Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Distant Thunder

I travelled up to London today to attend an "executive briefing" on "Resource Description and Access" (RDA) -- the soon-to-be-unveiled (but frankly, IMHO, doomed) attempt at a new, universal code for library cataloguing. I won't bore you with my thoughts on that subject. What was blog-worthy was that the briefing took place in Bloomsbury.

A long, long time ago, I lived for a year or so in Hackney, East London, and travelled in on the No. 73 bus to Bloomsbury on most weekdays. I was a postgraduate student at University College, London, studying to qualify as a professional librarian. I was at that panicky stage of young adulthood when the realisation dawns on you that a living must be earned, but you have not yet totally abandoned the idea of living off your wits or talents. One's mid-twenties are probably the worst of times, beset by such high levels of self-doubt and anxiety, something it is easy to forget. A lot of people train as teachers under that pressure; but I knew very well that, however badly things turned out, that would never suit me.

If you put the first and the second paragraphs of this post together, you will conclude, rightly, that my wits and talents never did put any money in the bank. The "alternative" course charted in Bloomsbury in 1980 has, in the end, seen me through to the present day, without deviation. Whatever you may think I am, or whatever I may have wanted to be, the HSBC Bank knows that I am paid a decent monthly salary by my university to be an expert in, well, certain essential but narrow areas of library stuff. Ah, well.

But, being in Bloomsbury again today reminded me of some paths not taken; of how -- when you stand at a crossroads in your life -- nothing is written. For example, I was at that time a keen student of the Russian language. At school, I had been inducted into the rudiments: the alphabet, some basic vocabulary and grammar. It was just a bit of fun for the brighter kids (ah, we made our own entertainment in those days!) laid on by a teacher who was an enthusiast. But, by one of those life-changing chances, in 1977 the University of Bristol needed someone -- anyone! -- to catalogue Russian books at just the same time my girlfriend moved there to qualify as a teacher. No qualification necessary. How convenient!

After a couple of years' daily grappling with the mysteries of Soviet book-publishing my Russian had improved to the point where a few years of serious study might get me up to a respectable standard. Russian is a beautiful, difficult, expressive language. Unless you've studied a highly-inflected, highly irregular language -- especially one sealed off behind an unfamilar alphabet -- you probably have no idea what an all-involving passion it can become. So, while I studied librarianship at UCL, I had also signed up for Russian evening classes with Peter Norman at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies. We read our way, painfully, slowly, through Chekhov short stories. I was still young enough to memorize declensions and conjugations without much effort, and every new idiom mastered seemed a fresh step towards a slightly fuzzily defined goal.

But, for whatever reasons, it never happened (whatever "it" was). I ended up working professionally at a university that had dropped Russian as a subject of study the year before I arrived in the 1980s. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I began to discover other aptitudes which felt a little less like doing homework, such as photography. I taught myself to program. We had children.

I never did visit Russia, and may never do so. But walking through the elegant canyons of Bloomsbury this afternoon, I recalled some beautiful words I once memorized from a poem by Anna Akhmatova:

Uslyshish' grom i vspomnish' obo mne,
Podumaesh': ona grozy zhelala

(You will hear thunder, and you will remember me.
You will think: she wanted storms.)

Then -- perhaps to counter the wave of unruly emotion these words unlocked -- I remembered another sonorous phrase I discovered in a Russian-English Dictionary:

Znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch'

("To know three languages is an unnecessary luxury" -- Chekhov)


Gavin McL said...

I was at UCL last week watching water slosh from side to side in a tank.
There I felt the draw of The Museum, but I was in charge of the trip and couldn't vanish for an hour - I always wanted to work in a museum, but at school history clashed with geography, at University the Naval Architecture department shared a building with History and I often wondered what they would they have said if I wandered in and asked to switch but never quite managed it.

Martin H. said...

A thought provoking post Mike. As I read it, I saw glimpses of myself. Beyond those things that are undeniably common to us - year of birth and facial hair, for instance - lies the most telling statement, "when you stand at a crossroads in your life -- nothing is written".

Yet, despite whichever directions we've followed or roads we've travelled, I sense that another thing we might possibly share is a level of regret that doesn't keep us awake at night.

I'm not surprised the words of Anna Akhmatova have stayed with you. They are truly beautiful.

Mike C. said...

It's fun to entertain the idea of infinite, parallel, branching universes, in which all the choices made by everyone are all different, and the cookie crumbles to the left rather than the right. I think that is kind of what underlies Chaos Theory -- over to my esteemed and learned Besserwisser(s)!

Regrets? I've had a few (but then again, too few to mention).

Ah, Anna Akhmatova, one of the great noses of world literature! Unfortunately, those words are only truly truly beautiful heard in Russian.


Struan said...

Do you know the Nathan Altman portrait of Akhmatova? Stunning - even in English :-)

I've been looking for an excuse to use my favourite word in Dutch, 'vijfsprong' - a fivefold crossroads. The last time I was tempted to turn a hobby into a job it was climbing and guiding/antarctic research. My knees thank me for choosing the lab.

True chaos is a particular kind of symmetric randomness. The symmetries only reveal themselves if you know how to look, but are undeniable once found. Knowing how to spot them feels a bit like having the secret key to the Universe, even if the knowledge is ultimately useless.

The alternate worlds multi-choice universe has never appealed to me: the idea that every inconsequential decision creates a new universe is just too self-absorbed for my taste. Decisions should have consequences, not be undoable with a suitable shift of the axes.

Mike C. said...

"Decisions should have consequences, not be undoable with a suitable shift of the axes."

Ah, quite right too, the Presbyterian theory of the Universe!

Yes, I do know that portrait, and many others -- she was the embodiment of what a female poet was supposed to look like. But, the story of her poem "Requiem" is tragic and magnificent -- she became the embodiment of Russia's suffering, the poetess shuffling in a queue outside a prison...