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8 December 2015

I break the British Library’s code of silence and discover I’m an interfering, heartless jerk

Murmur murmur murmur, they go. Whisper whisper whisper. They are just five feet from me. I have to act.

By Nicholas Lezard

To the British Library, to do some brainy work. Nothing particularly groundbreaking: I just want to check a couple of quotations from Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, and have little hope of finding my own copy. I have written before how much I love the BL, both as an institution and as interior space: free at the point of use, unbelievably well stocked and solidly over-engineered, as if it had been designed for use by people twice as hefty as the weeds like me who make up the bulk of its clientele.

What may surprise the casual reader of this column is how I delight in the library’s very purpose. I don’t just love the place: I love using it. Research, even when I think I’m not in the mood, gives me, and I’m afraid I can think of no better way to put this, the horn. Not in a sexual sense, no, no. But I think anyone who gets a kick out of digging stuff out of the archives, and putting it together in a way (you hope) that no one else has quite put it together before, will understand me: get into the groove of it, a good pile of books to one side, gripping the one you’re reading as if you’re holding the steering wheel of a racing car, and you feel an engorgement within the brain; also, I find, a physical thrill, located around the chest, higher than the wonderful oo-er feeling that love gives you around the solar plexus; more like a band extending about two or three inches above and below the nipples. And all the time you know that all around you, even on the shelves from which you can pluck books without having to order them in advance, there will be something to advance your argument, fire up another idea, shovel another thought into the head, like coal into the firebox of a steam train.

OK, so you think I’m mad. But I bet I’m not the only one. I have settled into my seat, the choice of which involves a surprisingly large number of variables. Do I feel like being in the middle of the room, so that friends and acquaintances can stop by for a brief, murmured chat? (This happens with increasing frequency the older you get.) Do I want to sit near the heartbreakingly beautiful woman? (No. I am trying to work, not weep over my lost youth and eheu fugaces.) Today I am in the mood to sit tucked away from the crowd, but not pinned in a corner with no escape from a surprise creditor except a suicidal leap from the balcony into the seething mob of Humanities 1 below. Like James Bond, I always like to have at least one escape route plotted in any given situation.

So I find the ideal seat, next to a gentleman who looks like Father Christmas would – if he were in mufti, in the British Library, researching something brainy with a pile of books and a ThinkPad. Perfect. After a while he gets up. I lose track of him and get back to my book. However, after a bit, I notice that not only is he still near me; he is talking to someone else. Talking. In a library. Well, a low murmur/whisper, but this is beginning to go on, and no murmur or whisper can ever be soft enough once you have decided it is irritating.

Murmur murmur murmur, they go. Whisper whisper whisper. They are just five feet from me. So I do the thing British people do when they’re having a full-blown psychotic meltdown: I frown, and sigh theatrically. (Quietly, because we’re in a library.) I also roll my eyes. I am that upset.

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Amazingly, this does not work. Is he American? In which case there is only one thing for it. I go up to the pair and speak. (Quietly, for we are in a library.)

“Excuse me,” I say. “This is a very big building. There is much space in it. Do you think you could go somewhere . . .” I grope for a word, and come up, pleasingly, with a neologism: “. . .somewhere more speaky to continue your conversation?”

And then I am told that my neighbour is in the middle of a back spasm, in agony, that his interlocutor is a member of staff organising a special chair, some relief; and I learn, in that instant, that I am an interfering and heartless jerk, selfish to the point of callousness, too stupid, too wrapped up in myself to recognise another’s pain, and I die several deaths all at once, and now I remember why the British are right never to speak to anyone else at all unless there is absolutely nothing else for it, and I reflect that at least the BL’s reading rooms are so well constructed, so over-engineered, that I can now spend the rest of the afternoon hiding underneath the desk, so that no one else need see my shame. However, my horn has gone. 

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war