Last week I obtained a much coveted British Library Reader's Card. As my friend Jonathan observed: "I wanted one of them when I was a tramp, but they wouldn't give me one." Indeed not, and not because he was a tramp - it's a question of space. The British Library is not like most libraries: you can't take books out. You have to sit in the library reading any books you want to see. The number of seats is limited, hence so is the number of readers' cards that are issued.
To acquire a card you have to offer a very convincing reason why you can't get the books you wish to study at another library. I said I wanted to research the structure of lotteries - which was true. Specifically I wanted to look at a book called "La Fleur's World Lottery Almanac". When I was directed to use a computer to see whether it was in stock I discovered it wasn't - the book is an American publication. In making this search however I discovered a number of other books I might fruitfully examine. I wasn't going to get these at my local branch library, so I got my card.
There is an awful lot of waiting at the British Library. First you have to queue to hand your bag or briefcase in to a cloakroom - you can't take them in to a reading room. Once you've requested the book you want on a computer screen - there's no wandering along shelves of books in this place - you have to wait while your request is retrieved from the bowels of the building. A little light comes on at your desk when it arrives.
During this waiting period I thought I would visit the Map Room. I had a good reason for doing so - I had a query to resolve. A week or so beforehand I had received some information about an eighteenth century personage called Jonathan Buttall. Though his name is not famous, his image is - well fairly. As a young boy he was painted by Gainsborough; the painting is one of the most famous English portraits ever produced and is best known as Gainsborough's "Blue Boy". (This is the closest my surname comes to touching fame.) From the information I received I learnt that Jonathan Buttall lived in the Soho district of London on the corner of Greek Street and King Street.. The day before I had been in Soho. Greek Street was there but there was no King Street. There was though, leading off Greek Street, a Manette Street. On this corner there was a pub called "The Pillars of Hercules". A sign on the pub claimed it was mentioned in Dicken's "Tale of Two Cities". One of the main characters in that book was a Doctor Manette who supposedly lived in Soho. I was quite sure then that Manette Street was named after this fictional character. Was it therefore previously called King Street? I needed to refer to late eighteenth or early nineteenth century map of London to find out. This, of course, meant making another request on a computer and another wait. Back to the reading room.
By this time one of my books had arrived - on the Irish Lottery, which was actually partly in Irish. (I learnt about 2p in every pound spent on the Irish Lottery goes to support the Irish language.) Then it was back to the Map Room - only to find it was just closing!
The next day I returned. The map was ready to peruse. Yes, Manette Street was formerly known by another name - Rose Street! Disappointment. But then I spotted King Street - better known today as Shaftesbury Avenue. It was only a matter of making a twenty minute walk to discover what was located there today. But first another visit to the reading room where another book should be waiting (some have to be ferried in from Boston in Lincolnshire overnight.). I was intrigued to see what this book would be like: it was called "The First Lottery Dictionary."
As soon as I opened "The First Lottery Dictionary" I was able to ascertain instantly it was complete rubbish. It was simply a long list of words in alphabetical order with a number written by the side of each word. The blurb on the back was as follows: "Don't just play the Lottery - beat it. The First Lottery Dictionary is a unique book especially written for keen lottery players. Containing over 13,000 everyday words translated into numbers. The First Lottery Dictionary allows you to interpret any dream or event into those lucky lottery numbers that could change your life. You can't afford not to buy it. An essential tool for anybody who wants to win the Lottery."
As I said: complete rubbish. The book's publisher recognised this too. On the book's imprint page there was a small message reading. "The theories of number associations contained in this book are to this date unproved scientifically and may not affect your chances of winning the lottery." What a surprise. And just who was this publisher? - Master Publications, 72 New Bond Street, London. Why - only another 20 minutes walk on from Shaftesbury Avenue. The course of my afternoon's perambulation was settled.
The site of the Blue Boy's former residence is now either the stage door entrance of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Palace Theatre or the Bank of China depending on which side of the road number 31 was located. I would prefer it to be the former. I hope eventually to find out. And 72 New Bond Street? That is actually a Timberland clothes shop! Above it, however, are some offices - but not the offices of Master Publications. A person drifting out of one of the offices suggested I enquire at the office of "First Class Services". As much as I could make out from their literature First Class Services seemed to be a tax avoiding outfit. They also served as a mailing address for other companies, one of which was, of course, "Master Publications". "It no longer exists though," I was informed. This did not surprise me.
A few days later I checked the British Library catalogue to discover what other books "Master Publications" had produced. There were none. In truth "Master Publications" had neither right to the plural or the adjective in its title - "The Dim-wit Book Enterprise" would have been a more fitting title.
There is no doubt that London is an amazing place for discoveries. Indeed on my journey twixt Shaftesbury Avenue and New Bond Street I made another one. On the early ninetieth century map I'd been looking at, just south of what had been King Street, I noticed a "Horse and Dolphin Yard". I went to view it to see if it still bore the same name. It did, but now being in that part of Soho called China Town, the name plate for the yard is written in Chinese characters as well as English. These characters I carefully transcribed in my note book to show a Japanese friend of mine - for the Japanese can recognise Chinese characters just about as well as the Chinese. Thus I learnt the Chinese actually call a dolphin a "sea pig" and this quite amazed me for the Irish word for porpoise is "mucmhara" which is also sea pig: two entirely different cultures half a world away, giving the same name to the same animal.
I am always very glad to leave the noise and bustle of London but there is no disputing that it can be an absorbing place once you go in pursuit of a small degree of enlightenment.