Yesterday I ventured back to work in central London for the first time since the 16th of March, 2020. Obviously, the student-facing or facilities management staff have been going in fairly regularly already, but from September this year, all of us in professional services as well are required to spend at least 40% of our working hours in the office. I will not quibble about the wisdom of that, other than to say that most of the courses I support and deliver are still online, which I can support better from home, while the other half of my work is content creation, which again benefits from quiet focus. However, I have missed the leafy, academic atmosphere of Bloomsbury and the iconic building where I work. With sunshine and relatively quiet streets before the students return (and ignoring the building works), it was very pleasant indeed to be back.
Senate House Library kindly waived my enormous fine for overdue books. They are celebrating 150 years since the foundation of the library this year, and will have a virtual exhibition of 150 of its most interesting books and artefacts. These include one of the first printed edition of Copernicus’ work, a manuscript of Don Juan by Lord Byron, a first edition of one of the first slave autobiographies, the Nazi Black Book for the British Isles and much more.
Although it was quiet, cool and very safe inside the building, and it was nice to wander around the streets nearby and discover my favourite Greek deli The Life Goddess was still making excellent traditional Greek desserts, the commute was as bad as I had remembered: busy, maskless, insufficient number of coaches on the train, long waits on the Underground. Add to that a very long day (so that I could avoid rush hour). the ‘novely’ of wearing respectable shoes and carrying a heavy backpack with a laptop while going up and down stairs, and you will understand why I collapsed for 45 minutes on my bed when I got back home.
In time, it will no doubt become more manageable. In the meantime, I have one very contented customer who is delighted that I am working from home still on most days.
Lyon is one of my favourite cities, not just because it hosts the annual Quais du Polar crime festival. Yet, no matter how often I come here, I never seem to have enough time to visit everything. So I was determined to do two completely new things this ‘weekend of adieus’: see a show in the Roman amphitheatre for Les Nuits de Fourvière festival; and get to see the Brothers Lumière Museum about early cinema. Well, one out of two is not bad…
The Blues Night featured American blues music legend Taj Mahal; a ‘Mali meets New York’ session with guitarists Habib Koité and Eric Bibb; and local boy (relatively speaking), saxophonist Raphaël Imbert and his band. The atmosphere was very special (at least until the cushions went flying onstage), and it was delightful to see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this kind of music. Thank you to Emma from Book Around the Corner, who suggested I join her for this event!
But the rest of the weekend involved doing a few of my favourite things.
Of course, it’s the last thing I needed right now, but a few books just seemed to sneak their way into my bag. I will write more about the bookshop I got them from in a follow-up post.
So what prevented it from being the perfect weekend? Not the fact that I didn’t make it to the Lumière Museum, but that when I sat down for breakfast at a local café, there was a disturbance outside. A group of diverse young men, some black, some white, some drunk, some sober, started making a great deal of noise and one of them grabbed another by the neck in what looked like a rather violent incident. The police were called and managed to walk one or two of the worst troublemakers away. Then, as I passed in front of the remaining group, I heard them speaking Romanian.
I wanted the pavement to open up and swallow me right then and there.
Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.
After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.
However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.
Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.
By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.
Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.
After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.
It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.
Life is a house of cards. Complex and fragile, it sometimes just comes fluttering down or else you strike it with Alice-like overwhelm morphed into sour temper.
Yet at other times, the weariness is forgotten and everything seems possible. Surprisingly, Beijing (with its loud, crazy traffic and humorous, hard-working and openly curious people) had that effect on me.
I felt I could come home and tackle the long, long list of household, administrative, professional and creative tasks that I have set myself. Not just yet, though. Today I will take time to recover from jetlag and catch up with emails and blog posts. Otherwise, I may end up falling asleep just about anywhere, as is often the case in hard-working China.
It’s not quite Friday yet, but this may well be my Friday Fun contribution for this week, as I start to get up to speed again with all of my work. Lots of reviews coming up too!
Oh, and just a whiff of Beijing smog to spoil the air on my last day there…
Is there any writer out there who doesn’t love stationery? Of course, there are plenty of stationery lovers who are not writers (just hoarders or designers or… procrastinators), so there is no immediate causal link there.
Based on a conversation we started over at dVerse Poets Pub about the tools we really need as poets, I collected a few of my favourite things in this post.
1) Of course I appreciate Moleskine and the reinvention of a brand, but my personal favourite is much simpler and cheaper. Rhodia notebooks have been the smoothest writing experience in France for 80 years now. They have all sorts of ‘nouveautés’ (novelties) every year, but I just stock up on their most basic black or orange note-blocks.
2) I like high-quality fountain pens. In fact, I have my eye on a Montblanc Virginia Woolf pen when I sign my publishing contract – or perhaps for autographing my books.
3) However, more realistically and practically, I bulk-buy Pilot G2 gel rollerballs. They work really well with the slippery-smooth Rhodia pages.
4) I’ve just discovered these rather funky notebooks from Huck and Pucker. An elastic to keep them closed is always a good idea and of course I’m bookish and proud of it!
5) Finally, a trip to London always means a stopover at Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road: a stationery-lover’s idea of heaven. Sadly, they seem to have discontinued (at least online) my favourite notebook type, so you’ll have to make do with my own pictures. It’s a chunky A5 notebook with elastic, colourful plastic covers, 5 sections (lined, squared and blank) with dividers (with pockets to stuff notes in), plus more plastic covers and a zipped purse at the back. Just the most practical, wonderful notebook ever: I carry my whole life around in it! Paperchase, please, please bring it back!
Apparently there is such a thing as National Stationery Week and it’s this week. So, let me know what your ‘cannot live without’ items of stationery are. Do you hoard lots of pretty (and empty) notebooks? Oh, and point me in the direction of your luxury items too, while we are on the subject…
Something a little different this Friday – a lesson in modern history, as the 25th anniversary of the fall of most East European Communist states takes place this year (and I will spare you the ‘am I really so old, it feels like yesterday’ monologues).
Today I want to take you to a journey in the South-East corner of Europe, to Bucharest in Romania. This is the University Library in the heart of the capital in its renovated reincarnation. But it didn’t always look like that…
25 years ago, in December 1989, as Romania was struggling to shake off the shackles of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, the library (BCU, as it’s known in Romanian) suffered from its central location and proximity to the Communist Party headquarters. A fire devastated the building, destroying more than 500 000 books from its collection, as well as countless manuscripts of famous Romanian writers.
I remember a librarian telling me that she was going back into the burning building and carrying out books with her bare hands, tears streaming down her face, as if they were her children.
Fortunately, an appeal made by UNESCO in 1990 led to an outpour of sympathy, support and book donations from all over the world: 100 000 books donated by private individuals and associations in Romania, 800 000 from elsewhere.
Just behind the library was a Secret Service stronghold and listening centre (now integrated into the library extension). The bullet shots attest to the heavy fighting that took place there during those confusing days in late December. I had to write my thesis in another library, as the BCU was closed for many years following this disaster.
The library reopened in 2001. The refurbished old reading rooms are pretty much as I remember them… except for the laptops on every desk, of course.
The new wing is perhaps less ‘atmospheric’ but much more user-friendly. And I like the combination of open shelving and book ordering system. After all, a library without shelves to browse is a bit lifeless, isn’t it?
Unless otherwise specified, all the pictures are from the website of the library http://www.bcub.ro .
Back from our Paris trip and wading through 650+ emails… so I may be a little behind with reading and commenting on your blogs… Here are some highlights from our trip – some iconic sights, and some lesser-known ones.
… I didn’t work, I didn’t write, I didn’t even read anything this weekend. This time it was all about the family, enjoying the autumn (despite the less than sterling weather) and creating memories. And the apple-and-pear juice we made is the best thing we’ve ever tasted!