Fowler’s Miscellany III
Now, Where Did I Put That Masterpiece?
Cambridge University Library has announced that two notebooks filled by Charles Darwin have been missing for 20 years. One of them contains the 19th Century scientist’s famous Tree of Life sketch, exploring the evolutionary relationship between species. They were ‘miscatalogued’ but academics reckoned they sort of knew where they were. Only they weren’t. The BBC website says, ‘The library contains more than 200km of shelving, roughly the distance from Cambridge to Southampton by road.’ (Love those analogies, like measuring dinosaurs with double-decker buses). It is home to more than 10 million maps and manuscripts and other objects.
This sort of thing happens all the time in the UK. We have too much stuff, much of it borrowed from other countries. It can’t all have ended up in Linley Sanbourne’s house.
I was once hired by the BBC to wrote a Hallowe’en event, a ghost story to be broadcast live from the studio’s old Westbourne Grove premises. They gave me the run of the place, which seemingly went on for miles underground and was filled with studios and archives no-one had sorted through in decades, like recordings for The Old Grey Whistle Test and live shows.
The caretaker of this frankly eerie repository confided, ‘We’ve got no idea what’s down here. The logs were lost years ago and half these mag masters are knackered. There’s supposed to be some stuff The Beatles recorded for us around the time of The White Album but we haven’t got the staff to sort it all out.’ I believe the building has since been cleared and sold off for flats.
I’ve heard this of museums and libraries falling into disrepair too. I was once in the old Cairo Museum, somewhere to the rear of the building where the lights were failing and there were artefacts strewn all over the floor. Two workmen turned up, unscrewed a case containing a priceless boy king’s gold death mask, whipped it out barehanded, stood it on its end against a radiator, replaced a flickering bulb and bunged it back in. Which sort of made me wonder if the Elgin Marbles should stay in The British Museum for a while longer.
I Have My Plot All Marked Out
In a past article I talked about the stages of creative life – as we move from juvenilia to rebellion, romantic notions, anger and compromising maturity we accrue working habits from experience, not all of which are good. Whenever I’ve become log-jammed in a novel, worried that the plot is becoming overly complex, I’ve sought the worst possible way out – by coming up with a fix that involves an entirely new chunk of plot.
My spouse, that fount of all things wise and eminently sound, he being the person you should run toward if the ship was sinking and you were insensible to the laws of survival (as am I), gave me four words to live by on the page; ‘Less plot, more story.’ You shouldn’t keep adding more ideas when the ones you’ve got haven’t been fully worked through. This is the trap most writers like myself fall into, so let it be your warning too.
Right now, I am making last minute adjustments to ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ that trim out some of the plot in order to flesh out the real story behind it. It’s good advice, and it works.
You Call This Research?
Wandering around London is hardly hard work. The other day I went for a long solo walk down through Clerkenwell, past the building where my mother and father met, and there was a ballet school on Herbal Hill, its pupils practising the Nutcracker, an oasis of warmth and life. I reached St Paul’s and returned without seeing a soul, barely even a vehicle. The silence was deep and blanketing, helped by a November fog.
I’ve been going out most days to take shots of tiny urban details, which I find far more interesting than anything in the countryside (sorry, I was pre-programmed by my family).
I repeated the trip yesterday, walking along the refurbished North Thames Embankment, which now opens up the shoreside in narrow walkways. If you pass beneath London Bridge and continue back toward the West End you’ll find a grill in a building by Blackfriars through which you can seen the original staircase down into the water. If one compares it to the wider original you see the odd Egyptian influence that exists all the way along this side of the river until you hit Cleopatra’s Needle.
On foggy winter mornings the sloping streets to the river have a fantastic atmosphere, and it’s surprising how many unexplored routes I still discover. There was a cul-de-sac next to Blackfriars Bridge leading to a river staircase which I found myself wedged into on NYE 2000, not knowing that Pete, my future spouse, was in the same spot (we would have met at a dinner party that same year if I had not been sick) but on today’s trip I found that the little street had been annihilated by the new station.
On foggy mornings the street lamps stay on (the fog had cleared a minute before this shot) and the deserted roads remove a hundred years from the views. It allows you to search out odd details around you. It wasn’t until Pete pointed out the bird on the column that I noticed it. I have a book of London’s animal statuary somewhere – there’s a lot more around than you think.
And so London continues to inspire, especially now, when you feel like hailing a fellow walker because you’ve not passed anyone else for an hour!