Every Tuesday, on the way to my choir rehearsal, usually late, I hurry past a very intriguing looking sign, pointing to a pleasingly old-looking building, sandwiched slightly less pleasingly just between a Sainsbury’s, a pub and a McDonald’s, advertising lectures and talks at ‘Gresham College‘. The use of the word ‘college’ always alerts my attention in such contexts, as I wonder whether this may have anything to do with my University days – and while in this case the answer appears to be no (founded in 1597, it has given free public lectures in the City of London for over 400 years, named after the son of a one-time Lord Mayor of London), I notice the place each and every time I rush past it – it looks old, but not too old, and interesting. As a History graduate and proud modern history geek, these two words together are usually enough to warm my cultural cockles. However, choir waits, and I walk on by, and forget Gresham College, and my piqued interest, time and time again.
Except, suddenly, last night, as I sat in a sleepy haze next to my computer after a long evening’s choir, the memory popped into my head. I approached the rehearsal venue from another direction yesterday, but the area evidently still reminds me of my hasty scurrying round commuters at bus stops and revellers outside the pub as I try to make it across several thousand pelican crossings without getting run over by the nearest bicycle or speeding cityboy. Suddenly I felt an urge to Google. ‘Lectures history London’ quickly brought me exactly what I was looking for.
What, I thought in unabashed delight, a treasure trove! Lists of gloriously geeky lectures on all subjects under the sun, with, it seems (or perhaps this is just what I notice), a leaning towards philosophical and historical subjects, and – praise be! – an archive of past lectures, in audio and visual form, for my endless delectation. I never thought I’d say this, but since leaving University, the opportunities to get properly, gleefully interested in a subject are few and far between, and while one lecture clearly isn’t the same as studying something in depth, it certainly provides enough fodder to be getting on with of an evening while you tidy up your bombsite of a bedroom and inhale your dinner at half 10 at night, all the same while as throwing on your pyjamas and setting your alarm for tomorrow (ladies and gentlemen: my life).
My first foray was on the history and current-day workings of London Underground by night: the people who keep it clean and safe while commuters sleep. An archive film from the 1950s, curiously recorded almost as a much earlier talkie, showed armies of men and women, hauling up broken bits of track, dusting around rails, and genially chatting as they passed one another in the gloomy yet somehow welcoming tunnels. A film from the London Transport Museum, which is, if you ever get a chance to go, a vertiable cornocopia of London Transport paraphanelia sadly slightly ruined by some curator’s craven desire to make the whole thing appeal fairly exclusively to children, but nonetheless endlessly fascinating, the black and white documentary shone a light on the pioneering, labrythine transport network that, as the lecturer said, forms the backbone to living in London. It may not be pretty, it may not be modern, but heck, given its great age and the amount of passengers it transports daily, monthly, yearly, it does a pretty bloody good job. And thank goodness – I can’t drive, so without it, I’d be completely lost.
This post wasn’t meant to be become a rant about the Underground – but, perhaps it’s telling that it sort of has. The Gresham College lecture, far from being boring, had me grinning like a loon at the prospect of a good old academic chat, and I found myself really getting involved in the plight of these underground workers banding together to keep the good folk of post-war London moving.
I had thought that three hard years of slogging out my half-baked historical theories in front of vastly qualified and easily critical professors at Cambridge had fairly tired me of the whole notion of lectures and debate, and I’m hardly the most erudite, knowledgeable or cultured of my friends (not by a very, very, very long shot) to begin with, but nope, it seems I still have a spark of interest waiting to ignite in there somewhere.
I was happily groggy at the end of the video, and in sleepy wonder at the opportunities for exploration and knowledge that the Internet can provide, for all its many faults (stop sniggering at the back). I awoke at the usual head-splitting time of half six, feeling curiously satisfied, despite my habitual lack of sleep, and, with a real geeky excitement, can now only wait for tonight’s chance to scour the site for another rummage through history or philosophy, or something else entirely, and, perhaps – even go to a lecture one of these days, and sit, revelling in the olde worlde feeling of it all, and the sense that, sometimes, there really is little better in the world than the chance to find out something new, in an atmosphere of reflective contemplation.
It’s not cool, it’s not original, but, along with the positive Twitter responses I had when I tweeted about my lecture-based discovery, it’s certainly made my week.