A London secret shared

Fast forward many decades and the Navy and Military moves to Number 4, the old Astor homestead in the North east corner of St James’s Square (by the way, note that it is always St James’s ­– never just St James). These new premises have no carriage drive or gateposts, but the Naval and Military painted up a completely meaningless “IN” and “OUT” either side of the front door just so that it can keep its affectionate nickname. Batty but  somehow adorable.

Even battier is the name of just one of the other clubs in St James’s Square. The East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools. I mean, what? You couldn’t make it up.

Elsewhere it’s all a bit corporate. BP have their HQ there as do Rio Tinto Zinc and other so-called “blue chip” companies. The address still has great cachet around the world.

On the north west side is Chatham House, Britain’s leading foreign office think tank. William Pitt the Elder (later Earl of Chatham) lived there. You may be familiar with the “Chatham House Rule”, a protocol agreed at meetings between politicians (or indeed businessmen or any other group of people). The rule is understood to mean: “whatever is said here can be repeated outside this room, but you can not say who said it or who was present at the meeting.” They use this phrase around the world now I believe.

But I want to concentrate your attention to the building in the north west corner, between Chatham House and the afore-giggled-at East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools Club.

The London Library.

The London Library is, I believe I am right in saying, the world’s largest independent lending library. Which is to say it is not affiliated to a university, it is not owned or subsidised by any local council, by government or any public body. It was founded by, amongst others, that monumental man of letters Thomas Carlyle. The list of current and past members is astonishing. Darwin, Dickens, Gladstone, Thackeray, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, J. B. Priestley, T. S. Eliot … and these days members include its president Tom Stoppard, and writers like Sebastian Faulks, A. S. Byatt, Claire Tomalin, Simon Shama and, even, er, me.

You wouldn’t believe that its modest entrance (well I agree it’s a grand address, but there is a more discreet back door in Mason’s Yard behind) could reveal so remarkable and beautiful a building.

There are fifteen miles of shelves containing over a million books dating back to the very beginning of printing: you can clamber across the marvellously mysterious original 1890s catwalks and gantries or luxuriate in the light and modern Art Room. They never throw a book away and there are NO FINES! You can keep a book as long as you like or until another member asks for it, in which case a polite letter will ask if you could return it at your earliest convenience.

Art-Room-London-Library © Paul Raftery

Art Room of the London Library © Paul Raftery

You don’t have to live in London, in fact a third of the over 7,000 members live outside the city. There’s a postal loans team who’ll send you the book you want, and there are unique internet archives (including every past edition of the Times newspaper as well as dozens of scholarly journals and databases).

One of the miracles of this unique institution is the quality of the staff. They seem to know where everything is and will hunt down what you’re after with zeal and good humour. Some of the cataloguing is inspired. The Science and Miscellaneous collection is especially highly prized. Books about Coffee, Explosives and Dreams jostle happily alongside works on Home, Duels, Yachts and Cheese.

You can bring in your laptop and find just the cranny, desk, table or sofa where it best suits you to work, study, chase ideas or dream.

The London Library is one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Because it’s private there is an annual fee, which is reduced for young people, but which I won’t pretend is a small consideration. Nonetheless the advantages are enormous and just think what a present it would make for someone you love. Subscription to a place that can become a mixture of college, West End Club, snug, den, writing room and welcoming island – and all just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus.

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