It was a humid, cloudy Saturday in late September and a few years since I was last at the British Library in London. Once again, I gazed upon Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Isaac Newton before entering the unpretentious red brick building.
The darkness of the permanent Treasures exhibition felt almost like an aquarium, but with books and manuscripts behind the glass instead of marine creatures. In the respectful hush, visitors peered into the cases, which were organised into themes such as music, historical documents and maps. Most of the material was the same as I remembered, although there was some new content, such as the latest acquisition, the archive of Andrea Levy.
Illuminated medieval manuscripts glinted under the spotlights. Every major faith was represented in the sacred texts on display, the calligraphy painstakingly elegant on vellum or parchment. One could imagine the scribes labouring over them. What would they think of the 21st century? Would they consider our technology to be sorcery, or a miracle?
I pored over the Shakespeare First Folio, with its archaic print and brown age spots. I tried to decipher Jane Austen’s handwriting in a letter displayed on her writing desk. I didn’t even try to read the tiny faded writing of the Magna Carta, which was under very low light, or the Papal bull which annulled it. I smiled at Mervyn Peake’s illustrated Gormenghast manuscript, which showed Irma and Alfred Prunesquallor. I played the Beatles songs in my head as I looked at the handwritten lyrics, although the listening station was not in use any more. I examined work by Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Leonardo da Vinci, Lewis Carroll and many others.
Emerging from the Treasures, I let my eyes adjust to the brighter light. I went over to the centrepiece, the King’s Library, a column of rare books with gilt bindings which rises up through the levels. In front of it was a display of prints by Khadija Saye, a British-Gambian artist who perished in the Grenfell Tower fire at the age of 24. They were self-portraits, atmospheric and strangely timeless.
I didn’t visit the current ticketed exhibition, which was about Paddington Bear. In the past, I’d been to the science fiction exhibition – which featured a crashed flying saucer – and one about propaganda. The next logical thing was to look at the British Library shop. It was beautifully presented and very tempting, but I eventually bought only one book.
Euston Road was just as busy, dirty and noisy as I remembered. As always, the number of homeless people camped on the pavement was concerning. There was even a zipped-up tent between two public phone boxes. Despite the panic about petrol shortages, the road was nearly gridlocked. Cyclists weaved around the myriad buses, which advertised London musicals and the new Bond film. Taxi occupants stared out of the windows and wondered if it wouldn’t be quicker to walk. The BT Tower loomed into view as I walked past graffiti and unlovely buildings. Finally, I reached Regent’s Park, where I had about 40 minutes to spare.
After a quick sandwich on a bench, I was on my increasingly-weary feet again to find Queen Mary’s Gardens, where the roses would still be in bloom, arranged into single variety beds like at Kew Gardens. I wandered around, marvelling at the differences in scent. After photographing some roses and a random moorhen, it was time to head back to St Pancras station.