The Weasel: Force 10 - Fence blows down again. Weasel retires to bed with copy of Bleak House.
Saturday 17 January 1998
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
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