As most people at work are on holiday today, my email box is deliciously quiet. This enables me to head out at noon, rather than working through my lunch hour as usual, to go to the British Library to renew my reader’s ticket in anticipation of a research visit next week. It’s twenty years since I got my first ticket there, and how things have changed…I love the new building, which is not new any more, of course. I can’t imagine why people complain about it; it’s a real privilege to work there. I always feel, when I approach the gates, that I’m just one of a line of thousands of ants heading towards a teeming nest of intellectual endeavour. The cafe is good too. What has also changed is the staff. Today I get my reader’s ticket sorted out in under ten minutes, with a charming middle-eastern assistant taking my photo. They even have comfy sofas to wait on; so unlike the old days at Bloomsbury, when you were lucky to get a civil word out of some boot-faced jobsworth behind an impenetrable glass screen. I’m now all set to look at Egerton Ms 1048 next Monday: one of the few Commons records which survived the fire.
My book is called Conflagration: the Burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. It does exactly what it says on the tin, telling the story of the greatest fire in London between the Great Fire in 1666 and the Blitz. At the moment, I have got hold of about 99% of the research material I need, and I would say that the book is about two-thirds written. The main difficulty I have at present is with the early chapters. They are proving to be the hardest to write, because I am describing the layout of the old palace and the progress of the Great Reform Act. Both are complex subjects, which are hard to write about clearly and compellingly without losing essential detail, or becoming tedious.