One of the features of London Library membership is an induction, a hurdle sufficiently alarming that I would have cancelled the whole plan to avoid the ordeal. But alas, my charming companion knows my tricks. He called and arranged the appointment before I could weasel out.
You'll never hear me talk about being scared because honestly, nothing much scares me. Living people pose no concern, regardless of how illustrious or infamous or annoying. Decisions like moving to a different country or buying a house are conducted on a whim. Having kids, changing careers: the big stuff is easy.
I loathe telephone conversations, radio interviews, and sometimes washing lettuce. I am irrationally startled by loud noises. But I can't think of anything sensible that intimidates or worries me, and I wasn't expecting to discover a reserve of anxiety.
The London Library just joined the list.
My reasons are so juvenile and quaint they are worth observing: I feel unworthy, undeserving, ill-educated, shabby.
I often talk about my working class antecedents, but it is rare to encounter a situation where my accent and background feel problematic. Or rather, I don't care.
And then in a random unexpected moment I find that somewhere under the layers of lipstick and silk scarves and attitude, there is still a frightened little girl who can't pronounce 'wolf' or 'roof' or 'rural' - or thousands of more esoteric words that I could spell and define but would never, ever say out loud.
There is nothing to fear at the library: it is a building full of books and people. I enjoy the former and ignore the latter. But the walls are decorated with the portraits of exalted dead members, and golly, do I find them intimidating.
I can dine at high table in the oldest Oxford college without a qualm. I hang out with aristocrats and rock stars and gutter punks. I am sanguine, indifferent almost to the point of inertia.
But the portraits on the walls remind me that my life is improbable: truly working class people generally do not transcend their class status. Historically they might make money, might give their children a better life, but that is an economic change, not a social change.
There is a big difference between income and class, and I am not a product of the impoverished but aspirational middle.
I was born authentically poor and sick, but I had the requisite zeal to raise myself and my children out of poverty. I worked hard and took insane risks to change our prospects. But I'm the transitional figure, neither one nor the other. I don't even want to be middle class: it is a fresh daily shock to see that my children are something I will never be.
Beyond that, I'm a woman, and an immigrant - two categories of the population not overly represented in the bastions of the establishment, even when we have the money and connections required to join the private clubs. Rebecca West is the only woman I've seen depicted on the walls of the institution (so far), photographed in old age and looking wrathful. It took reckless arrogance for me to get this far but I am humbled to walk where she walked, hold the books she touched.
It doesn't make any sense that a tour of a library would be notable in any way whatsoever - but I would say the London Library scares the pants off me. If I wore pants. Which I don't, so, you know, whatever.
I'll get over it. Like I advise the children: fake it till you make it.