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28 November 2017

Libraries are for the homeless, the drifters and the snorers – people like me

The chairs in the British Library reading rooms are just about comfy enough for sleep.

By Nicholas Lezard

It’s 2pm. Back in the British Library. Like all libraries ought to be, it is almost silent. There is the gentle tap of fingers on keyboards, the turning of pages and a light but persistent snoring – which is coming from me.

The chairs in the British Library reading rooms are just about comfy enough for sleep, if you’re not too tall. You can rest your head on the back and put your coccyx on the front edge of the chair, and if you don’t worry too much about the possible damage this may do to your back, which now hangs suspended between the top and bottom of the chair like a hammock, this is good enough for at least 20 winks, if not 40 – or until the snoring starts.

This is not the first time I have fallen asleep here. Curiously, no one has ever reprimanded me for snoring. (I have long abandoned the delusion that I sleep without doing so.) Why not? It must be amazingly irritating. I do a little thought experiment and imagine that the person next to me has entered the land of Nod and is making free with the zeds. After a bit, I decide that it all depends on how cute they are. That is, if he or she – OK, let’s not be silly here – she were cute, then I would gently wake her up and humorously suggest we go for a coffee to remedy the situation. (Worst moment of esprit de l’escalier of the past two years: going back to a Boots counter to reclaim a forgotten debit card. Incredibly attractive pharmacist: “How do I know it’s yours?” What I should have said: “Why don’t you let me buy you dinner and I’ll prove it to you?”)

If it were a horrible old man like me, I would probably let him get on with it, possibly going for a coffee until the all-clear sounded.

This is what I have done now. I am now (3.30pm) in the massively overpriced canteen – £5.30 for a cappuccino and a muffin? They’re making it up as they go along – in order not only to minimise the risk of falling asleep again but to do some typing without making people turn around and glare at me.

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This, as bitter experience has taught me, is what really gets people’s goats in the library. The fact that I learned how to type on a pre-war typewriter and my long-standing conviction that my words should be carved in stone combine to make even my delicate violinist’s fingers bash away at the keys fortissimo. Only then do I feel that I am writing; any softer and I feel that I am tiptoeing through my copy, as if ashamed of it, like a house guest creeping down a corridor in the middle of the night for a slash.

Which is, as regular readers will know by now, a feeling that is very familiar to me these days. The whole homelessness shtick is getting pretty old. It wasn’t much fun, early on in this latest development, to be called, by my ex-friend D—, “a posh boy slumming it”. She has been cast into the outer darkness not so much because of the accusation of poshness, which is not for me to decide (although it would come as a surprise to the compilers of Debrett’s), as because of the words “slumming it”, which suggest that there is something voluntary about my current circumstances.

I assure everyone there is not, and the next time I come across a chugger from Shelter (to this day the only charity I have contributed to after being accosted on the streets) I am going to have a word or two with them.

And now (3.45pm), the light outside is failing, the sky a uniform grey. Gosh, how cheery. I have another four hours and 15 minutes in this haven, until I take the long road back to East Finchley. Libraries are for the homeless, the drifters, the people who pass out at their desks. The only difference between me and the vagrant in the municipal library is that I have the TLS open in front of me rather than the Daily Express, and I smell better. (And I am “posh”, but I recently heard of an acquaintance who had spotted a bully from his old posh school begging on the Tube, so a private education is no proof against the more odorous kind of indigence.)

As for the darkness, I will have to acclimatise, because in a few days’ time I go back to Scotland, where I will be staying – apart from a break for Christmas – until the beginning of March.

The second stint in Scotland will be in the far north (latitude 57°50’ to be precise), and I am going to have to get used to the notion that there will be long stretches of time in which I will not see daylight at all. But it will be quiet. 

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder