I go to London quite frequently because I have family over there and every time I make a trip I try and do a little bit of literary tourism. One day I managed to rope my sister, Orla, into accompanying me to Bloomsbury. I got out my map of London (not a physical map, an app map) and plotted out my route and off we headed on the tube towards Russel Square. We disembarked and en route to my destination Google Maps tried to send me through the public thoroughfare of a very impressive looking Art-Deco style skyscraper. I remember craning my neck and looking up at this building and thinking ‘I know this place—I’ve seen it before—this place is important’.
And then I remembered. Senate House.
A place on my literary tourism to-do list and I’d just stumbled upon it.
Senate house was originally built to replace the original University of London buildings. Under the instruction of the University of London’s Vice-Chancellor Sir William Beveridge Architect, Charles Holden was appointed. He was tasked with finally creating a building finally worthy of the title ‘University of London’. And Holden certainly achieved that. Senate House was to be the capital’s first skyscraper and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture you’ll find anywhere.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a building you can just wander around in. The only areas open to the general public are the thoroughfare and the exhibition area on the 4thfloor, but gazing up at its incredible exterior is sufficient for most. If you want to explore the interior building itself relatively unhindered and get some dystopian/art-deco style inspiration for your writing, the building is open to the public during the annual Open House London weekend which has just passed but will return on the 21stand 22nd September 2019. See the Open House website for details.
Senate House isn’t just an architectural gem, it’s a serious literary tourism gem for three reasons:
- It has a beautiful library
- Mary Prince used to live in a house on this site
- The building and its function during WW2 inspired a number of authors in the early 20thCentury.
1. Senate House Library
Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London and contains the universities humanities and social sciences library. Senate House Library holds over 2 million books and 1,200 archive collections. The library is beautiful, as you can see, but it is mostly restricted to UL students. I understand that you can access it if you show ID and purchase a £5 day-pass.
Treasures held by the library range from mediaeval manuscripts to books printed by William Caxton, the first printer of books to Shakespeare’s First Folio. It also holds a presentation copy of Das Kapital, Byron’s unfinished, unpublished draft for the end of Don Juan, a handwritten letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, letters by poet, Phoebe Heskith and drafts of Terry Pratchett novels.
The library holds regular exhibitions and events which are free-of-charge, open to the general public and often book-related. You don’t need a day membership pass to visit these exhibitions but you do need to register online.
The current exhibition is entitled Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words which is running until the
2. Mary Prince used to Live on this Site:
Mary Prince lived on the site of the Senate House in the 1800s, long before Senate House was a twinkle in Sir William Beveridge’s eye. Prince was an anti-slavery activist and an important literary figure because she was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Her autobiography proved the power of the written word, the personal story, the first-person narrative. It has been proven that books increase empathy in a way that no other medium can and Prince telling her story in her own words gave people a real insight into the horrors endured by slaves. It generated an understanding that could not have existed beforehand. The book sold out three times and was instrumental in changing public opinion and garnering support and momentum behind the anti-slavery movement in the UK. It would be a few years after the book was published before slavery would be fully abolished, but certainly, her book and its impact should never be forgotten. Senate House now dominates the spot where she once lived, but there is a commemorative plaque that reads ‘Mary Prince abolitionist and author lived near this site’ and it is definitely worth stopping there and reflecting on where we once were, and indeed, where we are now.
3. Its Connection with Speculative Fiction
In 1937 the University of London reopened in its new location, and in 1939 the war began. The university staff and students moved out, which was a good thing as Senate House was targeted a number of times during WW2
A great number of fiction writers were inspired by Senate House and its wartime function. I have no doubt that the formidable and imposing appearance of the building enhanced the sense of insidiousness around the activities of the occupants of Senate House during WW2. Don’t forget that when much of the literature involving this house was written, it was the only, or one of the only skyscrapers in London. Its stature would have made it the most dominant and visible building in the skyline of the city—and this, combined with its masculine, granite walls and angularity gives it a cold, imposing and formidable beauty. Its appearance is reminiscent of totalitarian architecture going up all around Europe at that time. For people who take an interest in speculative fiction, you’ll definitely appreciate its aesthetic.
Of all of the authors inspired by Senate House, George Orwell is the most famous. The Ministry of Truth which features in his novel, was based on The Ministry of Information. Orwell’s wife worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information for a time, and so Orwell obviously had a unique insight into its machinations. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four are sky-rocketing. It’s not surprising in an era of ‘fake news’, a rejection of science in favour of conspiracy theories, gleaning information from online op-eds and commentary instead of objective reporting on facts, social bots spewing hate, the rise of the far-right in the West, the media’s use of outrage and fear to sell clicks, targeted propaganda being disseminated via social media, personal information being traded for likes and conveniences. Our sense of paranoia about the world and the future has increased, and with it, the relevance of the warnings contained in this very important novel.
Graham Greene is another author who drew inspiration from Senate House. In his novel The Ministry of Fearhe described it as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’. His perception of the building itself, clearly influenced by its wartime use.
Evelyn Waugh’s character in the wartime novel Put Out More Flags is repulsed by the building, believing that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’
Interestingly, Senate House is seen as a place of refuge in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It is the location where a group congregate to make sense of the post-apocalyptic chaos surrounding them. The main character and others gathered there to attempt to form a kind of order among the mess. The building operates in this context as a kind of fortress. Senate House is a place where the characters try and visualize their future. The place they choose to go to and seek out normalcy and order as their reality is turned on its head.
The building also features in the film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Day of the Triffids, and it pops up in a number of other movies as a Ministry of War, a CIA lobby and a Russian secret service HQ etc. So there you go, what an interesting place Senate House is. A source of much inspiration to writers and filmmakers alike, and when you see it in person you will be struck by its magnificence, so go and visit.
I’d like to say thank-you to Senate House Library for their assistance with this article. They kindly provided photographs and information around the current exhibition on female pioneers