“You’re working in the abstract, sharing space with these people who you cannot imagine existing in the world outside, and the sexual and the personal life is repressed for most of the day. But believe me, when it comes out, it comes out with a vengeance.”
Elaine Glaser, BBC Producer.
Today is the last I will spend for some time in Humanities One, the largest of the Reading Rooms at the British Library in London. It has been my home for over a year now, an office co-mingled with my own history, where I’ve been writing a long novel and researching this trip. I’ve lost count of the number of old friends I’ve met here, writing novels, researching searing biographies, knocking off a column, escaping the kids/husband/wife or editor, or just hanging out in between appointments. Probably the most unlikely meeting was with my friend Ian, over from New York, who I spotted outside Rare Books last summer. “Off to Mauritius in an hour,” he said. “Going to write about Dodos. Fancy lunch?” Another was last seen knee-deep in the “Brazillian Dan Brown.” We’ll meet the American Dan in a few weeks outside the back entrance to the Ritz hotel in Paris.
Some people complain that the British Library is not what it was; Will Hodgkinson wrote two years ago that Humanities One is nicknamed “Tourism” because – more or less – half its youngish inhabitants are dressed for the beach and are as likely to be texting a friend or wilf-ing on the wi-fi, as researching the origins of socialism in nineteenth century Poland. Will’s brother is King of Idlers: I think he should let things be.
True it is harder to get a seat these days, and flesh more prominent. But I like the new kind of library. It is half private members club, one quarter scholarly retreat, one eighth dating agency, and one sixteenth PR location (in the evenings men and women in pinstripes clutch white wine in the foyers and celebrate Innovation & Achievement Awards) and one sixteenth exercise in serendipity. And the books are still great.
Several months ago Bill Gates launched Vista here, his new operating system, with the English band The Feeling playing a promotional concert in the courtyard. Like most things Microsoft, the band was late and the mix wasn’t too good. But Microsoft has given a lot to the BL (including thousands of t-shirts). And, as with Google, the future of “old” books is on their agenda – as well as the digital. I like the mix of high-tech and ancient manuscript. In fact, the entire journey I’m making is about both the digital now, and the parchment-y then. And I know for a fact that the BL is working on this relationship with some old friends. Good luck to everyone concerned.
For without the BL (and Wikipedia, naturally) this trip would be threadbare in every sense. I’ve learnt from The Master about preparation. And so many, many thanks to everyone who has helped me do just that: I’ll be back in Seat 2157 in early October.
Thus much of the British Library.