This week has been a very tough week, but I’m using this post to focus on the awesomeness, MUCH OF WHICH is contained in the photograph above: the RSC Histories company winning THREE Oliviers. The photo is ridiculous in some ways – only Chuk Iwuji, as my friend pointed out, seems to know how to wear a suit in the accepted fashion, and why is Jonathan Slinger (Richard II and Richard III, for god’s sake) on his tiptoes at the back – but it’s also great, and hilarious, and I’m so glad they won. In rather less awesome news, RSC Sources (a really posh way of saying ‘Kath, with whom I used to work, who is on Facebook, and lovely’) say that the news that the David Tennant Hamlet will be put on DVD may have been a bit premature… which is a shame. I’ll be sad if the story’s false, but hopefully it will still happen sooner or later… in incredibly exciting Shakespeare news, the Cobbe portrait may (or may not) be another ‘life portrait’ of the writer. I hope it is, although I always imagined him milder and not so Elizabeth I about the nose and throat. But really, who has a portrait (I nearly typed ‘photo’) of a balding, long-haired Elizabethan with aesthetic tendencies on their walls for 300 years without considering it might be him? I suspect the Cobbes need their roof doing.
Today, I was back at the British Library, dealing with mercifully more helpful staff and a significantly more important manuscript. Even if the preliminary conversation (the gist thereof reproduced below) was like a sort of German farce:
Me: I am here for a manuscript. Look, my card.
Her: We know you not.
Me: I think you do.
Her: There is no manuscript here.
Me: It is quite an important manuscript. I had to get letters of approval. Please give me my manuscript.
Her: [indicates with look, word and gesture that she thinks my ever being approved to look in a mirror is unlikely] There is no manuscript. When did you order it.
Me: Two weeks ago. Let me speak to someone else.
Him: OH MY GOD, you want to see THAT MANUSCRIPT? It’s in a SAFE. A safe with LOCKS. Are you SURE, are you sure you won’t just VOMIT on it or possibly COLOUR IN WITH CRAYONS?
Me: I am quite sure.
Him: !!!!!!!!!! You need a LETTER FOR THAT.
Me: You are holding my letter. I can read the heading and the Brasenose logo through the paper.
Him: This is quite true. [gives] Where are you sitting? Oh my GOD, you’re sitting THERE? You want to look at that manuscript while SITTING THERE? As if it hadn’t just COME FROM A SAFE? Are you sure you aren’t just HIDING CRAYONS in your NON-EXISTENT CLEAVAGE?
Me: I need to write 11,000 words quite soon.
And so forth. All in all, though, a successful day; for the price of a 36-foot yacht, I was able to purchase the most delicious sandwich I’ve ever eaten, and further destabilise the methodology of a leader bibliographer (at least two of us are now writing essays the theme of which is primarily ‘[Bibliography X] is full of lies‘. But THEN, dear readers, after I had drawn big smiley faces over the priceless artefact completed my research, I went downstairs and into a room that was casually displaying the Magna Carta (I list this first not because I care but because I gather one is meant to), the LINDISFARNE GOSPELS, BEOWULF (ACTUALLY BLOODY BEOWULF, THE ONLY ONE, OMG), Sylvia Plath MSS, all sorts of sacred texts from world religions, GOWER, and PERSUASION. Sylvia Plath had writing like a cheerleader, the Magna Carta was clearly made by robots (and looks like a map of the desert), and if it’s medieval and came from the Cotton library, it probably had its edges burnt off during a fire in 1731. The exhibition doesn’t seem to be listed on the British Library website, but it’s free (like the rest of the library), so go, go in, and bear to the left.
Also, I went swing-dancing this week. My calves. My calves.
(other sustaining things here in OX4 – Jenny, Chloe, the fail king, my MCR, custard creams, using the word ‘torrid’ unnecessarily in my bibliography essay, implying Wilde had yet more boyfriends, Jay, m’boy, theselby.com and my new Primark habit. Yes, I know goods do not bring happiness but I have never been able to shake the belief that my life will be much better if I can only buy a lot of stuff. If stuff is edible,* so much the better).
*I am not saying the stuff Primark sells is edible.
A library doesn’t need to do a lot to get me on-side. I love libraries. The waft of literature on a summer evening through Radcliffe Square (seriously – walk past there after dark in Trinity. You can smell the books) is the nearest thing to a numinous experience. I like freizes, I like mosaics, I like big leather-bound rows of crackling volumes and imagining who might ever want to look in them. I love beautiful beautiful compendia like this – I actually keep the Librophiliac Love Letter on my bookmarks bar. One of my favourite parts of my own college is the Senior Library, designed by James Wyatt, with its imposing mezzanine and cool, cool pillars, apparently bearing the promise that here, in the long gallery, with the silent green baize and small brown desks, you will finally find a way out of procrastination. Here, they say, you will find your work ethic. I love Duke Humfrey’s (and not just so, like Harriet, I can pretend to ‘collect material, in a lesiurely way’ while secretly sleuthing after dark. I wish I was secretly sleuthing after dark). I love the Upper Res, despite its horribly mismatched, scoliosis-inducing furniture, and I have a weird sort of affection for the banality of the EFL (especially now the nice ladies have accepted my cheque apology and reinstated my borrowing rights). The stage was set for an almighty London love affair.
And it all started so well. Andrew was right – the British Library is the future. It’s enormous, airy, timeless in structure and impressive in both design and scope. There are people (hot people, cool people, diverse in age and race and gender people) everywhere, talking in all sorts of languages, sitting on everything, using wireless (a library where they actually accept that yes, you do want all the wireless, ALL OF THE TIME), eating food. EATING FOOD. There’s a cafe, guys. You can eat and read books in the same building. It feels alive. It’s really well-lit. The geography makes sense, there was a cute exhibition on Darwin, the shop is to bloody well die for, there was piped birdsong, weird little hidden exhibitions of stamps and propaganda, and a side-room where I got to listen to recordings of blissful Ellen Terry and Forbes Robertson. And Prince Philip sounding oddly hot in the early 1960s.
Even Reader Registration was relatively painless – the waiting area only slightly resembled Immigration and/or a GP’s room during a pandemic, and the cloakroom attendant was pleasantry to my cluelessness, and the Manuscript Reading Room was willing to acknowledge my existence.
I don’t know if it’s something in my face that just makes library staff hate me. I don’t know. Several of my friends are, or have been, librarians, and they are able to hold conversations with me without reaching for knives, so either I’m unfortunate or my friends just built up a resistance. But – and with all due respect, and in the firm knowledge that I may never, ever, ever make a successful Stack Request again – it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that if you want somebody to be rude to you, go to a library.
The British Library’s issuing, requesting, and bloody well reading procedures are labyrinthine, illogical and baffling to the initiating. That’s FINE. I am okay with that. The Bodleian uses a system built on trust, tiny yellow papers and insanity, split over nine thousand different sites and yet not allowing you to stack request to the English Faculty. The SSL, forty seconds away? Oh yes. Oh yes oh yes. The EFL, no. And yet I cheerfully wear my striped scarf, sign off my College Fee and say floreat oxon, and with it that spectacularly unattractive bunker designed to resemble a temple. I cheerfully accept that every encounter I ever make with a major UK institution’s books with involve a prolonged induction of chaos and confusion. I won’t know where anything is. I won’t know how to find snake weights, or foam wedges, or even the bit of my desk with a plug on it. I won’t know that I’m not allowed to have more than one MS out at a time, OR how to tell that a MS isn’t restricted and can be got within the hour, simply by looking at its number. I will be childishly thrilled to carry books between levels in the Shakespeare Institute (guys! You don’t even have to fill in a slip!), marvel, wide-eyed at speedy arrivals from MS Add. and I won’t have a clue (until sternly told otherwise) that pens are forbidden – on pain of death – in the second floor BL Manuscripts Room. I will get lost looking for the New Bod’s Special Collections room. I will spend four years at Oxford and never make it to the Radcliffe Science Library. I will walk right past the dictionary I want in the Rothermere Institute, and submit to the fact that the EFL’s cataloguing system ends with 1880- . I am perfectly happy to spend much of my research time in a state of locative confusion. It’s great. I don’t like white water rapids and I’ve never wanted to go back-packing. This is my idea of fun.
In other words: I don’t mind being ignorant, I don’t mind having room to learn. What I do mind, however, is that when I am forced to ask a question – when do you close, how do I get a slippy thing, does the library just KNOW my seat number because I can’t see anywhere to tell you and does that ‘INITIALS’ bit on the side mean yours or mine, and where are the sodding snake weights – regardless of institution, county, or, I suspect, continent, the library professional opposite me will feel it necessary to preface his or her reply with a long, contemptuous exhale through the nose. Again, I don’t know if it’s just that they hate me. Probably if you’re asked forty times a day where the snake weights are, it gets annoying but hey I have worked in customer service and one of customer service’s functions is to cheerfully put the F into the FAQ. And perhaps, just perhaps, if a librarian sees me (Reader, I am not stout. I am not hale. I do not have the length of arm or leg) struggling with a MS box the size and weight of a young oak, or with enormous foam rests the same size as the lilos kids play on at swim parties), it might be nice to unpurse your lips, return your jaw to its original setting, and give me a sodding hand. This is even before we tell the story of how a certain Oxford library that shall remain nameless once sent eight of my stack requests back to Cheshire (why does the Bodleian store its books in Cheshire? CHESHIRE?) when I had specifically told them not to.
I have, of course, met lovely librarians; Marjory, saintly college librarian who not only buys one stuff, has a sense of humour when one has a tantrum and accidentally loses jewellery down her library shelves, but is just generally fab; that poor maligned boy in the Bod who seems to exist only for his horrid colleagues to bully, and everybody ever at the Shakespeare Institute, all of who are charming and kind. On the other hand, going back to my old school last weekend I discovered there’s now an ‘ADULT FICTION’ section of books that only sixth formers are allowed to read, so perhaps the disease is spreading – stupidly and arbitrarily selected ‘ADULT FICTION’, I must say. Dan Brown isn’t suitable, but Virginia Andrews (incest, Southern Gothic, o happy Year 8 English) is? Sebastian Faulks must be kept off-limits until the reader hits sixteen? ‘Point Romance’ and all manner of slushy crap with ‘Boyd’ and ‘Tina’ on the spine is appropriate for intelligent, adolescent girls, but ‘The Master and Margarita’, Nabakov and everything I read in Year 10 will be fatal to their moral fibre? I think The Horse Whisperer is even still on the main shelves, a book I – and doubtless every other girl who was in 7x c. 1998 – remembers as the book that taught us the meaning of the word ‘engorged’. Also, I seem to remember that the libretto to Sondehim’s Sweeney Todd is still in the main Drama & Poetry section, i.e. the musical where the Judge gives himself an orgasm through self-flagellation. Splendid. I hate the idea of ADULT FICTION anyway – surely the point of school libraries is that it gives you a self-defined reading life, untrammelled by considerations of yr pocket money or yr curriculum or yr parents (fortunately my parents, esp my mother, conspired in my desire to read everything to the extent that when she actually did forbid me to read one book, it took me years to disobey her). I mean possibly titles on how to knit-your-own-Columbine should be avoided, but otherwise, let the poor things get on with it. And stop hiding the snake weights.