The week began strenuously. My fellow V&A trustee Betty Jackson’s catwalk show for London Fashion Week had a start time of 9.15 on Sunday morning. “Never mind,” my husband said. “At least we’ll be able to get a seat.” In fact, the event was mobbed. I’m guessing that the extremely large youth contingent had stayed up all night to be sure of getting there on time. Another V&A trustee, the supermodel Erin O’Connor, was meeting and greeting. She and Betty are championing an even higher profile for fashion at the already fashion-friendly V&A, with increased gallery space for historical and contemporary couture, and, I hope, a refurbished fashion court. Oh, and the Betty Jackson autumn/winter 2009 frocks are fantastic.
I am dividing my time these days between the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and my research institute, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, at Queen Mary, University of London. I like the contrast between exploring the intricacies of early modern archival documents with my graduate students at CELL on the one hand, and overseeing the detail of the code of practice for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (which comes into force in October) on the other.
But by Monday night, after a long day spent at the HFEA office, I was feeling the lack of a Sunday-morning lie-in. Baroness Susan Greenfield, the dynamic director of the Royal Institution, is, however, a guaranteed pick-me-up. I was sharing a platform with her at Jewish Book Week, debating some of the ideas in her latest book, ID, about ways our identity is being altered under the pressure of an electronic age. After an enjoyable hour of vigorous intellectual sparring, we agreed to differ as to whether iPhones and Wii games were reshaping the brains of the young, vowed to meet soon for lunch, and then each dashed off to our next engagement: she to catch a plane to South Africa and me to dinner with friends.
At one point during our on-stage conversation, a young man in the audience asked a question about whether fast internet access and electronic devices were affecting people’s down time. “Though,” he added, “I’m not sure either of you ladies on the platform knows what down time is.” This was particularly astute of him, I thought, in the light of an exchange between Susan Greenfield and her publicist in the green room beforehand, which had made me smile. They were arranging for an interview and photo shoot for a magazine on the subject of “my ideal day”. “I’ve decided to choose a day in a really relaxing health spa,” said Susan. “There’s a fantastic one just across the street from my office in Albemarle Street, which means I can get the whole thing done in half an hour between meetings, including putting on a bathrobe for the photo.” If you’re a woman working under pressure, self-indulgence has to be crammed into extremely short time slots!
Early mornings are getting to be something of a theme here. On Friday I was up bright and early again to catch the 6.59 Eurostar to Brussels, then the Thalys to The Hague. The snowdrops and crocuses were out along the Lange Voorhout, carpeting the ground under the trees. There were armloads of multicoloured and variegated tulips on the flower stalls of the Saturday market in Leiden (where I visited colleagues), and it really felt like spring.
Last year I was distinguished visiting fellow at the Royal Library (or Koninklijke Bibliotheek) in The Hague, studying several thousand manuscript letters written to and from the 17th-century poet, diplomat and connoisseur Sir Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). I’d been invited back by my generous and hospitable colleagues at the KB for a farewell dinner. They had booked us into the Hotel des Indes, two doors down from where Huygens lived with his family in the 1620s. And they had chosen an elegant restaurant in Voorburg, where, in the early 1640s, Huygens had built a neoclassical country house for himself and surrounded it with a fashionable garden, comprising tree-lined avenues, groves, canals and parterres. The garden is long gone – lost to encroaching seawater and high winds across the dunes, and more recently to the railway. Only the house itself remains. But something of the atmosphere lingers still, or at least so I like to think.
So the weekend ended on a quieter note than it had begun. I feel fortunate to be able to spend time in the memory-filled locations, and handle the precious original documents belonging to those I study as a historian. Indeed, if I were asked to choose my own ideal day, it would be spent with the mild-mannered and attentive head of special collections, among the box upon box of the handwritten remains of the Huygens family, at the Dutch Royal Library in The Hague. Mind you, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at the sauna and steam room of a luxury spa, either.