Inside the London Library
I take a break from crime to show you around a place where I do a lot of research, thinking and writing. The quietest place in London?
The London Library is a well-kept secret, a huge labyrinth of shelves snaking for a total of 17 miles behind a townhouse facade in St. James’s Square. Most people seem to hear of the library through someone else. Perhaps you are a fan of George Smiley, John le Carré’s spy? George can be found in the library in The Honourable Schoolboy. Perhaps you like Jessie Burton? One of her novels is set in a building that feels very much like the London Library, because it is. I first heard of the library by reading an article by Michael Palin. Sandi Toksvig has said that she feels most at home in a library.
Arriving in the reception area of the London Library still feels like a semi-religious experience to me, over a decade after I first walked through the doors. It feels like a place of worship, crammed full with books. In winter there is a roaring fire with armchairs arranged around it. You can imagine the life of a London aristo from the nineteenth century just by standing in the window overlooking the square. Just perhaps, if I can find the two footprints left by Charles Dickens during his time as a member, I could conjure up some book or article just as original, that will outlive myself?
The library, considered now as a body of people rather than a building, is aware of its debt to history but also of its need to innovate. There is free wireless internet, and you can even join as a ‘remote’ member. This option opens up membership to everyone in the UK, with access to vast electronic archives, eBooks and even real books dispatched to anywhere in Europe. They think nothing of sending a Victorian first edition into the wide world, confident that it will one day return intact. In this sense the library can be seen as a metaverse, a symbolic construct within the new electronic frontier, ahead of its time.
One of the most exciting aspects of the London Library is its emerging writers programme. About to embark on its fourth year, the programme allows 40 new writers a year of free membership plus a support network and a series of lectures from established names. The programme is free to apply for and allows any new writer, of virtually any age, a space to work on almost any form of writing from screenplays or poetry to a novel. You don’t even need to live in London — at least one former graduate of the programme lives in Wales.
Although many library members are professional writers, or seek to become one, the library is also a stunning cultural venue. Non-members can attend their events which have the feel of an all-year literary festival. Some of my favourite events were hosted by historian Giles Milton, the writer of ITV’s Victoria, Daisy Goodwin, both of whom are members, and most recently I found myself chatting to Sara Wheeler, a writer I had not yet discovered. Her travel books turned out to be fascinating: they transcend the travel genre.
Every year, the emerging writers read a selection of their own work. I vividly remember a drama sketch performed by Freya Mavor, a former Skins actor who is now writing and directing an independent film. Daniel Janes, Lianne Dillsworth, Gaar Adams and Amber Medland are all former programme members. The only thing they have in common is their love of the written word. The London Library is best described as a sanctuary of the book. There is no quieter place in London, and never has calm been so desperately needed. Do find an excuse to pop in.