Who are they, I wonder, these elderly gentlemen fast asleep in the red leather armchairs? Retired brigadiers whiling away their autumn years in a room full of books, or eminent scholars dreaming of literary pursuits? That young woman with the windswept hair, foraging in Fiction S–Z, is she a lost and lonely bibliophile or the next Rebecca West? And how can that dandyish fellow in the crimson sports jacket afford to scoff and snort through the periodicals all day?
When the editors of Slightly Foxed first suggested I take my editorial work to the London Library, I confess I knew very little about the place. From afar, it seemed a refuge for posh authors and a pitstop for peers en route to their clubs, not a place for an unkempt youth like me. And yet, at the Slightly Foxed office, the situation was becoming urgent. With the cocker spaniels growing increasingly distracting and the phones always ringing, how was the editorial assistant ever to do his work? The London Library was the obvious solution, but then there was the issue of the membership fee.
In the end, it was a customer at the Slightly Foxed bookshop on Gloucester Road who had the final word. Overhearing my doubts, he leant across a shelf of battered green Penguins and boomed: ‘My boy, at £1.20 a day, it’s a steal. You won’t look back.’ And so it was that two weeks later, on a frosty January morning, I set out for 14 St James’s Square with a list of titles to take out on loan, a catalogue to write, and a newly acquired membership card to guard with my life.
Having twice missed its entrance, I eventually found the Library tucked away in the west corner of the square, between the Cypriot Embassy and the East India Club. Abandoning my coat and umbrella in the Issue Hall, I bounded up the red-carpeted staircase, past the Reading Room and the portraits of the Library’s former presidents, among them Tennyson, Eliot and Leslie Stephen, to the lowest
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