Sod off, readers

John Sutherland

  • Rude Words: A Discursive History of the London Library by John Wells
    Macmillan, 240 pp, £17.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 333 47519 4
  • Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes
    Blackwell, 283 pp, £16.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 631 16593 2

Founded by private subscription in 1841, the London Library was the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle, a serious man. For its 150th anniversary, the present guardians of the London Library have chosen an eminent comedian, John Wells, to write their celebratory history. The sage of Chelsea would not have been amused. But then, nothing did amuse him. He seems to have been immune to such essentially human feelings. Carlyle happened to be in the library in 1875 when Bryan Courthope Hunt – the child of a famously irregular marriage – chose to commit suicide there. Hunt had asked at the issue desk for the second volume of George Henry Lewes’s Problems of Life and Mind but discovered that it was out. Lewes’s wife had been his father’s mistress, which may have had something to do with the tragedy that followed. The young man went to the Magazine Room, where he shot himself in the head with a Derringer pistol, then reloaded and did it again. This led to a quarter of an hour’s hiatus in library services while the dying member was discreetly removed to Charing Cross Hospital and the blood and brains mopped up. Carlyle, who witnessed the confusion and was told what had happened, showed no symptoms of emotion, and went up to the Reading Room, instructing the librarian to fetch the book he had ordered (the second volume of Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic), adding as an afterthought: ‘Another of Thornton Hunt’s bastards gone.’ (In point of fact, Bryan was legitimate; it was his half-siblings by Lewes’s wife who were bastards.) According to another version of the same story, Carlyle burst into a rage, shouting: ‘Nice to think I can’t get my papers just because some confounded relative of Leigh Hunt has gone and shot himself.’ ‘Rage’ seems less likely than absolute indifference to human suffering where access to his books was involved.

Unimpeded access to books was Carlyle’s main motive in founding the London Library. The man with the bassoon nose (he is still there) made the British Museum intolerably distracting. Even when they were not noisily dealing with their mucus, the crowds in the Reading Room brought on what he called his ‘museum headache’. Reading, like nose-clearing and love-making (if he ever made love), was something a gentleman scholar like Carlyle did in private: ‘A Book is a kind of thing that requires a man to be self-collected. He must be alone with it ... no man can read a Book well with the bustle of three or four hundred people about him! Even forgetting the mere facts which a Book contains, a man can do more with it in his own apartment, in the solitude of one night, than in a week in such a place as the British Museum.’ It may also be that Carlyle was piqued that the underbred Italian, Anthony Panizzi, had declined to give him, as he had given Macaulay, a private room to work in at the BM. (Wells rather doubts this small-minded explanation of the origin of his beloved institution.)

The London Library is an apt subject for Wells’s affectionate brand of satire. He tells its story with much entertaining – and often pathetic – anecdote. (The suicide in 1978 of a former assistant librarian, Oliver Stallybrass, is, if anything, even more harrowing than that of Bryan Hunt.) Started as ‘a private subscription library to serve the needs of scholars by lending books for use at home’, the London Library opened in May 1841 in two rented rooms under the Travellers Club in Pall Mall. When it moved four years later to its present premises in St James’s Square, the Library took with it the ambience of a West End club – something it has never quite lost. It somehow feels wrong that one cannot smoke or drink whisky as one reads the Times in one of the Reading Room’s too comfortable armchairs. And like other clubs, the London Library has its secrets and skeletons. Wells tells for the first time in print the alarming skullduggeries over the appointment of successive librarians, the subterranean influence of the Cambridge Apostles over the years, the epic battle with Mudie in the Mid-Victorian period, the great expansions at the turn of the century under the visionary Hagberg Wright, the Library’s persecution as a symbol of upper-class privilege by socialist ministries of the Sixties, the everlasting financial crisis which seems finally to have been solved by Lewis Golden, the accountant on the white horse who Wells sees as a figure as heroic as Carlyle in the annals of the Library.

All the other large and small circulating and subscription libraries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras – Boot’s, Mudie’s and thousands of cornershop twopenny-loan outlets – have gone under. They were done for by the public libraries, inaugurated in 1850 and hugely empowered by the Parliamentary Act of 1964. The London Library has not only withstood the growth of public libraries, it has also survived the competition of an ever-expanding (and similarly ‘free’) British Library – nowadays an infinitely more formidable rival than the shambolic Reading Room Carlyle satirised in the 1840s. The London Library has also grown over its century and a half, but not excessively. In 1841 it had 3000 books and 500 members; today it has some one million books and 8000 members. Its major enlargement took place under Wright, since when its size has been relatively stable. For tax purposes, it relaxed twenty years ago the club rule that new members must be sponsored by existing members, and over the same period it has become more welcoming to university students and scholarly tourists. But, judging by appearances, the core membership is pretty much what it has always been: literate top people, members of the professions, freelance writers. Physically, the London Library is remarkably little changed from what earlier generations knew and loved. Frances Partridge, who has been a member for seventy years, claims that ‘nothing has changed; absolutely nothing. The same smell, the same atmosphere, the same clanking noise as you walk through those long passages at the back, and you always seem to meet someone you want to meet.’ The Library occupies the same rather cramped-looking north-west corner of the square as in 1845. The stacks retain their famous iron-grille floors (with all the mythology about looking up young ladies’ skirts), the pull-lights with their strange sputtering delays, and the mildly electrocuting metal shelves. Books are still checked out by hand on separate slips by assistants (probably the last librarians in the country who serve rather than supervise, as Wells observes). It is still something of a gentleman’s library – at least, that is how it feels. Virginia Woolf did not dislike the London Library as much as Trinity College Library, whose male exclusivity provoked A Room of One’s Own. But she would not serve on the London Library Committee, feeling that they were ‘sniffy about women’ and hers would be merely a token appointment. In 1941 she wrote in her diary: ‘Last night I analysed my London Library complex to Leonard. That sudden terror has vanished.’ A fortnight later, she killed herself.

Wells returns to the unchanging character of the London Library time and again. As a committee member, he claims only one significant act. He was responsible for torpedoing the proposed remodelling of the palatial Gents on the second floor with its confessional-sized urinals, and he agitated successfully for the removal of the black plastic lavatory seats and the restoration of their wooden predecessors. His creed is one which seems to be held by most members: ‘the Library is flawless, perfect, the sum of all goodness, incapable of improvement. We like it as it is.’ Any reform or innovation must be for the worse. Wells quotes one member instructing his fellows in the Suggestions Book to ‘thank God every morning, that we have a Librarian strong enough and wise enough to resist the senseless and destructive mania for change which afflicts us so grievously on all sides.’ Rude Words is an amen to that.

Wells is very funny about the Library’s funny little ways, in a style that will appeal both to members and (since he probably wants more than 8000 potential purchasers for his book) to outsiders. But there is a serious point in all the comic eulogy. Conceived as an alternative to the British Museum, the London Library continues to offer a different idea of what a library should be. Its concessions to modernity – particularly new library technology – are grudging in the extreme. The subject-based call-marks and shelving devised by Hagberg Wright are famously idiosyncratic (‘Demonology, Drink, Drugs’). For years the Library resisted Mr Xerox’s wonderful invention, and even now the one machine they have is inconveniently placed and so hedged with petty prohibitions that copying out in longhand is usually the more advisable option. ‘The Library has very little in the way of microform publications,’ the Librarian announces with majestic redundancy. Nonetheless, it has invested in what it quaintly calls ‘a microform reader’, ‘available on request’. A large magnifying glass, doubtless, and an assistant to hold it for the benefit of older members.

The essence of the London Library is that it is wholly answerable to the will and desires of its members. It is exactly the institution that the subscribers want. If they wanted (and were prepared to pay for) a 1991-model bin-feed copier, comprehensive computer cataloguing, tattle-tape check-out, CD-rom drivers, TOC-Doc (table of contents, document abstract retrieval), modem-connection for country members, such facilities would be procured by the ever-attentive staff. What the members actually want are dusty old shelves with lots and lots of the kind of books they require for their various researches and intellectual recreation. This does not mean just old books. The Library acquires some 7000 new titles annually, which compares well with most university collections. Notoriously, the British are a nation of stingy book-lovers, and the members of the London Library are as British as the name suggests. They want their million old books, their thousands of new titles annually, their full range of current journals, their smart West End address, their expert staff – all on the cheap. The full subscription of £80 a year is if anything a better deal than the £3 it cost in 1841.

The London Library is as it is because it is accountable to and run by its users. Regular users of libraries are incorrigibly conservative. They are loyal to the traditional ways of doing things and distrustful of modern ways. Having mastered one system, they are reluctant to invest time in learning new tricks. The London Library has an archaeological arrangement of catalogue systems in its issue room: a bank of prehistoric elephant ledger books, many of whose entries are handwritten or amended in ink; a post-1951, typewritten index-card catalogue; and a couple of gleamingly new computer monitors, which cover material acquired since 1984. To the loitering observer it is quite clear that the oldest and least technological system is the one which members prefer and where they go if they have a choice. (The Library tactfully offers ‘training sessions’ on the new computer terminals, ‘tailored to the individual needs of members’, but there seem to have been few takers.) The library users’ instinctive suspicion of new technology has its rational aspect. Technology costs money. It is expensive in itself: a computer cataloguing system is a six and sometimes a seven-figure item. Commitment to technology also puts the library on a cost escalator from which it can never alight. Technology is expensive to look after. Service contracts and upgrades must be paid for. The whole system will probably need to be replaced in about fifteen years by something even newer-fangled and more expensive. Bob Cratchit can maintain the ledgers, but you need the highly-trained product of a library school to operate a fully-automated library. Libraries pay for their new toys in many ways but the two they find most convenient are 1. to raid the book and journal budget, and 2. to store books ‘rationally’ – that is, in holes in the ground, where only machines can retrieve them. (An alternative version of 2 is to convert books or journals to microfilm, in which only machines can read them.) There cannot be a research library in the Western world where computer cataloguing has not been followed, a year or so later, by dreary committee exercises in cutting, freezing or ‘rationalisation’ of book acquisitions and journal subscriptions. My own university library, which for its size is probably one of the more technologically advanced in the English-speaking world, now spends only 4-5 per cent of its budget on books. Equipment costs and staff salaries have expanded proportionally. The University of California Library, from which I mainly borrow books, is currently engaged in taking off its shelves all seldom-used volumes (the computer check-out system informs you in a trice what these culprits are) in order to inter them in a deep repository where they can survive a nuclear holocaust, but where they can never be browsed among again. It is one of the perverse triumphs of modern librarianship to convert seldom-used books into never-used books. And at the end of it all lies that librarian’s dream: a library without books at all, a gigantic database, all electronically retrievable on screen. This is the slippery slope that begins with the black plastic toilet seat.

The other great research institution in the capital, the British Library, has embraced change – constant renovation – as its reason for being. If the London Library is the library that its users want, the British Library is the library that its librarians want. But the British Library’s progress to its technological millennium in St Pancras has been far from smooth and has often furnished comedy as rich as anything John Wells could invent. The Guardian recently reported that the 300-kilometre mobile shelving system installed by a Dutch firm in the bowels of the new site ‘keeps jamming and flinging the books to the ground instead of storing them’. It is hard not to see an allegory here. Library officials conceded that the problem of the book-bashing Dutch shelves was ‘unexpected’. There have been other unexpected hitches on the way to the library of the 21st century. It seems that the seating capacity of the new British Library will be – at a cost of £450 million – only 7 per cent, or 73, more seats than are currently available in Bloomsbury. This means that it costs more to install a reader’s seat in the British Library than to endow a professorial chair in library science at Oxford. Kenneth Cooper, the Library’s retiring chief executive, mournfully predicts that ‘the finished library will be “second-rate”.’ Cooper fears that, despite the new technology, ‘the delivery of some material to the new reading-rooms will take longer.’ While they wait for their books, readers – those who can find a seat – will be able to feast their eyes on an architecture that the Prince of Wales has likened to that of the Lubyanka.

It is in this context that the ‘Regular Readers’ Group’ are protesting. They want to retain as much of the Bloomsbury site and the lovely old furniture of the Round Reading Room as they can. They are not making much headway. Felicity Baker has written: ‘A symbolic deadlock between the Regular Readers’ Group and the directors [of the British Library] is centred on the old Circular Catalogue, the hundreds of volumes which list acquisitions up to 1975. In one of our attempts to persuade them to give an inch to historical continuity, we asked that readers at St Pancras have access to this old catalogue, as back-up for the many occasions when the computerised catalogue will fail them (queueing at terminals, jamming, breakdown). There will be no room for it, they said, and anyway we cannot budget for its maintenance, and furthermore it is obsolete and unnecessary.’ In other words, sod off, readers.

The belief that sustains the British Library planners is that even if what replaces the old is less good – or positively awful in the case of the microfiche catalogue – it is worth moving forward because there is something extremely good at the end of it all. The planners are probably right. No one who has used a fully-functioning, state-of-the-art, computerised catalogue will want to go back to ledgers, unless for upper-body exercise. The British Library catalogue on CD-rom allows the user to do things that are simply impossible with the old ledger, card or fiche compilations. Similarly, no one who once uses the recently-advertised OED in machine-readable form with all its search and cross-reference facilities will want to be confined to the printed volumes. Chadwyck Healey have advertised for imminent sale a database comprising texts of all the poetry listed in the NCBEL. It cannot be long before all literature in English is similarly available. Jake Balokowsky will soon have this page on Hypertext. All this information technology will not make books obsolete, but it will mean that one can do a range of new and interesting things with books and, above all, save time for actually reading them. And with its access to the state’s treasure, its capital location, and its 150 years of copyright deposit advantage, the British Library – so long as it keeps abreast of the newest technology and ahead of Luddites like the Regular Readers’ Group – must emerge in time as the major information resource of the 21 st century. But the next few years are going to be rather fraught.

It is healthy that some libraries, like the London Library, should be shaped by the pragmatic needs of their readers and other libraries, like the British Library, by the Utopian vision of their librarians. But for all the ‘charming anachronism’ that Wells celebrates, it would be a mistake to think that the London Library, unless it changes as drastically as it did under Hagbert Wright, can nowadays be what Carlyle had in mind: a primary resource for scholars. Increasingly, regular users of the London Library’s physical access to books will have to be regular users of the British Library’s advanced technical facilities. One has no way of knowing, but cross-usage is probably well established already. What will change in the future, and what will be felt as a painful change, is the cost of using any worthwhile research library. The British Library’s advanced technical facilities, like the currently operating ESTC, will be charged for by the minute. The new OED costs some fifteen thousand pounds for a five-year lease (after which, if I understand the brochure, you are obliged to destroy the tapes on penalty of copyright infringement). Software and hardware will probably double the cost of setting up the dictionary for use. The Chadwyck Healey computerised poetry library will also cost thousands to install, run and add to. One doubts that the British Library will give away time on such databases as freely as they allow access to the printed materials which they get for nothing. At some point, quite soon, the London Library will realise that they are in a high-cost research environment and that, at £80 a year, their services to the scholar are ludicrously under-priced. If they are true to the principles of their Carlylean founder, the Committee of the Library will quintuple the cost of subscription and pour the extra revenue into book acquisition and improved services. If, as seems more likely, the London Library continues in the cosy traditionalism that John Wells eulogises it will run the risk of declining into the condition of yet another picturesque British institution, of no more value to scholarship than Beefeaters are to the defence of the realm.

Rude Words, the reader should be warned, contains no rude words. Wells’s title is puckishly irrelevant. Those who actually want to know about rude words should read Swearing. It is a tricky and fascinating subject. Among the miscellaneous facts released for London’s Japan Festival, for instance, is that the naughtiest Japanese words contain no reference to sex or bodily functions. The equivalent of ‘Fuck off!’ is Chikusho!, which apparently translates as the Billy Bunterism, ‘beasts!’ Geoffrey Hughes’s social history of swearing helps make sense of such anomalies, tracing the use of English rude words from the ritualistic Germanic oath to the latest Americanism. Swearing is a notoriously fluid and unfixed thing, but Hughes persuasively maps out large lexical-historical trends – the rise of blasphemy with puritanism, xenophobia with imperialism, sex and excretory terms with the Victorians’ body hate. A South African, he claims, ‘I do not recall hearing the unprintable “four-letter words” used until I went into National Service,’ which perhaps explains the indefatigable zest with which he has dedicated his adult life to recording and tabulating bad language. The book is very good on oddities: why ‘bastard’ should provoke mortal offence in England, but be a term of manly affection in Australia, or the American preference for ‘asshole’ instead of the English ‘cunt’ as a term of abuse between males. Browning apparently came across the phrase ‘Old Nun’s Twat’ in a 17th-century poem and introduced it into Pippa passes under the misapprehension that it ‘denoted some part of a nun’s attire’. Stupid twat. Hughes’s tables of historical usage contain surprises: ‘Nancy’ apparently entered the language in 1824, ‘poof’ in 1850, ‘gay’ in the 1890s, ‘faggot’ in 1914, ‘pansy’ in 1929, and ‘queer’ not until 1932. Although, as Hughes notes, one would have expected ‘writers of anger and robustness like John Osborne’ to have introduced demotic idioms into literature in the post-Chatterley era, it was, in fact, ‘a shy, withdrawn, academic librarian’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’) who took the leap. Larkin is credited with a ‘first recorded instance’ for ‘stuff your pension’ in the OEDS.

Hughes, one discovers, does not at all approve of the deterioration of standards which he has observed since his ear-opening National Service days. ‘Even public academic discourse,’ he notes, ‘normally conducted in a decorously high register, has shown some signs of a lowering of tone. In a letter to the London Review of Books (21 November 1985), Professor Terence Hawkes curtly dismissed Professor Graham Hough with the words “piss off.” ’ According to Hughes, ‘Hawkes’s notoriously churlish performance combined cowardice with insult, since his whole letter was, technically, directed to the editor, who was thereby obliged, amongst other indignities, to “tell Hough to piss off”. Interestingly, this outrage led to no controversy whatever (over the offending phrase) in England.’ It is nice to see Hughes so outraged that he unconsciously resurrects ‘churl’ (‘Anglo-Saxon ceorl, “a man”, but on occasions “a hero” or even “a prince” ’) which – as he tells us on page 57 – became a swear word in the mouths of Norman overlords in the 12th century when opprobriating their Saxon subjects. Properly speaking, Hawkes is a Welsh git (‘Scots get or gett, “bastard” ’).