The British Library has taught me plenty. Least welcome is the discovery that I’m a bigot. I hate undergraduates. In particular, chatty undergraduates, who mumble into mobiles and hum to iPods, while their free hands wander over other firm young student bodies.
Detect any jealousy? Yes, I mind being prejudiced less than what it implies. Namely, I’m middle aged. But greater issues are at stake. The BL is cool with the kids. This cultural disaster has spawned a new malaise: library rage.
Until 2004 undergraduates weren’t admitted. Then management relaxed the admission criteria without enlarging facilities. Now readers travelling from afar, or fitting research around jobs or childcare, must compete with teenagers from neighbourhood halls of residence, for whom the BL is more convenient than their university libraries. As a result, arrive after 10.30am and you’ll struggle to find a desk. This doesn’t trouble BL characters, like the Lear with Karl Marx beard, who perambulates the reading rooms, trailing vapours eloquent of serious commitment to the Great Unwashed. But until UCL and the LSE admit the likes of me, I’ll feel discriminated against. Meanwhile the BL cloakroom resounds with academics cursing students, as they hunt in vain for a locker. Louder cries echo from the unemployed, who flock for the free internet. A pinstriped man silenced the cafe.
“These prices in a recession?” he railed, brandishing his FT at a server whose hourly rate probably offers little change from a fairy cake. “Think of the young people.”
Judging by their MacBooks, the kids can afford it.
My mood improved with an invitation by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss the perils and pleasures of small talk. The host was in Manchester, while I occupied a tardis near Great Portland Street, but discussion flowed. The other guest mentioned the ultimate faux-pas: asking a well-upholstered lady when her sprog is due. This reminded me of a collision with Stanley Johnson, the mayor’s père, at the launch of his memoirs. ‘You’ve had a baby,’ said Stanley. I said no. He appeared puzzled. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Absolutely,’ I said. He frowned. ‘Why don’t you want a baby?’ ‘How do you know that I don’t?’ I asked. I decided not to share this with Woman’s Hour.
Lacking children, I’ve an anthropological interest in the parenting circus. So I took a friend and her two-year-old to enjoy the fanfares of blossom at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Her son was less thrilled by carnivorous plants than the magnolia trees en route, quaking with blooms like cups at an Edwardian tea party, and the nanny-and-tot zoo that is the King’s Road Pizza Express. What’s stranger: that they sell diet pizzas with big holes in the middle, or that we ordered two for lunch? Congratulations, Pizza Express accountants.
More peculiar, my friend proudly showed me her son’s healthy snack. Goodies’ Organic Carrot Stix, a corn and potato french fry abomination flavoured with ‘carrot and coriander’, which boasts a ‘No Junk Promise’. Further evidence that motherhood may not rot the brain, but green packaging and spurious moral claims definitely do. David Cameron, take note.
Since the financial meltdown, I approach each day as a job-creation scheme. Suddenly banal, self-serving tasks assume virtuous dimensions. My inspiration has been Nigella, the Vesta who so successfully repackaged nostalgia and greed as wholesome and caring.
This is a long way of confessing I’ve become a headline writer’s cliché. Inspired by the austerity trend, I’m a baking addict, at a rate of two cakes a week. This is not a happiness index or an unhappiness index; it’s entirely mercenary. It began when some carpenters came to replace our rotten windows.
I like these manly men. Not only do they identify fixtures by their proper names, but they know how to fix them. So I keep finding other things for them to do. To offset my bossiness, I propitiate them first with a slice of cake. As if to say, “Really, I’m a nice girl; please don’t overcharge me.” They see through my incentive scheme, of course, but they eat the cake. And I get to test more recipes than consideration for my hips, and my husband’s savoury tooth, would allow.
I discussed this circular altruism at the School of Life in Bloomsbury, where curators, writers, and philosophers were debating ideas. By dinner, I was buzzing and somehow set fire to my shoe.
I left to celebrate another successful British business in the West End. Mamma Mia, the Abba musical, is ten years old. Film takings alone exceed £454 million. Everyone wants a sequel. Except Björn. Or is it Benny? One of the furry ones, anyway.
I joined my husband at the Café de Paris for the after party. No stars, just a Song-for-Europe reject, wafting about, longing to be recognised. Hell, Benny and Björn don’t need celebrities. I took this as a sign of their down-to-earth attitude.
They gazed at the dancefloor from a balcony, like two wise Hobbits. We went up to join them. A goon in black tie sent us on our way.
Home for Easter to the middle of middle England, Northamptonshire. We were greeted by a shocking pile of bricks, where once stood the George Inn.
Now one pub remains in a village formerly possessed of a train station, two butchers and six public houses. Northampton used to be the centre of Britain’s shoemakers. Today its chief employers are Carlsberg and Barclaycard. Froth and credit: perfect emblems of our age.
The pub has its memorial; some wizened daffodils tied to a fence, flanked by two crushed Carlsberg cans. The note reads: ‘RIP the George. Thanks for the memories.’
As seen in the Spectator