Libraries and the homeless

British Library
The British Library

I was in the Jubilee Library this week. A great building and a fantastic resource for the people of Brighton. I skim read The Economist, picking out a couple of articles for a proper read. Then ran through Investors Chronicle to see if economic Armageddon is on the cards. As I sat digesting this guff I half listened to the person sitting to my right. Seemingly a homeless man brandishing his crutch like a trophy and speaking in that slightly loud voice people adopt when they want to be overheard. Faintly irritating of course but I didn’t begrudge his presence. Where else could he go? In any case, he made no more noise than the screaming kids, the mobile phone ringtones and the screeching coffee grinder. Who the fuck puts a coffee grinder in a library? A library is supposed to be a place of peace overseen by a stern librarian in horn rim spectacles but, in the Jubilee library, the operatives have been beaten back behind their desks and market forces run rampant in no mans land. I checked out Jane Austin’s “Emma” and left.

Over the past few months your author has produced a piece of quality writing too good for the likes you lot. No seriously, I thought it may be good enough to earn some loot so I sent it to the New Yorker who waited over 3 months and then did not reply. I am told that this is the norm. I clearly need to read my target publications to determine appropriateness. Not wanting to lash out a small fortune on every publications under the sun, I joined the British Library.

The British Library really is a fantastic place. The largest national library in the world by number of items, it is estimated to contain over 150 million and receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland including newspapers and periodicals. After obtaining membership I got online and browsed their extensive catalogue. I placed requests for three publications which specialise in poetry and short stories: Carillion, Ambit and The Threepenny Review.

Arriving at the building outside St Pancras yesterday, I noted its ghastly exterior. Brick walls and metal railings – it won an award of course. Inside, however, it was all space and light. Which is what matters; it was built for the educated classes not the plebs who have to walk the streets and sadly this is true of many of the recent vanity buildings in central London. As my train had passed The Shard I saw how, up close, it’s just another boring glass facade.

The staff at the British Library are not like those in the Jubilee Library. This is London. There are enough staff to form a regiment and they consider themselves a cut above the general public. So special do they feel that some of them have their heads jammed firmly up their own arses. From the security guard who wouldn’t deign to look at me as he waved me away saying that I could not carry my bag into the reading room and then got flustered when I stopped and questioned him about the location of the locker room; to the operatives in the reading room who chat with their colleagues before deigning to “call forward” the next member of the queue. Indeed it’s strange that, despite many of the operatives originating outside the UK, they behave like British jobsworths from the 1950s. I am something of a contrarian as at least they ensure a peaceful ambiance and I had the impression that if my phone had rung during my visit I would have been smartly marched off site and banned for life.

Not all the staff were unfriendly. One young woman cheerfully explained how things worked. Each visitor selects a numbered desk, collects their items from the front desk and sits down. Each desk is fitted with a lamp for those dim winter evenings.

I opened my first ever copy of Carillion magazine and read in the introduction that this was the last issue and the magazine was closing down due to poor sales. A shame as it was entertaining and I might have subscribed. Ambit seemed a good target for future stories but the real find was a 1950 copy of the satirical Follower Magazine. We like to think that good humor is a comparatively modern invention. Not a bit of it. An article by a supposed leadership guru risked me guffawing out loud. “Mr. Success” trains students to excel in exams. He goes beyond consciousness and maintaining good health and resorts to the mass obstruction of other students in order to lower the average. Methods employed are removal of important books from libraries, the defacement of books and the spreading of deceases amongst ones fellows.

After leaving the library I walked back along Euston Road and beheld a seemingly homeless young woman sitting on the ground and leaning up against the library wall..…crying. What is it that takes possession of us at such times? Why did I not stop? I certainly thought about stopping. I can even say I wanted to stop. Psychologists tell us that in such situations it is the other people that give us the opportunity to cop out. We can say, well, someone else is better placed than I to stop. Certainly there was some of that but I think also there was the feeling that I would be stepping out of character. I would no longer be a member of the crowd but would be involved.

Cities are strange places. Human beings are just clever apes and we evolved to live in groups of no more than around a 100. It’s possible to form personal relationships with roughly that many people but utterly impossible with 8 million. Consequently, human beings have developed the strategy of treating other people in cities as non-persons. We happily squeeze onto underground trains and rub shoulders with complete strangers because we don’t treat them as people. Evidence of this can be found when the situation strays from the norm, say when the train gets stuck, and people start to interact. A quick joke, sympathy for a struggling passenger, pretty soon the carriage is getting on like a house on fire. Human feeling and emotion kick in. But in every day city life we just don’t bother. I wonder if this has something to do with how we can ignore the suffering of others.

I stopped at a crossing just past the woman and looked back. A biker was crouching down and talking to her. I crossed the road. Would I have gone back if the biker had not been there? Certainly I felt I should have done. Not proud of my inaction, I resolved to do better in future.

This afternoon I continued reading The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon and came across the following paragraph about British people giving to beggars: “What impulse does prompt people to give no one knows. Is never generosity – you could see some of them regret it as soon as they give. But is a kind of feeling of shame. One fellar give, and the other feel shame if they don’t put a penny in the old man hat.”


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