Deep Dives

Hacks, Stacks & Perfect Sniffing

A dispatch from the London Library.

‘Don’t offend the Opus Dei of British intellectual life,’ texts one member. ‘I need to think about whether there is any universe in which I would gossip… Probably not,’ replies another. A third says only: ‘I’m not sure how much help I can be; I’d hardly know where to begin.’ Few wanted to talk. Those who did spoke only on condition of strict anonymity. 

I’m investigating the scene at the London Library, an odd sprawl of a St James’s townhouse that has grown over a century and a half into a confusing maze of concrete, books and glass. Within you’ll find ancient copies of the Spectator and forgotten Victorian folios on East Anglian eels. You’ll also find writers, published and aspiring. 

Members seem a trusting lot, leaving coats and bags in the Issuing Hall and laptops unattended for hours on end. ‘I’ve never worried about anything being stolen,’ one writer says, ‘apart from an advanced copy of Sally Rooney.’ I joined the London Library when I first became a journalist with dreams of flopping listlessly in dark leather armchairs reading Huysmans. Instead, I mainly use its online resources to search for academic papers or humorous Who’s Who entries, matching up whether Rachel Johnson and former Times editor John Witherow really are members of the same very exclusive west London tennis club (they are). 

Those members who were brave enough to speak were convinced that they were working beside some of the brightest minds in British literature. ‘They seem like they’re just sitting around but a lot of them are brilliant people,’ one tries to reassure me. ‘I sat next to Jacques Testard as he was editing The Books of Jacob,’ says another, ‘He had printed it out onto 1,000 pages of A4.’ One other member spotted renowned humourist, Bill Bryson, ‘very performatively failing to understand how a printer works’.

A few years ago, the London Library was presented as something of an intellectual ‘Soho House’ by the New York-based publication Air Mail. ‘The Library is buzzing with young people,’ buzzes the young Air Mail writer (also, I’m told, a member), ‘in the writers’ room, a group of lamp-lit desks hum quietly with collective endeavour.’ It’s a quaint picture. But in reality, I get the sense that the place is as much a crèche for trust-funded literary wannabes as it is a working library for grumpy academics and novelists. 

‘There’s a weird older generation and a younger group of journalists and novelists and not much in between,’ explains one (published) writer. ‘One older guy wears a military uniform from a costume shop.’ A friend reports a phone call about a party she overheard in the common room at the top of the building: ‘I feel like this has been organised callously and it’s frankly not in the spirit of the North London Collegiate School. You should apologise to Izzy and me.’ 

There is also, it seems, a culture of romance between the bookshelves. ‘It’s very incestuous,’ one member tells me. ‘I think lots of people have slept with lots of other people from the library. I’ve slept with someone who’s a member. I only realised when there was a fire alarm and there he was, outside. There’s definitely a healthy sexual environment.’ 

‘I’m not going to tell you which of these people has got off with each other,’ says another. ‘It would be like throwing a dart at… whatever the metaphor is’. A historian friend admits to an illicit fumble in the backstacks. ‘There was definitely groping… I blame the sexiness of the mouldering book smell’. One journalist reportedly told a female acquaintance that he felt he could no longer enter the building, on account of ‘shagging too many of the other members’. On my most recent visit, I saw him sitting in the main reading room (‘the place you go to be seen,’ according to a freelance critic). 

There are occasionally library parties. I went along to one a few years ago, hoping to gawp at president Helena Bonham-Carter. The wine ran out by about 8 p.m. and she failed to make an appearance (although she did go along to a more exclusive evening with friend Bill Nighy, the kind of thing to which us mere subscription fodder is obviously not invited). Still, others have had the odd fun run-in. One disgustingly young friend tells me: ‘I was revising for my history A-Levels in the lightwell reading room. I had a tonne of flash cards – classic girly swot – dropped them all over the place and spilled my water bottle; I was very flustered and looked up to see Jeremy Paxman who said “It’s not going very well is it?”’ Wrong again Paxman. Her latest book was very well received in the New York Times

Perhaps I dodged a bullet during my Christmas party. Another co-conspirator reports from the most recent one: ‘Simon Schama was well refreshed and my friend came in from having a cigarette. Simon came up to us and said, “Is that cigarette smoke I can smell? Wouldn’t it be so weird if I just gave you a big sniff?” This went on for a while until eventually he grabbed my friend and carried out the sniffing. It was all a bit weird.’ 

Chatting to members, there was an odd sense of FOMO. More than one complained that they had not been admitted to the young members’ WhatsApp group. Those that had claimed the chat was dormant and only ever used to organise the odd lunch trip. One author, supposedly a key member of the literary scene, denied its existence. ‘There is probably lots of drama but I’m always asleep.’ 

Most conversations followed a familiar pattern: my young, bright literary source would confirm the existence of a London Library set, claim only to be tangentially connected and then suggest I speak to someone they were sure was a core member of the group. When I did, I’d have the same conversation. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere when one journalist told me: ‘If you want to understand the London Library, you need to understand [an anonymous freelance writer’s] parties’. So of course, I asked him about these legendary parties. He replied: ‘I don’t entirely know the people who go to the London Library – or all the people who come to my parties’.

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