Today we are sufficiently motivated to step outside 6 Broad Court for breakfast. There’s a decent coffee shop a ways up Drury Lane. And, no, it is not called The Muffin Man. Eggs, finally. Poached. On Toast.
It’s a long walk to the British Library and we have an eleven o’clock Conservation Studio Tour, so we hail a taxi. We’re instructed to wait by some signage with a blind man and his wife for someone from Conservation to gather us. The tour is subtitled ‘An Audio Tour’, so I imagined we’d be wearing headsets on some self-guided journey through the stacks, but it turns out to be structured to accommodate the visually impaired. Liz and Wendy appear. Liz is put together in slacks and blouse, while Wendy wears a faded red hoodie and blue (possibly denim) trousers.
They escort us into a conference room where Amy, a conservator, demonstrates the steps she has taken to restore a fire-damaged diary of the wife of a British magistrate in India immediately following the rebellion in mid-19thcentury. The burnt edges have been reinforced with a very fine Japanese tissue that’s glued with reversible gelatin to prevent the brittle, charred paper from fragmenting any further. The diarist had also tipped in newspaper clippings and other ephemera into her book, some of which have gone rogue. These oddments have been collected and bound into a supplemental volume. The repair process seems laborious, but apparently can be accomplished relatively quickly by highly adept and efficient experts like Amy and Wendy.
Alice asks many questions. She is feeling the pull of a Masters degree in Library Science. After spending a good half-hour with Amy, we’re taken to visit Gavin, whose skill it is to affix gilt lettering to restored or replaced book covers and spines. He gives a thorough demonstration of his art and quietly bemoans the slow disappearance of formal bookbinding. Gavin is patient and attentive to the blind gentleman who is completely engaged.
Then, Wendy says, “Liz, show them your flag.” Liz is a fabric conservator Besides every book ever published in the United Kingdom, the Library contains countless artifacts. These flags are two almost completely disintegrated silk banners belonging to the East India Company’s London office. They seem beyond saving to me, but Liz has devoted months to their restoration, which will be unveiled with great ceremony next month.
The British Library is the largest library in the world. Until 1973 it was part of the British Museum. In the center of the building, stands a six-story, free-standing glass tower containing the King’s Library, 65,000 books amassed by George III, its foundational collection. The Library displays its treasures for all to see, in a series of rooms on the first floor. Hundreds of books, documents, maps, and letters make for a fascinating afternoon’s adventure. There’s a copy of the Magna Carta, a First Folio, Beatles lyrics, Handel’s Water Music score, and on and on. We spend more than an hour pouring over the pages. My sneakers have been making their customary farting noise that thrills and embarrasses the girls in equal measure. I lead the group out of the Library, tooting all the way to our next destination – the Grant Museum of Zoology.
I zeroed in on this unusual repository because of a guidebook’s tantalizing mention of ‘a jar of eighteen preserved moles’. Who could resist! The Grant Museum houses thousands of zoological specimens, either taxidermied, pickled, skeletal, or on slides. There are some pretty disgusting items, but also glories like the display called – A Collection of Brains. And rarities, too, like a Quagga skeleton (a long-extinct antelope-y creature). This being one of seven in the world.
There isn’t much down-time at 6 Broad Court before we’re off to dinner and the theater. The Southbank beckons. I booked a window table at Skylon (not a Battlestar Galactica-themed restaurant) where we get to watch twilight descend across the Thames. Five minutes away, in the Council Chamber of London County Hall, we have tickets to a production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. It’s a spectacular room, where for over half a century, London’s local government met and the perfect setting for a twisty courtroom drama such as this. However, the setting cannot compensate for the absence of Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.