I salute the British Library, last refuge from the jerks and wonks

Since last week, I have been inundated by letters asking me what happened when I took my defective bedside light up to the lighting department of John Lewis. (I exaggerate slightly about the number of letters I received.) Well, like that of the giant rat of Sumatra, this is a story for which the world is not yet prepared, but the detail that sticks in my craw and about which I feel the need to vent is that its replacement, though it costs only something like seven quid (prompting the question how much the people who make it are being paid), is not called anything like "a bedside light". Nor even "a desk light" (for it could serve as one of those, too). No: it is "a task lamp".

“A what?" I said to myself as I was handed the box. Has it come to this? That somewhere, in some miserable office on the fringes of civilisation and decency, it has been decreed that not only is this a euphonious conjunction of English words, but that it is a desirable and exciting description of an otherwise neutral utilitarian domestic appliance?

Copy wrong

Task lamp, my arse. "I have tasks to perform," says the wretched copywriter who came up with this, "so I shall switch on my task lamp." And what kinds of tasks are we talking about here? Chopping firewood? Sweeping the gutters? Putting up shelves?

The only "tasks" I can think of that this lamp would facilitate are forging passports or mending watches, and I imagine that the people who do these things for a living don't get their illumination from John Lewis for seven quid. I use it for reading in bed when it gets dark, and for most people that's a pleasure, not a task.

Since then I have been trying to get out more, so that I don't switch the thing on and end up trying to perform any tasks. In this I have also been helped by Radio 3, which got slightly better ever since I complained about it a couple of weeks ago, and then suddenly very much worse again when it decided to make bebop jazz its "Composer of the Week".

Leaving aside the question of whether a musical genre can strictly speaking be called a "composer" (an ontological crux not un­related to the question of whether a bedside light can be called a "task lamp"), this decision seems to have been taken with the sole purpose of infuriating and de­moralising me, because bebop jazz is not a musical genre, but a form of psychological torture that also has the side effect of inducing sterility in laboratory mice.

So I have been getting away from the Hovel during the day. The place I have decided to hide out in is the British Library. This strikes me as one of the last few areas of civic society that is not having the life throttled out of it.

True, it's not open to everyone - you need to forge some kind of credential from a publisher or publication, possibly using a task lamp, to establish your bona fides, but once you're in you're set up for life.

Just imagine: you can ask for any book ever published in this country and you'll get it, sometimes within the hour. OK, some books you have to wait two days for, and there are glitches sometimes - perhaps due, somewhere down the line, to a defective task lamp - but on the whole this sturdy principle remains.

And it's free. Or, technically speaking, as we pay our taxes for it, free at the point of use. And you get a solidly made desk, a chair you can tip back on without fearing that it will collapse beneath you, and a very good reading light that no one seems to have come up with a good name for.

Walking shop

You wonder when someone in government is going to notice that we have here an enviable public service that has not been monetised (an ugly word for an ugly thing), and I wouldn't even draw attention to it if I weren't so certain that the kinds of jerks and wonks who have been ruining the country since 1979 aren't the kinds of people who read this column.

As a further step away from the irksomeness of contemporary life, I have started walking everywhere, taking a leaf from Will Self's book, as it were. The epiphany took place after I worked out that it would take as long to walk to Gospel Oak from the Hovel as it would to take public transport. I have now worked out that, for any journey under four miles, roughly the same equation holds. Plus, as Mr Self, like the author Iain Sinclair, has pointed out many times, one becomes more psychically bonded with the geography one traverses.

And walking slowly back home at night delays the inevitable moment when, at bedtime, you have to turn on your task lamp.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood