The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and it sits like a red-brick crab on the Euston Road, on the site of an old goods yard between St Pancras and Euston. The older British Museum Library, whose collection was founded on the books of George III, Sir Hans Soane, Robert Harley and Sir Robert Cotton, was in the British Museum, but that gorgeous reading room is now a glass atrium with overpriced cafés and shops selling historical tat for children: cultural vandalism, then, and incitement to migraine. Instead we have the red-brick crab. It was opened by the Queen in 1998 and it is Grade I-listed, so, unless there is a war, we are stuck with it. Perhaps architects don’t read books. When I look at this library, I wonder if they have eyes.
It if looks like an out-of-town supermarket when it isn’t looking like a crab, the interior is so un-self-aware as to be insane: an airport lounge with escalators, bad sculpture and a fine medieval library — the King’s Library — plonked down in the middle like a mistake, or a lament. This library is in for ease of access, not magic — and so, even if it is a great library, by volume at least, it has no charm. If it moved me to do anything — and it doesn’t — it would move me to write medical textbooks. And in homage to this orange deadness, there are young readers staring at Facebook on Apple Macs, a warning from the future.
Perhaps I overreact. The chairs are comfortable, and the carrier bags are good quality and free. I always get my carrier bags here. There are 388 miles of shelving, which would take you from Euston to the Isles of Scilly. They might, at least theoretically, bring you the Lindisfarne Gospels or part of the Codex Sinaiticus; or Anne Boleyn’s New Testament by William Tyndale; or an ancient copy of Beowulf; or a newish copy of Judith Krantz’s Scruples.
It also has a café, because to cross the Euston Road for a curry might theoretically kill you, since it is one of the most polluted roads in England and what book — even Judith Krantz’s Scruples — is worth that? It is called the Terrace Café. These are literal days.
The café exists — it does not thrive — in a gloom cast by escalators and staircases, so it feels like bad snacking in a hole. The library was in a hole once, during the war, and I would have liked to have seen it; the good stuff was evacuated to a ‘secure cave’ in Wales and a ‘secure quarry’ in Wiltshire. Now people hog the booths and glare at their screens; as with all north London cafés, it does not seethe with grace, but with passive aggression. We could be in Gail’s in Hampstead, but the food is not as good as it is at Gail’s in Hampstead. The cake — a brownie, of course, to match the furniture — was dry and the sandwich — it was cheese — was a lump of sadness. It if had any fight left, it might have whimpered at me. I wonder if this food amounts to a tax on intellectuals, which is unfair, since they have suffered enough.
I would prefer, in the national library of my daydreams, to have a squeaking trolley selling ham and cheese sandwiches on white, and dark brown tea from a metal pot and crisps that were discontinued in the 1980s. But I would not have let the library leave Bloomsbury to come to this cursed place.
Or I would go to the London Library in St James’s, which is still almost a magical library, although they have partly fallen to blind architects too, and I would have a Pot Noodle in the Members’ Room and sulk for every-thing that is lost.
Terrace Café, British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB