Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Travels with Alex in British libraries, Part 3: London, Day 2

In which Alex stands on T.S. Eliot, and beholds both Sylvia Plath's manuscripts and the Magna Carta.

So now it's Tuesday, and we spent the morning with Sim, Carey and the girls at the Tate Modern. After that, we all took the tube together to Westminster, so that Kris and I could visit the Abbey and Sim, Carey and the girls could head to Buckingham Palace. We parted ways (goodbye for awhile, unfortunately) beside the Abbey gates, under Big Ben, as the clock chimed 2 pm. We counted it out, then kissed and hugged, and said, See you soon!

I went to the Abbey because, really, how could I not? (I don't think I had ever been as a child). I didn't expect much (does that sound bad?) but I was, in the end, oddly moved by a few things. Elizabeth I and Mary I are buried side by side, adjacent to a monument that commemorates, fittingly, those "divided at the Reformation by different convictions who laid down their lives for Christ and conscience sake." Just tracing the repeating pattern ER along each side of the tomb was quite something. I momentarily lost Kris outside this room (panic attack: are there loudspeakers in the Abbey for them to call out lost husbands? Hell, no!) only to find him pensively resting in the Poet's Corner (always a good place to wait for me!) Again, more moving than I thought it would be: the quote on T. S. Eliot's tomb that made me stop dead.

"The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living."

Quite something. As was drifting past David Garrick and Laurence Olivier.

On the way out, we were stopped short by the 20th century martyrs statues. And then it was off again, to the British Library.

In a new (1997) facility, more or less across from St. Pancras Station, the British Library is rather unassuming from the exterior. In fact, even on the inside, its winding staircases are disconcertingly reminiscent of the Toronto Reference Library (I jest not: check it out!). We arrived near closing, and the woman at the piazza desk was sorting through the day's worth of Reader's Passes, recycling the plastic-y part and tearing off the individual name stickers. We had time for the shop, a glance at the (real, this time!) King's Library, and the Treasures room.

OK, I confess, frankly, we were exhausted. Running around the black hole with Miss K. and Miss Z. at the Tate, dashing through the Abbey, oh, and I forgot... up and down Knightsbridge (no library relevance)... So we spent a good few minutes just sitting on a bench in the piazza, contemplating another bench. Bill Woodrow's "Sitting on History," actually, which is pretty cool.

Finally, the Treasures Room. I was starting to feel pretty Zen about this whole trip: I had seen a lot of things I wanted to see, I'd spent invaluable time with family, and I was in the British Library, for God's sake... standing in front of Jane Austen's writing desk (frankly, I was never much of an Austen-ite. More of a Jane Eyre girl. The desk was interesting, though).

Treasures indeed. In one humble room: Lewis Carroll's sketches, Sylvia Plath's marginal notes, the lyrics of the Beatles' "Michelle" on the back of an envelope (lyrics to "A Hard Day's Night" on the back of a birthday card for Julian Lennon), the First Folio, various Quartos, da Vinci's notebooks, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Magna Carta room, the Gutenberg Bible, the Ramayana, the Diamond Sutra. It is almost too much to bear. I confess I am glad they have velvet benches in here: quiet contemplation between visual feasts is necessary.

Then we descended into the tube, to change again, for the 3, 458th time, at Baker Street, and home to Cricklewood.

British Library's piazza

1 comment:

  1. I am so enjoying your British adventure tales and peeks into the libraries (what a drag about the stolen passports). When I was a grad student I weasled a reader's card out of the British Library which I still keep (even though it was only good for 24 hours). But that did allow me to go up to the reading room and request a couple of journals and wait at the carrel until the green light went on, and then to collect and read them. Some people thought that was a strange way to spend a day of vacation in London, but I'm sure you understand. . .and I've been to London many times. It's my favourite city to visit - one just CAN'T run out of things to do.