It was comical really, the whole day. I was staying at a small cottage in Ventnor, and after climbing miles uphill (ok I'm exaggerating - it's a mile) to the bus stop, I made my way to Newport. It was there I planned to meet up with the person at the records office I had emailed from the U.S. weeks prior about any newspaper accounts of the protagonist in my novels: William West Durant and his yacht Utowana. I needed any reference to him and his yacht appearing on the Isle of Wight in 1891-92.
Of course, I was so worried about directions and finding the place I neglected to bring the crucial emails from the lady at the records office that indicated the dates and page numbers of the news articles I should specifically be reviewing.
Not only that, the place was mobbed. Every octogenarian in Britain was there doing genealogical research looking through what looked to me like those old index cards we used to use in the libraries back home when we were in grade school. And not only that, the cards all had hand writing on them. Why not hire a history grad student to enter it all in a database I thought?
I approached the hapless archivist on duty and asked for my email buddy only to find out she was not present. He brought me into a stuffy room - windows closed, no AC - and showed me the microfilm machine and the myriad of rolls of the Isle of Wight Press going back to 1870 that I could scroll through. Is he kidding?
"How interesting," I said hopefully, "in the States we can google the New York Times archive and find references to articles."
He just gave me an odd look and said, "Good luck."
So I began - I sat down at this ancient machine that I hadn't seen since my college days and scrolled through the years 1891-1892. I couldn't believe all of the stuff they crammed into the Isle of Wight papers back then that had nothing to do with anything. Suddenly I found myself getting sucked into reading about a servant at Queen Victoria's summer residence at Osborne House who drank a bottle of ammonia because he thought the detectives were after him for stealing one of the Princess's pins. My god! And then there was an article about a wedding between some Lord and Lady and it listed every guest AND their gift. Silver trays, ivory hairbrushes, pins, tea sets etc. etc. What was it I was looking for again? Oh yes, William and his yacht.
Well after 2 1/2 hours I found nothing. I even scanned the articles about the Cowes Cup held every August, it mentions all of the yachts that raced, the royal galas, who attended and nothing about William. What happened I thought? The New York Times claims he hosted royalty on his yacht while docked at Cowes? What am I doing here?
I was about to leave when there she was - my email buddy, I ran into her on my way out. "Oh yes, I remember you," she said. She punched in the Utowana on her computer and up popped the exact dates and page numbers I needed to find in the Isle of Wight Press from 1891 and 1892.
I had to get serious. Time to bring something back with me.
"We close in 5 minutes for lunch," she said. Jeesh! So I wandered around Newport for an hour and when I got back to that machine there was another person sitting at it.
"I have this booked for another 1/2 hour," she told me. It was the only machine with a printer attached.
The poor archivist, who by then realized he may have steered me wrong about the ability to 'google' their newspaper archives, asked her if she would move to another machine.
"That would be wonderful," I said, trying to sound polite and cheerful even though I wanted to bite somebody's head off, "after all I did come all the way here from New York."
She didn't budge.
Then this well-dressed older gentleman sporting a summer linen suit of beige came in to use the microfiche (different machine entirely) and began to struggle with the plug. I helped him out and he told me he used to be the archivist there and HE was the one that made all of the index cards!! Somehow his demeanor and lack of sweat in the 90 degree F heat of the room made me think I should just let things roll. If he had the patience to hand write those cards, then I could have patience to wait a bit for the printer.
I finally got on the machine and found the articles I needed and went to print them out and the printer was out of ink. The archivist, who by then was getting to know me very well, came to help me, wearing a bright white buttoned down cotton shirt. When he pulled out the strip and shook the toner the black ink went flying everywhere. I just needed to get out of there at that point.
Documents in hand I headed to the Newport bus stop and missed the bus back to Ventnor by one minute (I saw the back of it as it pulled away) and had to wait another 1/2 hour.
Once on the bus I sat on the top - it was a double-decker, and almost had a heart attack when we barely missed hitting a woman with a baby stroller. I still can't understand how the Brits drive on these narrow roads and don't have road rage!
I was clutching the rail of the bus seat in front of me with anxiety when I look over and noticed the woman across the aisle who had at least twenty years on me was placidly looking out the window. "My god woman! Didn't you see what almost happened?" I wanted to yell at her.
I realized how ridiculous I must look, white-knuckled while everyone else seemed to think that skimming a pedestrian with a 2 ton bus is natural occurrence, so I tried to calm down.
Disembarking from the bus and taking the one mile trek downhill did exactly that, calmed me down.