Day Eight: In which I do battle with handwriting (and lose)

Thanks to the Great LJ Overmind, I’ve managed to up my count of signed copies of Midnight Never Come from two to fourteen. (Not including the piles at Orbit.) On my way to fjm‘s lst night, I stopped off in Oxford Street and hit the Waterstones there; I did not, however, hit the Borders, on account of it being inside the police cordon closing off a chunk of the street after the fatal stabbing there the day before. Er. Yeah. Yikes.

So if you live in the London area and want a signed copy, here’s the tally of where to find them:

  • Fleet Street, Books Etc. — 2 MNC
  • Oxford Street, Waterstones — 1 MNC
  • Trafalgar Square, Waterstones — 1 MNC, 1 Doppelganger, 1 Warrior and Witch
  • Shaftsbury Avenue, Forbidden Planet — 4 MNC, 2 W&W
  • Charing Cross, Blackwell’s — 2 MNC
  • Charing Cross, Borders — 4 MNC

I was surprised to find any of my first two books here, but hey. Cool.

On my way back from Charing Cross Road (which I had trouble finding because the damn cross is no longer where it should be — that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it), I decide to have an adventure. Blithely ignoring all the roads I know, I strike out eastward, and make my way back to the Guildhall with no need of maps. Not only do I find the Freemasons’ Hall and the Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I have enough sense of where I am that when I come out of a narrow lane onto a larger road, I correctly guess that I’ve reached Holborn.

After scarfing down lunch, I descend into the cellars of the Guildhall Art Museum to view the excavated remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre. Why am I viewing this, whe it’s gone more than a thousand years before my period begins? Because I’m a classics geek, but also because the amphitheatre is buried, and therefore, like the Walbrook, a part of the Onyx Hall.

Then it’s time for another round of everyone’s favorite game, How Stupid Will I Be? Returning to the Guildhall Library, I ask for assistance in locating information on the loan Charles asked the City for in 1639 or 1640. I dig up a little information there, but the staff woman tells me that all those records are temporarily being kept elsewhere: at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell.

How stupid will I be?

Cinching my backpack on more tightly, I hike halfway back to the Angel, ready to do battle with the archives. What I end up doing battle with is microfilm readers and seventeenth-century handwriting. Oh yes — they have the records from both the Council of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council. Photographed onto microfilm. From the original handwritten documents. If I could spend a week here, I might be able to decipher enough to find the information I need. As it stands, I’m barely even able to find the right records; it’s near-impossible to make out the dates on these things, let alone anything else.

But I give it one last shot. I fill out a pair of forms, hand them in, and park myself in the room for reading actual books. When my requests arrive, the desk clerk reaches into the first box and fishes out a parcel by the string wrapping it shut. He drops it unceremoniously in front of me. I collect it, take it to my table . . . .

And God help me, he’s handed me a stack of rotting, unbound paper.

The things I read in the Guildhall Library last Thursday were re-bound copies of printed seventeenth-century books. This pile of manuscript pages look like they were bound once, but that binding has long since become an old and forgotten joke. The second item I requested doesn’t even have that; you can see the age-darkened creases where the papers were folded and shoved into someone’s desk drawer. The paper feels like old, soft cloth, and it leaves a trail of dusty bits at the bottom of the foam blocks I use to support the texts, the edges flaking despite my care.

Man, if I lived in London, I would do it. I would learn the archives’ labyrinthine cataloguing system, conquer period handwriting, learn my way around these records. I would forget I’m a novelist and not an archival historian.

I would never get the damn book written.

I give my decaying pages a few minutes of my time, pretending for the clerk’s sake that I’m actually reading the things he’s brought me, taking in the sensory experience. And then I wrap it all up again, thank him, and walk back home.

Only a few things left to do. (The Whitehall model, for the record, is in the Cabinet offices — yeah, like I’m getting in there — and Charles’ death warrant is protected such that you have to show solid proof that a reproduction or image won’t be sufficient for your research. I somehow don’t think a writer’s ghoulish interest in the ink that killed a king would suffice.) At the Orbit offices, I have my second phone interview, this time with a magazine called Death Ray, whose editor asks far more substantial questions than the name might lead you to expect. Done there, I head south and do what I didn’t have the time for last year: go west from the far end of Blackfriars Bridge and see if that gives me a better view of what might be the outflow of the Fleet. Nope: can’t see it at all. Back eastward, then, so I can repeat last year’s stunt, walking from the south end of London Bridge to the center so I can make a wish. Stupid Neil Gaiman, putting that idea in my head.

As I eat my final dinner — where else — on the steps of the cathedral, some closing thoughts:

1) Last year’s trip was six days; this was eight. I suspect this is about the longest I can be functional for. If I were living in more civilized conditions, if I were taking a slower pace — if I were, say, doing lots of archival research <g> — then maybe I could manage longer, but as it stands, eight days is good.

2) Operation Improved Arch Support has been a success. The waterproofing of these shoes hasn’t been tested (of course it doesn’t rain when I’m prepared for it), but while my feet have experienced cramps and occasionally felt like pounded pieces of insensate meat, I’ve had none of the my-arches-are-collapsing shooting pains of last year.

3) Operation To Hell With My Accent has been, um. Entertaining! Last year I tried to squelch my chameleon tendency, and ended up with some godawful thing that was trying to be American vowels plus British intonation, with bad results. This year I decided to let my accent do whatever it felt like. So of course this year, on three separate occasions, I find myself in the company of mixed Brits and Americans or Canadians, which is a good recipe for schizophrenic pronunciation. But one guide at Ham House told me I didn’t have much of an accent, which is a nice indication that when I let it shift English, it doesn’t sound too fake.

4) I have used up very nearly all of this notebook, and I keep expecting my pen to give up the ghost mid-letter. (Gel pens, man. They’ve got no stamina.)

So I will end my travelouge here. Tomorrow I go to Rome, at which point Internet access will likely become spottier. Don’t expect daily blogging (or replies to pretty much anything), but I’ll update when I can.


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