Meaning and Nonsense in the British Library

The British Library is a beautiful modern building, an oasis in the city. The minute I turned the corner into the courtyard, the decibel level dropped. I went  immediately into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to look at the permanent collection. It has been a while since I have had time to gaze lovingly at manuscripts. Another lifetime ago. I stared at pen strokes, brush strokes and tiny lines of decorations, and noticed that my hand was tracing the lines in the air. Books of Hours, with their gorgeous illuminations and flat quadrata feet. They mesmerize me, because they require so much pen manipulation. The Codex Sinaiticus, with its exquisitie and pure of Greek letters, written in the 4th century. Lettering that reflects purity of thought.

I came around a corner and was suddenly face to face with The Lindesfarne Gospels, one of the most important manuscripts ever created and one that I spent a great deal of time studying in my former life. It was like coming across an old friend in London.

The Lindesfarne Gospels. An old friend

I spent a good long time visiting. We had a lot of catching up to do.

After a reflective and solitary cup of tea, I went perusing. There were a couple of fabulous special exhibits. One was the Library’s holdings of manuscripts by the writer and artist, Mervyn Peake. Anyone who has read the Gormanghast Trilogy knows that it is filled with elaborate, eccentric characters. It is Gothic and weird and wonderful. Peake was a visual artist as well as a writer, and his manuscripts are filled with sketches of characters and settings for the books.

Peake's Gormenghast characters

Peake served in the Second World War. He was one of the first to go into the liberated concentration camp at Belsen, and he was tremendously affected by the experience. He wrote a poem called, “That Last Weak Cough”, and later, when the poem was published with his illustrations, he wrote about the importance of art to humanity.

“… (art) matters fundamentally … if man matters, then the highest flights of his mind and imagination matter. His wonder, his vitality matters. It gives the lie to the nihilists who cry “Woe” in the streets. For art is the voice of man, naked, militant and unashamed.” Mervyn Peake 1949

It never ceases to amaze me that if I open myself to ideas and experiences I find something that speaks to the questions I am asking. The combination of the Peake exhibit and the Manuscripts helped to remind me that every age, every generation, has a voice. Just because I am not “current” doesn’t mean I don’t have a perspective that is meaningful.

And then Peake spoke to me about nonsense:

“Nonsense can be gentle or riotous. It can clank like stones in the empty buckets of fatuity. It can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere. It’s magic – for to explain it, were that possible, would be to kill it. It swims, plunges, cavorts, and rises in its own element. It’s a favourable fowl. For non – sense is not the opposite of good sense. That would be “Bad Sense”. It’s something quite apart – and isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s far more rare.” Mervyn Peake.

So this is my watchword for the next little while, as I negotiate London. To plunge and cavort with a bit of nonsense, remembering that nonsense isn’t just silliness. It can be just as poignant and nostalgic and emotional as any meaningful artistic response.


Sensitive, Seldom and Sad are we,

As we wend our way to the sneezing sea,

With our hampers full of thistles and fronds

To plant round the edge of the dab-fish ponds;

Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad –

Oh, so Seldom and Sad.

In the shambling shades of the shelving shore,

We will sing us a song of the Long Before,

And light a red fire and warm our paws

For it’s chilly, it is, on the Desperate shores,

For those who are Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,

For those who are Seldom and Sad.

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