I met up with some old mates on Wednesday. They’d got some amazing 50p deal for return train tickets from London and they wanted to see the new Birmingham Library (biggest goddam library in Europe, y’know) and have tea and a gossip.
Years ago, when we met up, it would always be at Joe Allen in Covent Garden and we would drink lunch for so long that the waiters would go off shift and we would have to open an evening tab. The day would generally end with one of us catching the wrong bus (a number 44 to Tooting, if memory serves) and the rest ending up somewhere really odd, like the knicker department at John Lewis, or the conservatory of a complete stranger’s private penthouse in Marylebone. This never really boded well for our arrival at work the next day, still in the same clothes and with raging headaches, to face a barrage of thundering typewriters and a newsroom in full swing.
But we’re ladies of a certain age now. We get hot flushes, and we start sentences and stop in the middle because we can’t remember what we were talking about. We have conversations about what happened to ‘whatsername, you know, the small dark girl with the funny nose who was having an affair with that hairy bloke on features, the one who liked marmalade smeared on his chest’ And strangely enough, we all know what we’re talking about. At least I think we do.
So off to Birmingham. And the first place we went to was the Pen Museum. Which is now, officially, my favourite museum. First off, it ticks all the boxes for people of a certain age, with short attention spans and who are careful with their money; it is tiny and it’s free.
It is on the site of an old pen factory, so you get to it through a wrought iron gate, across a cobbled yard, and into a high-ceilinged Victorian room with small-paned windows. It’s filled with old oak display cases and it smells like the library where my mother worked in the 1960s. I was particularly taken with the sink in the corner with its wooden draining board and the yellow and green 1950s tea caddy, until I realised that it was not a display, but actually where the curators (all volunteers) make their tea.
The museum is cram jammed with stuff, lots of pen nibs (there’s a surprise) some of them arranged in extraordinary patterns (you have to be quite nerdy to like pen nibs) and machines to make them, and amazing bits of social history. The girls who made pen nibs in Birmingham in the 1800s, each made something like 36,000 every day, and got paid about 6d; that is, moving the lever on a machine, by hand, 36,000 times. I managed one, very wonky pen nib in about 10 minutes. Mind you, I was having a laugh while I was doing it.
There was even an example of Pitman shorthand, with the translation next to it (Sir Isaac Pitman lived in Gloucestershire, so I suppose the museum just scooped him in as being a sort of a Midlander). The three of us bent our heads over this, and looked at each other in some confusion. ‘That’s not the outline for Birmingham,’ said Deborah. ‘Is that supposed to be remember?’ said Sue. Turns out that this shorthand was the original kind, not the New Era sort that we all had to learn as junior reporters. The lad who was showing us around (who was a big fan of fountain pens, apparently) looked at us all rather kindly. ‘So you know shorthand,’ he said. ‘Did you all used to be secretaries?’
One other thing about the museum, American author Washington Irving wrote Rip Van Winkle there, in 1817. He was on a visit to his sister Sarah, who was married to owner of the factory, and who lived in a flat above the works.
We went to Birmingham Library next. It’s only just opened, and it is spectacular inside. Imagine the reading room at the British Museum writ seven storeys high, with moving, neon lit, walkways criss-crossing the well in the centre. The roof garden is well thought out, with raised beds and a café area which I expect will be lovely when the sun shines and the wind drops. The lift to the Shakespeare Memorial Library was frankly the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen – a small perspex tube like you get in a hamster cage, overlooking the deep central well. Apparently the library has some really good collections, and a Shakespeare first folio, but the atmosphere of the place was more like an airport than a library. We did have lunch in the end; tea and sandwiches by the roof garden (no drink or bad behaviour today), but every minute or two our conversation was interrupted by ‘Bing bong, bing bong, bing bong, would the IC please report to reception.’ After five minutes of being unable to hold any kind of a conversation, and being in no way wiser as to who or what IC was, there was another announcement. ‘Bing bong, bing bong, bing bong, would IC please note, they are no longer needed at reception.’
It was good to catch up with my friends. I loved the pen museum. I liked the fact that the ‘shop’ was crammed in a corner, and the ‘café’ was one table. I liked being able to sit down at an old, old table and mess about with pens and ink to my heart’s content. I loved the enthusiasm of the curators, because without it you’d never feel the drama of a pen nib’s history. The library? Well, it’s the biggest in Europe, you know.