The Weasel

My guide turned a key in a hidden door camouflaged by false book spines and, to the astonishment of a party of Japanese tourists, we passed into the silence of the library's Victorian book stacks
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Observed by a small covey of literati, the first transfer of books to the British Library's pounds 511-million pile in St Pancras took place early last month. By chance, the first volume to be placed on the new, non-collapsing shelves happened to be the Oxford Book of Traditional Verse, but that honour could equally have fallen to Knitted Gloves in Strutt's Crimpelene (6d) or Willie Waddle Children's Annual 1922 which will also rank among the 4 million volumes available in the General Humanities Reading Room due to open next November.

My familiarity with these worthy titles stems from a behind-the-scenes tour of the BL during its final months in Bloomsbury. This began with the Alice-like experience of stepping through a bookcase. In the middle of a wall of books in the British Museum, my guide turned a key in a hidden door camouflaged by false book spines and, to the astonishment of a party of Japanese tourists, we passed into the silence of the library's Victorian book stacks. Under the murky illumination of a distant skylight, we scuttled along narrow iron walkways. My feelings of vertigo were intensified by the fact that there was no apparent order to the ocean of books which engulfed us. The location of a volume depends on date of receipt and size, which, I'm sure you'll want to know, ranges from a six-foot atlas given to Charles II down to a 3mm-high edition of Three Blind Mice from 1978.

Occasional clumps of order occur among the bizarre juxtapositions. At one point, we came across the familiar squat volumes of Thomas the Tank Engine flanked by Pioneers of Pre-History in England and a German theological work from the Fifties. Being of a uniform size, phone books are allowed to huddle together. We looked up the number of a famous BL habitue in a 1921 directory. If you ever happen to hop aboard a time machine, you can call Virginia Woolf of Hogarth House, Richmond, by asking the operator for number 496. Because of their large format, children's annuals are also kept in a bunch. Unlikely ever to have been touched by a child, the elaborate pop-up illustrations of the Daily Express 1930 Annual still work perfectly. Nearby are the shelves shrouded in plastic sheets (to protect against a hole in the roof) said to have persuaded Mrs Thatcher to continue funding of the new library. Had she known that this decision would eventually cost over half a billion, it is possible that the Roy of the Rovers and Beano annuals might have been allowed to go a bit soggy.

I asked my guide about the Library's infamous locked cabinets. "Yes, we have some quite historic material - early editions of Casanova, that sort of thing - which is classified `PC' for Private Case. Also there is more modern stuff, girly mags and so on, which is not kept on the open shelves. It's quite explicit, but readers can request to see it. It's not for us to dictate what you can see and what you can't." However, an invitation to view such recherche material for myself did not materialise. Other items locked away for safety's sake and viewable only in a small reading room include rare editions of Private Eye and Oz, together with motoring magazines: "They're the curse of librarians. People are always tearing pages from them,"

Going at a furious lick, we clunked up staircases, then charged down book-lined passages in almost complete darkness. Lights are kept off to save money - their pull-cords hang in your face like dangly bits on a ghost train. The atmosphere encouraged bookish talk. "It's Borgesian," I puffed. "Kafkaesque, I always think," said my companion. Eventually, he opened a door and we emerged, blinking, on to a catwalk running round the wall of the great circular reading room. On the whole, female readers tend to be distractingly eye-catching, while the males are of a more traditional literary mien - tweedy, whiskery, slightly foxed. Though one of the most beautiful interiors in London, its magic will inevitably dissipate when the scholars leave this great bubble of learning.

One treasure in the British Library is a complete set of Country Life, which celebrated its centenary last week. Glancing through the back issues of the nob's newsletter, it was interesting to discover that the "girls in pearls" frontispiece has changed little over the decades - the same peaches-and-cream complexions combined with an obvious desire to get back to the stables at the earliest opportunity. Nor did the journal's political acumen sharpen much with the passing of time. The edition which coincided with the outbreak of World War I was cheerfully flagged on the cover as "A Special Shooting Issue". In 1936, as the England-Germany rematch loomed, the magazine included a photo of a beaming Adolf Hitler in his rural retreat at Berchtesgaden. The perceptive headline for this portrait: "A Countryman at Heart."

The news from this paper's Paris correspondent that small birds called ortolans are still being scoffed by French gourmets, though this has been illegal since 1987, prompted uneasy memories for me. Now I'm not saying for certain that my Parisian chums cooked up ortolans, which are a kind of plump bunting, as a treat for me a few years ago. Certainly, they were not served whole (including wings, guts, feathers and beaks) and still aflame in traditional Gascon style, as consumed by the late President Mitterand in one of his last meals. But the birds which I was obliged to tackle, under my hostess's anxious gaze, were dismayingly tiny. I felt like Gulliver noshing a brace of Lilliputian turkeys. It was my most disconcerting gastronomic experience in the avian field, until I had a brief craze for oriental food last year. One of the mysterious tins I bought from the Chinese supermarket was decorated with what I presumed to be a trademark of a nest of tweeting chicks. It was only on opening the can and seeing half a dozen tiny beaks pointing up at me that I realised the illustration was a literal representation of the contents.

British MEPs on both sides of the political divide were getting in a real old two-and-eight on Radio 4's In Committee about attempts to ban British manufacturers from using vegetable fat in chocolate. In their scurvy, low-handed way, continental companies only use cocoa butter and they want us to do the same. "Harmonisation for harmonisation's sake," growled John Corrie (Con). "People feel very emotional about their right to eat the chocolate they're used to," agreed Glenys Kinnock (Lab). In short, it sounds exactly the sort of issue that the British love sounding off about. Who are these Euro-twerps telling us what choccy to chomp?

The only slight defect about this righteous nationalistic ire is that continental chocolate tastes incomparably better than our own. You only have to look at a bar of Lindt plain chocolate, which boasts in massive type on the front: "70 per cent cocoa solids". Contrast with our own ghastly Bournville, where the same information is on the back in tiny type: "34 per cent cocoa solids". (According to the list of ingredients, there is actually more sugar than cocoa in the Cadbury bar.) Brands containing 80-90 per cent cocoa are available in French supermarkets. But you can go too far. I once had a piece of chocolate from a specialist shop in Rennes that was 100 per cent cocoa. Far from being impossibly strong, it had no taste whatsoever. Just the thing for the British market

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