A lady in a shelf of books. Illustrated by James Ferguson
© James Ferguson

What do you hope for the future? Or for your children’s future? One of my favourite poems is W.B. Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter”, which talks about the Irish poet’s hopes and fears for his newborn child. Yeats was in his fifties when he became a father, and by then had become very jaundiced about what the world held for the young. But I love the mixture of emotions that he pours out in this poem, so much so that it even makes me momentarily sad that I never had a daughter myself.

It’s odd that even though I admire Yeats, and travel to Dublin fairly often, I have not yet found time to visit a long-running exhibition of his life and works at the National Library of Ireland.

I plan to put that right next month, and I am looking forward to it, for to visit the building and collections is to immerse oneself in the history of Ireland. Fiona Ross, the NLI’s director (and, incidentally, a trustee of the National Archives at Kew) leads a cracking team and a wonderful institution.

I am something of a connoisseur of the great libraries of the world. I commend to you, for instance, the Morgan Library in New York, a fabulous collection amassed by JPMorgan and donated to the public by his son. In Australia recently, I took my mother and Cost Centre #2 to an exhibition curated by the State Library of New South Wales, entitled “Macquarie the Governor, 1810 to 1821”. Lachlan Macquarie was a military hero and an inspired and enlightened governor of NSW. I have been fascinated by the life of this tough Scotsman – whom the British government treated appallingly at the end of his career – since I first visited Australia and found that half the country seems to be named after him. (Indeed, even CC#2 shares a name with him.) Among Macquarie’s many achievements are founding Australia’s first bank and developing its first currency, the Holey Dollar. For readers who are close by, this exhibition is scheduled to close in mid-December – go and see it!

I also love the London Library, founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841 because he was fed up with the Reading Room at the British Museum on two counts – he couldn’t borrow books and he wasn’t allowed to talk to his friends there. I did a great deal of talking at the London Library to one particular friend recently, when I was interviewed in front of a live audience by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist. We didn’t discuss the interview beforehand, and I had no idea what to expect.

He opened by listing all the media outlets in which I am involved, and asked one question: why?

Why indeed? It’s one thing keeping up with a newspaper column and the demands of my publishers as they insist on releasing my book in yet another language, but at the moment it’s my TV show that takes the biscuit. It even has a spin-off show in production, and the company that makes it is also constantly recutting and refashioning versions of previous series. I even lost my Voiceover Virginity last week, doing a winter special. This entailed my sitting in a soundproof room so tiny that I feared succumbing to acute claustrophobia, and then reading a script while taking vocal direction (“stress the third word”, “don’t finish the sentence with intonation up”) through my headphones.

Given that I am not a history scholar, why am I so interested in libraries? I do find them much more interesting than TV, I have to admit. I think it is because, even at the age of 50, I have hopes for the future – mine, and, like Yeats, that of my children. And if you want a better future, you have to look back. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


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