Three minutes, forty six point three two seconds

Westminster Mile 2014Thirty years ago, in July 1985, a world record was broken when Steve Cram ran a mile in 3 minutes, 46.32 seconds. Since 1913 when the International Association of Athletics Federations first recognised the men’s world mile record, it has been held by no fewer than six Britons including Roger Bannister, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, but Steve Cram is the last… so far. Read about his memories of setting the record, which held for eight years before being smashed by Noureddine Morceli. The current holder is the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrou.

Many of us will have had New Year’s resolutions to get fit but if, like most of us, you’ve gone back to the sofa, here’s your chance to try again. It’s not too late to enter the Bupa Westminster Mile which takes place on Sunday 24 May. The one-mile running event is the most famous mile in the world, starting on The Mall and finishing outside Buckingham Palace plus free entertainment and activities in Green Park throughout the day. You have plenty of time to train – don’t worry, you won’t be expected to do it in under four minutes! There is also a women-only race as part of This Girl Can, Sport England’s nationwide campaign to get women and girls moving, regardless of shape, size and ability.

Westminster Libraries have plenty of books to help you – for example Running by Owen Barder and Running: the only book you’ll ever need by Art Liberman. Check out too the popular Couch to 5K programme, which aims to get even the least fit of us running 3 miles in only a few weeks. Best of all, running doesn’t have to cost much – as long as you have a comfortable pair of trainers, you don’t need to buy any special kit. Why not just get out there and give it a go?

Running by Owen Barder   Running, by Art Liberman   What I talk about when I talk about running, by Haruki Murakami   Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

Have a look too at our collection of online magazineswhich includes Health and Fitness and Men’s Fitness. Or for a more philosophical approach, Haruki Murukami’s What I Talk About When I Talk about Running aims to explain his passion for marathons, triathlons and all things athletic while Adharanand Finn wrote a fascinating account of his attempt to find out the secrets of the Kenyan domination of middle and long distance running in Running with the Kenyans (SPOILER: they work really, really hard).

There may not be a British mile-record holder any more, but Paula Radcliffe’s   world marathon record (2:17:18) has stood since 2002 when she set it at the Chicago marathon. In fact Paula has set the three fastest times in history – the fourth place goes to Kenyan Mary Keitany who is more than three minutes slower (about a kilometre in marathon running) than her. Paula will be competing in this year’s Virgin London Marathon this weekend, running it for possibly the last time, along with approximately 40,000 other runners including some of the best in the world. It’s always a great sight – check out where you can get the best view to cheer on friends, relatives or just random strangers.

The BUPA Westminster MileAnd if it inspires you to enter the Westminster Mile, all the better!


Lost Rivers of London

CityRead London logoThroughout April it’s been Cityread-a-go-go in Westminster Libraries, with reading group discussions, author visits, children’s crafts and a range of other events, all tying in with the Rivers of London Cityread theme. And there’s more to come – keep an eye on our Cityread London page for information.

Robert Squires of the Inland Waterways Association visited Paddington Library to give an authoritative illustrated talk to a large audience about The Lost Rivers of London. We were regaled with interesting information about the history of Westminster and its environs in relation to its small rivers, virtually all of which now flow in pipes and tunnels under the heavily used pavements and roads of the City.

Many residents and visitors are unaware that Kensington had its own industrial scale canal in the 19th century. It was used as a transit for wood to build new houses in the area. Roger showed the audience an image of the timber yards by the canal in the early 1900’s and it looked far removed from the contemporary image of Kensington as a place of good living and prosperity.

An attentive Cityread audience for Robert Squires talking about the Lost Rivers of London at Paddington Library, April 2015Nor would they know that Victoria station is built on the site of a waterworks and that the River Westbourne flows through a large pipe above the platforms of Sloane Square tube station. I now know why the station walls can’t be upgraded!

Roger talked about environmental changes relating to rising groundwater levels which is causing the basements of many government buildings in Whitehall to be permanently flooded. Roger joked that this was no bad thing…

I was relieved to learn that Paddington Library does not stand directly above either the River Westbourne or the River Tyburn. Woe betide any property owner who builds an underground extension to their mansion above these rivers… they might end up with an unusual swimming pool!

Robert Squires talks about the Lost Rivers of London at Paddington Library

Robert Squires talks about the Lost Rivers of London at Paddington Library

To find out more about this fascinating subject, search for ‘Lost rivers of London’ on the library catalogue.


Cityread: London’s Biggest Book Club

Book jacket - Rivers of London


“Good afternoon. My name’s Peter Grant, I’m from the police and this is my colleague Beverley Brook, who’s a river in south London.”
Rivers of London, p146


April is a busy month in the world of libraries, with a veritable smorgasbord of literary goings-on. Prime amongst them is Cityread London, a city-wide initiative led by libraries to get Londoners reading the same book. Libraries all over the city host a multitude of related events and gatherings where we celebrate reading and, of course, London.

Cityread-colour-logo-lo-res-for-webThis year, the Cityread title is Ben Aaronovitch‘s excellent and aptly named Rivers of London. Part police procedural, part high fantasy – complete with wizards, ghosts and vampires – Rivers of London is above all grounded in its setting: the seething, sprawling mass of London.

Ben Aaronovitch

On Wednesday 22 April (tomorrow!), Ben Aaronovitch is visiting Charing Cross Library as part of his epic tour of 33 London boroughs. You can read more about this heroic feat in his very funny blog.
Westminster Libraries are hosting a range of other events – talks, book groups and author visits – throughout the month.

It’s not too late to take part in the biggest book group in London: pick up a copy of the book at your local library (we will be giving away FREE copies during Ben’s visit to Charing Cross Library) and if you’ve missed your local reading group, you can tell us what you think in the comments below!

Peter Grant – newly minted police constable and apprentice wizard – is the charming, deadpan hero of Rivers of London, and we meet him on the night he encounters his first ghost, at the scene of a particularly grisly murder:

“Can you prove you’re dead?” I asked
“Whatever you say, squire,” said Nicholas, and stepped forward into the light.
He was transparent, the way holograms in films are transparent. Three-dimensional, definitely really there and… transparent. I could see right through him to the white tent the forensics team had set up to protect the area around the body.
Right, I thought, just because you’ve gone mad doesn’t mean you should stop acting like a policeman.
“Can you tell me what you saw?” I asked.
Rivers of London, p7

At first glance, Rivers of London might seem like the kind of book only readers of Crime or Fantasy fiction would enjoy – that was certainly my first impression – but it turns out that a wide range of readers across all sorts of genres really enjoyed this book. I canvassed some of the staff at Westminster Libraries for their quick reviews and thoughts:

“I found the book riveting. I just kept reading and reading. The plot is gripping and original.The supernatural elements feels almost like real life.”

“I first discovered Rivers of London when it was the only book in the series. Although I normally prefer historical to contemporary crime fiction, I’m a sucker for anything set around London and especially the Thames, so I tried it and was hooked!
Best opening paragraphs I’d read in years. (I did a feature for the blog a couple of years ago ‘Famous first words’ on opening sentences and paragraphs which included this).
I have since read the first four books and am waiting for the fifth to come out in paperback.
I also featured Whispers Underground in the reading list for the London Underground 150 years promotion.” 

“I don’t usually read fantasy but gave Rivers of London a chance because Ben is visiting us. I enjoyed it, and may even read the second book – perhaps because it is very grounded physically in London’s streets, the main characters are down to earth, the magic is explained by science and there are some great one liners from Peter Grant.”

“Harry Potter grows up and joins The Bill. Subterranean excitement, with murder and supernatural goings on along London’s lost rivers… whilst Rivers of London isn’t something I’d have chosen for myself I was very glad I read it and can also see exactly why it works so well as a Cityread title.” 

“It’s the best fiction book I have read in a long time. Ben’s love of the West End, where a lot of the book is set, and of London generally underpins the story and sets the scene, but the main joy is the fascinating characters he has created and who develop as the books progress through a  series of supernatural mysteries. When I first heard of the books I was doubtful I would enjoy them (I never liked Harry Potter for instance) but once you try them you are hooked!” 

We’d love to hear your reviews of Rivers of London – tell us what you thought in the comments below!
You can find out more about Rivers of London, including the first chapter of the book, on the Cityread London website.

Love a good map?

Find maps galore at Marylebone Information ServiceIn an age of extraordinary online mapping, it can still be useful to peruse a paper version – whether for the ability to view an image larger than your device screen, for the specialist focus some map collections can provide, or simply as a source when out and about that is not dependent on battery power or data signal!

Marylebone Information Service has a great atlases and maps collection. We receive regular requests for World and London Street atlases. Specific Ordnance Survey Landranger and Explorer series maps are also in demand either for consulting within the library or borrowed from the lending collection.

Times Comprehensive Atlas of the WorldBut what else is on offer?

Your first port of call when consulting a world atlas should be the gorgeous Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. This is the “grand daddy” of them all in size as well as coverage, and is a real pleasure to look at, though not to lift! In addition to country / regional maps the Atlas also includes a number of thematic maps, both political and physical, and accompanying articles on current key topics such as climate change.

Kendal, Morecambe, Windermere and Lancaster Ordnance Survey map Focusing in on Great Britain, the library maintains a reference collection of current road and national atlases.

If you require greater geographical detail why not consult reference copies of the Ordnance Survey Landranger and Explorer series maps which cover the whole of Great Britain?

With the rise of Google maps and rival mapping apps on mobile phones, as well as SatNavs on the car dashboard, one might think that the county atlases printed by Philips have had their day. However, they do still have a use as a source for town and city centre maps. These atlases also include greater detail for rural areas than that provided by Google maps. Where Google scores over the printed version is with its tie up to Streetview images so that a user can identify a specific building from the image of its façade.

National Geographic Atlas of the OceanWorld atlases, whilst good at depicting mountain ranges tend to gloss over the physical attributes of the surface beneath the ocean, depicting the oceans as blank. To discover ‘a new world of mountains, chasms and tectonic plates beneath the surface’, take a look at the National Geographic atlas of the ocean: the deep frontier, by Sylvia A Earle.

The Atlas of Endangered SpeciesThe reference collection also contains a number of other specialist atlases including

Grand Union, Oxford and the South East waterways guideHere are two examples from atlas series which include London coverage.
For boaters and towpath users, Nicholson publish regional canal guides incorporating detailed maps of the individual waterways together with practical and historical information about the waterway, adjacent settlements and features along the route.

Cycle Tours: Around London by Nick CottonFor cyclists, Philips have published a series of regional cycling maps that explore beyond urban centers using quiet roads, byways and bridle paths. Thus the Bristol & Bath volume includes routes in the Cotswolds, lower Severn Valley, the Mendips and North Somerset. For London based cyclists there are two volumes covering the adjacent counties north and south of the Thames.

In a later post I will concentrate further on London atlases and maps, especially historical sources.


Your Library – Anywhere

With the Easter holidays just around the corner, we thought now might be a good time to remind you about the handy ‘Library Anywhere’ mobile app. With Library Anywhere, you can easily search for, renew and reserve items on the go. You can also scan a book barcode anywhere – for instance in shops, at friends’ houses – and immediately find out whether the book is in stock at your local  library.

Library Anywhere logo

Library Anywhere – free from the App Store and Google Play – gives you access to your account information, the library catalogue and opening times, and much more.

iPhone and Android users

  • Download the ‘Library Anywhere’ app free from the App Store or Google Play.
  • iPhone users also have the option to download the ‘WCCLibraries’ app free from the App Store.

Blackberry and other smartphone users

  • You can also use the app interface in a ‘universal version’ by going to The Barcode Scan feature is not available in this version.

Comic Club update: The Golden Age of Comics

Superman comicsThe Golden Age of Comic Books describes an era of American comic books from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.
The March meeting of the Marylebone Library Graphic Novel Club considered the various comic book eras including the Golden Age (1930 – 1955), Silver Age (1956 – 1970), Bronze Age (1970 – 1985) and the Modern Age (1986 – present) of comics and their influences.

In the Golden Age, modern comic books were first published and rapidly increased in popularity; the superhero archetype was created and many famous characters debuted, including Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. Although Captain Marvel had the greatest sales of all the Golden age heroes with 1.4 million copies sold, Superman has been considered the archetype of the Superhero.

It’s unclear if this ‘reduced standard’ in the naming of the ages from Gold to Bronze represents a reduction in the quality of comics over the years, but it is clear that the style and content of comics has changed throughout each age due to external social influences at the time.

Established in the shadow of two world wars, the superhero represented clear ideas of morality, honor and justice that were uncompromising and unwavering in the face of overwhelming adversities. Social norms were represented to the young, male-dominated audience who consumed the medium and female characters were largely under-developed. As the Cold War became more apparent, the superhero became less popular in the face of new independent comic book companies creating various scenarios to analyse and criticise the society they lived in. Stories became more cynical, violent and  “adult”, leaving behind both young readers and the idea that the hero would save us.

Many voices in our group agreed that the superhero archetype, specifically Superman, was clichéd, outdated and unrepresentative of the views or realities of the modern age. Others argued that superheros are a creation of fiction and fantasy to escape reality, who inspire us to imagine a better world of gods and giants where we are the best version of ourselves.

In each case, the hero has evolved from being faster than a speeding train and leaping tall buildings, to outrunning bullets, flying and more recently releasing the energy of the sun. Only time will tell if the most recent incarnations of our classic heroes will survive the next age of the comic book.

Garth Ennis comicsEd Brubaker comicsRobert Kirkman comics Howard Chaykin comics Mark Millar comics

In the next meeting – this evening, 1 April – we’ll be discussing whether and why sex and/or violence is essential in comics. Over the course of our previous discussions, the recurring theme of violence and sex has appeared briefly within the context of specific works. The presence of scantily clad female characters, coupled with scenes of sometimes extreme violence is now almost a mandatory requirement for comic books; more so than any comedic characteristic to a story.

In this discussion we’ll be considering:

Come to Marylebone Library this evening at 6.30pm and join in.


Meet the Stephensons

In the conservation studio of Westminster Archives Centre, our volunteers are embarking on a new preservation management project – cleaning thousands of records for St Margaret’s Parish.

Bundle of St. Margaret’s Parish records (E3339/1801) waiting to be cleaned.

Bundle of St. Margaret’s Parish records (E3339/1801) waiting to be cleaned. Particularly vulnerable items are enclosed in archival rag paper for protection.

At some point in their history, the records were stored in a smoky environment and the clear scent of wood smoke wafts from the boxes when they are opened.  The residue from the smoke and other environmental grime can cause the paper to weaken. To slow down the process of degradation, our volunteers are surface cleaning each piece of correspondence using a smoke sponge and a soft haired brush. In addition to cleaning, the volunteers prepare enclosures for the records that are physically delicate.

While cleaning the records the subjects, descriptions and people included have intrigued and fascinated our team. The correspondence includes requests for funds, complaints about a neighbour’s pigs affecting the price of real estate and requests for young people to be sent north to work in one of the first manufactories.  Mr Stephenson was the Parish Warden for approximately 50 years and kept together his personal and business correspondence. It is the interrelated letters from family and friends that have specifically captivated volunteers and staff alike. As we learn more about each family and friends, we are recording the information on an informal family tree.

Informal Stevenson family tree being written to help volunteers keep track of the various people discussed in the correspondence.

Informal Stephenson family tree being written to help volunteers keep track of the various people discussed in the correspondence.

Mr Stephenson’s brother seems to financially struggle and the correspondence is littered with requests for money as evidenced below:

Craigs Court
January 26 1802

Being in want of a Temporary Assistance and having on former occasion applied to some few friends who have always contributed with my request in the most dreadful manner as such in would be engrossing too much on their liberality to apply to them on the present occasion.  I have therefore to request the favour of you to accommodate me with the Loan of Thirty pounds which I shall hold myself responsible to return by instalments at a short date which if you shold think convenient to furnish me with my request I should consider myself infinitely obliged…

Letter - 26 January 1802

Letter – 26 January 1802

In addition to his brother, Mr Stephenson’s eldest son Edward is boarding with the Blomfields in Bury St Edmunds. The correspondence contains letters both from and about Edward, including many letters from the grammar school master, Charles Blomfield, at Bury St Edmunds:

January 27, 1802
Re: Son’s arrival

Dear Sir,

Your son arrived safe and well last night and delivered your letter for which I beg to thank you – the contents fully discharge the X Acct.
We are very happy to hear of Mrs Stephenson’s recovery, who I ? say, is beginning to wonder whether the next will be as large as Mrs. Jane Mildred.  Mrs B is quite well and George is now beginning to improve in his health – hitherto he has been rather ailing. Pray make our kindest remembrance to the Abingtons etc. I was in hopes of seeing you but was prevented going to Town this Xmas – my ? friend is going on as I could wish and I think in due time will answer all your wishes about him.  Mrs B. unites with me in best compl. To Yourself and Mrs. Stephenson & I am Dear Sir.

Your sincere friend and Servant

Letter, 27 January 1802

Letter, 27 January 1802

A few months later not all is well with the families as Charles Blomfield communicates about an illness that is affecting many around him:

April 16, 1802
Re: fever

My dear Sir,

I ought some time back to have acknowledged the rect. Of your valuable present of paper etc. but the prupose of ? and anxiety of mind must be my apology and I know your kindness too well to doubt your admitting it. When I say “anxiety of mind” I mean the hourly expectation of some of my family being taken with the fever which has (I may say) raged here for months past. Indeed, till this time, the town has never been free from it since last August – our fears are now nearly subsided as the Medical Gentleman assure me the danger is over.  My ? folks, thank God, have all escaped but the caution we have used has been extreme.

Our friend lost his 3 eldest children in a fortnight.  Your Son has enjoyed a perfect state of health and continues to have the good report of his Masters, he desires Duty etc.

Mrs. B will offer my best regards to Mrs. Stephenson and yourself and I am dear Sir your much obliged friend and Serv.

Letter - 16 April 1802

Letter – 16 April 1802

If you have enjoyed the three snippets of the lives of the Stephensons and Blomfields, we will be posting more of their correspondence on the Westminster Arhcives Facebook page in the coming weeks and months.