heritage sites have often failed to enhance standards of presentation and interpretation through the use of new technologies and more imaginative programming in association with partners that can help reach and build new audiences.

Standing back from the current literary landscape, it is clear that a more joined-up approach to our literary heritage is required if we are to maximise the full benefit of this remarkable resource, especially at a time when we need to consider how to reposition the UK in world markets. Perhaps a new Narrative Atlas of the UK’s Literary Landscapes is needed to demonstrate where we have got to since 1979 and where we still need to go.