I don’t know why, but just the sight of the British Library makes me cheer. Just stepping inside its foyer makes my heart do somersaults. Even being frisked by the security guards is a quasi-sexual experience. I think it is because everyone is there voluntarily, and everyone is in a good mood because of it. No-one forced them to go.
The first time I went (I have a photo somewhere) I wore a sappy grin. I knew that Iwas about to read a book of poetry published in 1839 by my great-great-great-grandfather’s brother. How it came to be deposited there, when his other books eluded them, Idon’t know. It was not only in good shape, the pages had not even been cut. Nobody had touched this book since it first found its way into the archives: I had to have special permission to get the pages cut. And within – along with a poem of staggering ineptitude (I have come to realise this, which I didn’t at first), is a record of the kinds of books the author’s father, my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Greenwell, whose birtb and death dates are still a matter of guesswork, although it’s the bicentenary of his marraige next year, was reading, and had recommended to his son.
It also (I’ve blogged this before) gives my great x 4 ancestor’s last words, and even describes my great x 4 grandmother’s appearance (astoundingly, at the height of my family history obsession, I found a picture, tiny, using what process I do not know, of my great x Greenwell grandmother, in Newry – right on the border. And when I say ‘tiny’, I do mean a lot smaller than this, whatever screen you are using. It is smaller than a thumb. It had to have been taken by 1851 at the latest, and it shows an elderly and tired woman. But the provenance is right, that’s the main thing.The British Library was good to me again this week. Since I spend most of my time running or helping with courses, it was an amazing relief actually to be on one, and actually writing, too – quite liberating. It was an oral history course: I learned more in the first two hours than in the rest of my life. Expect more on the oral history front. Now that I’m going back to the North-East, I’d like to find out how much has really been done on the subject of the shipyards – not least because I owe the many riveters, welders etc a debt of honour, since their rattle and clamour kept my great-grandfather in style, while his entrepreneurial skills ensured that there were some jobs. I am not a capitalist at all, but I can’t deny what my great-grandfather was doing. I have yet to see a word against him, whereas my grandfather was not such a class act.