They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the World was round, goes the popular ditty. I'm not surprised. He should, of course, have said 'spherical', or, more properly, 'an oblate spheroid' in order to avoid becoming an object of ridicule. And I'm fairly sure that they (whoever 'they' might be) laughed at Prince Charles when he said that the British Library looked like the assembly hall of an academy for secret policemen. And it was to that same library I betook myself on Wednesday last in order to renew my reader's pass for another three years.
I've held a reader's pass for some years now. When I first started using the library it was still a part of the British Museum at Bloomsbury; the old round reading room was opened in 1857, and researching there amongst the polished wooden desks, leather chairs and gold-tooled books made you feel for all the world like some old Victorian scholar, or the member of some exclusive club. Most of the 'members' seemed to be elderly, or at the very least middle-aged, and tweed clothing was much in evidence. In some ways, the round reading room felt a bit like a church where the written word was god, and the librarians were the priests and acolytes, working from a central, round pulpit. You could no more think of raising your voice there than of singing a comic song in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
Sadly, things move on. The old library wasn't big enough to house the ever-growing collection; it took hours for your book order to arrive; and many of the books were stored at outstations around the UK, making them even less accessible. So it was that the present incarnation of the British Library at St. Pancras came into being, and that's where I found myself on Wednesday.
Brimming with confidence and armed with my new pass, I entered the Humanities Reading Room and flashed said pass at the security guard.
'I'm sorry, sir,' he said, 'but you can't come in with your coat.'
I was momentarily taken aback.
'No coats are allowed in the reading rooms,' he said. 'You'll have to leave it in the cloakroom.'
I presumed it was some kind of security initiative. Perhaps someone had once tried to smuggle the Lindisfarne Gospels out of the place beneath an Inverness cape. For a moment I toyed with the idea of questioning this directive. It wasn't a particularly warm day and I didn't want to catch a chill. However, I adopted the standard response to a seemingly pointless rule and decided I'd best obey it, otherwise I'd get nowhere. I took myself off to the cloakroom. It was the biggest cloakroom I'd ever seen. I wasn't overly worried that my coat would be stolen, or sold, or mistakenly given back to someone else, but I was concerned about what to do with my 'stuff'. I had two wallets (one large, one small), a bunch of keys, a mobile phone, and a camera. Too much stuff to cram into my trouser pockets. I needn't have worried, though. The library helpfully provides its readers with clear plastic carrier bags in which to put their things. I picked up a bag and studied it. It less like something you might find in a library, but more like an item to be found at an international airport in these days of heightened security. No coats, bags or umbrellas, it warned. No pens, highlighters or sharp implements (did my keys count as sharp implements, I wondered). No food, drink, bottled water (how is bottled water different from 'drink'?), sweets or gum. And lastly, No Cameras. This was beginning to feel less like a place of study, more like Prince Charles' Secret Police Academy. I dumped all my stuff into the bag, with just a slight concern that I had a camera on me. What would happen when I tried to enter the reading room? Would the camera be noticed and confiscated? Would they take it and hang on to it until I was about to leave, as teachers do when kiddies take banned items into school?
I decided to forget about this particular concern, and went to hand in my coat. This biggest cloakroom I'd ever seem also had the smallest number of staff I'd ever seen; just two men. Now, in some circumstances, it is possible for two men to do the work of ten. It just needs enthusiasm, drive and determination. These two cloakroom attendants seemed to be doing the work of less than one man. It appeared that neither really wanted to be there, and the whole business of giving and receiving coats was, to be quite honest, a bit of an inconvenience. I bet they couldn't wait till summer. Not many coats then. I handed in my coat and received a token, the entire transaction being carried out in silence, apart from my 'thank you' to the Trappist Collector of Coats.
Now coatless and armed with my clear plastic carrier bag, I was granted unfettered entry to the reading room. I found myself a desk and had a quick look around. To be sure, it has the polished wooden desks, the leather, the brass fittings; but it still feels so new, as though it hasn't had time to develop a soul. And the clientele seems to have changed. Gone are the tweedy scholars with their leather-bound notebooks, replaced by young women with impossibly short skirts, young men with impossibly asymmetric haircuts, and all of them armed with Apple laptops. I idly wondered what on earth they were all studying. I doubt very much that they wondered the same about me.
It was, by now, too late in the day to order any book and hope to get it before closing time. I resolved to get there earlier on my next visit with a clear plan of action. I thought I might go there on a warm day so I wouldn't need a coat.
I wandered back down to the cloakroom. They seemed to be having a bit of a rush on. There was a queue of around forty people in front of me, waiting either to deposit or collect. I noted that this sudden surge in business had not resulted in any attendant increase in the speed of the cloakroom brethren. They went about their work slowly and deliberately. I wondered about their lives. Were they always this morose? Or were they the life and soul of the party outside working hours, regaling friends with tales of the interesting coats and bags they had encountered that day? I decided the question probably wasn't worthy of an answer.
I caught the Lewes train at Victoria. As it left the capital, I watched as a tableau of events beyond the carriage window presented themselves and then winked out of sight. A man walking slowly along a footpath. A queue of traffic at a junction. The backs of nondescript industrial units on a trading estate. Smoke from a bonfire. Trackside detritus - gravel, sleepers, bits of plastic cable trunking. Suddenly, built up areas were left behind and we entered the chalky, undulating ploughlands of East Sussex. In the distance, the whalebacked Downs. As dusk crept over the land a light mist had appeared and I found myself, apparently, inside a watercolour painting by Eric Ravilious. This is an ancient landscape...
I was suddenly transported back to the here and now. A young man opposite me with a hands free kit was talking very loudly to a friend. 'Yeah,' he said, 'he takes that corner really tight every morning. Then, last week, he hit the bank. Now it's a perfect shape and he can really zoom round it.' I sighed to myself. I thought I'd left these kind of boy racers behind when I emigrated from London. But as the one-sided conversation progressed it became clear that he was talking not about some high-performance car, but a Massey-Ferguson tractor. This young man was a Sussex farm worker. During the course of the journey I also discovered that the John Deere is his favourite tractor, and that it is difficult, but possible, to steer with the knees whilst talking on one's mobile and drinking a cup of tea. I had hoped to hear some dialect words tripping off his tongue, but the closest he came to archaisms was 'bollocks' and 'pissed'.
It was just about night when I arrived in Seaford. As I made the short walk home, I could smell wood smoke. I could hear the suck of the pebbles dragged down the beach by the tide. I could see shadows on the curtains as the people of the town went about their lives. And I was glad of my coat. It was bloody freezing.
18 hours ago