in the Archives
(From The London Chronicle)
While waiting for a real job, I briefly made my living stacking books in the London Library. It was like a prison in a film noir, platforms of caged volumes, which could be taken out on parole for three weeks before returning to a life sentence. One winter’s day the chain of my bike broke and, wearing gloves to protect the books from my oily fingers, I thumbed through the serried ranks of mounting cells, sorting the eternal prisoners. The chief librarian, a fossil made flesh, came up behind me and issued a reproof which startled browsers, unseen hitherto, as their cobwebbed forms merged into the general gloom. ‘What is the world coming to?’ I took the gloves off and handed them to him as though surrendering arms. He stomped off through the echoing chambers, holding them between two fingers like a dead rat, my knuckles truly rapped.
In revenge I left my mark on the books that didn’t interest me and helped a few I fancied escape. Once read, I released them like caged birds into the wild of second-hand bookshops. It wasn’t the money but the principle. I even bought back one myself. A little red book, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Balthasar Gracian, the 17th century Spanish Jesuit. It distracted me from Bakunin and Herzen, the anarchists. Gracian preached putting self-interest before ethics, and the perfection of the self over changing the world. An avowed interest in selfishness made me unfit for Prince Kropotkin, and unready for Kafka and Kierkegaard. And so my inner life and reading reached stalemate.
I ventured forth in the evenings with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road conspicuously under my arm. I wasn’t the only lonely soul in London looking for company. You could spot them in pubs wearing Nouvelle Vague scarves and smoking Sweet Afton, begging to be asked, what are you reading. Soon I had a circle of passing acquaintances I could call on, talking late into the night, carried away by our respective paperbacks, arguing each other into an impasse.
I had at last got round to Kropokin’s The Conquest of Bread, and was violently against violence, but believed in moral policing to make everybody toe the communal line for their own good. I lost friends and made enemies. Ashamed that I had betrayed Gracian’s wisdoms, and failed to become a hypocrite saint ‘whose virtue resides in tolerance’. I had become sincere, and was chasing chimeras when what was needed was ‘to be wise with the many rather than a fool all alone’. I withdrew into a cloister with myself, and squared my contradictory thoughts by composing jingles again like when I was a running boy. This time writing them down. I shyly called them poems.
But next evening I was once again the life and soul of the party, burbling away to amuse myself, while others put up with me wondering when I would stop. I had been reading Michael Polanyi on ‘tacit knowledge’ (the kind you can’t explain but know you know). But my ‘passionate outpourings of myself’ did not lead, as Polanyi promised, ‘to untried forms of existence’, but to the same old arguments about Logical Positivism, and why do you lose your temper when someone contradicts you? Staggering home in the small hours through echoing streets, I drank in my reflection in puddles, as though I was the only man in the world. I fell over a garbage can and the lid clattered along the road before me. ‘Empty vessels make the most noise’, my mother said.