The London Library – Paradise In St James’s Square

I was going to devote this week’s cupboard to singing the praises of the London Library, but then I read this – so you should go and read it too, and then come back here.


That seems to me the perfect introduction to the library – concise, informative, and suitably awestruck – and I couldn’t have put it better myself. (I might have added a paragraph about the glorious “Science & Miscellaneous” shelfmark – the emphasis being on the miscellaneous, alphabetically arranged.) Like Peter Berthoud, I am aghast that I spent half a century living in London before joining. How did I cope?

Anyway, praises having been sung, I thought I would illustrate just one of the great benefits of the library. Once a book is acquired and placed on the open shelves, it damn well stays there, available for borrowing. Nobody decides a book is no longer relevant, or out of fashion, or due for retirement to some distant storage facility. I have borrowed books where the most recent date stamp is from fifty or more years ago.

Recently, I took out a brand new book, Phil Baker’s biography Austin Osman Spare : The Life And Legend Of London’s Lost Artist (Strange Attractor Press, 2011). As I pointed out over at Hooting Yard, one of its chief pleasures is its plethora of anecdotes and allusions and asides. One reference that caught my attention was this:

One of Spare’s most articulate and vociferous young friends was the somewhat eccentric Oswell Blakeston (1907-85; born Henry Hasslacher, he apparently coined the name Oswell from his admiration for Osbert Sitwell). Blakeston was an art critic, prolific writer – poetry, crime fiction, cookery books, peculiar camp novels – and experimental film maker who was a friend of Dylan Thomas. His tastes were summed up by his partner, Max Chapman, as “a quick eye for the bizarre and the outrageous”.

I had never heard of Oswell Blakeston, and a quick check of the Wikipedia told me that, as I suspected, he is now entirely out of print – words which, for the London Library member, hold no terrors. A couple of days later I emerged into St James’s Square clutching a couple of his novels (never previously borrowed at all, it would seem) and Sun At Midnight, a 1958 record of his travels in Finland (last borrowed in 1999).

And what a discovery! Here is the blurb in the frontispiece of Fingers (Gaberbocchus, 1964):

Another unclassifiable book! In a sense it’s a murder story, in a sense it’s a love story, in a sense it’s a comedy, and then it’s a tragedy… But perhaps it doesn’t make sense at all?

From the moment Arthur turned his back on the gas works, things started to go mysteriously wrong. A priest wanted to paint the stars, a young man in a vegetable shop said unforgiveable things, a musician longed for the days when a dwarf rode in a lift, a schoolboy tried blackmail, Ruth was given a warning by a fortune teller about a mysterious egg… until finally Arthur’s world was shattered by a revolting crime and Inspector Johns wanted to know just what was the relationship between Arthur and Fingers.

It adds that the Evening Standard (!) praised Blakeston’s “gloriously exuberant writing”.

Of course, I could have hunted high and low for secondhand copies of his books – and will probably do so – but the London Library has them sitting on the shelves, just waiting for the eager and curious borrower. And for Oswell Blakeston, read thousands of other names of forgotten and neglected writers and books, whatever piques your interest from a passing mention, a stray reference .

In the Acknowledgements in another of his biographies (of Dennis Wheatley), Phil Baker notes his debt to “the irreplaceable London Library (in the words of Borges, ‘I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library’)”. It is, and you will find it in St James’s Square.


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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

3 thoughts on “The London Library – Paradise In St James’s Square

  1. Worm
    September 30, 2011 at 11:19

    Im personally curious to know exactly what the ‘revolting crime’ that shattered Arthur’s world was…

    September 30, 2011 at 11:46

    Frank – I know it makes it too easy and takes the fun out of book hunting, but AbeBooks has quite a lot of Oswell Blakeston, including the intriguing Working Cats (‘mostly English cats in bookstores, shops, restaurants, etc’) and the gloriously titled Edwardian Glamour Cooking Without Tears (illustrated by Elizabeth Beerbohm). Truly the mind boggles…

    September 30, 2011 at 11:55

    It is believed in a number of superstitions that if the local example of wrathful omnipotence is able to find a single atom of goodness in a given environment, he must stay his hand and, even with lightning bolts ready poised, resist dispatching the Apocalypse. The London Library is that placatory atom. Otherwise: against dawdling monoglot tourists, drunken office workers lying in the gutters wherein they have recently vomited, every aspect of the Olympics and above all that sugary-voiced Mary Poppins who issues her nannying diktats on the tubes (on those rare occasions when they are actually running): smite on, Lord, and smite hard.

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