Spectator on the London Library

Once upon a time, I was a passionate joiner. An investigation into my past would reveal that I once belonged to SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Peace and Freedom Party. I was also a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union where I rose to become a shop steward. But when I left my radical past behind, I also left all hankering to belong to anything. Until I came to England to write a television series on the 19th-century Romantics. To prepare for this task, I joined a unique institution.

The day I became a card carrying member of the London Library (No 01045) was one of the happiest of my life. Unlike earlier memberships, there were no meetings. No one examined the books I read for signs of bourgeois feminism (a bad thing) or infantile individualism (ditto). Once a week, accompanied by Adam, my patient labrador, and a briefcase stuffed with pens, paper, Bonio and water bowl, I drove from Putney to St James’s Square, where we would spend the day in the Library, me high up in the hinterlands, with Goethe, Novalis, Byron and Shelley, Adam stretched out in the entrance beneath the hats and coats. Sometimes, Adam’s inner alarm would go off and he’d come looking for me. Staff were afraid that a dog paw might get stuck in the open grills of the walkways, and suddenly I would hear a desperate whisper: ‘Hello? Are you there? Adam’s looking for you!’ But the day came when I left the city and moved to the country. Adam was relieved, but I missed the London Library.

I missed the smell of books, the first-floor reading room, the portraits on the stairs, especially the historian Thomas Carlyle, the Library’s founder and the link between the last Romantics and Victorian culture. Despite no reduced rate for country members, I stayed a faithful member. Some years I didn’t borrow a single book. Like friends who describe themselves as cultural Jews, I became a cultural intellectual, the kind who reads the reviews but not the books; the ersatz scholar who subsidises the genuine scholar. In front of me is a reminder that my membership is due for renewal on February 1. The letter sits in my London Library file, fat with information about the new rate increase, an 80% jump from £210 to £375 a year. A letter from Sir Tom Stoppard, the Library’s president, defends the move. Another informs me that married couples who are both members qualify for an annual reduction of £25 each. The scholar under the age of 25 can purchase life membership for £16,000. For the dreamy optimist aged 70, life membership is £3,200. Gazing at these figures, my heart sinks.

This is what happens when people with no commercial verve start running great institutions. Instead of thinking creatively for instance: how to double the membership from 8,000 to 16,000 and make this place genuinely viable they decide to raise the present fee, as if the London Library is a slightly shabby but exclusive club in St. James’s. How much more imaginative to offer life membership after the age of 60 for £1,000, thereby attracting 1,000 new members. I once dreamt of publishing a slender volume in which I gratefully acknowledge the ‘staff of the London Library’. Alas, I now feel it’s time to tighten the belt and surrender my illusions together with my membership. The London Library will join the Peace and Freedom Party, filed under Souvenirs du temps perdu.