Saturday, 10 December 2011

Secret shelves

"Yes I'd love to come to the meeting...but...I'd be at a loose end in town for three hours". Not a prospect I relished at this time of year. Not only have I never really grasped the concept of shopping as a form of entertainment, but one of the three hours would fall in that awkward lull you get in every British city between the shops closing and the "evening economy" firing up. Two of the hours would be after dark, and all three would be cold. And windy. Then I remembered a conversation from earlier in the day:

"There's a library round the back of the_"
"Really?? Open to the public?"
"Yes. Until quite late. It's the City Archives. Anyone can go in"

I left my investigations til after dark. The building's less than a hundred yards from the nearest shops, after all. But you have to know where you're going: there's no light. There are lawns (black), gravel paths (audible), a couple of small car-parks (tenebrous) and, so I'm reliably informed, a legion of legless Roman soldiers marching silently through a basement off to the left somewhere. I feel distinctly under-dressed: my coat should be longer, my hair blacker and my face paler. I walk past a tramp who's looking through some large commercial bins, and then through a gateway in some iron railings ("CCTV in operation") into a velvet-black garden. The tramp decides that lost-looking people are more interesting than bins, and comes over: though he talks with some difficulty, he's obviously "in" on this Archive lark.

He tells me the velvet garden's infradig and if I'm looking for the library the door's just round there. I nearly walk in through a brightly-lit window: the door's right next to it, in complete darkness. It looks like the sort of door that usually has a sign on it saying "Do Not Use This Door". But it's unlocked.

Inside it's wine-chiller cool. There are huge heaters, in theory, but the heat simply soaks into the mediaeval walls never to be heard of again. The staff at the reception desk take time to explain what I can find here, but it all just goes in one ear and out the other as I marvel at how such a place can carry on existing just a hundred yards from shops that are desperate to sell anything to avoid going under with the high rents.

The huge tomes in the first room I investigate, are records from parishes all over the country. I spend some time looking for any of the (many) places with which I have any connection, but draw a blank and start to look for some science. What I find there, quite by chance, are some real eye-openers. J.S. Haldane pondering the social and ethical dilemmas that are (or at least, should be) still alive in science today. A fascinating account of the perils of how the then-new (late 30s) chemically-assisted agriculture renders soil weak and sterile, which wouldn't have looked out of place in this month's Permaculture Magazine. Who knows, if I'd been able to carry on looking, I might even have come across Farmers of Forty Centuries, (celebrating its centenary this year) in which the soil is named as the "staying power" behind China's achievement as the only ancient superpower still extant in modern times.

But it was throwing-out time at the Archives, and anyway I had a meeting to go to.

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