As the Round Room goes, so does an era

It was the dry spot in a wet London, the sanctum of sanctums, the heartland of books
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The Independent Online
It was in 1953 that, after a great taking-up of references and a rigorous examination from the superintendents, I first acquired one of the most precious badges to which a young writer and would-be academic could aspire. I was granted a reader's ticket to the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. For several years after, I became a daily habitue of what, for me and many others, was the most literary and scholarly spot in the world.

It lay in the heart of Bloomsbury, a London postal district that still, in the Angry Fifties, kept much of its old aura. "I ask nothing better than all reviewers, for ever and everywhere, should call me a highbrow," Virginia Woolf once wrote in a letter. "If they like to add Bloomsbury, WC1, that is the correct postal address ... But if your reviewer ... dares hint that I live in South Kensington, I will sue him for libel."

By the 1950s, Woolf had gone, battered by the wartime bombing of Bloomsbury. So had some of the associations. Houses she'd had in nearby Georgian squares were shattered by bombing; some were being monstrously rebuilt as hotels or flats. Still, the area round the museum and the Senate House hung mistily on to its strong literary associations. TS Eliot, whose magazine The Criterion had carried much of British literary modernism, still worked as a publisher in Faber and Faber, over on the corner of Russell Square.

Great Russell Street remained packed with small publishers, odd book shops and print shops, and the wet, dingy pubs and tea shops were crowded with writers and would-be's who casually survived on casual reviewing, or were about to start up some new, hideously under-funded magazine or poetry imprint. Post-war Bloomsbury still remained a literary district; the Round Reading Room, with its great spoked desks, still remained its hub.

The regular users were the freelance writers and academics, casual researchers and makers of arguments, for whom it was the dry spot in a wet London, the sanctum of sanctums, the heartland of books. Though solemnly guarded and protected from careless intrusion, the great book-lined room was somehow always open to Bohemia. It was filled with random eccentrics with theories about the key to all knowledge, to theosophists and Gurdjieffians, Talmudic scholars and decoders of the meanings of Nostradamus.

It was the sum of literariness, the condition to which I aspired. As Britain's great library of deposit, it (or its outlying colonies and dependencies, such as the newspaper library at Colindale) held the stock of everything. Or not quite: the bombing had depleted it, too. The great catalogue, painfully stuck together with paste and human hand, showed the wartime depredations, which the keepers were now trying to restore.

I was, as it happened, working on a history of the modern British literary periodicals. Many of them had been born in Bloomsbury, some created by editors - like Eliot himself, or John Lehmann or Cyril Connolly - one could still meet about the premises. Literary periodicals are writing's living edge; they are where the interesting new writers and the powerful new movements generally show up first. Imagism and Vorticism had begun here, just round the corner. The Rebel Art Centre and the Poetry Bookshop had been just a stone's throw away.

Writing, as everyone knows, had long flourished under the 140ft dome. That meant not just Karl Marx writing Das Kapital, or Virginia Woolf researching her reviews. Poems and short stories were still habitually worked out during the long morning wait for books. With a peculiar appropriateness, the deputy superintendent who surveyed the doings of the gathered scholars and eccentrics from his glass cage was Angus Wilson - whose high-pitched voice resounded round the silent room, and who was writing there himself.

I wrote poetry and fiction there, and even fell in love. It was with Jean Rook, who records her own thesis-writing experience in her autobiography The Cowardly Lioness. "Eight hours a day in the British Museum is a killer, unless you're a mummy," she notes, adding that the chief relief was to escape to the music room with the present writer, who was (as she reminds me) writing his first novel down at desk D4.

For my Fifties generation, the BM was home to many novels, and some of them did explicit homage to the hallowed room. Margaret Drabble wrote vividly of working there. So did David Lodge in The British Museum is Falling Down, a novel richly filled with epigraphs from the many previous writers who had written in what has rightly been called "the favourite working space in the world".

Given the multiplication of publishing, it was inevitable that one day the Reading Room would outgrow itself, and a new, dedicated British Library be built. It has not been an edifying tale; and the departure of books, scholars and writers from Great Russell Street to St Pancras has been about as emotionless and unpassionate as the new, unromantic building itself.

Worse still, though, is the planned future of the Round Reading Room. I am unhappy to say it - since the architect is Norman Foster, whose work I profoundly admire - yet the world's most bookish space is to be robbed of its bookishness. It will be re-incorporated into the British Museum itself. Some of the great iron stacks which are essential to its atmosphere will be removed; the great open space will be divided by a glass screen.

Looked at abstractly, we can say that what's happening to the Round Reading Room is a metaphor for a kind of bookishness we have come to dispense with. It will be appropriately deconstructed into a new room of glass walls and computers. As one of the trustees puts it, its main function as "a centre of information will be unchanged, although it will use the latest technology".

The reading room was never a "centre of information'; it was a great place of writing and scholarship. What we are deconstructing is an entire history of literariness. Taking one of the greatest human spaces ever devised for imagination and inquiry, we are robbing it of its meaning.

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