The Gardens of the Royal Library in Copenhagen (2016)

Copenhagen isn’t my favourite city on the planet, but I have become familiar with some haunts in the Danish capital since moving to the region over 30 years ago and I’m lucky that one of my favourite places in the city is on my preferred walking route to and from work. Thus, almost every day I make my way from the central railway station to Christianshavn via the gardens next to the Royal Library. These are in a district largely devoid of housing, but with an overflow of historical buildings and monuments within a couple of square kilometres. Many people work in the government offices on Slotsholmen as it is called, where Folketinget (the people’s thing or parliament) is located; during the day the district is busy and during the summer there are many tourists admiring the attractions.

Just before reaching the gardens I dodge across a stretch of road where cyclists pass in waves: Copenhagen has become famous or notorious for the large numbers of people using two wheels to get around! Sometimes I stop in the middle of the gardens and contemplate the modernist fountain in the middle of a small pond. I sit on a bench and get closer to the same level as the ducks, many of which frequent this patch of gravel and grass in search of peace. Now and then they squawk at each other, but more often than not they are perched in silence.

The huge edifice of the Royal Library, opened in 1906, dominates the gardens. It is not a very attractive construction, a jumble of styles and materials. The recent addition of a Black Diamond, a massive, jagged, glassy structure leaning towards the water separating Slotsholmen from the island of Christianshavn, has added a more spectacular dimension to the library, as well as lots more space for exhibitions, conferences and so on. However, I’m not a frequent visitor, but neither is the Queen I guess.

The ducks share the green space with Søren Kierkegaard. His statue is on the west side of the gardens, partially obscured by some bushes and trees. I like to imagine him deep in thought, wandering through Copenhagen, grappling with the big questions of faith and existence.

Behind the statue is the Tøjhus Museum. I have never been inside this long building which houses a collection of military paraphernalia. No doubt the warring characteristics of the Danes are on display, but I prefer to ignore the history of Danish destructive dreams and focus on more positive features of the Vikings’ descendants.[1]

On the opposite side of the gardens are the national archives (Rigsarkivet). In the old days I suppose loads of documents were stored here, but with digitalisation I assume they have been moved onto a hard disc. The building itself is red bricked and stylish.

On my walk to and from work I enter and exit the gardens on the corner where a Jewish Museum is located. This tells the stories of Jews in Denmark, notably of the “great escape” in 1943 after the Nazi occupation forces decided to round them up to be sent to concentration camps. Many were able to cross the Öresund to neutral Sweden and safety. The Hebrew letters on a sign at the museum’s entrance stand out in a district where Danish and Latin inscriptions abound.

Since 2015 there are armed patrols outside the museum, so I have to be careful not to bump into a bored policeman or policewoman lurking in the bushes. Sadly such places are now targets of hatred again as the Nazi era fades from memory and anti-Semitism rears its ugly European head. In the peaceful surroundings of the gardens on a warm day in summer when couples are lying on the grass and old ladies sit with their dogs on the benches, there is something very surreal about an officer wearing a bulletproof jacket and brandishing an automatic weapon.

There are roses too, hundreds of roses in many colours. The gardeners take good care of the flowerbeds and make sure that all is neat and attractive for the citizens and tourists. Another recent addition to the gardens is a little café, serving sandwiches and coffee during the day in a courtyard close to the archway and the steps leading to the Folketing.

The café will be closed during the winter, when the gardens change their appearance dramatically. Like everywhere else in Scandinavia, autumn is a brief explosion of gold and red, followed by a long season of grey. Sometimes there is ice on the surface of the pond and the ducks roam in confusion. In winter chill winds howl through the archway.

I remember December 2009 in particular, when Copenhagen hosted 40,000 delegates and activists for the 15th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The weather was very cold and there were several snowfalls. One evening during the second week of the conference I was heading towards the entrance to the gardens, but the police blocked my path. It transpired that the whole of Slotsholmen had been declared a no-go zone as the Queen had invited all the foreign heads of government to a dinner in one of the palaces on the island. I backtracked and found my way to the station by another route.

Later the same evening I watched televised transmission from the palace, where cameras zoomed in on the arrival of the dignitaries. Suddenly, a couple of the guests unfurled a banner with the slogan “climate justice now.” They were rapidly whisked away by the forces of law and order. It turned out that they were from Greenpeace and had gained access to Slotsholmen and the staircase leading to the dining hall of the palace by dressing up and pretending to be distinguished foreign representatives. But the Mercedes they drove had 007 on the number plates and the banners were concealed under their finery. The incident was a huge embarrassment for the Danish police, who exacted revenge by holding the activists in prison without charge for over two weeks. Finally they were released after protests.

Someday I’ll spend more time inside the Royal Library. I fear being overwhelmed by the walls of books and the weight of accumulated knowledge.[2] For the time being I will keep to the tranquillity of gardens where I can feel at ease, despite the gun waving cops!

[1] A useful volume with pictures of items collected in the Tøjhus Museum is ”Danmarks Krigshistorie, 700-2010” (edited by Ole Frantzen & Knud Jespersen and published by Gad in 2010). Unfortunately the last couple of decades have revealed an enthusiasm for war permeating Danish politics…

[2] However, it seems that the limits to knowledge are being reached, as described by M. du Sautoy in a new study of scientific progress called ” What we cannot know” (4th Estate, 2016). The blurb says that maybe there are things that we’ll never know, but we don’t know what they are. On the other hand, knowing the unknown is the driving force of the human desire to seek knowledge!

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