I’m in Humanities 2 at the British Library. There is a whiny noise, like a storm trapped in a chimney, coming from somewhere behind me. Perhaps it’s Gertrude. She’s brought snow, power cuts and flooding from across the Atlantic. Last night her gusts sounded like a giant’s fist buffeting the walls of my apartment block. All the storms have names now. This winter we’ve had Clodagh and Desmond and Frank. Now we have Gertrude. Perhaps she’s trying to join us here at Humanities 2 through an open vent. Perhaps the sound is just an asthmatic computer. It wasn’t even that windy this morning.
When I asked for my books at the counter they looked at the bookshelf at the far end, under the letter B. It still surprises me. Last time I came here regularly they always went to the shelf with the letter H stuck to it. I’m no longer the person I used to be. The cells in my body have changed. My name has changed. We change and stay the same. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, about losing it and coming back to it. I’ve been thinking about choosing it. We stay who we are through the stories we tell ourselves. Because of our Facebook accounts and our Instagram accounts, those stories are more permanent and visible than ever before. They hold us accountable to who we think we are. Do storms have more of an identity because we give them names? Do they get their own social media accounts?
I shouldn’t be writing about identity. I’m here to read about the London stone and to find out more about the foundations of London. I have a meagre haul of books. The only one I could find with the title “London Stone” is a pamphlet about a completely different London stone in Staines. I think it might be near Heathrow, but I’m not sure. It has the same name, but it’s not the right stone.
I’ve also picked up Daniel Defoe’s essay on the plague and Charles Booth’s account of the London poor. I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with this selection, but I have to start somewhere. Working in the library is like sifting through soil. Eventually a few golden nuggets will fall through. I love working here. It smells of books and dust. It quietens me. Even with Gertrude, or not Gertrude, whining in the vent.
Image by Mario Calvo.