I have a friend called Dave who works in a library in west London, and is sometimes involved with archives. He’s about my age so naturally some people get us confused. He knows a woman named Blanka who works at the something or other institute somewhere in London.She seemed to think we were the same person. We’re not. For one thing he doesn’t write a blog. But he does like my blog and he was very taken with the posts about the Gloucester Road / Cromwell Road area I did a while back. He remembered walking down Ashburn Mews once or twice. I told him that someone else I know had walked down the same road just after the buildings were demolished, leaving just the paving along the route of the street. I also had some pictures of the cleared site. When he saw them he made me take him on a pilgrimage to the place where Ashburn Mews used to be. It’s just an apartment block now, not really evocative in itself so we soon ran out of things to say about this “ghost street” as he called it.
This took us onto ghost stories. I knew that he attended the gatherings at Trankel’s bookshop near the Barbican and that once a year they dressed up in period costume and told ghost stories. This year a guy called Andy told a story about his grandmother who saw fairies. (Andy saw them too apparently) Blanka had a curious and fantastic tale about a portal under an office block in Holborn which took a party of people to a cold desert full of decaying ships. That sounds good I said. The trouble is, I think she believes it. In fact, I think she was one of the people in it. We agreed that Blanka was a pretty strange woman and debated the chances of her telling the truth. (Low, but not impossible). I asked him what story he told and he said it was more of an anecdote really and didn’t rise to the level of a supernatural tale. We had reached a pub in one of the streets off Gloucester Road and found a quiet corner so he told me the story, apologetically.
[ The entrance as it was]
[The exit, some years later]
He began by saying that this all happened in the 90s when we had the internet but weren’t quite sure what it was for. People who worked in offices had email and scanners, and phones were getting smaller every year as if poised in preparation for the great leap forward to smartphones when they could start getting bigger again. He remembered going to a meeting about what was thought at the time to be a controversial topic, moving a collection from the branch where it had always been to somewhere not far away. The minutes of the meeting were printed out on red paper to make photocopies harder. Yes, he said that was weird but it was not the weirdest photocopier story he had.
It seemed they had this big colour photocopier in the reference section, quite an expensive model which produced very good copies. Dave had used it to make copies of some pastel sketches which he then put on display without anyone noticing they were copies. Someone went so far as to steal a couple of them. Imagine the art dealer’s face when the person tried to sell them. Old Man Trankler himself came in on one occasion with his daughter Nicola. They copied an entire book, including some intriguing illustrations which Dave thought was pretty barbarous behaviour for an antiquarian book dealer. Later he wondered if this had anything to do with what happened subsequently.
Hardly anyone remembers Amy K these days. She was an actress/singer who was in the single season supernatural drama Heaven is Wide. I can’t even remember what channel it was on. Amy also had a moderately successful single singing with Dr Hoffmann, another group nobody remembers. Weapons of Love? Velocity Girl? The video featured, I don’t know, something supernatural. Killers, angels, refugees. One of those probably.
And there was a scandal. Amy was believed to have slept with some chat show host, a married man, whose wife kicked off big time in the tabloids out for Amy’s blood. Metaphorically speaking.So at the height of this minor furore, Amy K was sitting in Dave’s reference library, listlessly flicking through old bound copies of Vogue and Harper’s and L’Officiel, and occasionally wrestling the volume onto the photocopier to take a copy of some 70s fashion item. That’s a tricky business with tight binding and heavy volumes. So it wasn’t untoward for Dave to help her, and engage in some light chat.
We got side tracked here by a discussion of whether Amy K was more famous than Alex Cox, who Dave had also spoken to in the library. I naturally stood up for the pre-eminence of the director of Death and the Compass. Dave acquiesced, and said that, in addition, Mr Cox was a very pleasant man to talk to, while it had to be admitted that Amy was sometimes a bit vague, as if she was recovering from a hard night creating scandal.
The odd thing about all this was that this was the zenith of the scandal and Amy K was being chased all over London. One day, a pair of photographers came into the library to look for her. They apparently failed to spot her in her usual seat near the photocopier, opposite where Dave sat. He looked over at her and she smiled back. He kept a straight face and They went away. On another occasion another guy had caught her in the street and followed her inside. Once again, he failed to spot her, even when she picked up a book and photocopied a couple of pages from it.
The same guy came back the next day and asked Dave straight out had he ever seen Amy K. This presented Dave with a mild professional dilemma. Should he give a customer a piece of information he knew, or should he protect another customer’s privacy? Well, Data Protection was paramount in this case, Dave said, and the fact that Amy was attractive and friendly had nothing to do with it.
Then the guy asked another question. Is there something here which might interfere with a camera? I took some pictures just outside and none of them worked. He had one of those new-fangled digital cameras so it was not as though there could be anything wrong with the film.
The next day when Amy arrived a whole throng of photographers had gathered outside but the porters, who also knew Amy it seemed, wouldn’t let them in. Amy fixed Dave with another smile. Was there a back way out of the building? There was of course, a particularly obscure route through the basement which came out in a street behind the building. When the two of them emerged, Amy asked if there was a quiet pub nearby where they could hide out. There was, a couple of streets away, and they spent an hour or so there with Amy chatting about Vixen and the general unreliability of people in the music industry.
Dave was very pleased with himself, but thought that the library was too well known now for Amy to hole up there again, and he was right. He did receive a DVD of Vixen in the post, with some extras that never made it to the version that was eventually released, but apart from that he never heard from Amy again.
The punch line, if there is one, is that one morning a week or so later he came in early and found that the photocopier had spewed out dozens of copies apparently of its own volition. There was paper scattered all over the floor. Among all the second and third copies that had never appeared were pictures that couldn’t have come from the copier, including several of Amy, sitting in the library, or running down the street. And one of her sitting in the pub with Dave.
The fault on the photocopier never re-occurred But a few months later, a highly strung member of staff punched the touch screen, which had to be replaced at considerable cost. The photocopier was never the same afterwards and was replaced with a model which was newer, but never gave such high quality copies
So was that a ghost story? Call it a Fortean anecdote I said. I took out the pictures of Ashburn Mews and its mutation into a temporary car park out of my bag and we turned back to the subject of vanished streets, forgotten places and buildings that never were.
I was once told I had a doppelganger, who sold newspapers and magazines at Baron’s Court Station. I never went to look for myself. I didn’t want to tempt fate. Neither of the Daves in this week’s post are me, but in some alternate world maybe..
I usually say at Halloween that normal service will be resumed next week. But this week I’ll just apologise to those who don’t like having the real and the imaginary mixed up. Anyone who recognizes themselves or someone they know in this post must surely be mistaken as of course a resemblance to any real person would be entirely coincidental.