British Library

The day began the way its predecessor ended, in a deep state of frustration. Travel. One goes so many places. One of the worst places involves age. There are certain mobile phones geared to those with age under their belts, and I purchased one upon arrival the other day at St. Pancras Station. The young Iranian man who sold it to me was not only kind, but indulgent. I had lost my other British mobile phone somehow, moving down the great road of life. But here I was with my Vodafone card in hand. And this young man took me in hand himself. Helped me purchase a new phone, while retaining the old phone number, inserting a new SIM card and, above all, finding a model that was all simplicity, not to mention equipped with large quadriplegic-friendly keys. I was really in business.

Until I started to get just beyond the dialing and answering stage. Messaging. Young people love to text. In fact, old people also love text messages. I suppose it’s really one-handed people who hate the key punching and three-letters-per-button reality of texting. Never mind. For I am nothing if not adaptable, right? Besides my friend Marion specifically asked me to send her restaurant instructions for Monday evening. So there I was, punching away…68 Millman St., Bloomsbury, fully entered, the aromas of a good London curry already in my brain…and all the message needed was Marion’s mobile phone number. Where it all collapsed. I could not see any place to enter anyone’s number. So at midnight, there I was, angry and feeling stupid and trying and trying. In the course of which I managed to phone my cousin’s daughter Alexandra by mistake. A mistake which by the following morning became compounded when I also sent this lovely young woman an equally stupid text message concerning said restaurant – the Salaam Namaste, by the way – to which Alexandra was wise enough to reply with the only conceivable message. Paul, did you mean to send this to me?

In short, I am traveling. Forward in geography, backward in time, and what does it all mean?

It means that London has just experienced the worst June ever. To put a finer point on it, this has been the wettest June in recorded British history. And let us note that Britons have been recording history for an impressive span of time. At one location in Yorkshire, the normal month’s rainfall descended in three hours. Get the picture? The picture is continuously clouding over, that is the point. Which explains why Jane, feeling somewhat harried after a day of socializing and eating…the long and short of what these compressed trips to the UK entail…was wondering if we might take it easy today. Or if she might. And my response was to announce my intention to set off on the annual shopping trip to Oxford Street while she had a slower day in and around the British Library. The latter being the logical scene for our morning coffee, followed by a look at Europe’s oldest intact book (eighth century). And I made my way toward the door, just as the skies opened and the latest in the 40-days-and-40-nights English weather saga resumed. Never mind. I did not really need to go shopping, believe me. The current exhibit on pastoral and urban influences in British literature seemed much more interesting. And indeed for the next three hours it was.

I can only take so much in. This holds true of any museum, for me. It was time to go now. I was going to miss the maritime part. Not to mention the multiethnic influences. Even Cockney culture in literature fell by the wayside. Enough, and I was out of there, and next thing I knew just outside one of the lifts a young woman stood crying. Something in me can react rather harshly at such moments, the pull of my disturbed mother being what it was or is. But not now. I asked her if I could help. She had crumbled herself into a corner, a girl in her early 20s. She was weeping as unobtrusively as possible. And when I spoke, she straightened herself, dabbed at her eyes, and did what any self respecting British person always does. She said she was sorry.

She had issues with social exposure, she said. Issues. One of those American usages that have crept into Britain, and most unfortunately. Simply the wrong word. But this was not the time to edit life. This was a time to be present, make eye contact and say I was sorry myself. Also the wrong word to an American, this ‘sorry.’ But we were not editing each other, she and I. Her story continued. She had journeyed to London from some point north at considerable expense. And I can vouch for this, the staggering cost of British rail travel. Anyway, she had submitted a request to do some research in the rare books section of the British Library, the UK’s equivalent of our Library of Congress. Come all this way, only to find that her bank statement was not acceptable proof of address. And here she was crying, social issues and all. And I felt for her. What could I say, and how intrusive could I be without seeming inappropriate? Except to assure her that there was nothing to be sorry for. To listen without looking away, then urge her to be brave. And add that she already was brave. It seemed time to go then. I left. And in some strange way, she made my day.

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