The London Library

Many blog entries have started here.  Or, been written here.  Or been interrupted by having to go here.   The London Library squats like a glorious book factory at the top left hand corner of St James’s Square, and is a place that, since discovery, I feel unable to do without.  Year after year, when the annual subscription payment request comes flopping through the front door at Bluebird Towers, I tell myself I really can’t afford it.  Every year I buy it.

There is a lovely article here from The Daily Paris Review, which mentions one of The London Library’s physical charms fairly early on.  That is the disjunction in the building – in that the outside and the inside don’t seem to match – which is mindful of West End theatres or cinemas; the sense that the dimensions on the outside of the building are not possibly adhered to in the magical wonderland within.  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/28/the-london-library/.  The London Library is such a building – it’s as tall and thin as a city spinster on the outside, but on the inside it is lush and thrilling, a deep-tunnelling rabbit warren of stacks and rooms that are, in truth, not best faced when one has a hangover.  Whilst a sense of sublime silence and studiousness pervades the building, the London Library is not pinched or austere in any way.  It is graceful and expansive, bereft of the municipal shabbiness of the shared printer, old Microsoft computers and general plastic humdrum-ness of the provincial library.  Its founder, Thomas Carlyle, discovered that The British Library was a genuinely impossible place to work (in many respects, this has now changed) so he founded his own subscription-based library where members could enjoy literature without staying in the building as The British Library, despite its awesome contents, does not lend.   The London Library was subsequently founded, with Thackeray as its first auditor, in the 1840s.

 In the Science & Miscellaneous stacks, known to members as the “Back stacks”, the floor is composed of vertigo inducing wide metal slabs with a series of rectangular, open slats in them.  You can immediately see three floors down underneath your feet and two floors above over your head.  You cannot wear high heels as you’d get jammed in the floor, or a skirt, in case other bibliophilic Peeping Toms stare up at you through the floor from the Topography section.   The floors clang and prang occasionally and seem to wobble about a bit.  Still, they’ve been there since 1893 and survived a couple of wartime bombs so they must be safe. 

The floors in the backstacks with their metal slatted floors.   Look down and there’s a further three floors beneath you.  Not for the stiletto wearer, the faint-hearted or the vertigo sufferer.

1930s-style hands are painted on to walls, authoritatively pointing you in the direction of new categories, amidst dusty, bookish hush.  At the moment, dangerously, some of these appear to be dying out amidst the library’s decoration and improvement plans.  Last time I visited a wall had been stripped back a layer, to reveal a sign from 1940, instructing members, in a clipped and concise manner, what to do in the event of a bomb attack.

The London Library is the most frustrating, jaw-grinding, eye-popping, irritating system of book shelving known to Western man.  It doesn’t have the Dewey Decimal system favoured by the majority of libraries.  It is based on subject, and has been since the middle of the nineteenth century.  The links are arbitrary to say the least as  “Science & Misc” is usually classified by “S. [subject name].”  In alphabetical order, then, you’ll get “S. CATTLE,”  “S. CAVALRY”,  “S.  “CAVES”, “S. CELIBACY”, “S., CENSUS”, “S. CEREMONIES”,  “S. CHAIRMANS HANDBOOKS”, “S. CHARACTER”, “S. CHARITIES”, “S. CHEESE”.  Does your local library have a Cheese section?  Then, somewhere in the alphabetical system it breaks off and continues two floors up, half a building back, up a flight of stairs and then turn left.  Even after emerging on the fourth floor in a sweaty mess, you still haven’t got what you were looking for.  That’s because some of the book references which end in “4&to” are in an entirely different section – probably a half a mile walk away down dusty, cream-painted warrens and grey-floored ante-rooms, where the books too big to fit in the original shelves are stored, still in their subject classifications, which means you have to start from the beginning of the alphabet again.  It also has an enviable Fiction section for European languages.  I have never seen bigger German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese sections in any academic library.  These include an enormous amount of first editions. 

I can’t tell you what a stink I kicked up in English Fiction.  Half of the Fiction is in Fiction.  Fiction is in a room in the Central Stacks which double backs on itself and is almost always edged by an angry looking man at a window who has taken the only writing table.  Fiction also links into “English Lit,”  BUT English Lit is either critical theory or books about books, rather than the books themselves.  There is also “English Lit, Hist of” which is an entirely different section, and one I have never really understood the separateness of. For the first three years of my membership I couldn’t find Fiction S-Z.  I thought there wasn’t any, although I did think this was unlikely.  After all, it wasn’t possible that The London Library would leave out the really big hitters, the really big fruity writers, like Tolstoy or Steinbeck or Wells.  But it was three rooms across and four flights of stairs down to the wonderful, impeccable librarians at the Issue Desk and I couldn’t be bothered to go there.  I’d just swear at the shelving, take out another Beryl Bainbridge and head for the bus. 

One day I did go down and ask them where the rest of the section was.  I always think they must think I’m thick.  There I go : week after week, month after month, approaching the Issue Desk’s bespectacled inhabitant in my most convincing “I’ve-got-an-MA-you-know” manner, utterly convinced that an entire section of the library is missing, and say something like:

“I can’t find the History of London.”

“It’s in Topography, basement floor, you know – just beyond Science and Miscellaneous.”  Spectacles shine in mid-morning St James’s light.

“Yes,” I frown, hoping to exude academic langour with a touch – just a touch – of the superciliousness of Joan in Mad Men when she’s trying to get things done in the office. “I’ve been there.  I’ve been to Venice, Egypt and Abyssinia.  And Japan.  But I’ve not been to London.”

“Would you like me to show you?”

That’s what they’re like at The London Library.  They’re marvellous.  You get more decorous, enchanting service there than you do at The Ritz.  If only The London Library did room service.  They pop out in a haze of post-graduate optimism and sensible shoes and they’re off, with irascible, unkempt me in their bookish wake.  Unfailingly polite, and charming, they speedily whisk you off up the red carpeted stairs, through the Reading Room that looks over St James’s Square and where a whole raft of sleeping elderly folk are lying, mouths agog, in armchairs, and up to Fiction.  Then they show you a small staircase.  You could swear that the fairies put this staircase in when you weren’t looking.  Either way, it wasn’t there before, was it?  A dark, beige, lino-clad stairway hiding behind a wall behind a bookcase, leading to a further mezzanine floor that you never knew existed.  Aha.  Here they all are.  Richardson, Woolf, even their old auditor, Thackeray.  And, so many others.  Others I’d never heard of.  Part of the London Library’s central ethos is that they do not discard, or shove into stack storage, any of their books.  Just because a book isn’t taken out for 50 years does not mean its literary value becomes somehow reduced, so why should reading fashion dictate what the library make available to you?  I have held first edition Victorian thrillers that were last taken out when John F Kennedy was alive, books where typo-s have been angrily corrected in the margin by an 1920s ink pen, books that were presented to the library from the publisher before the First World War, books made with fragile 1870s paper, text as small as you could possibly read, paper so thin that you can see through it when you hold it up to the light. You find things here that you never knew existed and which enrich your reading life.

For someone as lazy as me, the lending policy is a dream.  You don’t bring a book back, unless another member requests it.  I have had books out for a year.  All you have to do is renew them online once every two months.  When a member requests one of your books you receive a brilliantly polite email from the library requesting that, if it is not too much trouble, could you please drop it in when you are next in town?  London members can take 10 books out at any one time.  On request (but no extra charge) you can arrange to take out more.  “Country” members – that’s those who live 20 miles or more from the metropolis – can take out 15 books.  They run a Europe-wide postal service as well.   There are 15 miles of books (approximately a million volumes) on open shelves for immediate access, which makes it the world’s largest independent library.

Of course, this excellence of service doesn’t come free.  The London Library receives no public funding, and therefore is dependent upon charitable donations and private membership fees.  Standard membership is £395 per year.  It was significantly lower, but the library has suffered from HMRC’s decision to withdraw Gift Aid contributions, and had little choice but to draw revenue from its membership pool.  I applied for Carlyle Membership for which you need no academic justification for application.  I won it and receive 30% off my membership annually.   Members under the age of 25 also receive generous discounts.  Still though, I can hear the tight-lipped intake of breath, the inquisitive look that says, “Bluebird, you pay all that?”  Many people turn away at this first hurdle, but I put the question to them, that I put to you.  How much do you pay for your Sky subscription and television licence combined?  I’ll bet it’s more than £33 per month. 

For booklovers, readers, or those keen to grow to become either, a membership of The London Library is a delightful thing.  Membership is open to all .  If you think this lovely place might be for you, as a happy, comfortable haven in the beating heart of central London, please join. Anyone who loves books will love this irreplaceable place.  Here is a video from various well known members saying how blinking brilliant the London Lib is (see second video down this page) http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/videos.html

Further info for passionate bibliophiles:

http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/membership-benefits.html

See you in the back stacks.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

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Festive Business 2012

Shotputting doesn’t do it for me, nor does the synchronized swimming or any of the other leaping and jumping shenanigans that are to be going on at Stratford next summer.  As soon as I see the lycra I can feel the chafing.  Couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of it.  Not even a pole-vaulting monkey.  Or a 300m race monkey.  Sport isn’t my passion.  But the frisson of London-oriented passion that rippled through me when I read about the Cultural Olympiad meant I almost let out a gleeful “whoooop!” on the Northern Line.

Letting out whoops, gleeful or otherwise, is not a grand plan on the London Underground.  People think you might be a bomber, or one of those sickly people who initiate marriage proposals on the tube network, complete with a capella choir (did anyone see that slightly creepy proposal on the 19:57 to Watford last week – now on You Tube?).  So I kept schtum for the rest of the journey, but the London 2012 Festival looks IMMENSE. 

Essentially, it’s £50 million spent on making people have fun, orchestrating artistic events, presentations and productions and general musical and dramatic tomfoolery all in the name of London-tastic fun.  It starts, with a hint towards both ancient, Celtic folklore and Shakespearean romance – on our midsummer’s day and chortles happily through summer, weaving around the sporting fixtures, before ending shortly before the autumn equinox.  But the bit I’m looking forward to is Martin Creed’s art installation concept, that at 8am on July 27th, the day the Olympics and the Paralympics both begin, everyone in the UK is encouraged to grab a bell and ring it ; every chuch, every handheld school bell, ever cow bell and every doorbell.  Find someone you really want to piss off.  Head to where they live at 8am on a pleasant summer’s morning and blast them out of bed with a dingle dongle of a tune on your bell and the authorities won’t be able to touch you.  You’ll simply be doing your duty. 

Bell-ringing is particularly evocative for the British and for Londoners.  The Romans, being self-obsessed Italians who worried about being so short and so needed bolstering, started to encourage citizens to ring bells before a procession or a formal event of some kind.  The British ring their church bells at royal weddings and at the end of battles and wars.   During the Second World War, the BBC used a broadcast of the famous Bow Bells for their World Service, which was designed to boost morale and keep the idea of victory bells ringing in the psyche of the populace.  On VE day, the sound of London church bells was deafening.  But, for those of you who think I’m showing my usual regional bias – fear not.  The 2012 Festival stretches the whole land, engineering musical workshops to disadvantaged schoolchildren in Scotland and arranging performances of ancient Celtic warrior stories in Welsh forests .  It’s a daring and brazen festival : theatrical installations of prose and poetry will be performed by some of our leading actors on our best loved national beaches.  Argentinian choreographers will be worrying the populace with their take on dance-themed outdoor presentations.  The Reading Challenge runs for a month across Britain’s libraries to create the biggest book festival for children ever created.  Mark Rylance will be moving around the underground giving impromptu performances of Shakespeare’s poetry and sonnets to bewildered tourists and commuters alike. 

That last has to be the most interesting, as I, or anyone else who was fortunate enough to see Rylance’s Jerusalem in the West End or on Broadway in the last year, would agree.  The middle-aged darling of the theatrical demi-monde then, will be floating about the Circle Line, asking whether or not to compare those alighting at Great Portland Street to a summer rose, or commanding old ladies at South Kensington tube with noisy grandchildren en route for the Natural History Museum, that they should “follow your spirit and upon this charge cry God for Harry, England and St George!”.  This will make the children cry, the old ladies back off, and – at worst – may encourage some onlooker to invade France.   It is so mindblowingly daft that I cannot but look forward to it.  I think I’ll book a day off.  Just go for it.  Hover around the network until I alight upon Mr Rylance and follow him for some wonderful street theatre for the day.  He might try to get away from me – oh yes – by rushing through those dastardly electronic ticket terminals for Oyster card – but in the underground no one can hear you scream.  So I can capture him and demand soliloquies hourly from the Rylance.  I believe Shakespeare would most certainly have approved.

There are to be retrospectives of British artists (Hockney, Hurst & Emin – and – bizarrely – Yoko Ono).  Daniel Barenboim, the innovative creator of the celebrated Israeli /Arab orchestra West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will rock up  to the Proms, whilst over the EC2 the diverse collection of musicians involved with the Barbican end of the festival range from Simon Rattle conducting his little heart out and the Wynton Marsalis Swing Orchestra.  Of course, the fact that 10million tickets are available for free cultural events harbours fear in the heard of every British breast, as it carries the threat of “audience participation”.  People don’t know where to look when Fiona Shaw starts monologue-ing by a speedramp near Southend beach, or when a culturally valid, but essentially confusing, Eastern European dance troupe takes up temporary residency doing cartwheels on Tower Bridge.  We might find it all embarrassing.  Because we spend most of our time in a national cringe.   If our nation had a national expression it would be somewhere between half-baked anxiety and faint embarassment.  The British face would squirm if it could.

However, it really shouldn’t.  The cultural achievements warranted in this tiny island over the last sixty years have been ridiculously great and we have an awful lot to be proud of.   Somewhere between old-fashioned English modesty and huge, X factor crocodile tears about “journeys” we forgot to confidently celebrate the things we have consistently done well since about 1950.   And this London 2012 festival is our chance.  Get out. Stop squirming.  Be proud.  And get on the District Line and follow Mark Rylance all the way to Putney Bridge.  Let’s hope it doesn’t become a really British event and end up being naff.  I mean, how could it?  With BoJo at the helm?  Flinging his albino-coloured hairdo about whilst in command of a waving Union Jack flag?  Our 2012 Festival couldn’t be anything other than dignified.  Could it?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Take What?

A week of various London-ist pleasures this week took in musical theatre and musical theatre.  Last Thursday, after the union strikes had littered the West End with coppers and the Strand was filled with vans full of them, sitting around pressing buttons on i-phones, waiting for the violent protest excitement that would not come, I saw Legally Blonde at one of the West End’s smallest theatres.   I think it is strange that the Savoy Theatre invites musicals at all; it seems more suited to some drab play or other, as the auditorium is possibly the dinkiest in the West End.  But it was, as a blue sign on the side of the building told me, the first building in the world to have electric light installed.  And electricity is what you need if you want to look at the lovely Lee Mead and a succession of teeny stage dogs that threatened to upstage our Lee with their charming barking and on cue-cuteness.

We have shared the Lee love before here on the London Bluebird, as myself and Theatre Buddy follow his award-winning buttocks (which look as though they had been moulded by angels at twilight using a combination of warm steel and young flesh) from theatre production to concert, and then from concert again back to theatre production.  I don’t need to inform you of his Meady’s wonderful-ness again (the interested of those among you can check it out at https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/the-tale-of-two-musicals/ and https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/a-night-in-albania/) but will say that this production is another success for our boy – a sort of Joseph in corduroy trousers, an Ivy League version, if you will.  And Lee is so darn helpful, spending most of the Act I finale trying to tactfully help the leading lady, whose waldrobe malfunction meant her dress was not done up and therefore she ended showing the audience more than her equity card.

In a week, about 8,000 people see Legally Blonde.  In eight days over the last week or so, half a million people have seen Take That, another quite astonishing bit of musical theatre that took place in a stadium so large that I immediately lost my sense of perspective and nearly had a giddy turn when I took my seat.  With the exception of the Iraq War and /or the arrival of American’s first black President, five lads from the north west playing Wembley was more or less the event of the century.  Ladies got their hair done for it.  They had policemen on horseback for it.   The entire event sold out in approximately 0.0001 seconds in March.  You could practically hear Boyzone grating their teeth all the way from Dublin.  Through my Jazz Buddy we had corporate seats, although the idea of corporate seats is nothing to do with the reality.  If you want to see Robbie Williams in concert and you are a lady of the female variety, you want to be close enough to see him – or smell him – or lick his socks – or….oh sorry.  You want to be in amidst the sweat and torrid fabulousness of the standing area near the stage.  As Jazz Buddy observed, if the event you are seeing is more than 100 people away, you can’t really see it.  So, you watch the big screen instead.  And you sing along – and that’s the stuff.  That’s what you’ve paid all that money for.  It’s the tribal feeling of singing Never Forget with another 99,999 people who understand why you love it.  It’s admiring the greeny-blue shimmering screens of thousands of i-phones directed to the stage.  In stadium rock the audience see themselves in a different light, as the observers become the thing to be observed.   The experience becomes a near-orgy of nostalgic fever.  In India thousands of people go to the Ganges, in England, thousands of people went to Brent.

The strange thing about corporate seats, is you pay more to experience less of the event.  You pay to not be close.  You are heightened – whizzed off and up to the sides and – disastrously – further from the stage than you would have been in the old Wembley structure.  Height gives you some advantage in that you have a better view of the crowds below you, but Take That were each as high as a fifth of  my little finger.  I am not sure they were even in the room.  Mark Owen is three foot six inches tall.  It doesn’t matter how many lightbulbs are flashing on his bizarre neo-Victorian suit, or how long he spends holding on to long notes, in the deluded hope that we will forget he is a squalid sex pest, further than 100 people back, it is all lost.

Which leaves me to the show itself – yes there was an Alice in Wonderland theme which this passionate Carroll-ite adored.  Yes there was a series of explosions, fire, yellow confetti, white balloons, dancers dressed in black and white as human chess pieces executing complex dance routines in wonderful headresses.  There was all of this, and yet only one main stage, and Stage B – an extension to the original stage, stretching out about 50 feet into the standing audience in the central area.  In Wembley Stadium terms, 50 feet is about four inches.  Why not take a leaf from Prince’s design at the fastidiously grim O2 four years ago?  Why not have a stage constructed in the shape of a giant cross, that at least stretches out to some of the sides of the auditorium?  Yes, it was pleasant to have Mr William’s gyrating on a strange metal plinth, shaped like one of those Terry’s Pyramint chocolates from the 1980s, but why have this plinth extend only fifteen feet out from the stage above people’s heads?  Why not take another leaf out of the book from that aforementioned chap from Minneapolis, and have a flying contraption brought in that really makes the audience (all of them) feel involved?  In 1988, Prince drove a purple convertible around an Arena in the Lovesexy tour.  Simple – relatively cheap – a sort of funky, sexy pop Top Gear – yet remarkably effective.   And that was 23 years ago, when Take That were 7 and should have been researching these things.  Sloppy, I call it.

This was a show in Wembley Stadium that wasn’t for Wembley Stadium.  And – here’s the thing – for the same price and with just a little more foresight and planning – it could have been.  The metal robotic man who slowly stood up at the end of the show after a nearly orgasmic build-up seemed wasteful.  Surely, after the initial focus on him he would do something – a barn dance perhaps?  But he just stood – half in and half out of the Progress-themed structure.    Most of the audience didn’t see anything.  The show, like Mr Owen, needed to be 80% bigger than it was.  Or at least that was the view from the Club Wembley section (although the champagne was very nice).   There was also the astonishing mis-fire of getting the audience to sing the national anthem, as we were in the national stadium.  I thought The That had lost the plot, and that all that post-alcoholic therapy had fried their cute little Cheshire brain cells.  I don’t care what Take That think I should sing.  I have, however, paid £95, and they should care what I think they should sing.  That’s how it works.  How thoughtful to put the words on the large screens, however, so that the monarchly-challenged of those amongst us could be reminded of the words.  But what a woefully inappropriate piece of bunkum.  The justification for this was that we were in the national stadium.  But the national anthem is only sung at national events when a national team or representation competes.  And as much as Barlow and co would like to Rule the World and have their well-coiffeured heads on coins and stamps, they are not our national representatives or kings or emperors.   Yet.  A public display of  Take That songs was what I signed up for.  I am not entirely sure I signed up for Robbie Williams’s shouts of “I’ve never felt more fucking patriotic than I do tonight!  Be English! Be English!  Be strong!”  Any more jingoistic lunacy from him and we would have been goosestepping out of there.   Plus the Queen wasn’t in the room (Was she?!  Was she?  Bopping to Relight One’s Fire at the back?)  so what’s the farking point?  I sung it at Ascot coz the old dear was going past in some knackered out old carriage or other getting rained on after she’d gone to the trouble of wearing a yellow hat.  But our feelings about the monarchy, like our feelings about politics and sex and faith, are private.   And if those feelings are about having sex with the monarchy then – please – I beg you – keep it private.  I have said it before, and I shall say it again – I’ll stand up when the national anthem’s Jerusalem and not a moment before.  Anthems should be about this ‘ere green and pleasant baby of a country, not about a quite nice German person in a hat.   Oh, and I could have done without the lady next to me loudly labeling my friend and I “LOSERS!” when we didn’t stand up to Mark Owen’s command with the anthem either.   Being called a loser was ironic, considering Mark Owen is the one dressed like an 1840s bell hop with a warbly voice and a haircut like a hamster, I thought, but you can’t explain that to people when they’re fizzing with royal fervour.

The verdict was I enjoyed singing along to the old Take That hits in a room full of hysterical women, but the band themselves were almost an accessory.  The atmosphere was truly splendid, because of the audience.  In a way, if a massive sound system had been placed in the centre of the stage and just played out the greatest Take That hits it would have been an identical experience.  From the vantage point then of Wembley Park station, when we were herded out along with 99,999 other women, all of whom stopped to pet the pretty Metropolitan Police horses, with dirty feet from dancing, and feeling hot, sweaty, dirty and thirsty, the idea of going to the theatre with several hundred other people to see Lee Mead singing and watching dancing and cute dogs seemed wistfully innocent and desirable.    I loved Legally Blonde when I saw it – I loved the score, I loved the acting, I loved the show.  But as for Take That, I don’t know.  I’ll tell you when I’ve seen them.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Musing of London

As promised, dear readers, I report back from my venture to London Wall last Thursday.  My museum feet are sore and my brain throbs with the enormity of articles crammed into the Museum of London, but God, I’m conscientious.  I am here to tell you what I saw and what I thought about what I saw.  The area couldn’t have looked more dramatic as I got out from the underground in time to hit the alarming deluge that swamped London at about 3.30pm, and by the time I go to The Museum of London I looked like a shoddy, soaked Roman slave that had got lost and delayed on her way to Londinium.

London Wall has to be the least inspiring building ever built.  It’s a 1970s monolith, a horror construction shunted up before the 80s really got going, and backs onto the remains of the old London Wall.  The wall and the building have little sympathy with one another and have turned their backs on each other.  They are almost as incongruous as a soggy Bluebird, landing on the front desk, umbrella a-dribbling and hat askew gasping out “gotta map for the Museum? I’m soaked and you close in an hour and a half”.

The ladies on the front desk were so polite and nice, bearing in mind they have to deal with swamped fools like me all day.    The new part of the Museum, the Modern Galleries which opened to grand aplomb last autumn, has been tagged on to the original section.    And what an original section it is.  It covers 450,000BC to 1558 AD.  The first section, titled “London Before London” covers the period from 450,000 BC to 50 BC.   This was the London of hunters, herders and farmers, of lions which lived in the Thames Valley in the Ice Age, of  Neanderthals who lived in Esex in 60,000BC – 30,000 BC (thank goodness they don’t live there anymore, readers!).  There was an “unlucky elephant’s foot” from this period, unearthed in Essex in 1964.   Why would you need an unlucky one?  Surely a lucky one would suffice?   Either way, from about 400,000 to 30,000 BC Londoners lived beside elephants and tigers and bears, which must have caused havoc on public transport.

I was pleased to see The Museum of London has a poet in residence.  Each section has a poem about it’s particular part of history, and it’s a brilliant thing.  The Stone / Iron / Mud Age section features the poetry of Bernardine Evansto, who has her job cut out for her.  What rhymes with “monkey skull”?  In Grays, Thurrock, a macaque monkey skull was unearthed.  It’s tiny, cylindrical, peculiar.   By 4,000 BC Londoners have basically sorted themselves out, kitchen-wise.  Bone tools hang up and there is some lovely pottery.  All these artefacts are viewed through glass cases to a soundtrack of forest noises, which makes you think only of rainforests, rather than pre-historic Chiswick, but full marks for trying to make the atmostphere evocative.   As you will see, not enough is done to ensure this happens elsewhere.

There is some wood magic!  I don’t know what this is but it was lovely.  And a Dagenham idol!  It is a thing to worship at, if you were living in Essex during the time Jesus was squealing in his manger over in Bethlehem.  It’s a idol of a little man, with a bald head.  He is tiny, wears a West Ham strip and sits in miniature white van screaming at traffic lights in Barking and has tattoos of accomodating lady friends down his arms.  Okay, he isn’t.  The Dagenham idol doesn’t actually have any arms, but is a two foot tall, non gender specific wooden statue that looks a bit like Alan Hansen.    Then I see, that many household tools created between 4,000 and 2,500 BC are in the shape of jockstraps, supposedly to be used as defences in the event of an irate Stone Age housewife.  There is a reconstructed head of “Shepperton Woman”, a lady who lived in approx 3,500 BC in the Middlesex area and presumably got lost on her way to Shepperton Studios to appear in Through the Stone Age Keyhole:  Who lives in a hut like this?” .  Her face was reimagined through DNA technology.  She looks like you or me, and it makes you realise that 5,000 years is nothing in evolutionary terms. The faces whose sides are pressed against i-phones half the time in 2011 are the same shaped faces which were pressed against animal carcasses, swathes of hide and (if you were lucky ladies!) Julius Caesar’s stately,imperial cheek in Roman Britain.

Then something awful happened.  It was like what happened at the Transport Museum where I inadvertently broke into a 19th century hansom cab.  I broke an interactive piece of machinery.  I was aghast.  I didn’t think anything like that could happen to me, not in the pre-history London bit – what on earth could I do?  Illegally step into a hedge? – but break something I did.  Basically, it was a game for children and I still couldn’t work it.  It was a “wheel of Roman Britain breakfast” type thing.  They have found some pips somewhere in the Thames Valley, and they put them in little plastic cases that can light up.  These pips are 2,000 years old.  You have to work out which pile of pips is hazlenut, crabapples, blackberries or wheat, respectively.  You press which group of rotten, ageing, mouldy pips you think it might be and the right one lights up.  But I jammed the answer button, so god knows what they had for petit dejeuner.  Although I had just eaten a Cadbury’s Whole Nut, which is a bit like their hazlenut breakfast but with added sugar, so I felt rather authentic.

Onwards, through the Iron Age, there were more knives than in a military garrison.  I also noticed that, when stepping up to the glass and almost nose to nose with the offender, I had eye sockets closer together than an adult male skull from 1300 BC that was dredged up in Mortlake.  I was more simian than he was.  Should I be worried?  Am I devolving?  Or, is that just a South London thing?     The space for the prehistoric area is large, white and more than a little clinical.  I would have liked smells that had resonance – sheep milk, farm yard turds,  ageing Stone Age man pants, broken blackberries and mulch.  That kind of thing.   The building that houses the London Museum is not friendly towards the creation of atmosphere.

Shortly after the Iron Age section I came across a Japanese lady asleep next to an interactive mammoth game, having been rendered soporific by the pottery displays.  Then  – suddenly it seemed – we were in a modern era.  Here’s the thing:  The Romans turn up, and thank goodness they did.  I mean I’m sorry about Boudicca and everything, but Britain would be just another northern European destination without the Romans rocking up and doing clever things with mosaics – I mean, the bathrooms are darling.  Their sofas are lovely too.  It’s actually an awful shame that for about 700 years after the Romans had left, Britain reverted to the squat toilet and the no-back, hay hair chaise longue with matching cauldron look that summed up the Dark Ages.  Interior design-wise, the Romans are the business.  The soundtrack that accompanies us through the Roman section changes to one of diligent industry – chopping, sawing, sandals walking and Italians shouting at each other.  There are no more forest noises.  The Romans wouldn’t stand for it.  London is filled with glass-based vases and jugs, strange earrings of beautiful turquoise dug up from underneath what is now a bank on Gresham Street, and a seemingly limitless amount of public baths and – perhaps the worst thing of all – taxation.

At this point a highly antiseptic looking glass wall, built at an angle, to encourage vertigo in the most hearty of Londoners, looms to your right.  You are invited to look down on the original Roman London Wall in the bit of garden below.  The vision is a splendid one – as it is complete with an irate taxi driver, parked up and shouting into his phone, at its imperial base.   From here, we zoom into Saxon world, where a London home circa 1000AD gives the visitor the first chance to actually experience the sense of something.  You can walk into it, a dark, dry, not entirely unpleasant place, with a home made bed to the left and a faint smell of horse.   As the millenium gets under way, the feel of Europe advancing gets stronger, and by 1200, almost every jug, cup, shoe and quilt are French or Italian influenced.  Most of it is so like the chunky pottery with large fruit designs on it that Habitat was churning out in the 1990s as to be uncanny.  But it is not all cheer and pleasant milk jugs in the Middle Ages.  There is a large area devoted entirely to Black Deaths, and a screen in a darkened room, were a creepy voiceover whispers all the cities in the world where Black Death claimed it’s coughing, wretched, 13th century victims : “Alexandria” a woman whispers, on the screen, accompanied with licking flames of fire swallowing up bits of the part of Egypt where people now go deep sea diving,  “Constantinople”, she whispers.    Then “Paris”.  Then “Preston”, which simply didn’t work ; try whispering “Alexandria” and you sound quite sexy and elegant.  Whisper “Preston” and you sound like a bus driver with a porn habit.

They were filthy, of course.  There were plagues and leper hospitals, including information on the massive leper burial site now lying underneath Liverpool Street Station.  A beautiful, vast collection of buckles, belts, coins and curls was in this section, a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral and another interactive machine which, yet again, I took the opportunity to break.

Sigh.  I don’t know what it is about me but with this one it was a “Middle Ages Interactive Take Away Menu” game.  You press the modern takeaway option “Hot Dog!” and you get a picture of an unhappy, short, bald man in 1325 with his equivalent – a sign saying “Sheep’s feet on Caudle”.   Then I pressed “Meat Pie” and broke it.  I can’t understand why this keeps happening to me.  I didn’t even get as far as pressing “Fish & Chips”.  Presumably, if I had, the medieval equivalent would have been “Codpiece”.

From there, we are suddenly into Tudor London.  The Fire comes and goes,  the King comes and goes, and silver and gold relics, kettles pots and pans are everywhere.  There is a splendid mock-up of a London living room in the 1650s, but the lighting is so brassy and insensitive that it’s nearly ruined.  The informative notes on the panel beneath the window say the sitting room would have been lit by tallow candle.  How about helping imagination along a bit by recreating a similar kind of light?  Instead, the Museum becomes what it remains for the whole of it’s “modern” section – cramped, anxious, and unable to sit happily in its space.  The artefacts are remarkable,  the excavations made from the ground and the sitting rooms of Londoners over the last five hundreds are exceptional by any standards, but the displays jar, the labelling is complex and often not adjacent to the item it is meant to label, leading to confusion.    There is an interactive “cholera” outbreak area, where touching a plastic panel reveals words like “disease”  when pressed, but there is no mention of the word cholera, what the water pump means, or any information on the cholera outbreaks.  Children gaze at the display nonplussed.  Adults gaze at the display and ignore it, assuming it is for children.

There are some small exceptions.  It is inspiring to come across the whole Newgate cell implanted into the beginning of the Modern Galleries, for visitors to walk into, sense the oppression and feel the history.   It is resplendent with 18th century prison graffiti.  It is also wonderful to touch the original Newgate door; all hunkering, great bolts and massive nails, as if a door for a giant to walk through.  But the opportunity to create a awe-inspiring fountain of fire to mark the “Whoops baker – you left the oven on , you Stuart dolt!”” conflagration of 1666 is missed;  “1o,ooo houses went up in flame…” says the RADA – trained actor over the darkened room, where a display features small papier mache looking London, with its sorry cluster of muted, orange-ish lightbulbs.

The Galleries of Modern London then, is the new feather in the cap for the Museum of London.  And it is a vast improvement on the older sections, partly because of it’s imaginative use of space.  I particularly loved the selection of beautiful 17th and 18th century shoes in glass cases underneath the floor.   The famous Fanshawe dress is there – the stupidest and widest dress in the world.  It’s here, in post-industrial London, that the city seems to come back to us; the London of custom houses, of costume dramas, of coffee houses, novels and plays.  We can connect with it, as we recognise it with almost as much familiarity as the London of today.   And what a London it is.  Twelve foot high wooden models of Scottish Highlanders stood outside most of London’s tobacconists in the 19th century, and two of them are here, leering out into the Victorian promenade area like great bastions of the promise of carcinogenic pleasure.   The Victorian street is nobly put together – tailor’s workshop, tobacconist, grocer, public urinal, a rampant display of china dolls in a scary toy shop – but so clean, and so cold as to make people feel nothing.  A little cobbled floor, a little soundtrack and – again I think,with smells – a slight stench of manure, and this area, so lovingly designed and beautifully created – would have come to life.

There are some bizarre Georgian pleasure gardens which are so daft that they must be mentioned.  Visitors sit in a darkened room, amidst a cheap, white wooden gazebo surrounded by plastic shrubbery.  Around this, in a faint- hearted reproduction of Pleasure Gardens, a film of actors, whooping and waving crinolines and passing love notes  to each other, plays out behind plastic trees on opposite sides of this awful, dark arena.  It’s expensive and incredibly cheap at the same time.  As a fitting metaphor for the Pleasure Gardens section as a whole, the Ye Olde Georgiane filme was woefully out of sync.

The walk in poverty map, made famous by Charles Booth, is brilliant, as is the exhibition of Suffragette paraphenalia which would be enough to turn the laziest and most tardy of voters into raging militant feminists.  It is actually worth going to visit the Suffragette exhibition alone.  Take every woman you’ve ever met who doesn’t vote to teach them a lesson.  The most heartbreaking artefacts are those made, sewn or knitted in Holloway Gaol by those suffragettes on hunger strike through the most militant campaign shortly before the First World War.  But the exhibits are cramped, and the space left to accommodate them badly signed and underlit.  And there wasn’t even anything for me to break here either.  Thank goodness I didn’t try to tackle that V1 rocket that was in a glass case, because I’d only have brought on another Blitzkrieg and had confused American tourists running for Moorgate underground station in a bid to survive.

I did like the 1930s telephone, which you can pick up and hear original stories of the early days of the telephone through the receiver.  This was great, although no one warned me that the connecting wire between telephone and receiver was so short in the olden days, so I hit myself in the temple with it.  There was the window from the Lyon’s House in Coventry Street, which was a shock, as apparently my father sat at it on VE Day watching the crowds in Piccadilly Circus below.   Now, if  he had turned up in the exhibit that would have been a surprise.  However, I think we guarded ourselves against that possibility when we cremated him and illegally shunted the ashes under a bush in the Regents Park.  Nothing would have upset that lemon cake I just wolfed in the cafe more than a reconstituted version of a cremated dead father appearing in the middle of the Museum of London in his usual search for Cracker Barrel cheddar.

There was a Lyons Corner House menu, which tantalised the tastebuds.  It looked fab.  Why don’t we still have them?  A lovely silent film of London in the 1920s and 1930s blazed out of an Art Deco imitation cinema, a timely prequel to the destruction of the Blitz.   It showed a London where it was compulsory to wear a hat and smoke on the tube at the same time.  There is a late 195os winklepicker shoe, but the pointy shoes from 1425 could have taught those rock and rollers a thing or two.  The 1960s give a cursory nod to a lovely but lonely Mary Quant dress.    If the Museum of London is to be  believed, the 60s didn’t swing, they merely hovered in a plastic display case on the way to the shop and conferencing facilities.

The shop is just atrocious.  It’s a series of tourist-feeding, red buses on key rings and – bizarrely – old fashioned sweets.  It should be a riot.  But it’s a missed opportunity, with the exception of the postcards.  One tea towel design was available.  Two mug designs were available, one of which the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mug you can pick up in any Cards Galore shop.   The shop has one book on a current photography exhibit but nothing else that corresponds to the museum.  Conversely, the cafe is brilliant.

Ultimately then, is this a violently missed opportunity?  Or recognition of the fact that his glorious, galumping, vibrant metropolis of ours, active for 2,000 years and counting, is uncontainable?  My advice for visitors is this: look for nothing beyond the articles.    This really ought to be an exciting place, but there is no space or room for the articles to be suitably observed and absorbed.   There are recorded summaries of what it was like to be a blacksmith or glass engraving apprentice in the 18th century, so some effort is made for personal stories to be told.  But the overall impression of this museum for a city in which millions and millions of people have lived, worked, loved and died, is a strangely impersonal one.   The accumulation of resources is marvellous in terms of items, but the absence of imaginative resources is saddening.  If so much of London is there, why does it feel as if so much of what makes London London has been missed out?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Sunday bloody Sunday

Londoners on a Sunday have a wealth of local hostelries, houses, hallowed National Trust halls and mind-boggling museums to visit.  But residents, as it has so often been pointed out, do not make half as much use of the urban leisure facilities than the visitors to London do.  We become nonchalant, because we can geographically afford to.  Every morning, we flip our legs out of bed and bang our feet down on the ground of one of the greatest cities the world has ever seen and do nothing about it.  On Sunday the pulse and shape of our world contracts and quietens.  We lull about.  Sometimes we pop into cars, brace the outer ring of the M25 and plough up and beyond, over the Chiltern crest of the M1 for lunch somewhere in the home counties, where accommodating family members furnish us with braces of beef, racks of lamb and we watch teeny nieces and nephews squabbling over hot roast chickens.   But most of the time we buy the Sunday papers, have a quick stroll and set up camp on the sofa.  It is our right on our day of rest, but am I the only one with the niggling feeling that my current London Tourist Attraction Report Card is due to say “Must try harder!”?

Personally, I just sit in the bath.  But who is the maligned sadist who puts those free leaflets for holidays on Kos inside the Observer magazine on a Sunday? You know, the ones that are designed to fall out when you are reading the magazine, midway through your ablutions.  I’d like to tell them a thing or two, you know.  Things like when hard-working people are reclining in the bath on a Sunday morning they don’t want to hear about the beauty of the Sudan sand dunes.  They want to shave their legs and feel smug that the terrifying monolith of Monday Morning has not yet hoved into depressing view. Cretins.  And who is the really poor journalist who has replaced Kathryn Flett on a Sunday?  The one who is submitting sub-Sixth Form wibble and dribble masquerading as original observations.  Sack her, forthwith.  A blow dry and a wry expression do not a writer make.  I should know, I’ve tried.  Whenever I pull a wry expression I end up looking like Queen Victoria on steroids.  Sexy, no?

Altogether, London Sundays can be eerie.  Although we have had Sunday trading in this country for nearly 20 years, Sunday still stands alone, quietly, with fuss, in some hellish weekend torpor.  Torpor is the keyword for Sunday.  Its bloated and hungover, and the fact it shares a border with Monday on the Ordnance Survey Map of the Week increases its sense of hellish awfulness.   When I was a student, Sundays were flatulent, dreary and bagged up.  Sunday was the day you returned from your parents house into the mawkish dread of student lodgings.  I would, most often, be weighed down with fruitcake wrapped in tin foil and slices of chicken.   A parent had wedged £50 somewhere about my person, which I would never spend on vegetables, at the launderette, hot meals etc, but which I would rather spend on on cheese sandwiches, crisps, Silk Cut cigarettes and bottles of Hooch.  And I looked thin.  And terrific.

Of course, students don’t have much of an excuse for not utilizing the splendid cultural experiences the city has to offer.  Many of our museums are free (next week’s bloggery will be about the newly-vamped, entirely free and apparently splendid reopened Museum of London in London Wall).  The British Museum is 3.5 acres of free-ness that beggars belief in its variance and may well be the most important museum in the world.  All I seem to know about it is it has a nice cafe.  Must Try Harder.  The Royal Academy of Arts I am more familiar with, but not familiar enough.  Must Try Harder.  The Tate I can never seem to find from Pimlico tube station.  The remarkable London Walks (a snip at £7 for two hours of walking entertainment) are fascinating and led by our best Blue Badge holders.  I have only ever been on three, however.  There are at least thirty more.  The weirdest of the lot is, of course, the Jack The Ripper walk.  It’s astonishing that so many people are obsessed with a series of heinous, depressing crimes carried out on some of London’s most tragic Victorian prostitutes, but that’s Ripperology for you.  People just can’t get enough of the killing and the blood, and that stuff about him actually being Queen Victoria’s mother who was a Freemason, or something.  It meets every night at Tower Hill and is full of bemused Americans who find it hard to envisage Mary Kelly’s one room prostitute hovel, as it is now a smart branch of Jones the Bootmaker in trendy-tastic Whitechapel.  This walk is full every night.  I used to quite like the evening London Walks, as it used to be one of the few theatrical entertainments which you could participate in whilst smoking.

But my favourite, favourite museum has to be The London Transport Museum.  It has the best shop with a fantastic range of tube art on posters and prints from the 1920s and 1930s, and who could resist the splendour of a London Underground map apron?  It also has ancient double decker buses that you are able to walk up and get on and pretend it’s 1931.  There is a Georgian sedan chair, which I actually think would be my favourite mode of transport.  There is a model of Shillibeer’s first bus service from 1829 and horse drawn trams.  But it’s a perfect evocation of London’s transport system because it is entirely naff, no attempt at atmostphere has been made and it all looks as if it was done a bit on the cheap.  The waxwork Londoners are peculiarly awful;  the family of four travelling on the world’s first electric underground railway in 1890 look like the experience has been so shocking that it has given them a collective facial stroke.  Over on the 1960s buses, ex-Madame Tussaud’s waxworks which look as if their hair is made out of bog brushes and who really should be melted down forthwith, sit on the lower deck, in 1964 Beatles-esque collarless grey jackets.  An anaemic looking “Kings Road” wax girl sits slumped opposite them, as if she has passed out (the waxer forgot to put her spine in, I think).  The 1930s Metropolitan Line train stinks of mothballs, because someone has dressed two 1930s housewives in cast-off hats that have clearly come from a mouldy provincial theatre’s costume department.   The late 1970s Bakerloo tube is kitted out with waxworks of people who look as if they’re mashed off their faces, hanging on to those old springy, metal straps that used to hang from the tube ceiling with bulbous metal handles on the bottom of them, which used to scald West Londoners in the hot weather.  Perfect for those mid-1970s heatwaves.  Elsewhere in the carriage, on brown and orange patterned seats, nervous bell-bottomed commuters cast a wary eyes at the druggies, and then return to the gleaming screens of their new “pocket sized”, three foot wide Casio calculators.  It’s like being in a scene in Life on Mars.

However, the worst thing about The Transport Museum is finding your way out.  It’s impossible, because no one at TFL considered the logistics of having a museum full of signs that say” Way Out” and “Ladies Carriage” and “Exit Only”.  The problem is there are hundreds of “Exit” signs and “Mind the Doors” all over the place.  My first three attempts at getting out involved me firstly opening a  small”Exit” door in red.  “This is odd,” I thought.  “although maybe just in keeping with the experience of old transport, what fun!”.  Wrong.  After climbing an ancient staircase I opened a trapdoor of some kind.  Next thing, I’m twelve feet up on a 1880s hackney carriage roof where I stood above a plastic horse, whilst children on an outing laughed and pointed.  I tried another “Exit” door next to a bus platform, where I was suddenly nose-to-nose against a brutish looking waxwork ticket inspector from 1973 and thirdly, most disastrously, muggins here walked through an “Exit” door next to a vintage fire engine that set off a fire alarm, alerted the museum to a suspected terrorist attack and got me into lots of trouble, because it was turned out to be an emergency exit, to be used only in the event of Al Qaeda explosions or Martian landings.   Eventually, I just kept desperately pressing my Oyster card against a series of plastic walls whilst I wept, in a bid to break for freedom.

When I found the way out of the Museum, it was to an appalling dining area called The Upper Deck, featuring 1980s tube seats and angry tourists eating chicken nuggets.  Like all aspects of modern transport with TFL, it was self-service.   It’s menu has things on it like “London Pea Souper” or the “Tipsy Trainspotter” cocktail, in which something unthinkable happens involving vodka and passion fruit.   “Underground Smoothies” sounds like group of paedophiles, but are actually fruit-based juices named for four of the tube lines, each one featuring fruits whose colours correspond to the tube line.   The “District Line Smoothie” is a vastly disgusting sounding, bright green “apple, kiwi, grape and lime” concoction which may just as well be rebranded “The Bowel Loosener”.  And the mind boggles at the suggestion at the bottom of the menu that we investigate a “unique take on suburban cuisine” with the Suburban Specials.  God knows what that is.  Kensal Rise Kedgeree probably, or an Ongar Omelette.

Now, TFL, I don’t mean to be bitchy, but it would be nice if the shop wasn’t actually better than the Museum.  I cannot recommend the shop highly enough.  (I almost always use it’s postcards, and I’m a sucker for pencils and erasers and pens with those fluffy bits on the end, but STILL) . I will report next week after my trip to The Museum of London, which unlike the London Transport Museum is free, where I hope not to be sucked into a space time continuum in the Victorian street mock-up, complete with urinals (yes, that’s apparently true) and where I hope the museum will be far better than the shop.    The Museum displays have to contain the artefacts, but there is no point in the cafes making a mockery of them.    So, next Sunday, with the extra Bank Holiday Monday as pay off, get thee to a museum, thee Londoners.   I shall report back from The Museum of London, where, I hope not to find Tudor themed ciabattas and Georgian lattes served by Edwardian suffragettes.    After that, I’ll be off to the Cabinet War Rooms, for the following week’s instalment.  That’s nice.  First of all I get to see the rich cultural and historical variety of this grand city that took 2,000 years to build and evolve and then I get to go to the Museum to tell me how the Germans tried to blow it all up.  What fun!  I’m off, notebook in hand, sensible museum shoes on, to delve through 2,000 years of history…..darling readers, do come back next week and see how it went.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Game, set, match

The Bluebird does not believe in exercise.  Except tangoing at country weddings.  The rest of the exercise world passes the Bluebird by in a haze of ill-fitting tracksuits and jockstraps.  City walking is the London Bluebirds chosen sport – I am often to be found striding along in last year’s pumps in the friendly walk between work (Mayfair) and University (Euston).  At school I was mocked at in Netball and pouted slovenly through tennis lessons whilst wearing my Jim Morrison T shirt.  But I do love watching tennis.  I find the thwack of a ball against a highly-strung tennis racket one of the quintessential sounds of the English summer.  From mid-June when the grasscourt season begins, tennis spools from the Bluebird television in service, after service, after service.  I love it when the BBC2 schedules are completely ruined by one of those balmy days on centre at Wimbledon, when tennis players rage against the fading of the summer light to finish their sets.  Masterchef can go screw itself when Nadal is on centre.  Football ruins far too many women’s weekends.  When it comes to the summer tennis season, it’s my turn.

As I mentioned last week I was bound for Queens Club for what used to be the Artois and is now the AEGON.  It was cold and wet and an hour and a half was lost to rain.  I was scheduled to see top 4 seeds – Roddick, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.  All four were a letdown.  It was a corporate day out.  I was late and the front gate had misfiled me, under K.  Really!  Since when does “Bluebird” start with “K!” When I finally found myself, I managed to drop a special ticket that means I cannot get into the Pimms Drinking and Guffawing Area (or something).  Lunchwise, when I finally rocked up, it was fine fayre and splendid wine but the half an hour queue for food stank of “school”.  Nadal, when he did get out on centre, was petulant and under par.  Then rain happened and all hell broke loose.

The English are at their most formidable when there is a tea tent involved.  As the skies opened over W14 there was a migratory movement to the scones.  By the time we turned up, having been slightly slow off the mark, I could have wept. The members’ buffet area was rammed with the kind of people that look like extras from Four Weddings and a Funeral; indomitably English, well-preserved, radiant with a certain class and jollity.  There were no tables left.  Instead, we had to stand around for an hour drinking Earl Grey tea and leering at the people who had had all the chocolate cake.   Nadal came back on centre, got through but did not deserve to.  Murray came on at 7.15pm and we had an hour an a half before his opponent, Fish, decided it was too dark to continue and walked off the court at 8.40pm.

What the day brought home to me – truly for the first time – was the utter, utter obsession with the weather.  We were either talking about whether it was going to rain, when it was going to rain, what kind of rain would fall when it did, how wet it would be, would it be water when it came down, or perhaps some undiscovered elixir of the gods?  For four hours we talked about nothing but rain.  It was enough to almost make me eat my Columbo-style trilby hat. Talking about rain is what the English do between serves.  It means we don’t talk of ourselves.

The other thing the English excel at and which dominates the London summer season is drinking Pimms and staring at art and saying “Yes, but are you sure they have hung it the right way up, Angela?”.  I had to convince my mother drinking Pimms wasn’t appropriate for 10 in the morning when we zoomed around the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition on Friday morning.  In the middle of one of the exhibition rooms is a large, orange egg-shaped Pimms centre from which staff dispense drinks, so RA members get high on lemonade and buy pieces of art.  The great thing about the Summer Exhibition is so much of it is affordable art.  In this day and age, a piece of art for £250 has more intrinsic actual value than – say – £250 added on to the cost of a house or a holiday.  The London Bluebird’s mode of living has only been sustained thus far by her insistence on renting in a overinflated housing market.  If I was to buy a house on the current salary in the current climate I would have to leave the city, and move to a shed in rural Bedfordshire, which myself and Mr Bluebird would have to section off into tiny bedsits to let out.  We could, perhaps, live on the roof.  This lack of property ownership has left me feeling dangerously without investments in the last few years, floating haphazardly upon an impermanent London life.

About a year ago I decided to take this to task, investing in small ways in things that interested me.  I bought some limited edition film stills at an exhibition, and Mr Bluebird buys art when the mood takes him.  I have also decided to invest in wine at Berry Bros and lay down a couple of cases for several years until they are ready to sell.  We have acquired a vintage cinema lobby card and I am looking to acquire more.  Apart from the obvious fact that I would rather actively assist artists and drunks through this recession rather than estate agents, it stops those of us who cannot afford houses in the places we would like to have them from feeling economically glass-ceilinged by the world.  It opens everything up; in many markets you could invest in a small way for £50 or £100.   Unlike an over-inflated housing market, anyone can participate.  In this recession small businesses and affordable investments will flourish.  Which is why I’m off back to the Summer Exhibition to buy a little piece of it for £100.  Because it means something – and because I can.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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.