Vol. 17 No. 1 · 12 January 1995

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The British Library Will Survive

Eighteen months ago Sir Anthony Kenny, the Chairman of the British Library Board, wrote a letter to the LRB (Letters, 19 August 1993) in response to a piece I had written on the Library (LRB, 22 July 1993). In the light of his recent pamphlet, ‘The British Library and the St Pancras Building’, and an accompanying article of 1 December in the Evening Standard, ‘Now Read on for a Happy Ending’, I’d like to re-open the question on your pages. The occasion of these two statements is the National Heritage’s releasing the final tranche of money (some £46 million) which will, at a total cost of £496 million, allow the new building to be completed.

The pamphlet is in stark stylistic contrast to the brutally managerial strategic plan for the BL which inspired the original review in this paper. Sir Anthony offers an urbane and lucid model of English prose. In style and content his pamphlet signals a retreat from the high-technological optimism of the previous document, with its Star Trek vision of a 21st-century BL serving the mass of its ‘customers’ through the Internet (Sir Anthony is on record as being sceptical about the value of computers to humane research). The Standard article is a finely-judged piece of populist journalism.

I applaud Sir Anthony’s rhetoric and its implicit guarantee of civilised and skilled discourse from the governors of our national library. He is admirably candid about the troubles which have afflicted the construction and fitting of the new library. He is courteous and carefully attentive to the views of even his most intemperate critics, the Regular Readers Group (who have taken out advertising space at Euston Square Underground Station to attack BL mismanagement, to the probable bemusement of London’s commuters). None the less, the contents of Sir Anthony’s two statements must inspire users of the BL with gloom.

Candid as it is about past and recent cockups, Sir Anthony’s pamphlet is silent on when the new establishment at St Pancras will open. The Standard article informs us: ‘After handover it will take at least a year for the library to prepare the building and move sufficient stock into the basements to provide a service in the major reading areas. If all goes well, the library would hope to open facilities at St Pancras to at least some of its readers by the end of 1997.’ Was ever a great British institution launched with so muffled a fanfare? What this tepid promise with its multiple insurance policies (‘If all goes well … would hope … at least some of its readers’) actually tells us is not when the new library will finally open its doors but that the management does not trust itself, or its contractors, sufficiently to make a firm prediction – 1997, 1998, 1999? Who knows? Who dares tell? There has been a total loss of nerve. Reading the yawning gaps between Sir Anthony’s lines one thing is clear. BL readers will have to put up with an increasingly creaky Bloomsbury service for four more years, ‘at least’. Last summer the main Reading Room was obliged to ration slips to six per day per reader. Will it be operational at all in summer 1997?

Although one has to read twice to work it out, Sir Anthony confirms that the new library’s 340km of storage space will be full on opening if it stands by its original promise to house all its research materials (less newspapers) under one roof. Outhoused storage space will be needed from day one (whenever that day may come). And where will that space be? Boston Spa, in Yorkshire. Woolwich was inconvenient, but at least it was in Greater London. And what reason does Sir Anthony give for storing what, in foreseeable time, will be the bulk of the BL’s book stocks six counties away? It will be cheaper than storing them in London. Surely, by this logic, the cheapest option of all would be to take the damn things down to Waterloo Bridge and toss them in the Thames. I put no faith in Sir Anthony’s prediction that, by computer monitoring, BL will be able to keep most-used volumes in St Pancras and less-used volumes in Northern England. Given future projections for congestion on the M1 and its feeder roads, readers can look forward to week-long delivery delays.

As with books, so with seats. The St Pancras BL will have an extra 92 seats above the present provision of 1100. Currently the average, year round, occupancy of the reading rooms is 66 per cent (calculated by sweeps at mid-day). The new premises will generate new readers and the BL looks forward to an ‘expected seat occupancy’ of 85 per cent, calculated on total daily use through the year. Given annual fluctuations – more particularly the summer flow and the winter ebb – the 85 per cent figure guarantees a regularly dysfunctional service. What it means, to be blunt, is that in periods of heaviest use readers will be turned away or rationed in their use of desks (as they are currently rationed in their use of computer terminals). Alternatively, entrance pricing will have to be introduced – not to raise revenue but to deter casual readers.

The original plan was for 3440 seats. Sir Anthony reports that this number is no longer valid since when it was projected ‘Universities were expanding quickly, especially in America, and the expected increases in student demand for the Library’s facilities have not materialised.’ One body of students will dispute this assertion – London’s undergraduates. These would-be users will, necessarily, continue to be turned away in perpetuity. The argument given by Sir Anthony and others in this paper is that it is not the national library’s responsibility, but that of the home university, to provide reading material for its students. Other national libraries think differently. The Library of Congress, for instance, which proclaims at the head of its advice to readers: ‘The Library’s reading rooms are open to anyone over high school age.’ That, to its it shame, is a proclamation the British Library will never be able to make.

The BL has done London’s universities a grievous disservice by scaling down its seating from 3440 to 1192. Undergraduates at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Dublin and Aberystwyth have access to a copyright library. London’s undergraduates, although they will be free to admire the Library’s controversial architecture, wander through the exhibition halls, and buy a postcard at the gift shop, will be forbidden access to the Library’s books. Sir Anthony is based at Oxford. If his students reported one day to the Bodleian and discovered 1. that only postgraduates might use the books, and 2. that many of those books would henceforth be stored in Yorkshire, he would not, I imagine, write a congratulatory piece in the Oxford Mail.

Now read on for a happy ending – if you can wait five years, if you are not an undergraduate, if you are not foolish enough to turn up at mid-day in July, and if you are prepared to wait for your book to travel the length of England.

‘The British Library and the St Pancras Building’ is available free on application to the Library’s press office at 96 Euston Road, London NW1 (071 323 7111).

John Sutherland
University College London

Dental Breakdown

Here’s one more story about Clark Gable’s disappearing teeth to add to Kenneth Hoyle’s (Letters, 8 December 1994). In 1974 I was in a Boston, Massachusetts radio station, waiting to promote a book of mine on the air. Interviewed just before me was Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and A Girl Like I, who was there to push her recently written autobiography. She was very tiny and very old, but I remember the vivacity and seeming veracity with which she told her version of the Gable tooth story. She said that when she was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the Thirties she ran into Gable behind a set, where he was rinsing his false teeth in a small sink. He glanced at her, showed her the full upper plate he held in his hand, and said, wryly: ‘The Great Lover. They should see me now.’

Whether Loos’s account was true or she was simply appropriating a familiar anecdote for her own use I do not know. That Gable called himself ‘America’s Sweetheart’ in similar anecdotes may well be correct. But the term ‘The Great Lover’ was used in silent-movie days to describe the romantic actor John Gilbert, who disappeared from the screen with the advent of sound and the rise of Gable. Gable’s self-mocking description of himself as ‘The Great Lover’ in Loos’s version seems more apt than the Mary Pickford cognomen ‘America’s Sweetheart’. It is possible, of course, that Gable worked the same gag frequently, using either term (or variations) as a disarming apology for his false teeth, his self-effacement endearing him as ‘a regular guy’ to friends and strangers.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York


May I extend the frontiers of the Great Limerick Debate to include Germany where, for the past thirty years and maybe even longer, the art of limerick-writing has been cultivated with no little success, as you can see from the following examples (for which, regrettably, I cannot take the credit):

Stets trug nur ein Tuch statt des Wamses,
Auch bei Regen, der selige Ramses.
Er erkältet’sich sehr,
Und verlor sein Gehör;
Da sagte sein Arzt: ‘Na, da hamses!’
Es war ein Trompeter in Worcester,
Rein körperlich gar kein roborcester,
Doch einwandfrei bester
Im Worcester-Orchester,
Und allen Trompetern ein Morcester.

Ein Spanier mit Namen Rodriguez,
Der kaufte ein Pferd und bestieguez.
Doch war dieser Gaul
Selbst zum Fressen zu faul;
Nur der Pferdehändler verschwieguez.

Thomas Lindsay

As a man who works with men who rape, I was taken aback by the casual, unquestioning endorsement of abusive male sexual behaviour which appeared, without qualification or contradiction, in Gerald Long’s letter (Letters, 8 December 1994). This pitiful piece of juvenilia, masquerading as an erudite intervention, quotes an allegedly droll limerick about the hilarious topic of a woman being gang-raped. This, Mr Long informs us, is a ‘favourite’ limerick of his; limericks, he claims, are most successful when ‘succinctly philosophical or grossly obscene’.

Our culture endorses masculine power and control, so perhaps one should not be too surprised to see Mr Long endorsing his particular brand of cognitive distortion. Male dominance in the cultural sphere, as in the social and economic spheres, might no longer possess the easy air of historical inevitability it once claimed, but of course the continuing potency of masculine ideology is augmented by the submerged nature of its very status as an ideology. Thus the endorsement of gang rape becomes invisible while the ‘amusement’ value of the limerick in which it is packaged becomes all too visible. No doubt even this critique will be seized upon as indicating Pseuds Corner style humourlessness.

Consider the plethora of masculine myths constructed and reinforced by the masculine ideological imperative around the issues of abuse and rape: women need to be raped, they want it, it teaches them a lesson, shows them who is boss, they provoke it anyway, and deserve to be raped. In view of Mr Long’s jocund little epistle, one might add that rape provides a source of levity for men. There seems to be a yawning misconception here about the different ways in which men and women communicate. Not to worry, Mr Long – with a value system like that, if things get tough on the employment front, there will always be a vacancy for you in the judiciary.

Michael Teague
Aylesford, Kent

For the Good of the Sex

Reviewing The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld, edited by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, Susan Eilenberg states that it is the first edition to appear in over a century (LRB, 8 December 1994). Readers may like to know, however, that they can obtain our facsimile reprint of Barbauld’s Poems (1792), which appeared in 1993. We also have Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812) planned for late 1995.

James Price
Woodstock Books,

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