Saturday, 7 December 2013

Glasgow Idyll

A terrible storm swept Scotland from Thursday night to Friday afternoon, and all the trains were cancelled. Fortunately for our plans, the trains were running again by the time my Polish class ended at 8:30 PM. B.A. and I went to Waverley station and caught the 9 PM train for Glasgow.

Edinburgers on the whole are rather suspicious of Glaswegians, and vice versa. It is the done thing in Edinburgh to make rude remarks about Glasgow. However, I have difficulty doing this because I rather like Glasgow. It reminds me of my native Toronto, or of what my native Toronto would look like if all the 19th century buildings were still standing and the population was still largely what is now called "white British." Glaswegians are not aat all like Torontonians, though, for as a people they are very gregarious. Striking up sudden conversations with strangers is not unsual, although suddenly striking conversing strangers is apparently not unusual either. (Gregariousness does have its shadow side.) Torontonians are more like Edinburghers: unless we are drunk, we like our space and we mind our own business.

Nevertheless, I really like Glasgow, which is cosmopolitan and lively, instead of pretty and relatively calm, like Edinburgh (outwith Edinburgh's sink estates, naturally). It is odd that Edinburgh, not Glasgow, is the capital of Scotland, but on the other hand, it is Ottawa, not Toronto, that is the capital of Canada, and Washington, D.C., not New York, that is the captial of the USA. Glasgow is the New York of Scotland. It has tons of good cultural stuff.

Of course, when we went down to breakfast in the dining-room of our Glasgow cheap hotel, we perceived what looked like a bullet hole in one window. Hmm.

We were in Glasgow because B.A. had registered for a one-day conference at Glasgow University, and I had tagged along in my Glasgow-liking way. The day broke fresh and cheerful and B.A. sang "Let Us Haste to Kelvingrove, Bonnie Lassie O" as we crossed over the River Kelvin to Kelvingrove. The university rose up before us, and after admiring the neo-Gothic buildings, we went to the brutalist university library and got me a visitor's pass.

You university women will smile wanly, but I cannot tell you how exciting it was to be in a proper university library again. The thing about the National Library of Scotland is that members have no access to the stacks and have to ask for everything specifically. There is no browsing. But the sheer joy of having a whole day free to be in a good library--not a brain-dead public library stocked with romance novels and DVDS--is browsing.

Not that this was my plan. My plan was to spend the day writing Part 2 of a story I am writing in Polish for a friend's birthday. Part 1 was 470 words, and I guessed it would take me the better part of the day to write Part 2. (When I don't have to look up a word in the dictionary, I have to check its conjugation or declination 2 out of 3 times.)

However, when the guardian of vistors' passes asked me what I wished to consult in his big, brutalist library I remembered that Glasgow University, unlike Edinburgh University, has a Slavonic Studies degree and teaches Polish. Real, university-level Polish with books and cruelly high expectations of students, not inexpensive, easy-going night classes for the masses. So I said I wished to consult the Polish literature collection and wrote this down on a form. Then, having received the sacred card and asked a gregarious Glaswegian security guard "Certainly, dear!") to buzz me in, I kissed B.A. good-bye and headed for the elevator.

Stacks! Stacks! Stacks!

Slavonic Studies shares a floor with a lot of other disciplines, not to mention long rows of computers on which long rows of students type. I have never seen so many computers on an upper floor of a library, nor so many students typing together in complete silence. It was a bit odd, really. And they were all drinking out of bottles, and they were all allowed snacks. Snacks! In a library! However, there were signs everywhere explaining what they were allowed to snack on, and what sort of containers they could drink from, and assuring them that Wi-fi and texting were fine, but talking was not. They could stay on a computer for only four hours at a stretch.

I felt a bit like a time-traveller from the past, so I was glad to leave the typing masses behind and find the annex storing all the Slavic volumes. And lo! After endless rows of Russian stuff, I at last came upon the Polish Literature section. Listen, in Edinburgh I get excited if I see in a charity shop some old deserted Polish translation of Lolita. So imagine my excitement when I saw before me all the riches of 19th and 20th century Polish literature!!!

Hmm. Maybe you can't. Well, it was huge.

I looked at every shelf, and pulled out every book I found interesting, and had to suppress my yelp of joy when I found Antoni Libera's Madame--which Marta gave me in English--in Polish. That was swiftly added to the growing pile on my blissfully isolated desk. And then, when I had reached the end of Polish and the beginning of Czech, I sat down at my desk and, like the hero of Madame, began to copy out striking passages and quotes from the books of my chosen foreign language.

Then, after this warm-up, I worked on my story until 1 PM, when I went across the street to the cafeteria for lunch. The food on offer seemed strangely healthy and inexpensive. I had a smoked salmon wrap and a small bottle of milk--£3.95. The place was cheerfully lit, and a large screen exhibited the time and the weather forecast. Apparently the sun had come up around 8:30 and was expected to set at 3:45 PM. Once again, I had the sensation of being a time traveller from the past.

After my quick lunch, I went for a walk to the Slavonic Studies department and had a look at the Polish bulletin board. Then I returned to the library and Part 2. When Part 2 was done, I went back to copying Polish phrases and came across something extremely creepy.

I had found a English-Polish phrasebook for Poles. It was all about describing people which, as a novelist, I thought very handy. However, as I read, I saw that these descriptions were not about what people looked like or enjoyed as hobbies, but about their characters, their politics, their religious beliefs, their morals and their war records. Sample phrase: "Now that so many things have failed him, religion is his only resourse" (sic), "No woman who respected herself would go out dressed like that", "He is strongly influenced by the social doctrine of the Church" and "He has a British passport."

There was so much creepy Commie stuff about how much "he" or (more rarely) "she" subscribed to the doctrines of "the Party" and felt about the Workers, that I began to feel guilty about copying from this book at all.(I admit, however, that I snickered at "He seems to be a sex maniac, doesn't he?") Before long, I turned to the title page to see when and where: 1984, Warsaw, [School and Pedagogy Publishing House].

This volume could have been written under martial law, and even if not, 1984 was not a happy year for Poland. It occured to me that this was a manual for interrogating Western traitors or captured Western spies about their friends and neighbours, especially their Polish or Polish-British or Polish-American friends and neighbours. And that made me feel a bit sick, honestly, although--my word--from a historian's point of view, what a find. How on earth it ended up in the Glasgow University library I cannot imagine.

When I couldn't stand it any more, I shut the damned thing and picked up a bilingual copy of Polish love stores and read Sienkiewicz's "Lux in Tenebris Lucet". As usual when I read Sienkiewicz's stories, tears sprang to my eyes. Sienkiewicz is a great antidote to anything base or wicked. And then, since the annex was cold, I felt thoroughly chilled and longed for B.A. to hurry up and get out of his conference. But, alas, the conference did not end at 5 but at 6, after a concert, so I put on my gloves and read (in English) about the tensions between Classicism and Romanticism in the art of 19th century Poland.

Then I met B.A. in the lobby and we went together on the funny round subway system to the Royal Exchange area, where we saw that the Catholic bookshop did not have my book in the window and ate a good supper in an Italian restaurant. Then we caught the 8:30 PM train back to Edinburgh and then the train to the station nearest the Historical House.

So that was our Glasgow day. I have never read so much Polish all at once in my life, and the moral of the story is that there is nothing like a good university library as a work space, especially when you don't have a password for the wi-fi.


Sheila said...

When I was in high school, I took classes at the local college. In between, I spent hours in the college library, reading their entire Catholic section (twelve books, two by G. K. Chesterton!) and anything else I could scrounge up. Very educational!

Nzie said...

Oh, I think I would scandalize you with my carrel in the library! Not only do I sometimes chat a little bit (which is accepted on the main floor - the other floors are quieter), but we eat in the library. I keep snacks at my carrel, I eat lunch at my carrel, and in the basement near the journal offices there's a kitchenette (microwave and fridge).

That said, I still like the library... being at my carrel 8 or 10 hours doesn't remove the fun of going through the stacks. :-) Today I'm outlining, but also I get to write a paper that involves history -- it was so fun to explore the stacks and not just pull case law from online or use my casebooks.

Stellamaris said...

"So imagine my excitement when I saw before me all the riches of 19th and 20th century Polish literature!!!

Hmm. Maybe you can't."

I bet I can! I feel the same way when I stumble across something interesting in the foreign-language section of book fairs or book stores in either German or Italian. You usually only find phrasebooks and dictionaries. Yawn.
I have a Russian elemenary course in two volumes, published in Moscow in 1954. Among the vocabulary words of the first few chapters are: work, plant (mill), lathe, factory, motherland (!), and collective farm member.
Sample phrases include: Is this a works? No, it is a factory.

Nzie said...

Haha! I love it, Stellamaris! Enjoy those books. The words my mom remembers from her Russian class in college were not at all what I learned:


-- collective farm, to shoot (oneself, reflexive), and fate.

I also love the old books. Would you imagine, Seraphic, that such a feeling could happen even with a digital source? I have been doing historical research, and it was amazing to find and download scans from a 1618 manual for magistrates.

Jam said...

My university library is weird, the third floor is quiet but that's it. And indeed, I love eating in my carrel ;)

Anonymous said...

As a teenager, I fantasized about being locked in the library overnight. With a good flashlight, a cozy blanket and snacks, of course! I still love going to libraries; something about the forest of bookshelves makes me feel like I could get lost. Anything is possible in a library!


Anonymous said...

Oh, you are so right about the dismal state of public libraries! This post has made me so jealous. :D Loved your comment about Catholic vampire novels, it was hilarious.


Sheila said...

I once WAS locked in a library overnight! It was a kids' event at the local library, a sleepover in the stacks. It was so fun, laying out sleeping bags between the shelves.

Have you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? It's a kids' book, and the two children live in a museum. They hide from the security guards and sleep in antique beds at night. I loved that book. There should be a book like that with a library ... if there isn't one, I should write one!

Amused Observer said...

I just requested my local public library to buy "Ceremony of Innocence". When they do, (they usually take my suggestions!) do I get to put that in the voting box thingy?

Seraphic said...

Yes and absolutely! Thank you!

JoAnna said...

This sounds like an absolutely lovely day, Seraphic. As a librarian, every time I visit a new city I always try to engage in a bit of 'library tourism.' If only more American libraries were half as beautiful as those in Europe!

While public libraries are a bit of a let-down for anyone after university, their collections are sometimes full of surprisingly delightful selections. As educated as [most] librarians are (a Master's degree is required in the US), I have found through living in several different states that philosophy and religion collections in public libraries tend to be universally bad & depressing. It is frightening to think that if a curious un-formed person ever goes seeking about these topics in the stacks, all they will find is a bit of Nietzsche and sensational novels about Pope Joan. It is worth noting that as public libraries are indeed *public*, it is our responsibility (and well within our ability) to make their collections less 'brain-dead.' At least in the US, it is easy for any patron to request new titles to purchase. If nothing else, the collection development librarians will be glad to have one less book that they have to select for their purchase orders on their own time. Catholic books will only survive and be of good if we read them, support Catholic authors by buying their books, and get them into libraries :)