Oh hey there. So it’s been a few months since I’ve posted – grad school kicked my butt for 16 weeks straight. After which I went almost immediately to London for a summer class on libraries and archives in the United Kingdom. I spent two glorious weeks in “class,” if one can call attending tours of libraries, museums, and archives (with supplementary lectures and biscuits!) class. Yet the library gods have deemed it credit-worthy, and I am certainly not complaining.
Besides getting credit for drinking cider and visiting awesome libraries, I was of course thrilled to be in England for literary reasons. It’s the land of Shakespeare and Austen, Phillip Pullman and JK Rowling. London permeates the texts I’ve read throughout my life, and even the streets are filled with constant reminders of literature. Metal placards are placed casually on the sides of buildings, proclaiming my favorite authors lived and worked around me. Yeats worked in a house around the corner from my hotel, which is now a shop of some kind. Freaking Yeats! Walking around London was this weird collision of fiction, history, and the present, and I’ve tried to articulate some of my favorite/nerdiest moments below.
So as not to make this post 8 bajillion words long, I am going to cover my three favorite moments in depth, but first (to honor commencement season) some superlatives!
Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge (picture copyright David Gruar and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence). The most stereotypically grumpy librarian EVER basically told us we would be drawn and quartered if we spoke or took pictures while in the library. He was terrifying. The fright was worth it when we went upstairs. In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, the library has a collection of awesome things – like a note from Isaac Newton to a friend, in which he writes about his new theory of gravity. It was right under my nose! There was also Shakespeare’s First Folio and a book from the eighth century.
Best Door in London:
10 Downing can suck it, as the clear winner is 221B Baker Street! Right next door to a pub and down the road from the Baker Street underground station (where Sherlock Holmes is fully honored with tiles lining the walls and a huge statue). Sadly, neither Benedict Cumbernatch nor Robert Downey Jr. appeared when I knocked on the door. Just some boys from the pub next door pointed and laughed. Whatevs, Londoners.
Alice’s Shop in Oxford. This place is like Cassie-la’s dream come true. Everything Alice you could possibly think of, from tea towels to Alice clocks. It’s situated right across from the park where Alice Liddell actually played.
Best Tour Guide
Sam, from the Original Bus Tours. He was like the British Captain Reptar (of LeakyCon 2010 fame). Sarcastic, making fun of Google and Margaret Thatcher, and a self-professed geek who was prone to freckles – I think I’m in love. Call me, maybe?
Oxford’s Bodleian Library means serious business. This is the oath that researchers must make before being granted access to the incredibly diverse and rare collection (also – this was where scenes for Harry Potter were filmed):
I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library
Nothing was said of what happens to oath-breakers… I’m sure the librarians came up with excellent punishment. And the Bodleian is also winner of the sassiest statue ever. Look at the hand on the hip!
(So it totally looks like this post is going to be 8 bajillion words anyway. Sorry!)
Moving on to my three favorite nerd moments.
A mere £5 gets you a ticket to the one of the most famous theaters in the entire world. It also means you are a sad, poor Groundling who has to stand for the entire length of the performance. After walking miles (including a climb to the tree tops in the Kew Gardens) already, I thought my feet were going to fall off. But when the performance started, it didn’t matter. Part of the Globe to Globe program, where troupes from all over the world come to London, we saw A Comedy of Errors performed in Dari Persian. Despite not knowing the language, we understood every action. Pressed against the stage, we were completely immersed in the story. Actors from Afghanistan, students from America, and who knows how many people from all corners of the earth were gathered under the darkening sky, brought together by the power of a story. In short, it was pure magic.
When I saw we were taking a day trip to Oxford, I immediately formed a plan to skip out of the lectures and spend all day in the Botanic Gardens. Happily, these plans were abandoned as we were set loose in the city after 3:00pm. Plenty of time to
go weep silently visit Lyra’s bench.
The Gardens are absolutely stunning, and I can see why Pullman would wander around here while coming up with his stories. I just imagined Lyra and Pan scampering around, in complete contrast to the orderly system of plants. But what I really came for (SPOILER ALERT) was to find the bench where Lyra and Will would meet (albeit worlds apart).
The Gardens provide an audio device that plays different people speaking about specific spots in the Garden. Philip Pullman recorded a special talk for the bench. And then he reads the last two pages of The Amber Spyglass, and you sit on the bench and maybe somewhere Lyra and Will are on the bench too, and your head explodes from the meta-ness of it all.
Oh, and DO YOU SEE THE COUPLE CANOODLING IN THE BACKGROUND?? It was too perfect and bittersweet and excuse me while I go read the end of The Amber Spyglass and cry myself silly.
And of course – Platform 9 ¾ . How could I go to London without trying my luck at melting through the Platform into the secret wizarding world? Resisting the urge to dress up in full wizard regalia, I made my way to King’s Cross (a convenient half mile from my hotel!). It was incredibly busy – it’s both an underground and regular rail station, with endless people departing and arriving. It’s slightly overwhelming, even for a Muggle. At first, I could not find the platform. “What if it’s not here!?” I thought, panicking slightly. But then I spotted signs pointing me towards platforms 9, 10, and 11. My palms began to sweat a little, and I headed in the right direction.
Suddenly, there it was – a luggage trolley embedded in the brick wall, with a sign hung over it. Platform 9 ¾. A place I had imagined in extreme detail since I was 11 years old materialized before me. My heart was pounding faster than it should have been, and my eyes were perhaps a bit too wet. There was no one around the wall, as most people were going about their business. I approached the platform from an angle, getting close enough to grab the trolley handle, and leaned casually against it. For a split second I held my breath, but nothing happened. Well fuck – I wasn’t a wizard after all.
My friend Sara took several pictures of me posing in a ridiculous fashion, and some of the people waiting for their trains to be announced laughed at my silliness. I then just stepped back and stared, taking in the reality of this wall. It was not some abstract notion in my head, but a physical structure that I could touch. Too soon, two girls with French accents came over and asked if I was done. Despite my impulse to desperately cling to the trolley until Mrs. Weasley came to help me through, I smiled sheepishly and said yes, I was done. (Except I totally went back two more times during my stay.)
On the walk back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but ruminate on the nature of place. Walking the same streets that Yeats did, and the same sidewalks that JK Rowling must have been down. Looking over the same grey river water that Shakespeare watched when writing his plays, and treading the same unsure path to the Platform as a fictional boy wizard. It’s just a place, I reminded myself. A city with buildings and streets, parks and sidewalks. People walking to work or relaxing in the pubs, unaware of the magic I found on almost every corner of their city. Maybe if I lived there, I would become immune to the thrill of seeing King’s Cross on my way to dinner, or would stop imagining how the city looked when Chaucer was alive. Or maybe I would lose my mind and camp outside King’s Cross, waiting for my wizard brethren to help me through to the other side.
But those are all hypotheticals. For now, I am back in New Jersey. I go about my normal life, not looking for the magic others might see in this place I call home. However, who knows for how much longer? After all, the British Library is only a block away from King’s Cross…