Wednesday, June 12, 2013

London for Cheapskates Part 3: Spit, Iron and Gold at the British Library

Above: a statue of Newton in the courtyard of the British Library.

At Victoria Station, swaddled in my second-hand parka, I descended again into the Underground, quickening my pace as I joined the strong-flowing current of fellow commuters. My destination: the British Library at St Pancras. As an English major whose mother presented me at varying points in my youth with sets of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle, and who was engrossed by adventure novels penned by British islanders like Swift, Defoe and Stevenson, and later, the darker work of Dickens and Austen, I couldn’t skip a chance to geek out in one of the oldest, largest and greatest vaults of literature assembled in human history. Additionally, by means of a benign online subterfuge, in which I posed as a freelance writer researching unusual and interesting free things to do in Britain’s capital, I had succeeded in wangling the  final remaining ticket for a behind-the-scenes look inside the library’s Centre for Conservation, which opens its three locked sets of double doors only one Thursday each month for a small, always-filled group tour of its workshop, located in a climate-and-light-controlled studio behind an empty courtyard camouflaged by potted plants. And did I mention the tour is free? I was excited. There exist only a handful of national libraries in the world that house more books and manuscripts than the BL, which was founded in 1753 and now holds more than 16 million works, including priceless and famous objects on display such as the Magna Carta and DaVinci’s notebooks, the original Beowulf, the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  (The Library of Congress in the U.S. is the largest, with 30 million books, followed by national libraries in Germany, Canada and Russia.)

I arrived early enough to look around before my tour. The library provides free wireless Internet for visitors and has a nice cafĂ©, with a few hundred small tables scattered around large open spaces. In the middle of a weekday, every table was occupied, and not by latte-sipping tourists taking a break from shopping, like me. These people seemed to be working – actively writing or engaged in what sounded to my unpracticed ear to be serious adult conversation. Were they actually discussing literature and writing, books? I swear on the Gutenberg that I witnessed several people writing longhand on paper with actual pencils. I saw a man and woman scrolling through a document on a Mac and speaking in a very animated way about something important to them – a thought, idea, word? Apparently there are still places in the world where the physical presence of books serves as a magnet for imagination, sucking people in for research and review and provoking face-to-face discussion. All around me, intense, private conversations were humming in hushed library tones, and I had the feeling that for many of these fellow pilgrims, simply being under the same roof with 16 million books was contributing to a powerful creative flow and sense of collective possibility. With no literary masterwork of my own in which to invest brainpower, I contented myself with a coffee and then strolled through an awesome special exhibit of Mughal art and literature, as well as a free exhibit showcasing the most famous and inventive mystery writers since the genre was invented. At 2 p.m., I found my way out back to the Conservation Centre.
Above: the King's Library looms overhead as scribes and scholars take advantage of one of the most important collections of written works in the world.
We are ushered inside by Robert Brodie, Conservation Team Leader, after being instructed not to take photographs, touch anything or disturb the lab techs. Purses and packs are checked at reception. Today we are especially lucky, Brodie informs us. The lab’s gold leaf finisher happens to be working on some restorative work, re-embossing spines of very old and valuable books; it is a rare occasion in a place of rare works. As we enter the one-story lab, a door opens from a subterranean elevator shaft. A pair of techs emerge pushing a cart of large dusty tomes bearing the title “Near India Office Records.” We step aside as the patients are rolled slowly into the south-facing workshop, designed to enable an elite corps of craftsmen and women to take advantage of daylight streaming in through large windows. The setup reminds me a bit of a newsroom – open and casual, people working with their heads down, hardly taking note of those entering and leaving – except there are no computers on the desks. Instead there are stacks of Japanese mulberry bush paper, parchment paper, leather strips and buckram; special glues made of sturgeon; thick books and manuscripts jumbled among strange and well-worn hand tools, along with wooden vises, presses and small wooden structures called tappers, loaded with dead weights, that resemble miniature looms. Here, someone is working on the original notebooks of Virginia Woolf. There is a collection of rare Soviet political leaflets requiring restoration. On that desk, the papers of William Trumbull, circa 1635 – the most expensive section of the most expensive archive ever purchased by the library. On that desk is sitting an original work of the Georgian poet Lascelles Abercrombie. Across the way, an expert bookbinder is using a large needle and a technique called French sewing to re-bind very, very old sheets of music.  The lab is a beautiful mess, a rehabilitation centre for priceless literature and written works of art, littered with yellowing, rusting, moldering relics representing some of the most culturally and historically important work of mankind.
Brodie's conservators are in such high demand that the Centre uses an estimating and bidding system, in which the curatorial staff from various departments annually submit their priorities for restoration, logging the information into a database. The database has a scoring system agreed upon by the Heads of Collection that includes factors such as the condition of the book, its rarity, level of use, and whether the item is part of the National Published Archive. How often is the damaged work actually read? Is the work scheduled to be digitized? How extensive is the repair required? Is the book or object scheduled to be included soon in a special exhibit? “To guard it, fold it, bind it, it could take us 300 hours,” Brodie says. “Six people in a unit here can do 5,194 hours of work in a year.” Once items are scored, an estimate is provided of the length of time the work will take, balanced against the work capacity of the conservators. “I have 50 people. They are the rock stars of conservation,” but they can only do so much work in a year.

Next, we head over to talk to Doug Mitchell, a gold leaf finisher who is working alone in his own secure lab. Mitchell has been a bookbinder for 40 years. He uses albumin glaze crystals, 23-and-a-half carat gold and false gold foil to make the mix he needs. Right now, he is re-numbering in gold leaf a set of large, leather-bound historical volumes known as the Portland Papers. He uses his own spit to test the heat on a miniature iron hot plate, which is heating up a tiny branding iron he will use to press the numbers. “If there are no bubbles it’s about right,” he says. He preps the leather first by rubbing it with a clear liquid to fill the leather’s pores, then quickly presses his tiny iron into the spine in a series of strokes as he retools the binding, finishing up by swiping a solvent called Hexane over the numbers to gently polish the new gold work on the spine. Spit, iron and 23-carat gold. “Done it this way since the 1400s,” Mitchell says.
Dizzy and famished by my prolonged exposure to so many books, I headed out of the library and into the Tube again in search of gustatory nourishment, emerging this time in Soho for an early dinner at the hottest cheap restaurant in London, an Italian bacaro on Beak Street called Polpo, located in a building where the Venetian painter Canaletto once lived. Polpo showed up on everybody's lists of the top 10 cheapest gourmet eats in London, so it was an easy choice, though I was worried I might not be able to get a table. At 630 pm, I had no trouble finding a seat at the bar, though by 730 the tiny eatery was jammed to the gills. This busy little gem serves really good early wines and delectable, simple Italian fare at easy prices. I ordered a glass of Valpolicella Classico La Giaretta, 2011 (11 pounds) with a bowl of spicy pork and fennel meatballs (6 pounds), followed by a plate of mackerel tartare, horseradish and carta di musica (Mediterannean flatbread) at 7 pounds and a glass of Barbera Riva Leone 2011 (9 pounds), and that was enough for me. A swanky dinner out in Soho, wine included, for under $50, not bad considering I skipped lunch and spent nothing at the library, except for a coffee. I tubed back to Battersea and collapsed, Day 1 of my London trip in the books.
Meatballs, mackerel and a couple of Italian reds at Polpo, in Soho, provided the perfect finish to Day 1 of London on the Cheap.