“Not So Much A Library, More A Way of Life”
The Lit & Phil is my favourite place on the planet. What’s yours?
I was warned, when I first moved to Newcastle. “Chaz, beware the Lit and Phil,” they said. “It’s not so much a library, it’s more a way of life,” they said. “Once you’re in its clutches,” they said, ominously…
Properly, it’s called The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. Despite the name, it’s really a private library. It occupies a beautifully proportioned Georgian building close by the railway station at the heart of the city. The interior’s Victorian, though, thanks to a total refurbishment after a devastating fire in 1850. It’s still beautiful: library porn at its best. Crazy-high domed ceilings, wrought-iron spiral staircases, galleries and Greek statuary (there used to be a genuine Egyptian mummy, but that was lost in the fire, alas) and of course books everywhere, more books than you can possibly imagine.
I heeded the warnings and kept my distance — hell, it cost money to join, and I didn’t have money — until at last I couldn’t any longer. I’d been invited to write for an anthology of Shakespearean historical mysteries, each story treating with a different play; I desperately wanted to subvert the brief by writing about the Sonnets, or more specifically the man who first printed them (George Eld, since you ask). I’d done a little letterpress printing, and loved it as a craft — but of course I knew nothing about Jacobean methods or processes. The Lit & Phil, on the other hand, knew everything, or at least everything I needed and more besides.
It’s probably impractical to spend two weeks researching for one short story, but oh, it was such fun. I was hooked. Besides which, I had a Crusader-based fantasy series to write next, and what I most needed to read were the outdated narrative histories of a previous generation. They weren’t in the university library, but of course they were in the Lit & Phil. (When they buy a book for their permanent collection, then “permanent” is the word that applies. I once borrowed an Esperanto dictionary, which turned out to be the Esperanto dictionary, the original; it had been bought the year of publication,1908, and no one had ever borrowed it until I did, more than a century later…)
So there I was, half in love with the place already — and then my passion for new smart tech overtook me, and I bought a laptop.
Thing was, I was old-fashioned in my writerly habits. I had a study at home, and a desk, with a big desktop computer on it (which in fact I still do: it’s a different home and a different desk and in a different country, but nevertheless), and that was where writing happened. I really didn’t need a laptop, I had no conceivable use for it. But oh, it was a thing of beauty, made of carbon fibre and weighing less than a kilogram, despite having a full-size keyboard and a disk drive and so on and so forth. I lusted after that thing, and when the chance came — when the price dropped, to be frank — I snatched it up.
And then, of course, I had to justify it. People with laptops work out of the house, right? They work on the move, they work in coffee-shops, they work in pubs… So I changed the habits of a lifetime, and tried this out; and found that I loved it, to the point where almost the only work I was doing was when I was travelling or otherwise away from home. Which was unsustainable, clearly. What I needed was a place to be that was not my house, but was accessible say six days of the week, and quiet, and could guarantee me a table and a chair, and…
The Lit & Phil has a Silence Room, down in the basement. Essentially, I moved in. How many novels did I write down there? I’m not sure, but the most of my output over ten or twelve years, most like. We embraced each other, that room and I. I had my own table there, and heaven preserve any interloper (there were honestly not that many over the years, but a few, oh yes) from the ferocity of my glare. One infuriating day an elderly man and a teenage boy dared to play chess there, and chess is not a game that can be played in silence, especially when one player is mentoring the other; I made a story out of that (but that, as it happens, is another story, and shall be told elsewhen).
When I had visitors, showing them around the Lit & Phil was my prime delight. One time the teenage daughter of my oldest friends had come to stay, and I took her up into the gallery, where the older books were shelved, and said that one of the joys thereof was that you could fling your hand out at random and practically be assured of finding something interesting. And I suited the action to the word, plucked a book off the shelf without looking to see what I had — and now I have my own copy of that selfsame book, because it was “Beards” by Reginald Reynolds, which is just irresistible. It’s a social history of the beard, by one of those classic eccentric British academics of days of yore, and it’s a delight from first to last, and I never would have found it else.
There is much, much more to be said about the Lit & Phil, and the various ways it changed and saved my life; but those must wait for another day. I will leave you, though, with this one last touching truth:
You can no longer smoke anywhere in the building (when I joined, back in the ’90s, there was still a Smoking Table; they closed it down very shortly after I quit smoking) but this is not the sort of library that fusses about food and drink. You can bring your own lunch in, and eat as you work; failing that, you can buy tea and biscuits at the hatch. You’re not actually supposed to consume alcohol on the premises except at organised events, but, y’know. No one’s going to examine the contents of your thermos flask.