Matthew Engel’s Diary: Distractions in tough times, people in their seventies are not waiting to die, and sex and sewage

In 2020 many people will become involuntary slackers. Boredom, despair and loneliness kill too. 

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Shorn of precedent, no one is sure what to do – not leaders, not doctors, not scientists. But the confusion is greatest around peripheral matters, sport and entertainment most of all. In August 1914, with the country in over-by-Christmas mode, cricket carried on as normal. The Daily Mail, preferring the war, sent a photographer to Lord’s to snap and shame the slackers who were watching the game rather than joining up. Sport soon shrivelled. 

Twenty-five years and one month later, war came with the cricket season finishing and football starting. On Friday 1 September Germany invaded Poland; on the Sunday Britain declared war. In between, Northampton Town had an away fixture at Bournemouth. The players travelled, assumed the match would be off and took the chance to get rat-arsed. They were wrong. Bournemouth 10 Northampton 0. 

That time, there was an immediate clampdown on sport and theatres, but then a rapid reversal. In tough times, people need diversions. Different era, different threat, but the principle is even more apt now. In 2020 many people will become involuntary slackers. Boredom, despair and loneliness kill too. 

Kicking the bucket list

Sunday night (15 March), the news made it sound as though the government was sentencing everyone over 70 to solitary confinement, presumably with (young) bobbies patrolling the street demanding proof of age, stern publicans in reverse.

By Monday the government was in retreat, mumbling about civil liberties. But I detect a certain contempt emanating from a cabinet whose oldest member (someone called Alister Jack) is 56. Something keeps going through my head. In 1968 Simon & Garfunkel, both 26, released a song called “Old Friends”, about two valetudinarians sitting pathetically on a park bench. It included the line, “How terribly strange to be 70”. In 2018 I watched that song’s writer, Paul Simon, then 76, bounding around the stage in Manchester: 23 numbers, two and a half hours, no interval. Brilliant. He did not do “Old Friends”.

The septuagenarians I know climb mountains, run marathons, sail yachts, work all hours on their farms and gardens. Others pretend and/or contend to be president of the US (OK, bad examples). They do not sit on park benches waiting to die. Nor on their sofas ditto. 

Borrowing time

I am not 70 yet, though it is an aspiration. As it happens, I have spent an indoor winter anyway, in the rubbish tip officially known as my study, working through huge numbers of London Library books. The outcome is meant to be a sort-of history of Britain since 1952, but concentrating on aspects real historians might overlook. I might have chosen an easier project. 

At other times I have been in the London Library itself, a remarkable institution I joined soon after moving to London in… well, let’s just say my first flat cost £12,000. The library hasn’t changed much except that back in the 20th century, the staff had to write out for each borrowed book the full title, subtitle and author. This cruel process has long since been computerised. 

Or at least it hadn’t changed much. I love this place. It is an independent library founded in 1841, with a collection worthy of one of the prouder universities, and one huge plus: members can borrow books indefinitely. My personal best is five years. There is one overriding condition. As soon as the dread message comes – “…has been requested by another member” – you promptly: 1. Find it. 2. Read it (optional). 3. Take it back.

The library has much endearing eccentricity, typified by the “Science & Miscellaneous” collection that sprawls through the back stacks using an alphabetical category list that has altered little since the 19th century. There are glorious juxtapositions. Flower Arrangement is dangerously close to Flagellation. Sewage Management is next to Sex. There are separate sections for Human Sacrifice, Somnambulism and Weathercocks. My friend David McKie once heard a guide telling a tour party: “Here’s Women. Between Wool and Witchcraft.”

It is a privilege to be part of this, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can pay to belong – more than one used to pay, though there are deals for the young. It is not a members’ club, unlike its neighbours in St James’s. It is a charity, though the members notionally select the trustees. But a few years back, it fell short of cash and the librarian is now no longer the day-to-day boss. Indeed, there is no “librarian” as such. There is a “director of collections and library services” answerable to an overall “director”, which in principle makes sense. Someone spends money on books; someone else says how much.

But the tone is changing. It is becoming more corporate. The opening hours now fit in with events at the library, not members’ needs. And the suggestion book, the most riveting read in the building, has been abolished, to be replaced by an email address. Originally, it said someone from “the executive team” would reply, but on that there were second thoughts. The loss of an open forum, however, is a form of divide and rule.

have no idea what other members think: there is little chit-chat. The London Library is a haven for writers and readers, people who understand economy of words, if not economics. It is not a borough council or Wernham Hogg paper merchants. It should have a librarian, as it did from 1841 to 2017. One word not six.

Staying grounded

This week I was meant to be in Helsinki as part of my NS series on Europe. On Sunday, with the situation there as confused as here, with flights being cancelled, and Finnair being as uncommunicative as airlines generally are in a crisis, I gave up and stayed home. Finland remains on my bucket list. An aspiration. Before I hit 70. 

Matthew Engel’s book (working title: “The Reign”) is due to be published by Atlantic Books in 2021

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning

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