There is, or there was, a small school desk by the window at the very top of the philosophy and theology stacks in the London Library. The structure itself — that part of the warren that is perhaps the world’s finest private subscription library — may be gone. I can’t quite tell from the Google satellite picture. It was an oblong cuboid in raw concrete, of no architectural distinction whatever, entirely concealed by older buildings around it. To reach its top floor, from the library entrance in St James’s Square, one passed through a foyer of catalogue tables, up a panelled staircase, through a three-dimensional labyrinth of iron grates and shelves, up one helical staircase, then through another maze and up another flight of stairs and, … I close my eyes and repeat the whole journey.
The school desk in question, and the window looking over the delightful backsides of Victorian buildings, was my “office” or study cell for several years. It granted an almost perfect privacy, for no one else seemed ever to go there. In all that time, I recall only one other visitor, and he an aged Anglican clergyman who was quite lost. I could leave my notebooks in the drawers of that desk, return after weeks of walking on the Continent, and be confident to find them undisturbed.
A spirit filled the room, of the “timeless contemporary.” Many of the books stacked there were retrieved from the preceding library extension, which had collapsed after some attention from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. There were, for instance, 17th-century folio volumes pinned shut by shards of German shrapnel, and other mementi of Total War, adding to the bunker effect, and thus enhancing the stillness, the silence, of “all passion spent.”
This room was an antechamber of Paradise. I felt very honoured that the angelic presences had granted me this space, to read Aristotle, then gradually to discover, at first through the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas, a deep catholic Christian heritage. For nearly four years it was my private university chamber, and London at large, with its other libraries, and bookstores, its museums and galleries, its churches and its concert halls, was my Athens. Those were happy days, and my memory is gladdened by the knowledge that I appreciated them, while they lasted. I was living hermit-like and chastely after the convulsions of earlier youth; I would return to the world of work and play; but for a time circumstances had coelesced to allow me the freedom to study and to think. I needed little money to get by, and that little was easily found in odd jobs, themselves entertaining.
Last night, on my birthday, I thought back on this, in a long pause while glancing in mind over sixty-one years of sin and error. I have a small desk today, by the window in my bedroom, and had with me two candles and a bottle of good wine. I thought back, too, to the workman’s cottage in which I then lived — without electricity, in Vauxhall, right in the middle of London. It was a house address where no bills or solicitations ever arrived.
(I was squatting, with the informal permission of the socialist Borough of Lambeth, which had expropriated several contiguous historical neighbourhoods to demolish and replace with hideous tower blocks. Happily, they’d run out of money, and right in the middle of a “housing crisis,” so that they dared not leave a square mile empty for Mrs Thatcher to talk about. Many of my neighbours had been genuine working-class home owners, their properties inherited since time out of mind. They’d been paid mean, arbitrary sums for their property, that was then clawed back in taxes — truly dispossessed, banished as in the old Highland Clearances but, thanks to a little miscalculation in Big Brother’s Five Year Plan, they were themselves now squatting in what had been formerly their own homes. … And the poor devils had always voted Labour; had voted, and would continue to vote, wilfully for their own destruction.)
The automotive and infrastructural hum of London, as any modern city, is constant even in the middle of the night, and yet in the interior of blocks it may sometimes still be defeated by birdsong. And then, if one is lucky enough to live in a slum or ghetto, one may be on a street where no one owns a car.
Perfect silence is not of this world, nor even of outer space, so long as the equipage to sustain human life must be carried through it; and there is background noise in the metabolism itself. True simplicity is also not possible here, though again, an approach to it is possible. When I think back over past centuries, before the “industrial revolution,” and use for my analogy my experience of walking through unelectrified rural India, I am astounded by the silences. That is what the “modern man” would find most provoking. He cannot easily cope with it, for when left in peace he is soon overwhelmed by instilled cravings for noise, clutter, and motion.
In religion (not only Christian), the greatest challenge for the modern man is to endure silence and simplicity of intention; to pray, to contemplate without distraction. He enters church, temple, synagogue, mosque, from a world blaring and glaring. He cannot help taking the reverberations inside, within his own body, and will have little time to compose himself.
Again, from my own experience, I have found it takes about two weeks to “dry out” from modern urban life; to reach the point where one is no longer inwardly flinching at mechanical noise, or unconsciously preparing for the next encounter with salesmanship and “professionalism” — with all the outward credentializing requirements and traffic arrangements of the Prince of This World. The modern man is free only to indulge his lusts and perversions; to display “choice” in his consumer selection of “products” almost invariably fake. He has no patience for the good, the true, the beautiful — and is therefore a cringing slave in his nature, compelled to participate as an easily replaceable cog in the infernal machinery.
“The modern world is too complex to be governed by the simplicities of the past.” Some variation on this has been told me often, in a condescending way. Yet there is one thing I know that the modern world does not: that simplicity leaves room for God. Complexity can spare neither time nor space.
This, anyway, is my birthday wish: to continue my quiet resistance. Gentle reader may call this an ideology should he wish — moreover, a reactionary ideology — for it is not in itself of God, rather a precondition for apprehending Him, in the human condition. My watchwords here are quietude, aloofness, idleness — to keep by them so far as it is in my power, as the citizen of a Nanny State and therefore a haplessly indentured servant of Democracy. To make a small example of my freedom; to seek the company of other free men; to cultivate simplicity, and thereby leave room for the very God from Whom the votaries of Hell would distract us.