Tuesday, October 10, 2006

John Lennon's Birthday / Tourism

Took a walk to the British Library. After walking for a bit, I saw signs which read "Turning the Pages," which I thought might be something I had read about: an interactive exhibit with things like Leonardo daVinci's journals and stuff that you could flip through on a computer.

I walked in. There was a small woman behind a large reception desk.

"Is this the place for the exhibit?" I asked, motioning toward a large display I could see set into a kiosk.

"Only for registered guests," she said, looking at me disapprovingly. The pair of jeans I was wearing had ripped at the knee after I got here, and I was suddenly afraid that the library had a dress code.

"Great," I said. "How do I register?"

"Sir, you are aware that this is a medical library?"

I looked around again. The signs just said "Welcome Library."

"Oh, I...isn't this..."

"No, sir."

"Well, where is...?"

"The British Library is a bit further, past the firehouse."

So I went a bit further, and past the firehouse. I must admit I had been thinking it was a little weird that the library seemed to have such a small part of the building, and that there wasn't more fanfare.

The actual library, of course, has both size and fanfare. It was redone in 1998, and has lots of modern ideas in the architecture. There is an emormous statue of Paolozzi on the grounds, and a very modern feel to the building itself. Every book published in the UK is required by law to send at least one copy to this building.

I had arrived a bit late for the paid exhibits, but was told I could still see much of what I had come for in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, subtitled "Treasures of the British Library."

It turned out, once I found it, to house pretty much all of what I was looking for. Photography is prohibited, but I got a few shots off before I realized this (check the Flickr page). But I saw so much more than the (fairly crappy) pictures suggest. They had among many other things various incarnations of the Magna Carta (including an original); a Gutenburg Bible; early published versions of Shakespeare (including a Richard III from 1597 and the First Folio); handwritten pages from books by Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Lewis Carroll; and even originals of Beatles songs, sketched out by John on the back of an Airmail envelope, or, in the case of "A Hard Day's Night," on what seemed to be a greeting card.

So I stood there a moment, thinking that perhaps even the cynical Mr. Lennon would be proud to have his scribblings here. At least so near to the Lewis Carroll stuff.

It would have been his birthday Monday, and he would have been a doddering old poop of 66. Would he have softened by now, or would he be spitting out venom at President Bush the way he used to at Nixon? I have no answer to that question.

I have been to the Dakota building in New York, where he lived out the last years of his life, where he was shot and killed. I have now been to Abbey Road studios, where an engineer once draped a microphone in plastic and submerged it in water to achieve a vocal effect he wanted. I have looked at lyrics he wrote out by hand and seen how it might have taken shape with big scratches obliterating entire verses before he wrote out the one now on record.

I have read the books, watched the interviews, seen the documentaries.

But all of that is nothing more than tourism. I don't claim to understand him at all, because tourism isn't about understanding. Just proximity.

You stand next to something, see something, maybe touch something. Snap a picture, maybe think for a minute and then you go on to the next thing.

Someone else great did something right over there. And, if you hurry, you can stand there, too.

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