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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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle