Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

London, Beethoven’s Tuning Fork, Thursday, 29.9.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 28, 2005


Triumph! First in the queue to buy afternoon tickets for ‘Forgotten Empire (Treasures of Persia) at the British Museum! We’d read about this exhibition at home in Melbourne, and checked it out online, so we were keen to see this special exhibition of items on loan from Iran.
But first, our quest to find Beethoven’s tuning fork at the British Library. I’d emailed Amelie Roper, Curator of music collections, and established that it was on display before we left home…
Beethoven has always been my favourite composer. As a teenager I used to go into the Melbourne Library at weekends and read everything I could find; I played the symphonies (conducted by Herbert Van Karajan) endlessly. The idea of being able to see something Beethoven had touched made me feel as excited as a little kid, and I felt the anticipation keenly as we walked in the sunshine to the beautiful new library building.
According to Amelie, it is said that Beethoven gave the tuning fork to the violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, from whom it was passed to Ulysses Bolton (1801-66) and then to Paul Waddington. He passed it on to John H. Balderston who said, in a letter that survives, ‘It was given to me on a promise never to sell it, but to be given to some decent musiker who would care for it and pass it along when the time came.’ Balderstone did this by passing it on to Gustav Holst, who gave it to Vaughan Williams, and in 1993 Ursula Vaughan Williams presented it to the British Library ‘in the hope that all musicians will feel that in belonging to this treasure house it belongs to them all.’ I myself am not one of the august company of musicians she was thinking of, but I was thrilled to see it there, beside the MS of his Ninth Symphony too.
Amelie had also told me about some of the other treasures in the John Ritblat gallery, and as I walked around marvelling at what I saw, I jotted my thoughts in my journal:
‘I cannot explain what a thrill it is to see these documents and books. My heart is thudding! The weight of civilised learning and history is here – the power of ideas and imagination & the recording of events & theories and stories in print which have made civilisation what it is today. We inherit this genius, this history because of reading and writing, and it made me feel proud of my profession, teaching, which ensures its continuity into future generations.’
There on display was the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest and best written of the books of the Old Testament; scraps of the Unknown Gospel on papyrus dated about AD100-150; and the Gutenberg Bible. There was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest history of England in English at the time of King Alfred (849-899, but copied in about 1040) – the page describes attacks by the Vikings. In a large cabinet, there are various incarnations of the Magna Carta as well as the Papal Bull denouncing it; Beowulf, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on 11th century vellum, and the Julius Work Calendar. Of course there is also a cabinet with Shakespeare’s First Folio, the sonnets, and his mortgage deed. (It seems so mundane, Shakespeare having a mortgage, just like everybody else.)
Alice in Wonderland was there and so was Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.

James Joyce’s (very messy) Finnegan’s Wake, and Middlemarch by George Eliot, open at the page where Dorothea and Will declare their love for one another.
There’s a charming little pile of Dickens’ David Copperfield in blue paperback instalments, and the MS of Persuasion was on Jane Austen’s writing desk, not far from that famous page from Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s handwriting: ‘Reader, I married him.’
For Tim, the highlight was the letters of Newton. Amongst the more modern documents were Haig’s Order of the Day on April 11th, 1918, when he held the line and the British won; the diary of Captain Scott in 1912; the HMAS Victory logbook from 1805; and a letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert about the appalling conditions in the field hospitals in 1854 during the Crimean War. Beatles songs too, like ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ written on scraps of paper & envelopes. You can also listen to sound recordings, including Thomas Edison reciting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and a speech by Florence Nightingale, and – marvels of the 21st century – documents and books too fragile for display can be viewed page by page on computers in a small room adjacent to the gallery.
I had another literary thrill en route too. We walked past the University of London, (where my father took his degree) and recognised its sturdy monolithic concrete as the ‘Ministry of Truth’ from George Orwell’s 1984!

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