from a poem by …

from a poem by Visar Zhiti:

Seize
Bolts of lightning from the sky
And plant them in fields of life.

They will grow like tender sprouts of fire.
Charge somber thoughts
With unexpected flash,
You, my lightning in the soil!

My dear friend @hapaxnym shared this poem with me.

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Lightning and stars

It’s not a battle. It’s a journey lit and fueled by lightning, then illuminated by stars.

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“The books that…

“The books that we give to children, that are written for children, say profound things about how we view ourselves as people, how we see our place in the world, how we construct time and space. The deepest underlying matrix of a culture can be found in the unspoken assumptions in children’s books: how the genders interact, what makes a family, who is in charge in the world, who has power, who brings grace.” ~GraceAnne A. DeCandido

This is the introductory paragraph to the courses I taught in children’s literature for the Rutgers online graduate program.

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Giles: Hero Librarian

Rupert Giles and Search Tools for Wisdom in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

first published in 1999

I am not alone in the belief that the appearance of school librarian Rupert Giles on television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer has done more for the image of the profession than anything in the past fifty years, with the possible exception of Katherine Hepburn in Desk Set. Giles, this wily and attractive professional, is our hero librarian: a pop culture idol whose love of books and devotion to research hold the key to saving the universe – every week. I know librarians who use quotations from the episodes in their email sig files. The Internet Public Library has named all of its office computers after characters in the show.

For those who might inexplicably have missed it, I will attempt a brief summary of the dramatis personae in the Buffyverse over the past three years. Giles is The Watcher: the source of training, counterintelligence, and guidance for high schooler Buffy Summers, the one of her generation chosen as the Vampire Slayer. Giles is the school librarian and Buffy a student at Sunnydale High School, in a balmy southern California town. Sunnydale is most notable for being situated on the Hellmouth: a place where vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness gather as bees to honey. Buffy, a small, delicate-looking blonde of supra-human strength, relies on Giles not only for adult support and coaching, but also for the research necessary to do that for which the Vampire Slayer has been chosen. In the third season, Giles is officially relieved from his Watcher duties, but he ignores that and continues as Buffy’s trainer, confidant, and father-figure.

Buffy’s buddies (called, affectionately, the Slayerettes or the Scooby Gang) include the nevercool Xander; his best friend the brilliant and fashion-impaired Willow; Xander’s reluctant sweetie and later nemesis the gorgeously shallow Cordelia; and Willow’s occasional genius (and occasional werewolf) boyfriend Oz the musician. They comprise Buffy’s support group. They meet and conduct much of their research in the school library. Giles, whose collection development policy must be an extraordinary document, has access in the stacks to a vast number of volumes on vampire and demon lore, the occult, witchcraft, spellcasting, and other rarities not usually found among the copies of Huckleberry Finn and Weetzie Bat. (That gets him into trouble with censors, too, as we see in Gingerbread.)

Others in the cast definitely come from the dark side. Buffy’s own love (and sometimes ex-honey) is a brooding, beautiful 243-year old Irish vampire named Angel, who has been cursed with a conscience. There are many vampires, demons, and Evil Guys, some of whom make multiple appearances. The school principal is a regular bad guy; the town mayor is an evil of monumental proportions.

Giles: our great sage and sex symbol

It is a heady experience for any profession to find itself an integral part of a wildly popular TV series. How much more so for librarians, who have been bedeviled with a poor public image since at least the nineteenth century. Giles of course moves across the stereotype in other, not necessarily positive ways – he is both male and technologically inept.

Giles is tweedy, occasionally befuddled, and very wise, with a certain amount of darkness in his own past. He dropped out of Oxford to pursue magicks, but then moved to the British Library, and thence to Sunnydale where duty called him. He comes from a family of Watchers, reads a number of languages, and, until her untimely death, had a passionate relationship with the Romany technopagan computer instructor, Jenny Calendar.

We have a librarian model who is elegant, deeply educated, well if fussily dressed, handsome, and charged with eroticism. In a world of teens where parents rarely make an appearance, he is a stable, friendly, and supportive adult. He stands by Buffy even when the powers that be require him to step down. He lives the faith that answers can be found, and most often found in the pages of a book.

Giles is icon and image for us; in him we see our quotidian struggles to provide the right information and the right data resolved into a cosmic drama with the forces of darkness, some of which are extremely attractive, by the way. We love Giles because at last we have a pop image for our uneasy relationship with dark and light, information and story, books and technology.

We love Giles and we loved his romance with the computer-instructor-cum-Romany-Wicca. We mourned when – and this is as emotionally complicated as can be – the vampire with a soul who loved Buffy murders Jenny, whom Giles loved. We see Giles struggle valiantly with information sources, we can see his love of story, we can see, as Xander says, that “knowledge is the ultimate weapon” and that format is the least of our problems when there are vampires and demons about.

Giles: “I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming text”

The librarians who follow Buffy find a great deal of library lore and information seeking behavior, as well as an occasional drop of genuine wisdom, in the words of Giles, Buffy, and the denizens of Sunnydale. We can deconstruct some dialogue from the show (with citations to episodes) for our own delectation and amusement, as follows.

Willow: How is it you always know this stuff? You always know what’s going on. I never know what’s going on.
Giles: Well, you weren’t here from midnight until six researching it.
-Angel
Giles: Knowing why you are back [from hell] would give you peace of mind?
Angel: It might.
Giles: You think that’s something you ought to have? Because, sir, to be blunt, the last time you became complacent about your existence turned out rather badly. Well, we start, not surprisingly, with research.
-Amends

The plodding nature of most research cannot be eliminated, even by brilliance and magic, even when we might not want to know what it is we are seeking. It is Giles’ particular gift to cast a glamour over the kind of dogged reference we practice daily. He invests the methodical search for the fact that will solve the problem at hand with a kind of fierce joy, but he never underestimates its cost in time or care.

Giles: I’m sure my books and I are in for a fascinating afternoon.
-Phases
Giles, echoing Buffy: Get my books. Look stuff up.
-The Pack
Willow: I’m sure he will. He’s like…Book Man!
-Passion

Books are central. It is in books that Giles, as the Watcher, finds the images, the information, the incantation, the lore that will assist Buffy in her struggle against the Hellmouth and its universe of monsters. While Giles relies upon Willow to search the internet for materials, like newspaper records and police logs, not easily accessible in print, Giles believes that what he needs to know for Buffy’s sake lies in his many volumes at home and at work. Giles also makes that necessary leap of faith common to all good librarians: he bridges the chasm between the information as it lives in the text and the transfer of that information into a form the Slayerettes and Buffy can actually use. Sometimes that means literal translation, other times it means recasting what he reads into stories, or tag lines, or aphorisms that make sense to the teens he serves. The sacredness of the book, the literal power of words, underscore the action in Buffy’s world. They form the matrix and latticework for all that terrific Pow! Kick! Stake! stuff that happens later.

Xander: He’s like SuperLibrarian. Everyone forgets, Willow, that knowledge is the ultimate weapon.
-Never Kill a Boy on the First Date
Willy: So, what can I do for you? Couple of drinks?
Xander: Yeah. Let me get a double shot of, um… of information, pal.
-Amends

While snide comments about Giles’ profession abound, the core belief that knowledge is the answer underlies all. This is apparent from Xander’s remarks even though he and others are often cavalier about regular school assignments. What can be found in the library is central. There are many weapons to be had in Sunnydale. Buffy uses the classic silver, cross, and stake, among others and Giles has an array of medieval weaponry: most of this is stored at the library. The Slayerettes have a very high level of rapier teen wit, peppered with pop-cult references and sly asides. The thirst to know, however, is at the core of it all: to know the forces of darkness, to name them, and hence to defang them; to know themselves, as they dance on the edge of maturity; to search out the specifics of how to overmaster a particular demon along with the principles of how knowledge can lead to larger truths. What a message for us to emblazon on our t-shirts and on our hearts.

Angel: They’re children, making up bedtime stories of friendly vampires to comfort themselves in the dark.
Willow: Is that so bad? I mean the dark can get pretty dark. Sometimes you need a story.
-Lie to Me
Oz: Fairy tales are real.
-Gingerbread

Willow places her hand precisely on a central truth of Buffy, and of librarianship. Sometimes these teens need a story to cover themselves for a lost assignment or a lost weekend. Sometimes, though, they need a story to tell themselves to get through the latest horrific vision or ghastly demise. Sometimes, it is the story itself that brings both comfort and information: in the beginning of the third season, a voiceover from Jack London’s Call of the Wild was used to great effect.
We know this as we work. We know the reference desk as a continuing story with cliche and banality along with a flashy denouement or a trailer for next week. We know the story of staff meetings where we wish a wooden stake could turn misbegotten shape to dust. We know the stories we tell ourselves when one more technical problem threatens the simplest task. And sometimes those stories hold a goblin, because how else could the machines on which so much of our work lives are predicate be so damnedly recalcitrant?
Buffy also identifies her role as a storybook hero in Killed by Death, when she tells the child in the hospital, “We both know there are real monsters. But there are also real heroes that fight monsters. And that’s me.” The story enables us to see not only the teen Buffy as a true hero, but Giles, Book Man, SuperLibrarian, as a hero also.

Jenny, to Giles: The divine exists in cyberspace the same as out here.
-I Robot, You Jane

Giles has definite issues with computers and online technology. He is a living metaphor for what those of us d’un certain âge might have gone through as the profession we thought we had joined transmuted itself into something very, very Else.
The core of librarians who got their MLS degrees 25 years ago and more are now doing things professionally that were unimaginable to the selves we were then. We came to librarianship because we loved the sound of words talking to each other, rubbing up against each other; or because the world inside a story was far more real to us than the world inside our neighborhoods; or because we loved chasing an idea around. For many of us, librarianship originally was a choice to separate ourselves from workplaces that were less humane, less involved in the drama of peoples’ lives.
It came as a shock to some of us, as it does to Giles, that the glass box (the computer Jenny refers to as “the good box”) could also be a tool in the search for knowing, and an increasingly indispensable tool. In I Robot, You Jane, Giles tells Jenny, “If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible” in the smell and texture of old volumes. In the same episode, Giles confesses to Buffy that computers fill him with “childlike terror.” Jenny gently chides him for living in the Middle Ages, and assures him he will enter the new century with a few years to spare. We do see him, much later, yelling at a computer that has wantonly disconnected him from the “Frisky Watchers Chat Room” (Gingerbread).

Giles: They’re confiscating my books.
Buffy: Giles, we need those books.
Giles: Believe me, I tried to tell that to the nice man with the big gun.
Giles: This is intolerable. Snyder has interfered before, but I won’t take this from that twisted little homunculus.
Snyder: I love the smell of desperate librarian in the morning.
Giles: You get out… and take your marauders with you.
Snyder: Oh, my. So fierce.
Snyder: Just how is, um,
Blood Rites and Sacrifices appropriate material for a public school library? Chess Club branching out?
-Gingerbread

Giles knows about challenges to the school library, too. In this chilling episode, mothers turn against their own children, attempting to burn the books that the principal and the parents see as harmful, occult, or just plain weird. There’s an aborted plot to torch teens along with titles in the guise of chasing after child murderers (the ghost children turn out to be demons themselves, sent to sow discord).

Buffy: You’re the Watcher, I just work here.
Giles: Yes. I must consult my books.
-When She Was Bad
Giles: I’d best head to the library. Research beckons.
-Killed By Death
Buffy: But, Giles, it’s one thing to be a Watcher and a librarian … The point is, no one blinks an eye if you wanna spend all your days with books.
-What’s My Line (Part 1)

Giles takes a lot of kidding because of his perceived stuffiness, his single-minded approach to problems, and his apparent lack of current awareness. However, the kidding doesn’t negate how fully the Slayerettes are invested in Giles as both a mentor and a symbol of adult comfort and reassurance. He knows what his job is, so do they, and so do we.
YA and reference librarian Lesley Knieriem of the South Huntington Public Library, New York said it well in an e-note: “Giles is appealing to librarians in that he portrays us as we like to think we are: enormously intelligent, literate, genteel, sensitive, devoted to our patrons, with a sexy, ferocious ‘ripper’ concealed within, only to be let out when needed to slay the demons of ignorance. Yes, he does fit many of the stereotypes: bookish, stuffy, reserved, technophobic (this last isn’t any of us!). Giles embraces his stuffiness, pokes gentle fun at it, and transcends it.”
Giles: To forgive is an action of compassion, Buffy. It’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it.
-I Only Have Eyes For You

We have all had supervisors who have done unforgivable things to us; we may have done a few ourselves to those we supervise. We have all had patrons who have fought their particular demons right in front of the check-out desk, and we wanted to avert our eyes. Giles, given to pronouncements but rarely to exhortation, here states a truth as cleanly as any prophet. We hope it comforted Buffy; it can certainly comfort us.

Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by the pointy horns or black hats. And, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.
-Lie To Me

We have seen the books and materials that provide us with information and textual analysis of the bad guys can also provide us with stories wherein we conquer the demons and go forth. Giles reminds us that some days, the dragon wins. And that good and evil are rarely so separate that we can distinguish them clearly without the white light of study and analysis. Finally, we might look at the words of another character, whom, we might say, knows that self-knowledge is the ultimate weapon. His name is Whistler.

Whistler: Bottom line is, even if you see ‘em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No ones asks for their life to change, not really … The big moments are gonna come, can’t help that. It’s what you do afterward that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.
-Becoming, Part 1
Whistler: There’s moments in your life that make you. That set the course of who you’re gonna be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes … they’re not.
-Becoming, Part 2

Whistler, nominally a demon, has as his function to maintain the balance between good and evil – a metaphor for technical services if there ever was one. It is he who provides Angel with the opportunity to even the odds for Buffy, and brings them together. Whistler indulges in a bit of philosophy that might be as useful in our lives as in our so potent art. Change will come, and it is what we do when it comes that matters. We have our tools.

Giles: You did good work tonight, Buffy.
Buffy: And I got a little toy surprise.
Giles: I had no idea that children en masse could be gracious.
Buffy: Every now and then, people surprise you.
-The Prom
Named as Class Protector during the Prom, Buffy has a moment of solace, and Giles sees the teenagers he serves in a new light. People surprise us all the time, in the questions they ask, in the way they use the answers, in their need to know, and sometimes in their gratitude.

Buffy and her friends have now graduated from high school, in a spectacular denouement that banishes Angel and provides us with ample reason to wonder what Giles’ next career move is. He says Buffy no longer needs the Watcher’s Council, but it is clear she still needs a librarian.
Indispensable Buffy References
Golden, Christopher and Nancy Holder with Keith R.A. DeCandido. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher’s Guide. Pocket/S&S. 1998. Pbk. $14. ISBN 0-671-02433-7. The Episode Guide included (written by my son) gives the writers credit for all these great lines, episode by episode, from the first two seasons.

Excellent articles from Salon magazine about Buffy are listed here.

There are many and various other online articles about BtVS, and I have not updated these references. Instead I refer you to BuffyGuide.com. 3/19/2003

GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido has spoken about Giles at his alma mater, Oxford, and at his state conference, the California Library Association. An earlier version of this article, covering the first two seasons, appears in The Cybrarian’s Manual 2, edited by Pat Ensor, American Library Association. A somewhat different version of this article was the cover feature in American Libraries magazine for September 1999, and is included in The Whole Library Handbook 3, edited by George Eberhart, also published by ALA.

Please do not distribute or reproduce without my express permission.

GraceAnne A. DeCandido ©2014

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Words Are All We Have: A Very Brief Disquisition on Librarians, Technology, Access, Feminism, and The Truths of Things

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American Theological Library Association Plenary Speaker presentation, June 23, 2001

Words Are All We Have: A Very Brief Disquisition on Librarians, Technology, Access, Feminism, and The Truths of Things

Some wise person has said — I may have said it myself — that words are all we have. I have made my living with words, one way or another, for over twenty-five years. Today I want to talk with you about some of the words we use to define ourselves, our work, and our future.

Actually, of course, it was Samuel Beckett who wrote that “Words are all we have.” Now he is surely a guy for our time, an Irishman living in Paris, writing in two languages, mostly about absurdity. You’d think he had experience on the reference desk.

When I was wrestling with words for this talk, a colleague suggested a book to me that spoke so powerfully to what I wanted to say that I cannot resist quoting from it here.

“In the beginning was the word. This is of course one of the most shattering metaphysical statements in the New Testament, and more than any other statement it provides the basis for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. But it’s not only a metaphysical statement. With its roots simultaneously in the Hebrew and the Greek tradition—in the Hebrew tradition, where the very first act of God in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible is to speak, and in the Greek tradition, where the word for “word” and the word for “reason” are the same—this declaration affirms that the act of communication is at the very center not only of human existence and its origins but of the mystery of the Divine Being itself.  And so the transmission of the word, the moving of the word from within to without, from the word that dwells within to the word that emerges, logos endiatbetos to logos propborikos—the mystery of that process is the mystery of divine communication and of divine self-communication, and therefore of the Divine Self.

Human beings, being created, according to that first chapter of the first book of the Bible, in the divine image, in the image of a God who has no face, participate through the divine image in the mystery of the Divine Being by reflecting those capacities of the Divine Being that lie at the center of self-revelation. And those capacities are two, but finally they are one: the capacity to love and the capacity to communicate. For in the beginning was the word.”

The writer here is Jaroslav Pelikan, “Writing as a means of grace” in Going on Faith: Writing as a Spiritual Quest, edited by William Zinsser, Marlowe/Publishers Group West, 1998 pbk.

If librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas – and I believe that is the truest definition of what we do – then librarianship too is a means of grace. We connect people to the idea, the thought, the word. The Divine.

 So let’s talk about a few words, the kinds of words that we use to define ourselves and our work.  Let’s talk about the word technology. It has a wonderful derivation, from the Greek techne, for art or artifice, from the IndoEuropean base tekth, to weave or join; the Greek tekton, for carpenter; and the Latin texere, to weave or to build. That dictionary search proved to me that the technology we are working with, using words like web and architecture and cyberspace, is tied to the word rather elegantly. We librarians have always been creative in our uses of technology to connect the reader and the idea, so it isn’t a word that should startle or surprise us. Just now we are trying to get two specific kinds of technologies, our books and our terminals, to lie down peacefully together, the lion and the lamb.

There’s a story I like to tell about technology — about the technology of the hearth. The invention of the stone hearth captured and harnessed a terrifying power, that of fire, and domesticated it. The stone hearth made possible long-term cooking, light when it was dark outside, warmth when it was cold, and storytelling after dinner. The image of the hearth is still the image of warmth, solace, sustenance, and comfort after lo! these many centuries.

But — bringing fire inside the house! — imagine that. Imagine how strange, how terrifying, it must have been. Imagine how the first person to carry the living flames in a bowl of rock into the cave, or the shelter, was jeered at and, probably, accused of terrible things. She would destroy what had been so carefully nurtured. She would harm the children.  There would be untold dangers. But it turned out all right, didn’t it?

I think the current folderol about books versus bytes is going to turn out all right, too. It is extremely instructive to go back through library literature and read about the extraordinary and vicious controversies that surrounded the acquisition of audiobooks— books on tape — in libraries two or three decades ago. There was a lot of talk of “automation” and the soul of librarianship about twenty years ago. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — around the time our parents and grandparents were born, not so long past — librarians argued with great passion and evident sincerity about the morality of adding modern fiction to their collections, you know, regular novels, not necessarily “literature.”

Can you imagine?

I amuse myself by trying to imagine what our professional children and grandchildren are going to think about our getting all bent out of shape over computers and their myriad uses, over the use of the word “information,” over the struggle we clearly are still having with technology.

There is a radio program about early music that airs in New York City called Here of a Sunday Morning with a wonderful fellow – he’s British, by the way, and an attorney in real life – named Chris Whent http://www.hoasm.org/. Recently when discussing the rise of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, he noted that some scholars viewed increasing literacy and the accessibility of the new printed books with great alarm. Why, anyone could print anything with a scholar’s name on it, and who would know any better? How could we be sure if we didn’t hear it directly from the scholar’s lips?

And so I quote from Socrates, as Plato said,

“…even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know, and that only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul, which is the true way of writing, is there clearness and perfection and seriousness…”

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. We have been there before.

That view, of course, comes from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates and Phaedrus discourse on the unreliability of written text  <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/phaedrus.html&gt;.  It sounds so much like current discussions about scholarly verification and authentication in cyberspace that I found it quite startling.

 In the current media and political obsession about access to pornography on the net, tangled as it is in deep notions of sexuality, gender, morality, and the care of children, we have lost track of a very great revolution:  the way the net has engendered a resurgence of words. People are writing again. It is a pleasure to watch an email correspondent go from all capital letters and no signature to gossipy, thoughtful, or informative posts online. Even Instant Messenger, with its funny abbreviations and iconographic emoticons, offers a power to words, to communication, to that divine signature we talked about earlier.

Whatever else the net has done to us, we cannot deny its word power. Nor can we deny that it has brought us together in ways we could not even have conceived of just a few years ago. I have daily conversations with people in California; in Kansas; in Texas; in England; and in Norway. Some of these people I have never met face-to-face. But they are as much my colleagues and coworkers as anyone I have ever shared a cup of tea with in the staff room. Now that I am working primarily as a consultant and teacher, they are even more my colleagues. My work happens, as this speech was composed, in my office at home, my second floor aerie, in the Northeast Bronx in New York City, alone, but wired indeed.

 Another word I want to spend some time with is the word “librarian.” One of the things librarians have always been about is preserving the past. And not preserving it in amber, crystalline but very dead, but preserving it as a living entity, so that the voice of Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich or Elaine Pagels or Mary Daly can be heard as clearly in the pages we keep as if they were speaking to us. As indeed they are.

Since we know that we are somehow anointed to preserve the past, it may be difficult to keep that sense of hallowed purpose in facing the future, which seems to change moment by moment, to say nothing of keeping track of the present, which shifts like pixels on a screen as we watch. We like to think of the past, of course, as immutable, but we know perfectly well that’s not true. When I was in college in the Sixties and studied the Romantic poets, I learned that Dorothy Wordsworth was a silly, empty-headed woman and a drag on her brother William’s creativity. When my son attended the same university – Fordham, I am Jesuit-trained, can’t you tell? – some twenty years later, he learned that Dorothy was William’s soul mate, an accomplished diarist. Her journals provided her brother with insight and observation that he turned into splendid and glorious poetry. I actually find it comforting that the past can change, because it makes the change of the present and future a little less harrowing.

When asked to define what we do, as I did earlier, I say that librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas. And it isn’t always good ideas, either. The joy of sitting down with a book full of trashy, silly, or wrongheaded ideas is certainly one of the delights of literacy. It is also one of the things that makes the Internet so much fun. We recall, too, that ideas once thought silly or wrongheaded or just plain evil include things like votes for women, and ideas once thought right and necessary like slavery or child labor are thought of rather differently now.

Fine librarian-like words like access and choice lead inevitably to questions of truth. Now there is a word to conjure with. I liked it better when I believed that there was only one truth. But anyone with children who has ever listened to three of them explain how the doll got broken knows about differences in truth. Truth is neither immutable nor always clear, and we search valiantly for truth among conflicting reviews, contradictory memos, and simultaneous requests.

When we are making acquisitions decisions, the question of “whose truth?” is bound to come up.

This is not to say that we can acquire, or even access, everything. Sound professional judgment informs how we spend our precious funds, to support the life of the university or the casual browser. But I always reminded my library students in preservation that it is not always clear what future scholars will have wanted us to keep. I don’t think Margaret Drabble will vanish from the shelves, but Barbara Cartland might. We cannot accuse Cartland of being a writer, but what her romances say about society, culture, and the place of women cannot be ignored by the 22nd century scholar of women’s history.

It is lovely to think of ourselves, library workers all, as living in a global village, but sometimes I think the library universe is more kin to the cantina at the Mos Eisley spaceport, the interspecies bar in the first Star Wars movie. That is an image of terrifying diversity in the pursuit, one imagines or hopes, of the same thing. Obiwan, the sage of the movie, describes the town to young Luke, the hero, as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  “We must be cautious.” he adds. And we are rubbing elbows — and sometimes other, more intimate parts — with people who call themselves librarians but who look and act mighty different from us.

Issues that have divided us before: access and censorship now in the guise of filtering the internet; the question of outsourcing – paying a vendor to provide services that used to be handled in-house – are dividing us again. While we think through these questions it is important to remember that we have done this before. Librarians have a history; and so does the pursuit of knowledge. Some of the examples I have mentioned, from the stone hearth to printing in the West to audiotapes, had people worrying about the safety of their children, the preservation of their morals, and holding fast to the devil they know.

Most of us are doing things in our professional lives that would have been unimaginable to the selves we were when we got our undergraduate degrees, and unimaginable to the newly minted librarians we were when we started out, if we started out more than a decade ago. We need to hold on to that knowledge, for change is our only certainty. Let us make that a comfort, for if we are not changing, we are probably dead. And if we aren’t dead, we are victims of psychosclerosis: the hardening of the attitudes.

 I know that the theme of your conference was research. One of the things I do for a living is research. What that means in my professional life is that I read reams of stuff on a topic and then try to get it down into 1500 words. I once turned 200 pages from the Association of Research Libraries on copyright into a two-page handout. I have researched and written a baker’s dozen Tech Notes for the Public Library Association on topics that range from intranets to wireless networks to metadata. Most of the time, I had not a clue as to what the topic was when I started. What it has taught me is humility: a certain humility in the face of the sure knowledge that we will never find it all.

 Speaking of words, as we have, like information and story, in the September 1, 1997 editorial in Booklist, the American Library Association’s review journal, editor and publisher Bill Ott makes a distinction between those words, and between information folk and story folk, that is instructive. I believe, however, that it is false at best and perfidious at worst. Now, Bill is my editor, a good man, and a fine and strong voice in librarianship, but I respectfully disagree with his point. The thing is that most of the working librarians I know — and I know very many of them — do a very good job of integrating the “story” parts of their jobs with the “information” parts. They haven’t lost track of — let us say it out loud — the sacred connection between book and reader.

What has been in the news and in the literature is a focus on the conflicts between those two roles, the storyteller and the information provider, whilst in real life most of us are integrating them, perhaps not seamlessly, but well enough.

Information, access, technology, research, story – those words have implications for our female-intensive profession. All of the issues we have talked about include feminism, I hope obviously. The practice of feminism for me mirrors in some ways the practice of religion. And I think it is important to note that feminism is not just something we think or have, it is something we do. We have to practice feminism the way we practice religion: in ways both small and large, every single day. And the small ways count. Feminism informs my daily practice, the way I choose to live my life,  both personally and professionally. There isn’t much I can do about the big things, so I focus on small ones. I try to choose female examples of whatever it is I am talking about. I try to find women to quote. I try to recognize that the woman who is my tax accountant also has three small daughters under the age of six.

Here is a place where the future looks better. I see, with awe and with fondness, the woman (no longer my son’s wife but still and always my daughter) the financial programmer and mathematician, whose graduate degree is from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a study and a place that never entered my head even in my wildest imaginings when I was her age.

It is easier for her than it is for my generation, but it isn’t easy. In a profession as overwhelmingly female as ours, it is especially not easy. Remember Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, recounting how she was chased from the university grass and onto the gravel path by an outraged Fellow one fine autumn day, for having the temerity to wander about freely. She was refused entrance to the library, too, as I recall, as she was unaccompanied by a Fellow, or by a letter of introduction.

It’s better now, I mean, here we are. But all we ever wanted—all we ever insisted upon—was the freedom to make the same choices that men do, without losing our hearts, our jobs, or our children in the process. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Even now.

 Perhaps the reason librarians have such an affinity for mystery and romance, fantasy and cyberpunk, is that we see it ourselves daily in the vast human mystery and romance of research, of casual curiosity, of this reader with this need, and that insatiable human desire to run and find out.

From Shakespeare’s Prince Harry to Sayers’ Harriet Vane, the book and the reader, the child and the idea, the scholar and citation, have come together because of us. That’s a truth that can comfort us in the hard times, and it’s always hard times, isn’t it? We bring together people and ideas, and we do it with words. We bring the word. And in that word, we participate, as Pelikan says, in the divine image.

In Margaret Atwood’s poem called “Spelling” she writes

“My daughter plays on the floor

With plastic letters…

Learning how to spell

Spelling,

How to make spells…

A word after a word

after a word is power.”

We claim and own the words. We name ourselves and our work.

That is what the truth is.

GraceAnne A. DeCandido 2001

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GA and the Infomancer in Paris May 2006

The LiveJournal account of our Paris vacation in May 2006.

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London and other places in England 2002

London and other places in England, July 22-August 7, 2002

©2002 GraceAnne A. DeCandido

It was a trip of glories indeed. I find London an extremely congenial city. It has an intensity and energy, like New York, though of course in a particularly British way. We were first in London in the autumn of 1997, and I was very eager to go back.

We are museum junkies. My idea of the perfect vacation combines art, architecture, history, good food, and good shopping in more or less equal amounts, and England has all of that. We planned pretty carefully: we made detailed lists of things we wanted to see and do. We tried to alternate days of heavy museum going with days that we took longer trips or did different things. Our hotel left much to be desired – our travel agent and our airline received a very detailed letter about its shortcomings. We were staying right near Kensington Park, a few blocks from Royal Albert Hall, and a ten minute walk in either direction from Tube stops High Street Kensington or Gloucester Road. Henry James lived for many years on our street, De Vere Gardens, and Robert Browning was buried from a house there. You couldn’t beat the location.

Our very first day, stupid with jetlag and very very tired, we stumbled across da Mario, a pizza and pasta place just around the mews from our hotel, run by Italians so devoted to Princess Diana that her name was inscribed in their marble steps. They had wonderful food, and we ate there a lot.

Wed July 24 was our first full day in London, and it was a wonder. We went out to Shakespeare’s Globe for the entire day, taking the Tube and walking across the Millennium Bridge. The morning was spent in their museum and on a tour. The museum had very cool stuff about the theatre reconstruction research, but it also had sound booths where you could listen to, for example, ten different versions of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” by famous actors; or perform Shakespeare karaoke by taking a part and reciting your lines against other famous actors. Our tour of the building was conducted by one of the actors, whose energy and enthusiasm made me sorry we weren’t going to see her in performance. She gave us a key to what followed: she said that acting in the Globe, in daylight, means that you can see every face in the audience, every gesture, and of course with the groundlings there are people standing right at the base of the stage. In regular contemporary theatre, of course, the lights keep the actors from seeing the audience at all. The Globe invites audience participation, and not just from the groundlings, one feels very much a part of the action. We ate lunch in the Globe’s fancy modern British restaurant, overlooking the Thames and St Paul’s, and I was introduced to Beechdean ice cream, which our waitress had described as “delectable.” It was.

We saw a two pm performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream, every word intact. In the past year I have seen the opera (with countertenor David Daniels), the ballet (NYC ballet), and the movie (Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci), so the play is pretty clear in my mind. It was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen. The cast (in pajamas, with a huge balloon of a white moon suspended above the groundlings) was fluid and engaging and funny, with lovely colors and nuances in their performances. And it felt different, with the sun in my face (they do provide funny paper sunshades) and the acoustics so perfect that every word was audible. The benches have no backs, but you could rent butt pillows (He did) or rent or purchase little folding seats with backs, which I did, thinking it will come in handy for Yankees bleacher games in future. We stopped at St Paul’s on the way home, to hear a female rector offer a prayer for Israelis and Palestinians, and for me to light a candle in memory of my dad and TheInfomancer’s mom.

Thursday July 25: The Victoria and Albert may be my favorite museum in London. It is so full of stuff – wonderful stuff. I revisited Tippoo’s Tiger, which is this half-life size automaton of a tiger devouring a British soldier. I bought TheInfomancer a paper model of it, which you can wind up and run. That should be amusing. What caught my eye this visit, in many of the museums, were small things: exquisitely carved ivories, small panels. The V&A had an entire hall of wrought iron. My favorite was a life-size three dimensional model of roses, full blown, half open, bud, in wrought iron, obviously made as a showpiece and simply magnificent. Lunch, as was our habit, was in the museum cafeteria. London museums all have quite nice cafeterias, with real food well-prepared, and always vegetarian offerings. I discovered some very interesting ways to make couscous. The tomatoes and potatoes were especially good. I am allergic to strawberries, but TheInfomancer assures me there is nothing like English strawberries in all the world. We also became part of an online photographic exhibition at the V&A, called Things and You. If you go there, then type in the date of 25-07-2002, you will see a picture of me, one of him, and one of both of us. They appear as thumbnails in the first set. We spent the latter part of the day in Liberty’s and Fortnum & Mason. The former was having a sale, so there wasn’t much there but it was all reduced. At the latter, we bought as much – more actually – as we could carry. Fortnum & Mason is the source for Golden Raspberry jam, for my money the best jam in the entire world, and I bought us three jars. It is what I beg friends going to London to bring back for me. We had dinner at one of their restaurants, a lovely welsh rabbit.

Friday July 26: The month before coming to London, I had obsessively followed the London weather reports, which showed highs of only 70°, and I packed accordingly. This was wrong. First off, 70° in London is warmer and muggier than here in New York. Secondly, Friday was the beginning of the worst heat wave in London in 15 years. There is no air conditioning in London: not in most of the museums, not in most of the restaurants, certainly not in the Tube. We were marinating. We chose well for Friday, though. We took a boat on the Thames to Greenwich, listening to half-baked but amusing commentary from our guide and seeing much history and architecture along the Thames. We also saw the London Eye, a huge Ferris Wheel that moves very slowly. I imagine the view is spectacular, but I declined. At Greenwich, we visited the Queen’s House, a small jewel of a building with a black and white marble floor whose pattern is reflected in the ceiling. The twinkly-eyed, rosy-cheeked guard (all of the places in Britain have these guys, and they always know everything, and are cute as heck) told us the room was used in the movie Sense and Sensibility. There is also a spiral staircase with a blue wrought iron balustrade in a tulip design that is very beautiful.

The Maritime Museum in Greenwich, outside of which is parked the Cutty Sark in drydock so you can see down to the very bottom, is full of ship models, nautical instruments (I love these, all that curlicued brass and knobbery), and Nelsoniana. If there is a British Superman, he is clearly Nelson. We even saw the jacket and stockings he was wearing when he died. In the blazing sun up the shining green we walked to the Naval Observatory, and once there, I even climbed up to the very top, where the skies used to be studied. Then we stood in line to have our picture taken on the Prime Meridian, and got a certificate to prove it. The steep sloping green up to the Observatory in Greenwich was filled with children, parents, teenagers, cricketers, grandfolks. It brought to mind powerfully Henry James’ comment that the most beautiful words in English are “summer afternoon.”

Getting back was interesting. A cruise ship was blocking the Thames, and we had to wait for the Tower Bridge to be opened to let it pass. So our tour boat had to make figure-eights for an hour or so to stay out of its path. Now, it was approaching 90°, so this was not a bad place to be in London right then. Friday night we had tickets for the Proms at Royal Albert Hall, just a few blocks from our hotel. This was Knussen’s operatic version of Sendak’s Higgledy Piggledy Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are. These were done as recital rather than full operatic staging with costumes, and that was too bad. The music was modern, somewhat dissonant, and not at all my sort of thing. But it was interesting. Albert Hall holds the best acoustics I have ever experienced, and it is beautiful, red and gold, with comfy seats that swivel.

Sat July 27: a friend is an Oxford librarian and this year, elected one of the proctors of the university. She was kind enough to provide us with tickets for Oxford’s 800-year-old commencement ceremony, at which we got to see her in her robes and reciting Latin. We took the train to Oxford and made our way to the Sheldonian Theatre, to listen to the vice chancellor explain (in English) about the tradition of Oxford graduations, and then proceed to a wondrous Latin ceremony full of bowing, doffing of hats, to-ing and fro-ing. I loved it. Some dons were clearly quite comfortable in Latin, others mumbled through their memorized parts. Students were introduced by degree and by college, processed outside to don their academic colors and then return. Liz managed a lovely lunch with us at a restaurant called Quod (great fries. Panna cotta and raspberries for dessert) before her afternoon’s work (she had two more ceremonies to perform!).

We went off to the Ashmolean and to shopping. The Oxford Covered Market had a Bridgewater Pottery stand, and I managed to buy only one piece there. The Ashmolean is such a delightful hodge-podge: my favorite thing was a large wooden chest painted by Burne-Jones as a wedding present for William Morris. Oxford was full of graduates and their families, and many people like us who had come for the day. There were large random groups of European teenagers. We saw tattooing on the street, and a cappuccino cart constructed on the front of a motorcycle.

Sun July 28: The temperature continued to rise, and so we chose the British Museum on Sunday, thinking it would be cooler. Well, no. Most of the galleries are unairconditioned, and nearly all of them are stuffy. But we found a small gallery of Native American/First Peoples items that was quite air-conditioned (and funded by an American conglomerate) so we retreated there periodically. The British Library’s Reading Room has been incorporated into the BM kind of like the Temple of Dendur at the Met in NYC: they built a lovely shell around it as you enter the museum, and dedicated it to the Queen. It is still a working reading room, with displays of books by the many who have written them in that space, and a nice interactive computer set-up for searching information about the BM’s collections. We saw the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, of course, but I was most enchanted by case after case of jewelry, from ancient to Victorian. These little gold and silver rings and necklaces seemed to have come fresh from someone’s jewel box, and brought one close to those who had worn and cherished them.

We stopped in St Mary Abbot on the way back to the hotel, a Kensington church with a lovely churchyard in full abundant bloom. The air conditioning in our hotel room had stopped working. I basically stood at the desk in the lobby and repeated my request for a different, nonsmoking room where the a/c worked over and over until they gave us one. We had about ten minutes to move all of our stuff before changing our clothes and going off to Rules for dinner. Rules is a wonder: an old club-like atmosphere that serves what I think of as 19th century British food. We had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and scalloped potatoes and spinach. My Guinness came in a half-pint silver tankard. Dessert was an intense raspberry sorbet – with a bit of clotted cream on the side, of course. Whew. We took taxis all day today. It was Sunday, it was hot, and we loved the drivers, all of whom know where they are going, and drive like wizards. I should probably mention here that I have no sense of direction under the best of circumstances, and in London I was completely flamboozled. Crossing streets was terrifying. However, we read maps and followed the Tube, and TheInfomancer studied streets valiantly, and we did OK.

Mon July 29: If I had known London in July was going to be like Rome, I would have dressed for it. It reached 95° today. We began by going, as did Christopher Robin with Alice, to Buckingham Palace, where we hoped to see the Changing of the Guard. On the vast expanse in front of the palace were gathered hundreds of folks in the blazing sun. We decided not to. We did see a troop of guards, in their furry shakos and redcoats, march out playing their brass. Why they didn’t drop dead in their tracks from the heat I do not know. We instead chose to go to the Queen’s Gallery, a beautiful exhibit space full of treasures in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee. We had to get tickets and wait our turn, so I got to wander through St James and Green Park in search of a rest room (never did find it; used the one at the Ritz Hotel, at the edge of the park, instead. It was, well, ritzy, I must say).

The Queen, being the Queen, has some exquisite stuff, and the gallery thankfully was airconditioned to frigid temperatures. The Queen has a beautiful Rembrandt portrait of a woman and a lot of Fabergé. Some royal jewels were on display, a silver table, an Eric Gill imprint. And at the gift shop (I never pass up a gift shop) I got my mother a tea towel that said “Buckingham Palace” embroidered in gold.

From there we went to Somerset House, which holds three galleries. We were focused, however, on the Courtauld, which was closed when we were last in London five years ago. We found lunch in the tiny Courtauld cafeteria, run by Italians under an arbor, so that I flashed on being in Rome again. Restored by mozzarella, tomatoes, tea and sweets, we viewed some very splendid medieval and impressionist masterpieces. The most pristine Duccio I have ever seen, and Renoirs that reminded me why he remains so popular. The calligrapher and type designer Eric Gill had a stone sculpture at the Courtauld that bewitched me. It was an incised grey stone head called The Magdalene, with red lips and blue eyes, a piece vividly tied to Gill’s stone- and type-carving, art deco, and utter sensuality. It was gorgeous. In the courtyard of Somerset House in the winter is a skating rink. On this blazing hot day, it was a series of sprinklers. Children screaming with delight ran through them, often with their mothers behind, in street clothes, but enjoying the cool soaking nonetheless. We retreated hotelward.

Random English thoughts: there are flowers everywhere: window boxes, huge pots on the steps, hanging from streetlamps, on traffic islands. Once outside of London, hollyhocks and bindweed and violas and wild geraniums. “English garden” – words to conjure with. Smoking. It’s everywhere. Does everyone in England smoke? Sometimes I feel like I will never get the smell out of my hair. London had a Cow Parade, as New York and Chicago have in past years. We saw Art Mooooveau at Liberty’s, and a Celtic Cow. But the Harry Potter Cow in Leicester Square was by far the most magnificent.

Tues July 30: We took the train to Brighton. I have wanted to see the Pavilion at Brighton forever, but even I was not prepared for its interior. The outside is this Eastern fantasy of domes surrounded by lovely English landscaping with lush flowers, but the interior! Dragons on the chandeliers! Gold leaf and crystal! A kitchen the size of my house! Painted flowers on the inside of Queen Victoria’s WC! It just dazzled, and it was great fun. We ate lunch at a place called Ha! Ha!, where we could sit and look at the Pavilion, then we explored the small but excellent Brighton Art Gallery, which combines art, craft, history, and culture. An exhibition on movies that were made in Brighton – complete with posters and film clips – charmed. We walked down to the pebbly shore to see the English Channel, and lo, there was a carousel. Now, I collect carousels, and this was a splendid 19th century model. All the horses had names (I rode on one named in TheInfomancer’s honor) and each had two saddles, so parents could sit behind their child. It moved pretty fast, and the music wasn’t bad.

From there we wandered the Lanes, full of tiny shops (lots of interesting jewelry). We stopped for cream tea and lemon squash at the Mock Turtle, wherein I had the best scones of my life: large puffy ones, full of texture and butter, still warm from the oven, with raspberry jam made, our young server assured us, by his mum. Back to London, to have a quick dinner at Giovanni’s (more about our favorite London restaurant anon) and then meet the impossibly charming children of an online buddy. She and I have been on an online list together for some five years or more, but she lives several hours from London. Her son, daughter, and daughter in law all live in London, however, and meet us for pints at the Lamb & Flag, one of London’s oldest pubs. They pointed out to us the brick inscribed with the name of the prostitute, Emma Bowden, whose territory it was, and filled us with London lore as well as beer.

Wed July 31: We were privileged to visit the British Library today, partly in the company of a friend and colleague who had worked at NYPL for a time. We exited from the Tube to the great Victorian pile of St Pancras/Kings Cross station, and what a glory that will be when restored! We wondered if they will add a Platform 9 and three-quarters. We crossed the plaza in front of the Library, past the huge bronze sculpture of Newton based, perhaps unthinkingly, on Blake’s print. It is known informally as “Newton Constipatus.” (There’s an image on the web site, http://www.bl.uk/) The inviting lobby had an information desk graced with a pot of sunflowers and cornflowers, blazing blue and gold, and a nifty reflective clock behind the desk. The King’s Library is encased in glass stacks, and a wonderful bronze bench in the shape of an open book forms a magnet for picture takers. The Library functions as the researcher’s last resort, so we couldn’t actually go into the reading rooms, but after lunch with Alex and his charming daughter we spent the entire afternoon in the Library’s exhibits, including their Treasures show. Wow. Near a manuscript of the ancient “Summer is icumen in” I listened to a recording of the Hillyard Ensemble singing it; near the case of Lennon/McCartney manuscripts I listened to Beatles songs. There was the quavery recorded voice of Florence Nightingale and an interview with the only surviving officer of the Titanic. A manuscript with emendations in what might be Shakespeare’s own hand. Cool interactive toys. Visit the web site, you won’t be sorry. We went back to the hotel and decided to have dinner locally. It had rained heavily in the afternoon, so we took an umbrella. It didn’t matter. The skies opened when we were about as far from the hotel as we could be and not get back, and we were, brollys or not, soaked completely. We dashed into the nearest Indian restaurant and had an acceptable meal while sitting in our wet clothes and listening to the next table, academics from Kent State in Ohio, go on and on and on.

Thurs 1 August, Lammas (Loaf-Mass; Lughnasa): We took a bus tour today of Salisbury, Stonehenge, and Avebury, which while it was too fast and involved getting up early only to hang around and wait, was the easiest way for us to visit these longed-for places. I have dreamed of seeing Salisbury Cathedral since studying both it and the wonderful Constable paintings in art history classes in college these many decades ago. It did not disappoint. The almost impossibly quaint town (the Industrial Revolution passed Salisbury by, so it preserves its ancient and considerable charm) has also kept the green close around the cathedral, so the view does indeed echo that of Constable’s. It is an active, vital church – we were greeted by a sign that said “Welcome! 1 August, Lammas” and smiling church ladies and gents bursting with information to share. Much is old in Salisbury, but there are also a number of recent pieces and dedications among the sculpture. The excellent cafeteria and shop were run by ladies straight out of Barbara Pym, and I was very sorry to go. I touched the stones of the cathedral and mourned that there wasn’t enough time.

On to Stonehenge. It was a glorious, sky-blue day. I found those stones to be powerful and unimaginably old. The place had the same kind of sacred power I know from cathedrals and other holy places, but darker somehow. I found it a little scary. This was an experience for me unlike any other, and I confess to having trouble finding words for it. I spent my time walking around and gazing, so had little for the shop, and had to leave the silver earrings set with bluestone, the same as the bluestone and sarsen that are part of Stonehenge. Avebury was much different: a series of stone circles in which a town grew up, so we could walk around and actually touch the stones, watch the local black-faced sheep wander, and see how whatever its ancient meaning, generations of folk had made the stone circles of Avebury part of their lives. Once again, we were hoarded onto the bus and taken back to London, passing on the way the Silbury Mound and a possible crop circle or two. We were dropped off at Harrods so I could continue shopping, and had dinner at A Bunch of Grapes, a pub with blessed air conditioning and a smoke-free area. To say nothing of Guinness and excellent fries. We walked back to the hotel from there, a long walk, but a lovely evening at last.

Fri 2 August: All of our outside London destinations were about an hour by train – Cambridge is a nice nonstop ride. And it is a very beautiful town, it seems a bit smaller and more compact than Oxford. We were amused by the some of the punters on the Cam, whose dripping wet raiment indicated just how unpracticed they were at this whole business of messing around in boats. We went directly to the Fitzwilliam Museum, whose lobby is a marble porphyry fantasy. Much of the museum was closed for restoration, but we went through what we could of the high-ceilinged galleries, noting a Rubens St Teresa we had never before seen, and a small, still Gwen John. The kindly and knowledgeable staff sent us on the road through town, so we found lunch at Auntie’s Tea Shoppe, just across from Kings College and St Mary the Great. Kings College Chapel, with its oak screen from Henry VIII and the ill-fated Anne B, its trumpeting angels, and its extraordinary tracery of fan vaulting, gave me another one of those heart-stopping moments, like Salisbury, like Stonehenge. I have waited my whole life to see this. To Be Here.

I talked for a time with one of the gents, telling him how I had listened to the choir every Christmas Eve for as long as they have been broadcasting Nine Lessons and Carols from here – about 20 years, I think. It wasn’t term, of course, so the Choir is off touring now, but I have gazed upon that space, and am content. We walked over to the Cambridge Library for the “Beauty and the Book” exhibition, a small show about book illustration with a few choice gems indeed. We walked through impossibly green quadrangles, hedges of laurel and holly both dark and parti-colored, stands of wild geranium in mauve and rose and bunches of tiny violas that were almost black, so dark was their purple. We took the train back and went to Giovanni’s for dinner. We discovered Giovanni’s when we were in London in 1997. The food is excellent and the staff all Italian, and it is really fun to be there. This night I had pasta with rocket (arugula) and black olives; breaded lamb cutlets served with a puree of fresh mint, lemon, and olive oil (a dish named for Angela Georghiu), a plate of veggies including divine haricots verts, and vin santo, parmesan, and grapes for dessert. We took a taxi back. Bliss.

Sat 3 August: The morning was spent shopping. People we love had asked for things, and I was bound to find them. So it was Harrods, and Harvey Nichols. The latter was new to me, and I found its first floor the most girly retail space I had ever entered: my male companion fled in terror. But we both spent some time on the top floor, a supermarket of very chichi stuff, and I found a rather lovely blend of Ceylons to add to the tea collection. Lunch at the Tate cafeteria, where I drank a bottle of Elderberry Pressé. The first sip tasted like hand cream. The second sip tasted like Spring. And after the third, I thought I could drink this a lot. Then rooms full of Turners, walls full of Constable cloud studies. My feet wore out early, though, so it was back to the hotel to rest and eat some blackberries and cream, gathered from Partridge’s, a local gourmet shop that clearly catered to Americans. It was da Mario for dinner again, because pizza was calling my name.

Sunday 4 August: we lazed around for the morning until going off the Museum of London. We lunched in their cafeteria, dazzled by the snaking overhead lighting that ended in a dragon’s head. London from pre-history until 1914 was clearly labeled, full of historical minutiae, and effortlessly teachable. Pictures and sashes from the women’s suffrage movement, a computer model of the interior of the 19th century Crystal Palace. The growth of Londinium through the Romans, then the Saxons, then the French. A worker tucking away a builder’s sacrifice of grain and a chicken in a corner of his structure, perhaps a half-forgotten practice but still followed even when its meaning was near lost. The museum’s garden, dripping in the rain, displayed when various cultivars were introduced to London and by whom, some of whose families were still selling flowers and produce to Londoners to this day. Dinner was a real treat. Cheneston’s – an old variant of Kensington – was right around the corner from our hotel, with gaslight out front, dark oak and leaded glass windows within. We had a perfectly splendid meal: salad, lamb, raspberries, one of those molten chocolate wonders for TheInfomancer. It felt very good indeed.

Monday 5 August: We spent the morning at the National Portrait Gallery. There were two special exhibits there: “She-Bop,” a small show of women in rock&roll, and “Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter” a wonderful series of portraits of famous children’s authors, with quite a splendid catalog. Noel Streatfeild was a woman! Michael Bond looks like Paddington! There were a few actual manuscript pages of Harry Potter, and a few actual manuscript pages of Pooh, specifically, “Sing Ho! for the life of a bear.” We sailed through the rest of the portraits. He thought the Elizabethans had the best outfits, but I really enjoyed the modern portraits best: Germaine Greer, Ian McKellen, Dorothy L. Sayers, the Queen Mum. After a quick lunch in the cafeteria (I plied him with Victorian Lemonade, a fizzy bottled concoction with ginger, as he was getting snurfly) we went across to St Martin in the Fields for a lunchtime concert. Three American choirs from Illinois, mostly teens and mostly girls, performed. Some were pretty good, some were very good indeed, and all of them sang with spirit and enthusiasm. It was wonderful watching their faces, many of them were blissed out from the very act of singing. I didn’t quite do the National Gallery justice after that. But I saw some old friends: the Arnolfini marriage portrait, the Wilton altarpiece, the Lippi annunciation, and the Leonardo cartoon. We hung out at the hotel for a few hours before dinner at the Bombay Brasserie-really excellent tandoori chicken and various breads and condiments. TheInfomancer had a fish curry that made steam come out of his ears.

Tuesday August 6: We spent the morning on Marylebone High Street at the Bridgewater Pottery shop. I did not buy everything, but I wanted to. I love Bridgewater’s satisfying shapes and winsome patterns. Since coming home, I have found a few more places in the US that carry parts of the line, so maybe I won’t be quite so desperate next time. We took the train out to the Gardens at Kew: broad, green, lush, calm. We visited a couple of the greenhouses, saw some splendid sunflowers, and enjoyed a huge display of blooms in every possible variant of yellow. There was a unicorn sculpture atop one of the gates that we took home in a picture; I spent a lot of time in the gift shop, which had delightful and unusual things. Dinner was a last, lovely meal at Giovanni’s.

Wed August 7: We spent the morning, after packing, in Kensington Gardens, walking around in the soft summer day, and seeing Kensington Palace from the outside (and visiting the shop of course) although we didn’t have time for the tour. We had a last lunch at da Mario and went out to the airport. At Heathrow, they don’t post your gate until about an hour before the flight, but it is OK, because Heathrow is one vast mall. If I had known there was so much shopping there, I would have gone out earlier! As it was, I did a little damage at the outposts of Liberty’s and Harrods.

On the plane, there were envelopes to collect whatever odds and ends of foreign change you still had, which they give to charity. It was A Very Long Flight home. I cannot read on airplanes, but I was somewhat comforted by my spiffy new earphones, which tune out the sound of the airplane through some electronic magic so you can actually hear what you are listening to. I like the little individual screens, too. While I didn’t want to see any of the movies, I loved watching the path of the plane, displayed for us with altitude, speed, etc. I had brought us dinner from Partridge’s on Gloucester Road, knowing the airplane food would not be worth eating. I also bought a package of Eccles cakes. On Thursday morning at home I heated them up and served them to all. They are small buttery cakes filled with currants, bursting with flavor. So I had a final taste of England on my tongue, safe and sound in our own kitchen.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

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