The British Library


Dear Son,

I haven’t told you about my visit to London I am unable to go out today so now seems as good a time as any to tell you about my first day in London. I had an exciting train journey. I had pre-booked and so had a forward facing window seat with a table with my ticket number on it. The train carriage was rather full and as usual I settled down to watching my fellow passengers and listening to their conversations. People watching I find endlessly fascinating. The exciting part, came when a Nigerian lady and her friend, together with monstrous luggage, demanded to sit in the seats on the other side of the carriage directly opposite me. The people sitting there, a family ( Who incidentally were not English lest you accuse me of racism) with a small boy and a girl were convinced that they had booked those seats and the father produced the tickets to verify this. There were raised voices, as the lady waved her booking form and asserted her right to the seats, whilst the family refused to move. She huffed and pouted. Then she grumbled loudly. I was impressed with the family who remained polite and courteous throughout. Eventually, a very stern lady in a uniform appeared and the Nigerian lady made a loud complaint about not getting her seat. The train manager, informed the woman that not only was her booking form not a ticket, but that the date of travel on the booking form was not the same as the the day she was travelling. Consequently, she concluded, that as the woman was travelling without a valid ticket, she would have to fine her. I did not believe that this lady could be more vociferous, but she proved me wrong and with much arm waving and loud debate they left the carriage, which immediately fell silent. In spite of her loudness, there was something appealing in her flamboyance and passionate belief in her own rightness, despite all evidence to the contrary.  In comparison, the rest of the journey was rather dull and we pulled into St Pancras without further incident and on time.  After searching for a bit I found the left luggage office and left my bags. In the foyer of St Pancras there is a blue piano chained up to prevent theft, likewise a piano stool. They are for members of the public to amuse themselves on.  A young man was playing Beethoven with great fluency and passion. His standard was professional and his interpretation was lyrical. I was completely entranced and watched him for a while whilst ensuring I was unobserved as I did not want to break his concentration. When I eventually ventured outside it was blissfully warm and sunny. I soon found the entrance to The British Library.

It seemed a shame to leave the bright sunshine and go inside, but I had to find some food and the cafe seemed a good bet. In the coffee bar, most people were on their tablets, phones or laptops. A few people gossiped and it wasn’t long before a couple of elderly ladies approached me, to share my table. I spent a happy half hour finding out about their lives. In the centre of the library, is a tower of books, extending up through all the floors and surrounded by glass. The volumes were huge and imposing, however the effect is striking and spectacular. I sat in the cafe for some time getting my bearings.

In one side room was an exhibition on Magna Carta and in another was the collection of the treasures of the British library and it was the latter I had come to see.

I have to say, I was in bliss as I wandered round examining a Bach manuscript (J.S rather than any of the others). They had a copy of the Thomas Tallis Spem in Allium the forty part motet (Currently famous from 50 Shades of Grey). Mr Tallis is probably spinning in his grave about that still if it introduces a new audience to beautiful music I for one will not complain. I read a page of Alice in Wonderland in Charles Dodgson’s handwriting with his illustrations. There was the page of a manuscript of Jane Austen’s History of the English People. There was a page of Jane Eyre with all of Charlotte Bronte’s crossings out. A page of Great Expectations, quite a few pages of Trollope, but being only familiar with the Barsetshire Chronicles  the others were a mystery.

Moving on there were cases of illuminated manuscripts as much works of art as works of literature. Indeed they were exquisite in their details. Some of the virtual texts, could be examined in detail and the attention to every small part is unbelievable, especially when you consider that these were written in an age when monks used candles. There was a Gutenberg bible ( my computer doesn’t do umlauts sorry). Even more precious, was a copy of Wycliffe’s New Testament, a book that cast him his life. A first folio of Shakespeare and numerous other works from eastern literary traditions.

Mindful of the need to accomplish ten thousand steps a day I eventually dragged myself away and went to explore the rest of the library. In order to visit the rooms containing the books, one needs to have a reader’s card and as I did not possess such a thing, I could only explore the common areas. Still, I discovered a small exhibition on how damaged books are cleaned and rebound. I found the process fascinating and, as I was the only person in the exhibition, I lingered a good while, smelling the leather used to bind the books and examining the tools that are used. The sheer amount of work and attention to detail that goes into restoring  and rebinding a book was amazing. Making this visit was one of the highlights of my trip to London. I was unable to take photos of the various manuscripts and consequently there are no photos to keep you entertained in this narrative.

I hope you didn’t find my account too boring.

All my love

Your mother

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