My Home Library Part 1

Christopher Fowler

The secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like and follow the path of your own pleasures

When do your bookshelves become a library?
At some point you probably found you had too many books to fit tidily into your home. You looked around and found them by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, on the floor. At this point you need a library. First, define your space. I will have room for this many books and no more. By doing this you force yourself to make choices, and develop a living library with working rules. First make it finite, as there will be two types of books; the ones you'll return to again and again, and the ones which are passing through you on their way to a new owner. With the 'one in, one out' rule you create a permanent collection of excellence. I arrange mine loosely by themes, size and weight, and not all the books are in one place - there are special paperback shelves, hidden shelves and a set with doors to protect the rarest books from sunlight. You may find you learn a lot about yourself when you look back at what you've chosen to keep. I have far too many books on London.
To appreciate the city's diversity you have to read its history, but this is a daunting task. A home library devoted to the subject will be as sprawling as the city itself, but luckily there's a public one. The London Library in St James Square is a members-only institution
founded by Thomas Carlyle, one of the city's most exclusive and expensive private libraries. TS Elliot, a long-serving president, argued in 1952 in an address to members that, 'whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation'. But you need dosh to become a monthly member. I discovered that the membership rate drops according to your age. (Entering my DOB online I found that I could get in for peanuts, which was depressing.) For your home library, the secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like, and follow the path of your own pleasures. My London shelves hold Samuel Johnson for his language, Pepys for his exhausting social life, Besant's 'Early London' and 'Medieval London', six volumes of Walford's 'Old And New London', which break the city into districts, packed with as much gossip and scandal as fact. Then there's Peter Ackroyd's brilliant palimpsest 'London: The Biography', also available in illustrated form (London's first mayor mysteriously resembles Ackroyd). Mayhew's 'London Characters & Crooks' has everything from street conjurers to rat killers, and finds a modern equivalent in the story of London's worst street, 'Campbell Bunk', by Jerry White. 'Photographers' London 1839 — 1994' by Mike Seaborne has haunting stills of the misted Thames, but I love the exuberant picture of a North London wedding party taken in 1958. Old Punch annuals and bi-annuals of the Illustrated London News from the late 19th century pep up my library, and provide odd insights into city life. Gillian Tindall's 'The Fields Beneath' takes you through time in one London village, although it's depressing to realise that in 1864 you could have bought a grand Islington house in forty acres for thirty quid. I have books on writers' London, decadent London, its pleasure gardens and music halls, its transport and architecture, but also its dissidents, its heroines and heroes. At this point, the collection branches into peculiar byways that include Hessenberg's 'London In Detail', featuring photographs of doorknobs, clocks, statues, dragons, railings and other examples of barely noticed street furniture, and 'Lion Hunting In London' by Frank Manheim, which reveals the city's obsession with carved wildcats. 'London As It Might Have Been', by Barker and Hyde, depicts many of the heartbreakingly fabulous, mad and elegant designs nobbled at the planning stage by councillors. My favourite London book is Peter Jackson's 'London Is Stranger Than Fiction', which collects arcane facts from the old Evening News. Do you know why Billingsgate's dolphin weathervane is 'inappropriate'? It's a mammal, not a fish. Sadly, most of the wonderful anomalies depicted here have now been wiped away by London's developers. 'To hail a bus or tram, shine a torch on your hand' suggests a wartime London poster in 'The Moving Metropolis', but 'The Abandoned Stations On London's Underground' and 'The Lost Cinemas of Camden Town' are somewhat esoteric, even by my standards. Continued tomorrow  
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Ken Mann (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 11:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You know you're a transport nerd when you have a favourite non-existent London tube station.

Kristina (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 15:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Books on the kitchen counter, coffee table, two side tables, both bedside tables, two bookcases in my bedroom, one in the spare bedroom and FOUR in the study / home office. I'm starting to think about clearing space in the bathroom too :-D

Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 15:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ken - Mine's North End (AKA 'Bull and Bush). Don't bother looking for it: it's not there. The underground bits were partially built, but, due to some early 20th century NIMBY action, the surface buildings were never erected. It was only connected to the surface in the early 1950's, and used as a bunker for Civil Defence flood control on the Underground system. It's now an escape route, capped by a blockhouse disguised as an electricity sub-station. I'm also very fond of Highgate High level, the abandoned station directly above Highgate Underground station. It's damn creepy, for some reason, verging on sinister.

Ken Mann (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 16:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mine's Mill Hill the Vale, the legendary never built link between the Edgware and Barnet branches that would have allowed trains to go up one side and down the other. Sounds like a dream if you live near the end of either.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 21/11/2018 - 17:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mine are British Museum and Trafalgar Square. Anyone have a comment on the choices?

Debra Matheney (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 18:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

No, I am on the book theme of the blog. I have a library across the back of my sitting room, a bookshelf in my hall, and still there are books everywhere. I cull and cull but they still seem to multiply. I swear they have babies in the night. When I retired a little over a year ago, I reorganized all of them by themes- 18th century, Elizabethan/Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Pepys and his era, England and also Scotland. I took boxes and boxes to the library for their book sale. I suppose my inability to pass any bookstore by when I travel contributes, but we must support local bookstores. And for all this,I buy new fiction, read it and almost immediately loan the book or it goes to the library so the mysteries and other fiction rarely make it anywhere permanent. I will die with a pole of books by my side left unread.

SteveB (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 20:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

British Museum - that film whose name I forget with the cannibals
Trafalgar Square -hmm dont know, still exists as part of Charing X
I have the feeling from that article, you might think of yourself like John May, but really you're Arthur Briant... (with maybe a hint if Mr Fox!!!!)
Joke!! (Before I get banned for life)

Vivienne (not verified) Wed, 21/11/2018 - 23:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Trafalgar Square must have been what is now Charing Cross. Charing Cross used to be the station that is now Embankment, surely? Remember Donovan busking down there, pre Sunshine Superman.

My library is 3 to 4,000 books, but I have given up cataloguing and now trying to relocate a lot to charity shops (although sometimes that means re-reading so I can remember what I'm giving away). One of my favourite London books is Child of the Jago. The bollard that appears right at the beginning of the story is still there.

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 22/11/2018 - 02:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Trafalgar Square was indeed replaced by the newer Charing Cross station - which I always thought a bit unfair. Trafalgar Square is arguably the most famous Square in London, and I wish, as such, it still had it's own station, which had very fetching wrought iron work on the stairs leading to it; very suggestive of the Paris Metro, from pictures I've seen. Chris, is your Underground book the one written by J.E. Connor? It's a fascinating book, that I find myself returning to again and again. It sits alongside Trench and Hillman's 'London Under London', and Antony Clayton's 'Subterranean City', and the Haynes Manual of The London Underground.

Jo W (not verified) Thu, 22/11/2018 - 17:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Books in this house are not confined to one room,they wouldn't all fit on the shelves in one room. They have to circulate,so that when you've left the book you were reading downstairs, look around and there's another by the bed. Saves all the wear and tear on the knee joints,you know. Besides,Christopher, libraries don't have just one room,do they?

SimonB (not verified) Thu, 22/11/2018 - 17:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have to confess my current shelves span more than one room and are close to full again. I'm just no good at getting rid of things, hoping for a miraculous fold in time that will allow me to re-read them all.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 22/11/2018 - 19:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am going to have to print off a detailed map of the London Underground because it comes up so often. Ian, I've never been to Paris (close but no cigar) but I found an entrance to the Paris Metro complete with all that fantastic wrought iron work somewhere on the Washington Mall when we were museum binging (bingeing? Looks weird) It's too bad when things like that are removed. Our Skytrain stations are all being renovated (originally built in 1986!) and they are all somewhat different so perhaps some of them will become favourites.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 23/11/2018 - 02:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen - In the next blog entry, Chris has included a link to an utterly fascinating site, which I suggest you have a look at. I doubt that many Londoners really have any idea of what lies beneath their feet. It's a subject that, even if you aren't interested in railways, is simply mind-blowing. A very good site, too, is 'The Londonist', which, at present, is running a series on Pagan London, but also features Geoff Marshall's 'Secrets Of The Underground'. As I've mentioned before, this bloke really loves, and knows his subject.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 03/12/2018 - 19:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Trafalgar square always had (for some reason) really odd yellow lighting as if they had fitted it out with 40 watt bulbs instead of 60 watts. Piccadilly Circus( the round upper booking hall ) had a touch of that yellow lighting as well but not as noticeably dim as Trafalgar Square.

Someone once told me why the lighting was like that at Piccadilly Circus but I can't recall the reason now.

I did twig you were on about two shut stations Chris but still not visiting regularly due to this Australian lurgy bug.

You can still walk through into Trafalgar Square from Charing X station. (Or rather a decade back you could.) I did this once and its very weird. Interesting but strange. Like looking in an old magazine and seeing very old adverts for stuff you'd forgotten about. And mice and rats mooching about on the periphery of your vision. It's very dark just mag lites you carry.