Sunday, 21 September 2008

London Open House

It’s that time of year again when posh buildings, societies and normal folk with unusual houses throw open their doors for free to the delight of curious souls like me. Sadly this year I was very disorganised – what with all the recent months fun and games I completely forgot to book anywhere - so all my favourite buildings on the ‘to see for free’ list were out of the running. That said though, it is perfectly possible to just wing it, and roam around seeing what you can find – as long as you are prepared to find huge queues.

We started our day yesterday with a visit to the Linnean Society, which is part of Burlington House, the same place that houses the Royal Academy of Arts. The Linnean Society is the world's oldest extant biological society (I had to run to the dictionary for the meaning of ‘extant’ – although I guessed it must mean the opposite of extinct – nice to be confirmed) and has a most gorgeous library, with a first edition of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ – presented by the author himself! I stared at it hoping to feel wonder but nothing happened, even though I gave it a reverent 20 seconds. I shuffled off, letting the next person gaze in awe at the closed book in a glass cabinet. ‘Look – the wax seal of Darwin’s beagle!’ came the excited hushed murmur (or something rather like it) – inexplicable words to my ears. It was like listening to a different type of English – absolutely made no sense to me, but everyone else there seemed well versed in it and happy so I just eavesdropped here and there, nodding sagely and hoping not to get engaged in conversation.

The library was rather magnificient – carved wood that stretched ever up to a beautiful ceiling, a balcony running around with yet more books, statues and paintings of famous old biologist folk pictured frowning at foliage forever more. It smelt like heaven – if you like books you’ll know what I mean – a musty frusty smell of old paper, sunlight and study – I could bottle that smell and carry it about in a bottle in the manner of an old alcoholic, to be sniffed when needing a boost. You often get actors that mention the smell of greasepaint and theatres – creative professions seem so sensual. I never hear of accountants thrilled by the smell of old calculators, dentists happy with the smell of that foul pink drink, doctors in love with antiseptic.

I got a book to read at one of the long tables, mainly for the thrill of pretending I was a learned member of the society. It was a study on the genetic make up of African Violets – pages of detailed illustrations with notes and diagrams. It makes you wonder how people get the sponsorship – study something obscure, want to take it further, propose book on obscure thing, get money behind you and off you go. Maybe your only audience is fellow professors – but at least you then become the Grande Dame of Violets and get to go to Africa and sit and draw in the sun.

I left the Linnean Society and really wished I was a member – that I had studied biology and could go there and get really excited about Darwin’s beagle, or be the famed earwig illustrator of old London town. There is a niche for everything, as I am slowly beginning to discover.

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