Shelf Life

The London Library exemplifies the best of the capital’s literary life and history

Victor Sebestyen

T.S. Eliot was not known for hysterical overstatement. When in July 1952 he said that “whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster for civilisation”, he meant it. A sizeable cohort of contemporary British writers would agree.

Every weekday shortly after nine o’clock, a group begins to form, carrying laptop cases, water flasks and satchels, outside 14, St James’s Square. This “steps’ club” as it is is a motley collection of writers, students, researchers and journalists. The majority are young hopefuls on first books or established authors who like so many of us can make a living—as long as we don’t eat.

Most writers are creatures of habit or superstition, so finding a favoured seat matters. Victoria Hislop wrote four of her novels at a desk in the “art room”, where there is no view. A.N. Wilson favours the old reading room with ancient desks and leather armchairs. The actor Natascha McElhone works on her memoir in the sixth-floor Common Room. Daisy Goodwin (diarist in this issue of Standpoint) wrote the screenplays for her TV series Victoria at a desk on the third floor overlooking St James’s Square.

For habitués, working at the London Library is not just a privilege and a day of charm but a necessity. For years I used it just as a lending library, though a special one: it boasted more than a million volumes and never bothered you about returning an overdue book unless another member requested it (I still have The Realm of St Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526 by Pál Engel, loaned in 2005).

Then, a dozen years ago, a big building project began behind our house. The dawn-to-dusk cacophony drove me to the library. I immediately felt entirely comfortable. More than just my writing place of choice, it has become my general office, reflection space and social club. The WhatsApp group I look at most frequently is the UnCommon Common Room group of library diehards. I have made some of my best friends at the Library, and written four books there.

One chippy former colleague who started using it around the same time as me gave up, intimidated by the faces he encountered amidst the stacks. On any day you might see Sir Tom Stoppard, former library president, or the current one, Sir Tim Rice; the historians Simon Schama, Sir Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts and Simon Sebag Montefiore; the playwright David Hare; Jeremy Paxman, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, Andrew Marr, Clare Tomalin, Michael Frayn, Lynn Truss or Sarah Waters. The final straw came 15 years ago, he said, when he sat at a desk opposite the late Harold Pinter and Kazuo Ishiguro. Instant block descended.

The opposite happens to most regulars. Members’ portraits gaze encouragingly at us from the red-carpeted main staircase: T.S. Eliot, president for 15 years until his death in 1964; his successor Lord Clark; Isaiah Berlin; Rudyard Kipling; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Rose Macaulay; and three prime ministers—Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour and W.E. Gladstone. An entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary expresses her delight when her father, Leslie Stephen, beat Gladstone in the election to be President of the Library in the 1890s.

‘It remains an unalloyed joy to wander around the latticed stacks, among books that would stretch to 17 miles if placed leaf to leaf, on five floors, separated by 34 staircases’

The first was Thomas Carlyle. Working on his history of the French Revolution, he was appalled at the cramped conditions in the British Museum Reading Room. “I have to perch on a ladder,” he complained to the chief librarian. Not only a great historian but a well-connected and an efficient organiser, in 1841, he raised money from friends to open a reading room (originally in Pall Mall, it moved to its present address five years later). The London Library became, and still is, the largest independent lending library in the world.

New buildings now blend with the old, and the modern reading rooms offer up-to-date facilities. It remains an unalloyed joy to wander around the latticed stacks, among books that would stretch to 17 miles if placed leaf to leaf, on five floors, separated by 34 staircases.

When Arthur Koestler was commissioned to cover the famous Fischer-Spassky 1972 world championship chess match, he came here: “I hesitated for a moment whether to go for the ‘C’ section for Chess, or ‘I’ for Iceland, but chose the former . . . there were about 20 to 30 books on chess . . . and the first that caught my eye was a bulky volume titled Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature by Willard Fiske, published by the Florentine Typographical Society, in Florence, 1905.”

Great romances have been conducted at the Library. The Members’ Comments book at the entrance last year recorded a couple announcing that they became engaged in the third floor back stacks. Iris Murdoch recalled that one of her first dates with her future husband John Bayley was at the London Library. The old lifts were well known as a place for amorous trysts as they were slow and often broke down. Sadly for literary lovers, since renovation work a decade or so ago, they now operate quite efficiently.

Membership costs merely £510 (half price for under-27s, and with other discounts for out-of-towners). The splendid Carlyle scheme offers up to 60 per cent off for the indigent. Just don’t pinch my seat.

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