Luke Upward London Library Lion

Needless to say, Luke Upward was a lion of the London Library. His subscription was paid irregularly and in arrears, but he was never challenged since it was unthinkable that the greatest private lending library in the world should bar England’s finest man of letters.

Upward rejoiced particularly in its unique cataloguing system – infinitely more exciting and evocative than Mr Dewey’s dreary decimals. To his loyal disciple, Ted Level, he described it as “a cathedral of knowledge built on three central pillars: Literature; History; Science and Miscellaneous, with side chapels for Fiction, Biography, Art, and Topography and a number of niches such as Annuals, Children’s Books or Law.”

Upward acknowledged that the system had its drawbacks. “If you are in haste in History, it is frustrating to discover that books on Iraq are to be found under Mesopotamia, those on Ethiopia under Abyssinia, and those on Bangladesh still trapped in Pakistan more than 40 years after their break-up. But one should not come to the Library in haste, and the History shelves offer many compensating pleasures. One learns to enjoy the caprice which allows certain rulers their own individual space. Frederick the Great of Prussia deserves this tribute, but why is it given to his alphabetical successor, Frederick, King of Württemburg? His sole distinction was to be (almost certainly) the largest monarch of all time – 6 feet 11 inches and 440 pounds without the umlaut – which may explain why his shelf appears to be sagging.”

Upward enjoyed taking his disciple on tours of the Library’s cavernous holdings. (Level was not in fact a member, but no one would challenge England’s finest man of letters. The normal rules of silence were also ignored and other Library users used to enjoy Upward’s impromptu lectures, delivered in the penetrating but musical timbre which his friend Ricky Rubato wittily described as a Barrimanilotone.)

“One observes at once that the Science and Miscellaneous shelves were clearly organized by someone with a satirical turn of mind. Cricket and Cremation are next to each other – the perfect place to seek a book on the Ashes. Football sits next to Fools and the Inns of Court are followed by Insanity. Among the Ds the unknown categorist builds a narrative: Drink and Drugs lead to Duelling. He or she makes a pointed political comment when Hypnotism and Hysteria are followed by Imperialism.”

At this point the listening Level began to crackle and emit sparks in an alarming manner. Upward fixed him with a glittering eye. “Are you wearing any kind of artificial fibre?” Level admitted the offence, with a downcast expression. The best-dressed man of letters in history continued sternly. “You have known for years that a gentleman’s wardrobe must be grown, spun or shorn from living things. It is always wrong to wear artificial fibre and positively dangerous here in the London Library, where it readily generates static electricity on the metallic terraces. We must remedy the matter at once.” He propelled his shamed acolyte to the nearby premises of the exclusive tailors, Turnpale and Asshen. This had been named after the common response of customers to their bills, but Upward was never troubled in this way: indeed the establishment paid him a considerable retainer. Upward hurriedly replaced the unmentionables that had caused Level to ignite and presented him with some shirts and ties which had caught his expert eye, charging all of these to his non-existent account.

On return to the Library, Upward steered Level staticfreely to his favourite section, the one simply labelled Anecdotes. “Mr Dewey would never have done this. In his system Anecdotes have to be listed under Something or Someone. The London Library gives them independent life – six shelves between Biographies Weigall to Wesley to Whitman and Biographical Collections.”

Upward informed his disciple that an anecdote originally meant a secret detail of history, but soon came to mean any self-contained story which the narrator found interesting. He pointed out that about half the Library’s collection is devoted to collected anecdotes about particular kinds of people, such as musicians, or scientists, or Scottish judges, whose obiter dicta fill many volumes. “I hear you cry, why did publishers bring out so many volumes on Scottish judges? Who bought them? Maybe, other Scottish judges in search of gags to steal.”

Upward dipped into Jennifer Browne’s The Prime Ministers. “I should love to see if anything interesting ever happened to the dimmest of a dim lot – Viscount Goderich, who, as you recall, held the office briefly and tearfully under George IV.” He was rewarded by a spectacular gaffe, which could be called a gaffe-squared. To entertain a lady at a dinner party, Goderich told a story about his predecessor Lord North. At a reception, a stranger asked him to identify a “frightful woman” in the room. “My wife”, said Lord North, frostily. The stranger tried to escape by pretending that he had meant “the monster” next to her. “My daughter”, said Lord North. Goderich got a cold reception from his listener: she was that daughter.

Upward then examined several volumes of sparklers from famous wits. In 1894 Walter Jerrold published the collected Bon Mots of Samuel Foote (“the English Aristophanes”) and the Fashionable Novelist, Theodore Hook. He found this typical Foote, asking a friend why he keeps singing the same song. “I am haunted by it,” replies the friend, obligingly, allowing Foote to say “I’m not surprised, you’re for ever murdering it!” Upward sighed. “It must have been the way Foote told them.” Hook came off a little better. When asked before admission to Oxford University if he would subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Hook replied insouciantly “Certainly, sir, forty if you please.” Upward’s lip trembled briefly, and his disciple felt able to follow suit.

Foote and Hook turned up again in Jerrold’s bigger volume A Book Of Famous Wits, but Upward had had enough. He slung his hook and hot-footed it to W Davenport Adams’ Modern Anecdotes.

“Also published in 1894 (clearly a big year for anecdotes).” Upward noted Adams’s claim that his book was the perfect way to while away a dull afternoon or a spare half-hour. “A photograph album”, Upward quoted “is sometimes made to do duty on these occasions but the superiority of a Book of Anecdotes will readily be allowed.” Adams thought his collection would be more surprising and more instructive. “It is graded,” Upward announced, “according to the social class of the subject, leading with Men Of Society (which relies heavily on Sydney Smith) and ending with People In General, although Plays And Players rank above Statesmen And Politicians and the Church and the Clergy. Observe the Scottish section, my dear Level, with its heavy dialect, and an Irish one which suggests that stereotyping never changes.”

Upward ploughed through Adams with deepening gloom but cheered up briefly at an early version of a story attributed to many modern divas. On being informed that her lapdog has bitten a footman, a French marquise remarks “Oh dear, I hope it won’t make her sick”.

But the rest of Adams’s collection he found desperately, suffocatingly worthy. “This could be a bound volume of Cosy Moments. I need not remind you,” he informed the puzzled Level, “of the wondrously dull magazine in P G Wodehouse’s Psmith Journalist, before its relaunch by Psmith as a muckraking journal under the banner ‘Cosy Moments Will Not Be Muzzled.’”. Level nodded sagely. “Late Victorians must have been less demanding in their humour than we are, “ continued Upward. “Long before the end of a spare half-hour with Mr Adams, I would have been begging for the photograph album.”

Upward lit on an even worthier collection, the 1890 Dictionary Of Anecdotes by the Reverend Walter Baxendale. This was intended to provide material for sermons and many of his items are not anecdotes at all but Biblical quotations. However, Upward praised its handy arrangement, by moral subject, starting with Abasement and ending with Zion, love of. Under “World, the instability” Upward found a sententious but snappy saying from Queen Elizabeth which he had never seen: ‘they pass best over the world who trip over it quickly, for it is but a bog: if we stop we sink.’” Upward approved. “Not bad, Bess,” and Level harboured the unworthy suspicion that Upward might steal it as an ‘app’ of his own.

Upward then picked up Anecdotiana or A Library Of Anecdote, which the Library had found irresistible in its foundation year of 1841. The anonymous collector and editor was styled as an Eminent Literary Character. He or she had a fine exordium on Edward Cobden, court preacher to King George II, “who had the rashness, the impudence or the honesty, while basking in the sunshine of ministerial patronage and in the full career of ecclesiastical preferment to pronounce an animated declaration against adultery and fornication at the chapel of St James’ Palace and before a crowded congregation.”

As relief from the earnest, Upward dipped into Guy Phillipps’ Bad Behaviour. “He was wise to make this a slim volume,” he told Level, “Boors in a long procession soon turn into bores.” Upward did enjoy the snobbish Earl of Abercorn’s put-down of an uninvited guest who tried to compliment him on the way his shrubs had grown: “they have nothing else to do.” It inspired him to recall the eighteenth-century Duke of Queensbury, who felt the same way about his magnificent view of the Thames: “I am quite tired of it – there it goes, flow, flow, flow, always the same.”

Upward then pointed Level towards the pride of the anecdotes section – occupying almost a whole shelf – the 20 volumes of the Percy Anecdotes. Beginning in 1820, and dedicated to William Wilberforce they were published in 44 monthly parts and were astonishingly successful, thanks partly to the endorsement of Byron. Although attributed to two Benedictine brothers, they were actually compiled by two journalists, Thomas Byerley and Joseph Clinton Robertson, and named after their favourite coffee house.

The Percy Anecdotes were promoted as an aid to elevated conversation, and organized under ponderous headings such as Beneficence, Humility, Honour and Patriotism. In last place are Women and Domestic Life. The stories are very heavy going, most of all in the section labelled Humour. Upward’s expression grew as leaden as the samples he read out to Level, but suddenly he erupted in laughter. His convulsion lasted several minutes, in which Level could make out only the word “Pooter.” Eventually Upward choked out the story. The popular preacher, Rowland Hill (not the promoter of the penny post), opening a sermon at Wapping. “I come to preach to sinners – to great sinners – yes, to Wapping sinners.”

Upward had a renewed paroxysm. Finally he gasped out “I hope that the rev kept a diary. ‘In the pulpit today I made one of my very best jests. My goodness, how we roared!’”

14. April 2014 by rkh
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