november's collaboration for Jaunt.
When in London
When I was in London this past summer, I took an afternoon to myself to go over to the British Museum. This was a great group of friends to travel with - we'd have a little confab at breakfast each day, and sort thru who wanted to do what, and if someone else had a more interesting idea, you could go along with them, or take off and do your own thing. Turns out noone else found the idea of 1000 Years of Prose quite so fascinating as I did. But I love books, the exhibit had come with a good recommendation from a friend, and I love exploring on my own. London, especially, is one of those towns where I could quite easily meander around town for days on my own, and feel quite safe and happy.
The closest stop to the library is King's Cross/St. Pancras. There was some sort of a kerfuffle, in fact, about the fact the library, a brick neo-Wrightish building, was so close to the station, which is a wedding cake of spires and arches. Some took the difference in architecture as a bit of an insult to the venerable station. Personally, I found the view over the library roof quite interesting, as the two buildings looked as if they were piled on top of each other, and the contrast made each look a little more like itself. I wish I'd read the Harry Potter books *before* going there, as I would have searched for platform 9 3/4 (or is is 9 1/2?)
When I wandered into the library, it was as quiet as you'd expect it to be, but I was pleasantly suprised to see a cafeteria, tucked on the back balcony. Just a handful of tables in a dim marble corner, but no doubt they would have tea and cake. I decided to see the exhibit first, and save the cafeteria as a treat.
The prose exhibit was wonderful. They had divided the room into 6 or 8 topic areas, one for fantasy, one for humor, one for proper literature, and so on. In addition to cases of books, there were listening posts where you could hear different authors reading their own works. one of the most fascinating for me was hearing J.R.R. Tolkein read a poem in Elvish. The cadence of the words really sounded like a language, one that you could understand if you just listened hard enough. The Brontės' writing table was there, complete with a large E carved into the center. Gerald Durrell (a favorite of my best friend's) was there too, represented in spirit by his family's Christmas plate - funny little caricatures of the siblings, with Mom in the middle. And I have a great appreciation for anyone who has ever served as James Joyce's editor - his manuscripts were horrendously confusing, with color coded scribblings running every which way on the over sized pages. The original manuscript for Alice Underground, a single copy written as a gift, was there; the pen and ink illustrations were quite charming, particularly the one of Alice growing too tall, and wedged upside down in the room in a very unbecoming fashion.
Then I wandered into the regular exhibits, to revisit a few old friends like Guttenberg that I'd seen at the British Museum my first time over. The library is an outgrowth of the museum, as apparently they felt the books deserved more display room than the museum had. There were some amazing manuscripts out - several cases were dedicated to bibles, which usually isn't my thing, but the skill that went into these books, some of which were many hundreds of years old, deserved appreciation. One of the most unusual pages was a deep purple vellum with silver ink, around 700 years old. Unreal. There was also an Indonesian book that looked to me more like a fan or a venetian blind. It was written on bamboo slats, with the formal writing on one side, and the more vernacular script on the flip side.
I quite happily poked around for an hour or two, then decided it was time for tea. When in London.... After looking at ancient, ornate manuscripts for most of the afternoon, it felt a bit odd to be sitting in the rather severe lobby/cafeteria, all marble and no decoration, on decidedly modern chairs. I ordered a pot of tea and King William cake (pound cake drenched in orange syrup), and settled down at my own table. Off to my left was a glassed-in tower of books, rising right up thru the middle of the library. As I was finishing up my tea, I looked thru a library leaflet and discovered that what I was looking at was the complete library of King George the Third (as in, The Madness of... with Nigel Hawthorne). Turns out his son wasn't the complete wanker he appeared in the movie, as he donated his father's complete library to the British Museum. This tower of books just made me drool... complete sets of things, gorgeous bindings, gild edges... and the tower goes something like seven stories up.
Of course, I had to treat myself to the bookshop. Got an Alice mug for my mom, with a picture of Alice talking to the rabbit, Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, and a few other odds and ends. Walked outside, snapped some pictures of Hogwart's station over the library, checked out the brass sculptures around the plaza, and then took off to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, which was just as entertaining in it's own way, and a story for another day.