There’s something about revisiting old haunts which does both body and soul good. It’s doubly interesting when these old haunts are both physical and conceptual – literal and figurative. Thursday was one of those days. It began in usual furry fashion, as I awoke to find ginger lying on my back, purring like a geiger counter in a Sellafield fish shop, patiently waiting for his breakfast. We dined like kings, and I did some ironing. Then I loaded my library gear into my satchel, donned my greatcoat and set off into the morning air.
I’m particularly fond of my coat. It belonged to my grandfather, who was a fine fellow, and is proof against wind and cold, if not driving rain and, being woollen, helps to keep one fit and firing on all cylinders. Plus it has deep pockets. I tried, as ever, to write on the train but trains are the tools of Morpheus for me these days – I sleep almost as soon as I sit down. At Victoria I mooch about a bit, not entirely remembering where I’m going to, before walking to the river. Naturally, it sprinkles with rain, but nothing too terrible, and I cross the river. The Thames was as full as I’ve ever seen it – a couple of feet below the walls on its banks, covering the pilings of Vauxhall bridge. I walk East, and am passed by joggers, all seemingly impervious to the existence of others. I stop. I have lunch. Was I dawdling? Well, yes – it’s been so long since I’ve looked at something ‘proper’ that I’m a little apprehensive, to say the least. There’s a lot of apprehension in my world at present. After moving I’ve sort of stopped. Treading water while I wait for the lifeboat or the sharks.
Lambeth Palace Library is a funny little place. There’s an arched doorway in the wall with a bell. You ring it and someone comes and opens the door. You hang your coat up, sit down in the readers’ room and wait for your book to come. It was practically empty – none of the usual smattering of nuns (what is the collective noun for nuns? A habit? A compulsion?) – so I indulged in a little tweeting. I tweet that I’ve forgotten how to do academia, and a get a speedy response, ‘you start with a long coffee break’, followed by ‘then a long lunch break’.
My tome arrives. It is a bundle of letters collected by one Gibson fellow (never did bother to find out who he was). Still, he plainly left them to the church, hence my being at the library of ecclesiology.
The scary part is opening the book. You lay it down on a big pillow into which you’ve bashed a small depression for the spine (which is around 5 inches thick), put it down spine first, and gently allow its leave to spread. Then you get distracted by the first letter you see and read that before going for the letter you want. These letters were written 390 years ago. They’re still in fantastic shape because the paper was made of old pants, not wood pulp. The record is patchy, even considering these were written by, or to, the one-time Lord Chancellor of England. There are innumerable letters missing. The one I want was to Elizabeth of Bohemia, and considering Bacon was meant to have been her mentor, the fact that only one letter remains is instructive. Any of you who believe Shakespeare wrote no letters because we have none in our libraries take note.
I’m annotating this letter for a friend – that is, sticking in explanatory footnotes, context, cross-referencing, that sort of thing. I thought I’d start by checking the transcription. This may not seem to matter, but some academics base arguments on minutiae, so whether there’s a comma or a semi-colon or how honour or colour are spelled can be important. Often you find whole words mistaken. I found 25 errors, some blatant, some contentious. Go figure.
I enjoyed the chase. It was nice to be back looking at a letter Bacon had written himself. I felt incredibly uncomfortable at first, but as I noted things such as <Ma.> Being transcribed as <Majesty,>, I felt better. To explain, the <.> indicates missing letters, or that this is a contraction, the italics in the transcription showing the missing letters, while the <,> is simply an habitual insertion …
But when I left, I was glad to leave. It was a good thing that I did, not least helping out a friend, and it was fun. I don’t preclude a bit of hard academia every now and again, but I’m so far out of the game that it will only ever be superficial. I walked past the joggers happy I’d looked at Bacon’s hand again, happier still that I wasn’t going to have to do so again for quite some time.
Sometimes, when you revisit old haunts, what you really learn is why they’re old haunts. We move on. Inexorably.