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)