Today, after renewing my membership of the British Library and scoffing a brownie in the posh Leith cafe, I wandered into the British Library exhibition on writers’ handwriting. I only stayed in the building because it is calm and cool, and it postponed the crush of the tube ride home.  The Sir John Ritblat Gallery is free, and, like the History of Carnaby Street exhibition I discovered last week, if you are a Londoner and you do not visit free galleries you are a fool.  Your taxes and contributions have already financed them.  Get thee to a gallery.

Of course, the Sir John Ritblat Gallery clearly was the result of a hefty donation to the BL from Sir Johnny R.  But the British Library itself is free and funded by the Department for Libraries and Posh Cafes.  Or something.  You don’t have to be a member of the Library to visit the shop, exhibitions or Leith cafe.  Anyway, I wandered into the exhibition on writers and the first thing I saw was something about Beowulf.  Couldn’t understand a word of that, and apparently it’s a poem about some English bloke who goes off to Scandanavia and does stuff.  Or least that’s what the sign said in the exhibition.  Only 12 people in England fully understand Olde Englishe and I am certainly not one of them.  I come out in a rash if I read anything that was published before the Brontes were born.  This very important old document could have been some pre-English recipe instructions for boiling a boars head and eating it with a grilled peasant, for all anyone knows.  Still, you have to stare at it for at least three seconds and look interested, like everyone else does.

Sir Philip Sidney is one of my favourite poets (all right, distinctly pre-Brontes but along with Shakey, an exception to the Bluebird’s rule…) and has an interestingly accessible hand, flamboyant and, strangely for the 16th century, legible.  Jane Austen appeared to work with a miniature writing desk in a series of childhood exercise books, in which not a half inch of space is wasted.  Her handwriting was very beautiful and heavily slanted.  Her spectacles are there too – small enough to fit a six year old.  Perhaps she was a dwarf.   Thomas Hardy had the handwriting of a trusty, West Country solicitor (his hand-writing immediately made me think of Leonard Bast from “Howard’s End” – diligent, conservative, aspiring to aestheticism but ultimately held back by his own provincialism).  If I was floating around Dorchester in the 1890s and found a nice house to buy, I would probably appoint someone with Thomas Hardy’s handwriting to do the litigation.  If he wasn’t too busy trying to write novels banging on about the negative power of fate, that is.

Virginia Woolf had the handwriting of a frigid, fundamentalist loon, although a very tidy one.  She seems to be using the most expensive pen.  Her use of paper is suggestive of languid waste – tall looping letters on very high quality parchment in yer room of one’s own, Milady Woolf.  The insensitivity and all-encompassing snobbery of the Bloomsbury Group totally enrages me and always has done.  None of which detracts from the magnificence of Mrs Dalloway, of course.  Her writing is unclear.  I thought I read “She had not married him.  They had fucked”.  But I now realise this was actually “She had not married him.  They had failed.”

Oscar Wilde’s handwriting is a breath of fresh air.  Wide, circular letters,  few loops, a straightforward, easily read flowing hand with a suggestion of coquetry.  He also had a strange habit of joining the end of one word to the beginning of the next one whilst keeping most of the letters within the words separate.  It smacks of the new century.  It is strange that Woolf’s does not.  Wilde’s writing is a draft of the Ballad of Reading Gaol written from his time in prison.  Within the limitations of personal freedom, his writing suggests space.   Meanwhile, way up on the green plains of early 1960s Primrose Hill, Sylvia Plaths bizarre, harsh black felt tip writing suggests a blockage of some kind.  Her handwriting is petulant and childlike.   There is no room to breathe between the lines.  It’s writing you don’t want to carry on reading; it is unforgiving both to reader and writer, and made me feel a trifle queasy.

The Bluebird’s most beautiful literature scrawl award goes to…..Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Rev Charles Dodgson, who used his standard copperplate in diaries, but whose handwritten and self-illustrated version of Alice’s Adventures Under-Ground was handprinted in the most gloriously simple typescript, designed to be attractive to any eight year old reader.

It’s all a little dangerous, of course, feeling like we need to treat Jane Austen’s glasses and Oscar Wilde’s ink as literature porn.  They are, after all, only a pair of glasses and a bottle of ink.  They may have been her Auntie’s glasses and she had borrowed them for bingo or something.  The idea of anyone’s notes on a work in progress ending up on public display would most likely appal any writer, who had so diligently and so consistently redrafted and cultivated their own works (and themselves) only to have some Herbert from the BL rock up three hundred years later and put it on display.

It’s the reverence to the paraphenalia that surrounds great writers we have to be wary of; the writing desks, the paper, and the idea of alchemy that they may intrinsically hold.  That sense of unnerving idol worship that kicks in after a good old literary suicide (Woolf, Plath) which people enjoy salivating over is not to be trusted, as, although topping yourself ensures kind of literary notoreity, it doesn’t change the  intrinsic quality of any one written word you have produced.  The London Bluebird is unsure how she feels about this kind of display, but, speaking as someone who works in chaos and whose writing space resembles a cross between a sixth former’s locker and the rubble left after a nuclear explosion, has only one thing to say :  look at the writing, not the pen that writes it.

 

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Kindling

I got with the kids today and downloaded a kindle thingy which means I can read books on the clinical and uninspiring surface of my huge computer screen.  The problem is I then have committed myself to reading the bastard things, once the initial buzz of delight at instant books appearing on my desktop has worn off.  I selected Juliet Gardiner’s most recent epistle: ‘The Thirties’.  We love the Jules in Bluebird Towers.  She wrote an excellent book on the home front during the war and was the historical adviser for the Channel 4 1940s house, which is where I want to live (but without the bombing).  She knows all sorts of fascinating details about individual lives and we just think she is fab.  Of course, that means I have a four hundred page book which is staring out at me on my computer and I am firmly stuck in Chapter Two with it’s details of fiscal policy.  I mainly want to get to the section that is about Charlestons and shoes but am unsure whether there is one.  I am also reading, at the same time, Roy Hattersley’s ‘The Edwardians’ and Gerald Clarke’s biography of Judy Garland, so most likely I will get it all twisted up in some inter-war nightmare in which King Edward is singing ‘Get Happy’ and La Garland sorts out the problems left behind after Churchill fannied about with The Gold Standard.  I think British politics is all the poorer, my friends, for its absence of tap-dancing and Irving Berlin medleys.

None of which gets my Dissertation written of course. I have a meeting with the Doctor on Tuesday (academic, not medical – there’s no way I’m going into his office to talk about my periods, thank you) in which I hope to finally present him with the title.  It’s on the idea of safe spaces in the West End for respectable women in the late Victorian age, and I keep having to explain to people it’s not ENTIRELY about shopping.  Well, not really.  I am off to the London Library to read bygone issues of ‘The Lady’ from the 1880s, with their irate letters to the Editor about standards, usually letters filled with disgust about prostitutes not wearing hats and children having the impertinence to grow taller etc.  The London Library is a bastion of civilized learning in that hotbed of the London underworld, St James’s Square.  It’s full of corduroy-clad squires from the shires sleeping in armchairs, buried under editions of Country Life.  The staff wake them up once a year when their membership fee is due.

I am not going to write about this election anymore because it is arse-numbingly dull.  I have a headcold and am retiring to bed for the afternoon with Agatha Christie’s ‘They Do It With Mirrors’.

Did Michael Gove really mean that we need an “Hamsterdam”  style police force, like in “The Wire”?  Well, it was quarter to eleven and Newsnight isn’t exactly exhilirating and I was only watching it because getting up would mean spending five minutes removing my three layers of mascara and tottering off to bed. But I think he did say that.  I think he also had this idea about the police force being answerable to “independently” elected politicians haha. And he kept going on about how marvellous everything was in “Surrey, where I live.”   Yes, I’m sure it is dear.

And what is this Ikea-flat-pack style “build your own schools” about?  I’m not saying I couldn’t establish a worthwhile and astonishingly beneficial academy for young peeps to learn their stuff, but isn’t “Hey!  Build your own schools!” policy about other people paying for them so the government doesn’t have to?  And what is going to happen to the dinner ladies?  I can’t picture George Osborne standing there doling out the semolina.

And apparently we are going to have a BIG society.  Which we already have.   Some people are MASSIVE.  It’s all the semolina.

Then Jeremy Paxman cheered things up a bit by telling us all about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack.

I am finding this Election Campaign slightly psychadelic.  It’s a bit way-out to be that localised, Mr D Cameron.  He wants us to get involved, which is presumptious because he hasn’t asked us if we want to.   What I want is to be left alone : I pay taxes so the government do all the work and I don’t have to.  That’s how it works.   The last thing I want is to be telephoned by the Chancellor of the Excheqeur because he wants me to arrange geography field trips for sixth formers or something (trust me, with me in charge, they’d get lost).

Mr G Brown is just oddly chortling all over the place with his darling, Chancellor Darling, looking like a man who thinks he has got it in the bag.  No doubt he is nonplussed that the British press have taken the pressure slightly off Brown slag-a-thon that they were involved in six months ago.  And there’s Nick Clegg getting a bit cross and talking about both parties as a “Labservative stitch-up”.  Presumably, it’s some kind of cross-party knitting group, which is good, because it means I have my constitutional role, finally.  I’ll have them cable knitting sweaters within a fortnight.  They can take out their stress on the economy by designing a nifty purl 2, plain 2 patterned sweater in their party colours.

Can I vote for the removal of words that aren’t words but that are made up of other words and stitched together, please?  “Labservative” doesn’t exist.  Next we’re going to be  talking about “Torybour” and the “Conserviral Democrats”  which sounds like a disease.

I am very confused.  I went to bed and didn’t have nightmares about nuclear terrorism, just Alistair Darling his astonishing eyebrows looming out at me from the darkness as he sung about fiscal policy.  Eurgh.

Don’t Push It….

I won!  I farking won!  The London Bluebird is flying around like a mad, mad thing.  Don’t Push It came in first (£4 each way on odds of 16/1, thank you) so I picked up £90 on that and State of Play came in third, another one I had backed both ways.  I got £50 from that lovely little horsey.  So £65 down and £140 back.  That should be enough to pay for this week’s petrol, then.  Honestly, soon it will be cheaper to travel by chariot drawn by eight white horses than it will to pop down to Esso and fill up the tank of the Bluebird’s motorcar.

The next horse race features a toff thoroughbred, a tired Scottish racer and a bouncy new stallion.  It’s called the General Election.  Hedge your bets, kids?

You can’t really make any money betting on the general outcome of a general election.  You can bet on the percentage of turnout though, with different odds offered by William Hill on 5% sections (50% – 55% turnout, 55% – 60% turnout, 60% – 65% turnout etc) or you can bet on how many seats each party will win in 50 seat sections.   But they also have low odds (only 3/1) that there will be two General Elections this year, not one, so don’t throw those ballot papers away, chaps.

My own odds are:

David Cameron’s hair will move           (500/1)

Gordon’s glass eye will fall out              (60/1)

David will poke Gordon’s good eye out  (15/1)

George Osborne will smile                       (1,000/1)

David Cameron’s enormously high forehead will scare off voters  (2/1)

Boris Johnson will destroy Conservative chances by rogue pre-election statements, such as “we are arranging for monkeys to inherit the earth”  (9/4)

Tony Blair will morph into JR from Dallas, turn up with a deep tan, blinding white teeth, a weird accent and a stetsun –  Oh, hang on.  He already did.

Pick a winner….

London is coughing everyone out onto the pavements at the moment.  As I type from my quiet and thoroughly sophisticated corner of Mayfair, there are guffawing drinkers on the pavement beneath me, burping over beers and chucking back Sauvignon Blanc.  Alas, the London Bluebird is caged in her exotic office for another hour and cannot join them.

My employer however, has joined them.  This gives me an opportunity to have a gander at the racing bets for tomorrow.  Not a racing person, by nature, I turn into a maniac over the Grand National.  I usually win something – even if it’s only my stake back.  Three years ago I won £50, ran out of William Hill rejoicing and was so stunned by my success that I fell over on the pavement outside the bookies, and landed on my face.   A man who was about 90 picked me up.

My mother is currently in rural Dorset.  The first thing I asked her when discovering she had abandoned the metropolis for the weekend and headed for the Dorset coast was “Yes, of course it’s lovely down there, but for God’s sake, woman, where is the nearest betting shop?” Presumably she would have to drive into Yeovil for her yearly flutter.

So far I have been advised by a leading bookmakers that I shouldn’t place my money on anything that weighs more than 11st 3lbs or that is over 10 years old (I am talking about the horse, not the jockey.  This is not a race for children, kids) and that I should avoid the French and go British or Irish, even though last years outside winner at 100-1 “Mon Mome” was rather French.  My husband backed him.   The website also informs me that “nine is the new ten” a concept which has profoundly bothered me.  If ten ceases to exist we will be plunged into chaos and have no decimal currency etc.  Not to mention 2010 wouldn’t exist either.  Although if I weight almost 10 stone, and that has magically become 9 stone, well, I couldn’t be happier.

Apparently they are talking about the age of the horses.  It took me half of my lunch hour to work it out.  I don’t know if they are talking in dog years, horse years, or cat years.  All I know is the winner will have to go through the indignity of having a short rider spray champagne on its head and the loser is destined to end up in a tin of Whiskas.  I am destined to spend Saturday morning obsessing over the Daily Mirror’s pull-out supplement on the National , make lists, withdraw life savings and just whack a load of money on the one with the nicest coloured hat.

Kick-starting adrenal glands…

I have been in search of a London-made coffee that is better than Bar Italia’s since I was 20.   Although I was slightly seduced by the Monmouth Street Coffee Company a couple of years ago, visiting it quickly drove me mad.  They deliver punchy, starkly caffeinated South and Central American beans that blow your head off.  After a coffee there I used to ramble out of the front door, eyes rolling and teeth juddering, and make a series of caffeine-frenzied purchases in the underwear and stocking shop opposite.  I once came home with three stockings and couldn’t fathom how it happened.  My adrenal glands had melted by the time I had walked to the Underground.

Throughout all the mayhem and Caffe Nero-isation of the UK in the last fifteen years, Bar Italia has stood with fortitude like an old man in Soho, undeterred (undeterrable, even) unchanged, showing retro-tastic fortitude in an era of much change, and generally one of the few places in London where you can use non-UK currency and get rid of holiday Euro coinage you have recently discovered in last year’s soiled beach shorts.  It doesn’t do closing.  It’s been doing 24 hour opening for most of its sixty year history.

Throughout the day the clientele shift and alter, but I cannot tell you the interesting conversations you hear sitting amongst the outside tables, which are so close together that you are forced into the personal space of strangers.  I haven’t tasted cappucino that is better anywhere else in the country, and I know of fewer pleasures more simply delightful than sitting in Frith St on a balmy afternoon and watching the world go by.  Being Italian coffee, it lacks the punchiness and psychosis that I have experienced with the headier, more acidic, central American varieties.  Bar Italia coffee is from the old world.  It smacks of city break weekends in Roman squares in the early 1960s.  It is earthier and simpler in taste yet it never fails to whack you over the head with a charming caffeinated jolt.  I started most of my nights out in my twenties from here.   It was always the perfect kick-off point – a double espresso to carry you through until you start ingesting shots of a different variety – before heading out to bars and restaurants. To me, one of the most exciting places was the scent and sight of the gurgling sounds and steam of expresso machines of Bar Italia at 7.30 on a Saturday night.

Of course, this is Soho.  The cafe acts as a microcosm of the streets around it, and by 4.30am it’s a place where the euphoric effects of partying have played out and the sickly hangover threatens. At 4.30am its one of the only places in the nation where you can buy coffee and a cardiac-inducing brick of cheesecake, and eat it to the sweet sounds of angry voices shouting on Italian radio at very high volume.  Not that much eating goes on here at 4.30am, really.  Early dawn, and the night out has become fragmented and psychotic.  So do the clientele – as Jarvis Cocker wrote in his 1995 song Bar Italia :”And now its morning / There’s only one place we can go. / It’s around the corner in Soho / Where other broken people go….”

That was back in 1995, when Soho was super and every boy with a media business card wandered around Cool Britannia (aka Dean Street) in a Union Jack  T shirt dropping his aitches and pretending he hadn’t been to Harrow.  In those days a night out wasn’t a night out if it didn’t end by vomiting on Keith Allen’s shoes. But Soho at 4.30am has always been Soho at 4.30am, before or after the self-referential media contagion that was Cool Britannia. It’s always terrifying in the middle of every city in England at 4.30am in the morning.  The only people who are awake are those who have been abusing rather too many substances and whose brains are now breaking apart in small, mad, paranoid chunks, and mothers nursing newborns.  Like the newborns, people who are at the end of a very big night out have few motor skills, are likely to vomit on the lady nearest to them, do not know where their mouths are and will have shat themselves by dawn.

This is the “broken” clientele you see in Bar Italia at 4.30am.  I grant you that on any such day at this time there will be:

1   Pale, sweaty faces staring at themselves in the mirror wondering if its somebody else.

2  A man with bits of food stuck in his teeth shouting loudly about parking a bike in Kings Cross.

3  A drunk woman weeping and slowly emptying the contents of her handbag on the pavement.

Ah.  Those were the days.  The years have rolled by now and today the London Bluebird is a slightly tamer creature, and grazes there in humid Monday afternoons, staring at the roofs of red-bricked buildings and pretending to do the Evening Standard crossword whilst actually eavesdropping on the conversations around her.  If at the end of the night there isn’t anywhere scarier than here, then in mid-afternoons of breezy spring-like days, there isn’t anywhere more delightful.  Soho is like that; moods only happen in the superlative.

With the tiresome onslaught of the flabby, watery Starbucks-led domination of coffee chains, established neighbourhood coffee shops need our support more than ever.  If caffeine kicks are necessary to get through a soupy, Saturday afternoon Oxford Street shopathon, you cannot do any better than sidling along to the London Bluebird’s happiest hangout here at 22 Frith Street and ordering a frothy cup of Italia’s finest.