The Dark Ages - Kate Muir

The Times, 25th March 22006

I’ve been writing these columns for ten years now – apart from a few breaks for breeding and other reprehensible activities – and occasionally the junk yard of my mind fails to furnish anything to write at all. But when the deadline looms, fate always provides. Thus it was that I was having a heavenly time in the British Library researching the Bauhaus (page 36 of this magazine) in unnecessarily minute detail, when I came upon a woman sitting by the café with a sign that said, “The Private Collection – an artist-led audio tour of the library by Sara Heitlinger.”
            Heitlinger, a rather prim-looking, bluestockingy woman, handed me a CD Walkman and some headphones, and advised me to hang out in the underground locker room. “I wanted to show what happens beneath the silence,” she said. The tour began with the familiar announcement, “Bing bong! The building is closing…” A soft woman’s voice points out the four black domes on the ceiling – cameras wathcing you. Your footsteps echo with hers as she says that the expensively built and gloriously free library is like a five-star hotel, and asks her mesmerised listeners to run their hands along the marble surfaces and the leather door handles. (You get very strange looks from the bookworms as you do this.) “This library’s an illusion,” she says. “Nothing is as it appears.”

            Some religious organ music plays, and you realise the library sounds exaclty like a church without music – the whispers, the sound of footsteps on stone, the reverence for the book, the throat-clearing, the bowed heads. A man’s voice invades your right ear, whispering words of warning and incitement. You go with him to the top floor. It’s like being in a radio play, where you do the acting and others do the talking. And there are hints that our bluestocking has been having inappropriate and interesting thouhgts as she sits writing her novel every day for a year at desk 3051 in Humanities.
            “You roped me in. You take me to dark places inside myself,” says the woman’s voice. Here it comes, I think, because we all know what goes on in people’s heads in libraries. We need only listen to that atrocious Jimmy Buffett song, Love in the Library, or consider the poet Philip Larkin, to prove that. If you remember, Larkin took the Librarian-Lothario thing to new lows at Hull University, where he had affairs with Maeve Brennan (a sub-librarian), his secretary, and a lecturer called Monica Jones. From this, one might assume that the horn-rimmed spectacles were constantly flying in the book stacks.
            You need your reader’s pass to enter Humanities 2, and sit at Heitlinger’s favourite desk. You try, together, to imagine what’s going on in the whirring minds all around, and to imagine what they’d all look like naked, a traditional dream sequence. I always presume the minds in here are like roaring engines, sucking things in, struggling, imaging wildly, racing off at tangents. I hope that the bookworms’ thoughts are far from the apparent dullness of their exteriors. I hope they don’t have the wrung-out minds I see going home on the Tube: osmosing evening newspapers, feeling crap, making vague plans for lamb chops.



On the library desk, there’s a paperback by Jim Thompson. Heitlinger suggests you smell the dry, crumbly yellow paper, and the whiff of talcum powder from the middle-aged man opposite. As instructed, you turn to page 12, and of course it’s a sex scene with some cheerful whipping. You realise the man on the tape is seducing the woman in all sorts of ways. He is some sort of gentleman thief, and suggests “there are other ways of getting rich from books” than writing a bestseller. Soon, you’re in the upstairs disabled bathroom with the two of them (no one saw you going in, did they?) and they’re about to make love. She also gives him the books she’s stolen, and I won’t tell you the end of the story. Suffice to say it’s surprising that the British Library allows such entertainment to pass through its august doors.
            The audio tour was only on for one week, but you can download it free from Heitlinger is sitting outside Rare Books eating dates with her boyfriends when I come by. It turns out that we were both in the library one day last year when a man opposite me started muttering to himself. Discreet muttering is fine – libraries are the last places where the clinically insane are shown proper respect. But the man jumped up and shouted, “Satan! I see you!” The light streamed down on him from the high windows and he saw the apparition again. “Satan!” he screamed. It was quite spine-chilling, until a small guard shuffled him off. The man’s sudden revelation started Heitlinger on her project. “I want to shake people out of the world of books, out of their own little worlds.” She has plans for subversive audio tours of Sydenham Woods, the Barbican, and the House of Commons – “if they let me in.”