This little gem of a book came my way quite by chance, thanks to the kind offer of a fellow Virago-ite on LibraryThing (thanks, Peggy!) It’s a lovely little hardcover with a hessian style cover, and I was slightly surprised that such a quality book should be published in wartime – until I realised that it had been put out by the OUP in New York!

lit jrn
Published in 1943, LJ is a paean to the literature and architecture of the British Isles. Wren takes a look at the historical sites in the land which have an artistic significance, and sees how they have survived (or not) the strictures of WW2. Starting in London, which comprises quite a large chunk of the book, he then casts his gaze on the various regions of England, Scotland and Wales, covering the breadth of the country’s literature, from Chaucer, through Burns, right up to the Bloomsberries.

It’s a fascinating volume, with some heartbreaking images of damaged buildings and monuments, as well as some sweet little drawings by Frederick T. Chapman. Naturally, because of the time it was published, it’s difficult to see the book as anything other than a propaganda exercise; but this doesn’t make it any the less interesting, and also valuable as a record of the changes taking place in Britain that would continue after the war. One particularly relevant paragraph covers the move of the Covent Garden flower market from its site, and the possible future of the area, in a very prescient way.

St. Pauls in the Blitz

St. Paul’s in the Blitz

Reading something written during the war years always brings home the effect of conflict in a very immediate way, and I found the book rewarding because of this. However, I have to say that my thoughts strayed a little to other victims of the conflict, as I watched recently the first part of a fascinating series on BBC4, “In Their Own Words – 20th Century Composers”. The show featured one of my favourite composers, Shostakovich, and obviously focused very much on his Leningrad Symphony, used as a propaganda item during the siege, and broadcast live during the fighting.  But it also covered the composition of his String Quartet No. 8, which he was inspired to write in part by a visit to post-war Dresden (which suffered mightily from bombing) and which he dedicated to all victims of fascism and war.

Dresden, after bombing

Dresden, after bombing

So much as I enjoyed this slim volume, and found inspirational commentary on British literature and landscape, it’s made me think more widely about the effects of conflict. We need to nurture intelligence, art and creativity and realise that War Is Not a Good Thing – for anyone.