Yesterday I stumbled across the V&A reading rooms. They opened this week. Finding it so soon makes me feel like a regular to the area! There’s a bar with wine and coffee and two friendly members of staff, and then a back room with ceiling-to-floor shelves, and ledges and chairs by the bay windows, with a really eclectic mix of books.
I was short on time so I didn’t stay for long, but I read a bit from a book about the stories of the jazz greats (apparently Duke Ellington was nicknamed Duke at school because of his gracefulness). There were books about art, and history, and novels, and even instruction books; Cath Kidston’s ‘Make!’ for example.
I liked this reading room, but it didn’t really have a homely feel to it. It was more chic. It’s South Kensington, after all, and it’s not all that hidden away.
In Nottingham there is a secret library which holds a great deal more magic, to me. Market Square is the commercial centre of Nottingham. On the edge of it, between a charity shop and a stationers, there is a large Victorian door that most people walk straight past; just like in Harry Potter – if you don’t know it’s there, you won’t see it. You have to be a member to gain access to the library, but since hardly anyone knows about it, I smuggled myself in… someone was leaving just as I was about to give up on the locked door. They must have assumed I was a member too.
In the entrance there was a large staircase and silence. I made my way up, past some old painted portraits, and into… the library of dreams – a library out of a Victoriannovel. The books were arranged by decade. The further you went in, the more you felt like you were going back in time. There was a balcony that ran all along the inside of the four walls, and old leather chairs, and a spiral staircase. Downstairs there were quite a few people browsing – it wasn’t a huge space, with so many books taking up the room – but upstairs most of the rooms were empty. The layers of dust were of varying thickness. They had the complete collection of Punch. Some books were behind glass, but I picked up a first edition of Persuasion by Austen. It was exciting to hold something so old and fragile in my hands. The print was tiny! Sometimes I forget how lucky we are to live in these times; we have had the time to improve the world.
Since I wasn’t a member, I didn’t dare try to borrow a book, and I had heard it was quite expensive to join. I had also heard that there is a secret garden behind the library. Just imagine! A whole Victorian garden, so close to Market Square! Well, you will have to join the library to see it for yourself.
My vision of the perfect reading room is an amalgamation of all the libraries in all the castles and English manor houses that I visited growing up. Kenwood has a beautiful library. It seems less beautiful to me as an adult, but as a child it felt like a sort of heaven.
I wonder if they had those red ropes even when I was little. I can’t remember them being there.
All these old manors and castles had a great influence over me. I can’t remember the individual ones – apart from Kenwood, since we’re regulars there because we live so near. These experiences form part of the background of my childhood. All that design through time has seeped into my subconscious. It’s pretty useful to have it there.