The Weasel: Force 10 - Fence blows down again. Weasel retires to bed with copy of Bleak House.

One possible reason for Margaret Thatcher's uncharacteristic support for the new British Library, which ended up costing pounds 511 million, emerged the other day when I saw Michael Portillo popping in there. After all, unemployed ex-ministers have to pass the time somewhere. (I think it was Mr Portillo's first visit, because I saw him being directed to the cloakroom, so it should be at least a couple of years before the memoirs appear.) Sad to relate, Lady T has not yet found time to pay a visit to this palace of learning. I was shown round by the same genial BL guide who whizzed me through the old joint in Bloomsbury exactly a year ago. "The new building has a 200-year lifespan," he explained in an effort to justify the mind- boggling price-tag. "The average Tesco superstore costs pounds 40 million and has an estimated life of 15-20 years. For the price of 13 Tescos, you have a national library."

To be honest, when first approached from Euston Road, the structure bears a passing resemblance to a shopping centre, albeit of the classier sort. After passing through a curious little portico, you encounter a vast piazza enlivened by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's massive sculpture based on William Blake's iconic image of a beetle-browed Sir Isaac Newton wielding a pair of dividers. A plaque reveals that this representation of our greatest mathematician was "funded by Vernons, Littlewoods and Zetters" - most appropriate, since their fortunes stem from a judicious application of the laws of probability.

Despite the acute angles of its red-brick facade, the entrance hall is all white space and gentle curves, more airport than shopping mall. At its heart, there is a 17-metre glass tower, which will be lined with the 60,000 leather-bound volumes of George III's library. When I suggested to my guide that thin librarians would be required to extract books from this crystal-walled stack, he pointed out that the shelves moved: "The girth of the staff is not a vital concern."

We made our way to a balcony overlooking the three-storey-high Humanities Reading Room. It was pleasing to note that, despite the unstinting luxury of their surroundings, the readers themselves haven't changed too much. While the female readers are unsettling in their beauty, their male counterparts tend to be of unkempt mien. The patches on their elbows are a frayed reflection of the flawless leather inlay of the library's tables in white American oak. It should take just 30-40 minutes for readers to receive any of the 12 million volumes which will be stored in four underground floors. No, my guide informed me, the rumour that the library had installed cats to keep rats at bay was not true. If readers need a breather from their researches, they can utilise an outdoor garden which provides an excellent view of the splendid King's Cross gasholders.

However, it should be stressed that these peerless facilities are not open to just anyone. Making my way out through the Portico, I noticed a TV screen displaying the off-putting message that "The British Library is not a public library. Access to the reading room is for those whose needs are not met by other libraries." In fact, there used to be an excellent public library next door to the new BL. Following its closure by Camden Council, it is currently undergoing an ignominious conversion into the Bernard Shaw Plaza Hotel. In our post-literate world, let's hope that the new BL doesn't suffer a similar fate.

Batten down the hatches! Bit on the gutsy side, what? Even the customarily flawless delivery of the Shipping Forecast on Radio Four was imbued with a frisson of excitement when the announcer warned of "violent storm force 11". According to the specifications laid down in the Beaufort Scale, this means that "small- or medium-sized ships might be for a time lost to view behind the waves. The sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam lying along the direction of the wind. Everywhere the edges of the wave crests are blown into froth." The topmost notch on the scale, "hurricane force 12", is more simply dealt with: "The air is filled with foam and spray. Sea completely white with driving spray."

While undeniably graphic, these descriptions are somewhat unhelpful to we landlubbers hiding under our duvets. What we need is a suburban version of Beaufort. You might call it the Bow-window Scale.

Force 0: Car exhaust rises vertically.

Force 1: Cellophane wrappers from fag packets drift into garden.

Force 2: Crisp packets lodge in rose trees.

Force 3: Marks & Spencer carrier bag snags on hydrangea.

Force 4: Hatwear blows off to the amusement of passers-by

Force 5: Umbrella blows inside-out.

Force 6: Sash windows rattle irritatingly. Mrs W demands replacements.

Force 7: Barbecue cover embarks on round-the-world flight.

Force 8: Weather dominates all conversations: "Many tiles gone then?"

Force 9: Fence blows down. Mr W spends two hours in attempted reconstruction.

Force 10: Fence blows down again. Mr W retires to bed with copy of Bleak House.

Force 11: Air filled with children, cats, small vehicles, etc.

Force 12: Mrs W considers suspending shopping activities.

I was pleased to discover that I share a habit with Stanley Baldwin. It is not his renowned love of the pipe that we have in common - while occasionally tempted, I have yet to fall prey to the briar or meerschaum - but another, less intrusive, addiction. In a laudatory profile of the late prime minister in last week's Spectator, Roy Jenkins drew attention to his "curious habit of putting objects, particularly books, to his nostrils and audibly sniffing at them". Speaking as a practised book-sniffer myself. I don't think there's anything particularly curious about this proclivity, nor do I believe Lord Jenkins to be correct when he adduces the habit as evidence of being highly strung.

It is more accurate to regard the book-sniffer, whether audible or silent in his pursuit, as a connoisseur. The pong of publications is an aesthetic bonus that can be indulged whenever the strain of reading proves too wearisome. Unfortunately, it is impossible to gain much in the way of intellectual enlightenment from books via the nostrils - but who can deny the rich satisfaction to be enjoyed from inhaling the spicy, slightly peppery whiff of a yellowing paperback, or the fish-and-chippy aroma of damp newsprint? Lavish art-books exude the unmistakable volatile tang of oil paint, while volumes bound in buckram bear a faint savour of fresh-buttered toast.

Aside from those scratch'n'sniff adverts you get in certain magazines, I have known only one publication that was actually intended to smell. Issued by the perfumery company Penhaligon, the pages of a volume called The Language of Flowers were impregnated with an exotic fragrance. Ironically, owing to some defect, the example presented to Mrs W did not smell of anything at all. There's nothing sadder than a book without bouquet

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Media Sales - OTE up to £30,000

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Developer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique & exciting opp...

    Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

    Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

    £8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border