The Word Defiant

In the LV at school (Year 9), I was somewhat rebellious. I still love my 13-year-old self. Part class clown needing attention, part provocateur needing to challenge authority. And perhaps because of this, I like the word ‘defiant’. I think teachers used it of me, with deliberate negative connotations. But I took it and owned it. I was defiant and I was proud of being so.

At about this time (actually I think it was the start of the MV/Y10), we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in our English lessons with Mrs King. The impact of this book was transformative. That books were ordered to be burned in some kind of dystopian totalitarian state was quite possibly the most shocking thing I had ever read. It was the job of firemen to burn books. How on earth could that be? Until the fireman called Montag was defiant. People rebelled. They learnt the books off by heart. And it was reading this that made me realise that books – or the things in them – change the world, and that learning was the most important thing there is.

So, going to see brilliantly titled The Word Defiant at Blickling Hall had a fair bit to live up to. It’s part of the ACE funded Trust New Art scheme, designed to open and shake things up a bit for new audiences, and is on until 28 October 2018. Theatre Company, Les Enfants Terribles have been commissioned to respond to what is the National Trust’s largest book collection in one of their house libraries. The library is about to undergo a massive conservation programme, and this intervention highlights the plights of books – both their environmental destruction, but also contemporary issues around censorship, banning, destruction through war and violence, natural damage,and threat to books by digital technologies.

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From the hushed audio of Chinese people reciting Winnie the Pooh (who knew this book was banned in China?), to an overflowing bath representing a library in Venice where books are stored in baths to prevent flood damage, to a stunning newly opened up room in the cellars full of burnt books representing the ISIS destruction of the library in Mosul, Iraq, this is such a thought-provoking, challenging and captivating creative response – it brings the house alive. I will remember the house because of this: it will not get muddled into a sea of other National Trust properties with their expected walk through dining rooms, four-poster beds, comical loos, and kitchens downstairs.

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At the end of the house, the library awaits, its books spilling out of the shelves and onto the floor. Living? I love the way that the latter times I have visited, more interpretation has been added – as if to explain themselves to the visitors who don’t like this novel approach to story-telling and getting people to think.

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One of my favourite things about this exhibition is the very mixed visitor response. Downstairs, an interpretation room has brilliant creative tasks. A redaction table taking its cue from a morse coded installation in the kitchen corridor.

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A giant scroll for visitor conversations. It would be amazing to evaluate this. I’ve been to visit on three separate occasions, and alas, the grumpy comments of the traditional National Trust going visitors have always outweighed the positive ones. People seem to be quite irate that books have been used, that the house has been contaminated with an artistic intervention, that they can no longer contemplate the great works of art on the walls and rooms stuffed full of antique furniture. I’ve also enjoyed talking to the volunteers – again, with very mixed views. Some of them, I notice don’t even talk about it, but steer conversations onto the actual books in the actual library. I love this almost as much as I love the installation itself. Here are some of the nicer comments I saw:

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Extraordinarily, this is an intervention by a theatre company. Amongst many other things, it leaves me wondering where the boundary is between this and contemporary art. Let’s have more of this sort of thing. Shaking things up. Being defiant.

I think I need to read Fahrenheit 451 again.

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