Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The British Library Volume I (revised edition)

After university I had the choice of either working in a bank or in a library. As I had been a bibliophile from a very young age, the choice was simple. It was made even easier by the fact the latter was none other than the British Library. Furthermore, I worked in the British Library when it was still housed within the august surrounds of the British Museum.

At one stage, to get to and from my office, I had to walk through the Ancient Egyptian Gallery and past the statues of pharaohs and assorted deities. The galleries containing the mummies were on an upper floor. My late mother used to claim that I had begged to be taken to see them as a child and subsequently had had nightmares. I found that hard to believe. I have always felt a rare affinity with Egypt ever since I first went there with my friend Lynda. I had even studied the ancient language at evening classes, leading me to send friends and colleagues Christmas cards inscribed with hieroglyphic text. I got rather carried away with one card, sent to a man I had a crush on, comparing the recipient’s hair to woven gold, eyes to lapis lazuli and limbs to hewn marble. I was not to know that he had a friend who was also a professor of Egyptology and was thus able to translate it.  As far as I was concerned, the conclusive proof that I could never be frightened of anything emanating from Ancient Egypt resided in my feet. It struck me one day that I shared a genetic trait with the Ancient Egyptians. My index toes are noticeably larger than the hallux (big toe). I realised the same characteristic could be seen on pre-Ptolemaic statues. Only when the upstart Ptolemy kings ruled Egypt were the index toes on Ancient Egyptian statues carved to appear smaller than the hallux. It is surely no coincidence that the kingdom subsequently fell into an irreversible decline.

As an adult, I found the gigantic statues that once adorned the tomb of the 4th century B.C.   King Mausolus, far more creepy than any Ancient Egyptian mummy, especially late at night as I walked through the deserted galleries close by. The King’s extravagant tomb was one of the 7 Wonders of the ancient world and the source of the word: mausoleum. I used to imagine the colossal statues coming to life and chasing me through the Assyrian galleries. Another intimidating statue from antiquity was a crouching representation in white marble of the goddess Diana. I always felt if ever she came to life I would stand no chance in unarmed combat or arm wrestling even if she turned into flesh and blood. I would pass by her and try and avoid her baleful glance every time I went up to the staff restaurant.

At that time, the staff restaurant was located immediately above the public restaurant and shared the same caterers. Thus the quality of food was superb. It was a shock to discover later that other staff canteens rarely lived up to such culinary excellence. My friend Victoria and I would treat ourselves to a cream cake each to have with our morning coffee. It always amused me that she would religiously take out some sweetners from her handbag and place them in her coffee, as if such a gesture would in any way compensate for the calorific content of the cake she was about to consume.

I later moved offices and needed to pass through the King’s Library to get to work. I always found walking through the empty gallery first thing in the morning uplifting, the more so if it were sunny outside and light flooded through the windows of the elegant room, with its graceful ornate plasterwork, granite columns and gilded balcony. The gallery was built in 1827 to house the former royal collection once owned by King George III. To get to my office, I had to unlock a concealed door in one of the bookcases. If I left the office in the afternoon before the public galleries had closed, I would wait until I could hear voices close by and then cause a minor stir by suddenly stepping out.

To earn extra money I often worked in the famous round Reading Room in the evenings. The Night of the Demon, the 1957 classic horror movie filmed a key sequence here. Whenever I see this chilling depiction of devil worship, violent death and general mayhem on television it instantly brings back fond memories of my time in the British Library.