At home in the Lit and Phil
Last night I launched my new book SILENT VOICES in the Lit and Phil library in Newcastle. I'll be in London to promote the same book on Monday, but this place is very special and it was a great night. A folk band from rural Northumberland set the scene, there was wine and local cheese, and we showed a sneak preview of VERA, the ITV adaptation of the books. So many people turned up that we ran out of glasses!
I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit more about this wonderful institution. I first visited the library to meet a writer friend on our way to the pub. The idea of a private subscription library had never really appealed to me: libraries should be available to everyone, not just those who can afford membership. I’d imagined it would be full of elderly academics or wealthy eccentrics. But my friend writes horror, crime and fantasy, and while he might be considered eccentric like most writers he isn’t wealthy. On that first visit I became seduced by the place. I’ve been a member ever since.
The building was completed in 1825 and is certainly impressive. There are busts and oil paintings, a first edition King James Bible in a case, glass domes, a spiral staircase and a balcony. These might be intimidating but the welcome from the staff, the tea bar and the buzz of conversation around the big oval table made me feel immediately that I was among friends. This is a place of music and comedy as well as serious discussion. One of the most popular events is the telling of new ghost stories after Christmas.
The books on the shelves made me feel at home too. Of course there are reference texts and literary works, but the bulk of the titles on the shelves in the main lending library are detective novels! Some books are long out of print and would have been weeded from a public library years ago. There are rows of yellow Gollancz jackets, Collins Crime Club titles and stories that I remember from library visits of my childhood. And next to them there are the best contemporary crime writers. This is a serious place where genre fiction is taken seriously.
The Literary and Philosophical Society was founded as a ‘conversation club’ and from the beginning it had an inquisitive and liberal nature. Women members were admitted almost from the start. George Stephenson demonstrated his miners’ safety lamp there and the society’s lecture room was the first public room to be lit by electricity during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan. John James Audubon, the famous American ornithologist, visited the library and was made an honorary member. One of my favourite detective novelists, Dorothy Sayers, was a visiting speaker. This is still a place where poets, scientists, working people and historians meet, talk and listen. It’s still a conversation club.
This month, events have included a lecture on Garibaldi, a film screening from the Northern Region Film and TV Archive, an illustrated lecture called ‘The Vampire Rabbit and its Kin’ (wish I’d been at that one!), a small press poetry launch, an evening of jazz and a conversation between Val McDermid and Chaz Brenchley.
And also the launch of an appeal. Because although this institution is lively and thriving, the buildings are crumbling and we need to make its treasures more accessible.
So here's the pitch: if you live in the north east and you're not a member, do consider joining. If you live further away, but visit friends and family in Newcastle, do come and see us. We're just minutes from Central Station and the coffee is better and cheaper than any you'll find there. And if you want to support us but membership isn't for you, then you can become a friend of the Lit and Phil. You'll find details on the Lit and Phil website.