When I read the recent obituary of Cecil Woolf in ‘The Guardian’ on July 5th 2019, I was reminded of the many conversations that I had had with him in the grubby and smoke-filled little cafe that used to exist in the basement of the British Museum in the 1970s.
Here, one could buy execrable coffee served in glass cups, have a crafty cigarette or two, and converse with all manner of interesting people.
To quote Louis MacNeice from his poem ‘The British Museum Reading Room’, the library was filled with:
‘Cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’, but also ‘haunted readers’.
This dark cafe was a meeting place for the habituees of the Reading Room, who loved to gather, smoke, converse and exchange ideas and thoughts, when they needed a break from their research and writing. A much-loved venue of mine. Sadly, now long gone, along with its colourful, verbose, and eccentric patrons.
Cecil, the nephew of Leonard Woolf, died on the 10th of June, 2019, aged ninety-two, and like his uncle, had been a publisher. I was never sure what he was using the reading room library for, but his conversation was almost always about his uncle and the legal battle he was fighting in contesting Leonard’s will. It all sounded fruitless and unsatisfactory, but, at each of our meetings, he would describe the twists and turns of the case.
He always looked worried and harassed, was in a permanent hurry, and was burdened with bundles of documents. I bumped in to him some years later ( in Lambs Conduit Street), and he hadn’t changed one bit.
Among the ‘cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’ was the young Germaine Greer, who worked tirelessly, almost daily, at her seat, and who was never once seen to take a break, and certainly not in our sleazy cafe. She was working flat out. I remember being very impressed by her industriousness. She put us all to shame.
From 1970-72 , I had a job with Cambridge University Press, as a picture researcher for a series of rather imaginative school text-books. This required me to acquire lots of arcane and very precise illustrations from a variety of sources: the BM, the V&A, the Royal Academy, and various other museums and picture libraries from all over the world. I was busy, but still had time to enjoy my lunch and tea breaks.