Thames to Dunkirk on film

Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews in Writing Britain at the British Library

The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still being battered by the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s permanent collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning with me some events to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of Thames to Dunkirk, which you can see on this link. Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack – on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews – over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jerry Jenkins.

You can follow Thames to Dunkirk page-by-page, and experience something of the surreal scale of the event by taking a walk with BG Bonallack and Virginia Woolf round the book’s unfolded 17 metre length.

Also out for 26th May 2020 is my new guest blog post for the British Library’s blog, called Invoking the Dunkirk Spirit, looking at some of the ways that the Dunkirk story can illuminate our own times, and some of the parallels that these strange days of spring and early summer 2020 have had with Dunkirk 1940 – and looking back at my original aims in the making of Thames to Dunkirk. I wrote a guest-post for the BL’s blog in 2012, when Thames to Dunkirk was on show in their great exhibition for the Olympic year, Writing Britain. Called Roughened Water, it focuses on the inspiration for the big book, in the context of that exhibition, and the ‘complex collection of disparate responses aroused by our individual places in the shared landscape, as revealed in Writing Britain‘.

As I write, in May 2020, the Library is still closed to the public, and it’s still not clear when it will be able to open its doors again. In these uncertain times, the temporary closure of the British Library, the British Museum, our theatres, galleries, museums, concert halls and cinemas, public libraries up and down the country, all our public venues has rent a great gash in our culture, a wound that will take a long time to heal. It’s impossible to measure the debt that we owe to these institutions, great and small, in which our culture, in all its diversity, is enshrined. I hope we can follow the example of Dunkirk 1940, and with humanity, endurance and ingenuity find a way through the dark times and out into the light again.


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