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Saving civilisation

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'A symbol of civilisation': No 14 St James's Square, London

Now 175 years old, the London Library faced a crisis in the 1970s that threatened its very survival. Patrick Marnham recalls a madcap scheme to keep a revered institution alive.

The London Library, which occupies the narrow frontage of No 14 St James’s Square, W1, has just celebrated its 175th birthday with a three-day beano. There have been cocktail parties, speeches and guided tours; the president, Sir Tom Stoppard, has interrogated in public his chosen biographer Hermione Lee, and Claire Tomalin has spoken about ex-library member Charles Dickens. Other celebrants included Antony Beevor, Lara Feigel, Susan Greenfield, Joanna Trollope, Simon Schama, Simon Callow and Simon Russell Beale. Mike Brearley and Tim Rice have reflected on the rich literature of cricket and for three days a rainbow mist of canapés, alcohol and self-congratulation has drifted up from the central garden of St James, through the London plane trees and over Pall Mall. And quite right too, because the London Library is, in its original and understated way, one of the most remarkable institutions in England.

It was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, after the librarian at the British Museum Reading Room had failed to provide him with a private seat. Carlyle attracted the support of Prince Albert, and the infant library with its 500 founding members moved into its present building (once described as ‘the worst house in the square’, because it was the smallest) in 1845. Its members have included Thackeray, Gladstone, Darwin, Henry James, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie and Arthur Koestler. T S Eliot loved it and fought for it. When its centenary occurred at the height of the Blitz, E M Forster reflected: ‘In May 1841 the London Library was launched on the swelling tides of Victorian prosperity. It celebrates its centenary today among the rocks… All around it are the signs of the progress of science and the retrogression of man. Buildings are in heaps, the earth is in holes. Safe among the reefs of rubbish, it seems to be something more than a collection of books. It is a symbol of civilisation…’ On 23rd February 1944, No 14 St James’s Square received a direct hit from high explosives. The central stack, five floors and 16,000 books were destroyed, but the librarian, who slept on the premises, was able to extinguish the fire with buckets of sand.

Over the years Carlyle’s original library prospered and today, behind the same narrow façade the collection contains more than one million books, housed on seventeen miles of shelves. It is now Europe’s largest ‘open access’ lending library, and that is the secret of its success. For the original glorious condition of open access is still in force. Instead of sitting for hours waiting for a robotic delivery system to track the book required and spit it out, readers can consult the online catalogue and then plunge into the legendary stacks – a maze of metal staircases, pierced iron work floors, ferocious static electricity and unexpected dead ends. When the reader finally arrives at the chosen shelf he can pull the book he wants from the shelf and then hunt through the library’s entire collection on that subject.

Here and there, in discreet corners of the stacks, desks and chairs are placed for solitary study. I have never come across a corpse on one of these isolated perches – although for many members (if not for the staff) a distant corner of ‘theology’ might be the ideal place to pass away – but I have on more than one occasion encountered the slumbering form of a fellow scholar experiencing an interlude of profound reflection. By convention he (it is always ‘he’) remains undisturbed until closing time. In an age of Kindles and downloads, the library observes the ancient courtesies and celebrates and empowers the printed book. But how many of those celebrating in St James’s Square will have reflected that only forty years ago the London Library as it was designed in 1841 – and as it remains essentially today – very nearly came to a sticky end?

The trouble had started in 1970 when the annual report noted that the ‘financial position was very worrying’. Membership was dwindling, fewer books were being purchased and fewer were being circulated, the subscription had doubled over five years but staff wages were rising and the building had had to be rewired. The library had no endowment fund and very slender reserves, so in 1971 an appeal was launched to raise £500,000 (the equivalent value today would be more than £10 million). The chairman of the appeal committee was Roy Jenkins, then recently retired as chancellor of the exchequer and hard at work re-writing his biography of Asquith.

The money started coming in, but far too slowly, and by April 1972 the committee was becoming ‘preoccupied by the question of the library’s location’. Influential voices were urging them to sell the building, ‘capitalise its value’ and move somewhere cheaper. Under a new chairman, Michael Astor, an executive sub-committee had been formed, which included several prominent property experts; among the new advisers was the wealthy philanthropist Lord (formerly ‘Sir Max’) Rayne, who had made his fortune from property development. As the appeal money flowed in, the sale option was deferred and a decision was taken to spend the loot on a new building programme that would increase the available shelf space. At the same time technical innovations were introduced which disrupted the staff’s well-tried working methods but allowed the committee to reduce staff by 20 per cent.

Then disaster struck. The oil crisis of 1973 was followed by a miners’ strike, powercuts, a three-day week and two years of severe recession. There was growing unemployment; inflation peaked at 20 per cent and worst of all there was a stock market crash. As the markets started to slide, the library’s advisers continued to buy. And within weeks of the first £133,000 of the appeal money being blown on shares, the FT30 index plunged by 73 per cent and the value of the portfolio was reduced to £73,000; ruin once more stared members in the face. A revaluation of the property was commissioned which showed that this had more than doubled in three years. Once again, sale of the building seemed the only way out.

At this point, with the staff exasperated by the introduction of cost-cutting innovations and the membership fearful of losing their precious building, a desperate operation that united the staff and a small group of members was mounted. The conspirators met one evening in January 1974, after the library had closed, in the offices of Private Eye, then at 34 Greek Street, Soho, ten minutes’ walk from St James’s Square. The leader of the conspiracy was Christopher Booker, who was engaged in a journalistic campaign against the property speculators such as Lord Rayne who were at that time knocking down and redeveloping many familiar and much-loved districts of central London.

About half-a-dozen nervous librarians slipped out of the darkness into the Eye’s office, information was shared, rumours were evaluated and a plan of action was drawn up. The librarians, worried about their jobs, were very anxious to remain anonymous. An annual general meeting lay ahead, but since none of the activists had access to the list of members’ addresses, general support was difficult to muster. Eventually the youngest and nimblest of the librarians present (I will call him ‘Mervyn’) volunteered to obtain the list. He planned to conceal himself in the gentlemen’s cloakroom off the main staircase when the building closed and then, once the head porter had locked up and departed, make his way to the librarians’ office,

find the membership list, photocopy it and let himself out by a back door. His colleagues paled visibly at this suggestion, but Mervyn was undeterred and a date was fixed for the conspirators’ next meeting.

When the appointed day arrived, a slightly smaller group of librarians and slightly larger group of members gathered in the Private Eye office to receive Mervyn’s report. Alas, there was bad news. It seemed that all had gone according to plan until Mervyn emerged from the gents. The building was locked and deserted, all the lights were out but as he made his stealthy way towards the librarians’ office a voice challenged him from the darkness and to his horror he recognised the distinctive outline of the head porter – who was for some reason still on the premises.

A desperate chase round the darkened stacks ensued. Both hunter and hunted knew every corner of the building – ‘French literature’, ‘topography’, ‘science’ and ‘miscellaneous’ flashed by – up and down the iron staircases in and out of ‘ancient history’, ‘mediaeval history’, along the back wall by ‘quarto’ then down the main stairs, across the Issue Hall past the catalogues and up through ‘biography’ and into the deepest recesses of ‘philosophy’ – obviously avoiding the lift which was notoriously the slowest in London. The head porter could not be shaken off, but Mervyn was quicker on his pins and he was eventually able to gain just enough distance to reach the back door, let himself out and disappear into the night.

His fellow librarians were appalled by this account. ‘But how can you be sure that you were not recognised?’ they asked. Mervyn thought it unlikely. He explained that while still concealed in the gents he had taken the precaution of slipping into full drag, complete with high heels and a blonde wig.

This narrow escape brought the conspiracy to an end. The librarians decided that they had done more than could reasonably be expected and so the members soldiered on alone. In the committee’s annual report of April 1975 the chairman noted that he had received a letter from a group led by Booker that called itself ‘the Committee for the Preservation of the London Library’; legal objections were being raised to the way he was running the business. And for the first time elections to the committee were being contested.

The legal objections were swiftly brushed aside, but the note in the annual report was enough to alert the wider membership and the resistance movement seemed to be gaining ground. It suffered a blow when Booker, its leader, suddenly jumped ship and announced that from now on he would be conducting unilateral negotiations with his new best friend the chairman; but fortunately, at this critical moment, a new figurehead emerged in the formidable shape of Elizabeth Monroe, the Oxford University Arabist and historian of Ethiopia.

Monroe was the sort of female don who could Gorgonise a male under-graduate with one glance from fifteen paces. In November 1974 she emerged from her Oxford lair to attend the AGM in St James’s Square, a tumultuous occasion dominated by the question of ‘relocation’ and presided over by the art historian and television celebrity Lord Clark of Saltwood with an air of amiable bewilderment. At the height of the row, Monroe memorably intervened. Objecting to the proposed appointment of Lord Rayne as a vice-president she said, in her iciest tone, ‘I suggest that if we must honour him we put his photograph on the staircase, somewhere between T S Eliot and Kipling. A vice-presidency would only last for his lifetime. His photograph would be displayed for as long as the library remains on its present site – which I hope will be very much longer.’

Three AGMs were needed before the idea of ‘capitalising’ the value of the building was finally dropped. Lord Rayne was indeed appointed as vice-president but Monroe also prevailed. Seconded by Sir Isaiah Berlin, she managed to get her own nominee, Professor Adrian Lyttelton, on to the committee, and little by little the battle was won. A staff association was set up, appeal succeeded appeal and eventually, through the extraordinary generosity of one member, Sir Ian Anstruther, an adjoining building was purchased and the London Library of St James’s Square was saved.

‘Mervyn’ moved on, perhaps to more exciting occupations. But I often think of him, when I visit the back stacks, at full tilt in his high heels and blonde wig, and marvel at the heroic lengths to which he was prepared to go in defence of this unique ‘symbol of civilisation’.

This story was from June 2016 issue. Subscribe Now