A myth

 

Recently, I renewed my Reader’s Card at the British Library, currently housed in superb premises on Euston Road, next door to the Victorian Gothic St Pancras railway station. This building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in about 1998. Prior to this, the library’s Reading Room was a huge circular structure in the heart of the British Museum.

When our daughter was at primary school, she was taught about the Ancient Egyptians  including a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut. One Saturday, I took our daughter to the British Museum in the hope of finding an image of the pharaoh in the Egyptian Galleries. After a desultory search, we gave up and walked acoss the the lovely covered Great Court, created relatively recently. The central circular structure within it contains the unused but well-preserved round Reading Room, which was designed by Sidney Smirke and opened in 1857, the year of the First Indian War of Independence. 

We entered the old Reading Room and I asked the attendant sitting there:

“Where exactly did Karl Marx used to sit when he used the library?”

“It’s a myth, sir,” replied the attendant, “He did not have a particular place because it has always been the library’s policy that places can not be reserved from day to day.”

I was a bit disappointed with his reply, but had to accept it.

When we got home, my wife asked our child how we had got on. She replied:

“You know Mummy. Daddy asked about his friend at the big old library?”

My wife asked which friend. Our daughter replied:

“I don’t know, but the man said he was a myth really.”

 

 

Picture shows foyer of current British Library in Euston Road

 

Thrown out of a library

When she was about two years old, our daughter dressed in a unisex romper outfit, rushed into the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. An elderly gentleman conducted her back to the entrance of the bar, saying: “You can’t come in here yet, young man. You’ll have to wait until you’re twenty one.”

My wife explained that our child is a girl. The gentleman replied: “In that case, my dear, you will never be able to enter the Men’s Bar.”

The Bangalore Club was founded by British officers in 1868 at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was born in faraway Gujarat. Until after about 1945, women were not allowed into the main Club House. There was a separate annexe reserved for women. And until 1947, with the exception of servants and a very few high ranking military officers, no Indians were permitted to enter any part of the Club.

The Bangalore Club and many other similar still existing colonial era clubs in India maintain many of the old-fashioned rules that applied in elite clubs in the UK. For many years, men could only enter the Club House at the Bangalore Club wearing ‘proper’ shoes, not sports shoes or sandals. Now, sandals are allowed providing they have a back strap around the ankle.

Once, I stayed at the Kodaikanal Club deep in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dress code seemed to be non-existent there until I stepped into the club’s small library. Within a few seconds, a member of the library staff escorted me out of the library. I was wearing sandals. I was told that one could only enter the library if formal leather shoes were being worn.

Well, if you join a club, you should respect its rules however idiotic they might seem. Vide the UK and the EU.

As time moves on, rules change. A couple of years ago , for reasons best not explored here and they were nothing to do with gender equality, women were permitted to enter and use the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. Since that date, the formerly masculine sanctuary has been renamed “The Bar”.

The old gentlemen who evicted our daughter from the Men’s Bar is probably no longer alive. I wonder what he would have thought when his prediction proved to be wrong. Let’s finish by raising a glass to his memory.