By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday 9 May 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

One cannot be in London and not imbibe the vibrant city’s love for literature and the arts. During previous visits I felt deep regret when it was already time to leave and I had yet to go through my long list of things to do. That was when I was young and foolish and long before I realized that no matter how long I stayed, London would still offer even more things to discover. And the lament that one could only take in so many museum visits in a day. There was now also the promise (or the fantasy?) of future revisits, especially with the ease of travel offered by PAL’s direct flights to London from Manila—and even arriving way ahead of schedule, by the way.

But first, the bad news about this eight-day visit. I did not get to visit Harry Potter’s wonderland. The closest link I had to him was being at King’s Cross every single day, the very same train station he would use to go to Hogwarts, departing from platform 9¾. I did not spend enough time at the British Museum, a place made more curious with the recent news that its outstanding director, Neil MacGregor, would be stepping down in December. The day I went to renew my library card at the British Library was my last day in London, which also turned out to be their bank holiday, so the offices and reading rooms were closed, though the library was open.

Now to the many glad tidings.

I knew I was off to a good start when, on the way to the British Museum, I gasped and lingered at an antiquarian bookshop that is the former home of Randolph Caldecott, the British illustrator after whom the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal for the year’s most outstanding children’s picture book is named. Bless the Brits for the respect they accord such figures, evoking this envious and sarcastic comment from RayVi Sunico: If it were here, that site would have been turned into a mall.

It was a national holiday on my British Library day, yet the courtyard teemed with people reading or in conversation and the café had no tables left as students and researchers were at work. Why did one’s soul seem to take flight at the mere entrance to this haven? Why was I entranced and spellbound, and not only because it is the world’s largest? It’s something all great, welcoming libraries appear to be empowered doing.

Short of sitting on chairs in the Reading Rooms—as London lover Ambeth Ocampo advises, to imbibe the genius of the great thinkers who did their research there once upon a time—I was welcomed by my favorite bronze sculpture (“Sitting on History” by Bill Woodrow, 1995) in the lobby, a bench fashioned after an open book, with a ball and chain attached. I had to have a photo taken seated there again, except that a napping elderly had hogged the seat for hours now. I was willing to wait because there were exhibits I meant to view, including the impressive Magna Carta exhibit to celebrate its 800th year. But much of the legalese was lost on me, and I kept wishing Adolf Azcuna were here instead.

What piqued my interest more was the permanent exhibit of its greatest treasures. I loved viewing the original manuscripts and notebooks of Charles Dickens, W.H. Auden and Jane Austen (with even her writing desk)—and wondered: With today’s technology, would we have handwritten drafts by modern-day writers? There were recordings of an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” whose 150th anniversary is marked this year. There was the Art of the Book exhibit, chronicling the most ornate book designs, on vellum with gilt edges. Anthony Trollope, who was a prolific novelist in the Victorian era, and an efficient post office worker by day, had a display on the art of writing.

The biggest treat for me was the history of music, displaying original music notes of Beethoven, Mozart, Bartok and Puccini, ending with John Lennon’s “A Hard Day’s Night” scrawled on the first birthday card of his son, Julian. It was only here where I eagerly picked up the headphone for the 10 selections available, from the Beatles introducing themselves to hearing them sing “Yesterday” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

But my favorite sculpture continued to beckon. There was a gentleman now seated and I emboldened myself to ask him to please give up the coveted seat for a few minutes and to take my photo. That done, I felt I was ready to fly home, feeling inspired and ready to immerse myself in words again.

Oh, for a public library in our midst that is accessible to everyone and capable of transporting us to other worlds.

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Erratum: My apologies for this grievous mistake in my April 25 commentary, “Who’s afraid of K-to-12?” My auto-correction pulled a fast one on me. The correct web address for the Department of Education’s Learning Resources Portal with sample teaching modules is:

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.