The morose and boiled-cabbage bleakness of the National Library of Scotland conceals a kind of perverse beauty. Strip lights and sticky green chairs. Smelly books and smellier bookish types. Retirees turn pages with papery hands and yellow, bloodshot little eyes follow you round the room. I love it unconditionally.
People grunt and flatulate noisily as they flick through the week’s news. Brexit in a week or so, is it? This library is like a nuclear bunker. They really could atomise Edinburgh and there is every chance that some weedy professor would still moulder away in the basement, flicking through a manuscript.
What a basement as well. Or more of a well. 14 storeys. They recently had a fire-drill, from the main reading room it took a full fifteen minutes of winding down shaky iron staircases to reach Cowgate. The top two floors are street-level and then the reading-room. It descends unfathomable distances, tunnels and alleys stacked with treasure, unspeakably precious artefacts: Darwin’s submission letter to the Royal Academy and a first folio of Shakespeare.
It is a pen pushing, thumb twiddling place to spend time. There is always a moment when you enter the half-silence of the reading room: like putting your head underwater in a tepid bath. It makes you want to sound a klaxon or throw bright paint all over the greyness.
And a couple of hours later you wake up and check the clock to see if its tea-time. Say what you like about the different shapes of old which attend the library with me. They know how to get value. Most of them will scurry into their tupperware lunchboxes for leftovers or luncheon meat sandwiches, which they rustle and chew, glaring with watery eyes into the middle distance. The only thing which they do believe to be a non-negotiable expense is tea.
At the centre of the National Library tea ritual is the Empire biscuit. The Jammie Dodger’s doddering grandad. Jam, sandwiched by shortbread biscuits, topped with icing and a jelly tot. I always take off the jelly tot. It is a whole meal of a biscuit, but I have yet to see one unfinished. No matter how tiny the fragile biddy, they always tuck them away with the voracious appetite of an adolescent. Crumbs stuck in the wrinkled corners of mouths, big yawning mouthfuls and gummy chomping.
I once made it to the front of the queue only to find that the titular tea time treat had sold out. The man making my mug of Yorkshire tea looked genuinely put-out on my behalf. He leant in, as though he was about to tell me the hiding place of his secret Empire Biscuit.
‘What I sometimes do, when I fancy an Empire biscuit, but cannae be bothered to get one… take a packet of Jam, snap a shortbread in half and sort of smear the jam on the inside’.
Of course, I graciously accepted the packet of jam which he offered me with a conspiratorial glance. I constructed the cut-price-Empire with the self-conscious peevishness of someone performing some kind of vulgar public fornication. It was only once I was done that I realised I was in good company in imitating an Empire biscuit. Nobody shared my peevishness. Some even dipping shortbread straight into jam. They are the generation of make do and mend, after all.
‘Did you like it?’
The man asked when I returned my tray. He said it with the nonchalance of a maitre d’, but underscored by genuine concern. I assured him that it was a culinary experience for the ages. Because in a funny sort of way it was.
Empire biscuits are an archaic treat, renamed from the far-too-Fritz ‘Deutsch Biscuit’, it can be economised to double shortbread jam-dunked biscuit. It doesn’t matter if they run out of Empire Biscuits. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t an Empire anymore. The sordid little infatuations of this island have persisted its strangest moments. It is endlessly comforting to me that no matter quite how frighteningly unfamiliar the world might become, tea time at the National Library means that someone will be putting away an Empire biscuit (or something resembling). Rituals persist whatever the weather, especially where it concerns food.