Thursday, April 17, 2008


Tonight's inspiration:
We've got a real funky thing goin on gotta whole lotta rhythm goin down.

I think it was my first day or two in London, I realised that no matter where I went, some phrase I overheard, some street sign would invoke a nursery rhyme or song or story from my childhood. Brenna wrote to me something along those lines last week. London is a place of allusions and references. And not always pleasant ones.

My old man's a dustman
'E wears a dustman's 'at
'E wears cor blimey trousers
And lives in a council flat.


With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
She walks the bloody tower
With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
At the midnight hour.


When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Baley
When I grow rich
say the bells of Shoreditch.

When I grow rich. People go to London to seek their fortunes, don't they? Or at the very least, to visit the Queen, or is that only ladybugs? Excuse me: birds. Lady birds.

London still feels like a huge challenge to me, something I have to scale or conquer or overcome. Maybe it's the nursery rhymes and fairy tales. In fairy tales things come in threes, so here we go: Week Three, The British Library.

I am really pleased with the research I've been doing, almost overwhelmed by what I'm discovering. I feel I need a month of staring into space before I can figure out how to begin. But I can't stop now. There's so much more I feel I need to discover, especially about life here in the late fifties and early sixties. Monday afternoon I found that the British Library has oral histories you can listen to. All you have to do is get a reader card.

This time, I freely admit it, I had a bit of an Attitude when I approached the reader registration desk. Here, I said, tossing them a handful of plastic cards. Just google me, okay?

The librarian smiled, and googled, and a few minutes later pronounced that she'd be pleased to offer me a card. However, the ID I'd handed her was not adequate. Not having a drivers' license, I'd have to give her a bill or bank statement addressed to me. But, I quavered, just tasting those oral histories on the other side of the counter, I always PAY my bills. So much for attitude.

There was some talk of Rolf's sending the documents by courier, but it makes no sense, given that he's (hooray!) arriving here Saturday morning in person. So I'll go next week. The British Library is a cool place. You can feel it. It's a newish building with a wide open entrance and several exhibits open to the public. That's even before you get up to the reading rooms upstairs.

After my rejection at the hands of the Reader Registration department, I cooled my jets looking at an exhibit called Bloomsbury Below Stairs devoted to the housekeeper of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Grace Higgins. Then I went to a talk by Justine Picardie about the archives she used for her new novel, Daphne. She talked about the mystery and intimacy of archives, their power to draw you in, if you're not careful, at the expense of your real and present daily life. These are all themes dear to my heart and I felt that -- if only I could get in the door -- The British library is a place where I, and my strange pursuits, would be understood.

If my quest in London is for archives, then I've certainly made my fortune,already. I know, though, that something deeper and darker than has drawn me here, too, and I'm not sure it's just a matter of "finding" or "getting" something -- for all I know I may be putting something back.

Tuesday, I went to the war museum, an active, buzzing place that departs completely from the reverent "look but don't touch" atmosphere of the museums I'm used to. I went first into an exhibit called "The Children's War." In the first room there were rear-projected photographs of a series of children that faded back and forth to elderly versions of their faces. There and then, I was consumed with sadness, and we hadn't even got to the "evacuation" section. How come no one else is crying, I kept thinking, as kids milled around me with their parents. "No, I wasn't there dear, but Nanna was ..." After an hour and a half, I'd had enough ... I was full or spent, or something. No "blitz experience" for me, not Tuesday and perhaps not ever.

I headed towards Brixton (Guns of. Clash, The). The wide, gently curving streets were a relief after the claustrophobic east end with its oddly angled lanes and close-set buildings bearing down. When I got to the market (location of Electric Lane) my pace slowed and a big smile replaced the morning's tears. Everyone seemed to be walking more slowly, and the vendors were laughing and calling from stall to stall. Reggae music was playing. There were vegetables and fruit and meat and clothes and electronics all thrown in together, and lots of people who just seemed to be hanging out.

I've become a materialist over the last few years. The word I hate the most is 'energy' -- good energy, bad energy, high energy low energy. Incoherent, I say. Will someone define this energy thing?

But I've been really sensitive to what I have to call 'energy' here in London, both the frantic striving and aggressive energy, and the vitality and creativity too. I've been soaking in both, and often, within hours or even minutes of each other.

And by the way, instead of getting up and writing at five in the morning, I'm sitting in the Cape having a glass of wine. Yes, writing under the influence of something other than caffeine.

Weird energy.


Gena said...

I'm glad to hear that you're finding good stuff, and having adventures in London. Oxford sounds fascinating too. Looking forward to the next installment!


knittin'b said...

The reason I will never be a full fledged librarian is that I will always bend the rules. They are meant to be bent. And overdue fines are just there to get the heart racing but shouldn't prevent a reader from enjoying a nice cuppa something as they peruse their next book due to poverty. Sorry you have suffered at the hands of the professional dragons at the gates of the collection. I hope this week all doors are opened for you.

Don't know why but thought you might enjoy the quote of the day.

"Every natural form -- palm leaves and acorns, oak leaves and sumach and dodder -- are untranslatable aphorisms. -Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)"