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I was lamenting the loss of my library libido – then I visited the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris

Will Self On Location. 

I usually become sexually aroused in libraries – no, really, I do. Moreover, I’m fairly certain I am not alone, and that plenty of others respond to the cloistral atmosphere, the tickle of dust in their nostrils and the murmurous voices in the same way. I think there are various reasons for the library/lust phenomenon: studious people just are sexier than jocks, and the idea of actually making love in the stacks is such a beautiful inversion of the intended use of these niches: instead of filling them with dead words, surely they should writhe with living bodies?

I haven’t always felt this way – I don’t remember getting the horn when I used to go to East Finchley Library with my mother; however, this may have been because I was prepubescent. What I recall is the cold suburban light falling through an oculus; the astringency of the polish used for the floors; and the photograph that hung in the vestibule of Dame Henrietta Barnett herding sheep, circa 1905, across the fields that were about to become Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Throughout university I couldn’t approach a library without my penis becoming a dowsing rod that sought out potential (but sadly never actual) sexual prospects – and this continued until about five years ago, when, slowly at first, but eventually completely, my biblio-libido departed. Up until last week I thought nothing of it – or, rather, I simply put it down to the creeping normalcy of older age. But when I found myself strolling along the interminable main corridor of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, passing one soigné Parisian swot after another and feeling not a scintilla of excitement, I realised something was afoot.

I’d been afoot myself: strolling towards the Seine through the 13e arrondissement, and thinking about nothing much in particular besides the woeful way French architects have with postmodernism: if the London skyline now resembles a desk littered with crappy “executive” toys, then the byways of Paris are like the boutiques from which they were bought: the buildings presenting as crazy agglomerations of detailing detached from any overall plan. The Bibliothèque itself is too big to fit into this anti-aesthetic: with its four signature towers comprised of stacks, the building it most closely resembles is Battersea Power Station, but instead of the humongous turbine hall there’s a sunken garden full of Scots firs, silver birches and oaks.

These trees have provoked much Scha­denfreude on the part of the citizenry and at the expense of the relevant fonctionnaires. The on dit is that due to the lack of light and the inadequate soil, the firs – which were brought in from the Forêt de Bord-Louviers in Normandy and winched down into the pit – grew too tall and spindly, so supportive cradles of steel hawsers have had to be erected around them. Oh, and there’s the rabbits: scores of them, an infestation that no one has been able to account for. In another echo of Battersea (which has raptors of its own), the same benighted fonctionnaires have brought in a number of hawks to deal with the pesky things.

W G Sebald, writing in the lugubrious persona of his eponymous hero Jacques Austerlitz, described at length the minatory atmosphere of the Bibliothèque, which he put down to both the imprisoned anorexic firs and the fact that the library was built on a site where, during the Occupation, a regular “market” was held by the SS at which German officers could purchase the booty confiscated from Parisian Jews who’d been deported to concentration camps. In the past I, too, have felt something of this negative vibe, and hypothesised that it’s the strange giant “bleachers” – wooden seating-cum-stairways ranged around the sunken garden – which, by making all visitors feel like collaborative voyeurs, have condensed this bad atmosphere. Even so, I still used to become aroused when I visited the Bibliothèque.

But not any more – and I think I know why. The French are some way ahead of us when it comes to digitising the contents of their national library; almost all the books are now available online as scanned facsi­miles. The library was only opened in late 1996, but it is already, in effect . . . dead. Scholars certainly don’t need to attend in person in order to use its contents, and the evidence of this is in the long corridors, which are beginning to fill up with street people who have come in from the cold, and who are tacitly tolerated by the staff.

The Skyscraper Index is the whimsical theory that the tallest building in a city usually is completed just before a recession. I would like to propose a variation on it: the biggest building for any given media technology is completed just before that technology becomes redundant. Our own newish British Library was also completed in 1996 and it, too, will become largely redundant over the next few years.

I may be sexually omnivorous, but even I don’t get much in the way of jollies from contemplating such moribund institutional bodies. I paced up and down for a while, taking squints into the sunken garden in the faint hope that a glimpse of some rabbits doing their thing might stimulate me, but sadly there was no action. Luckily I had my Kindle with me, so I was able to sit down with a smelly man on a bench and together we read some of the more ecru parts of Fifty Shades of Grey

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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