An interview with Sir Tom Stoppard at the London Library
It is perfectly appropriate that, before we finally find each other in the staff dining room, Sir Tom Stoppard and I both spend a good ten minutes lost in the mazy corridors of the London Library. Appropriate because it must be said that while the place’s geography has always been splendidly mysterious (“like the Tardis”, says one eminent member; “like Hogwarts”, says another), now that Phase Two of the most significant redevelopment in more than a century is within a hair’s breadth of completion, the new terrain adds an extra element of challenge. But up stairs and down stairs, here we are at last – with Sir Tom telling me that he has all the time in the world to talk about the London Library, a place he clearly adores.
His presidency is no sinecure; the library holds a special meaning for him. “It’s quite simple,” he says to me. “In April 1967 my first professional play in London opened” – that play was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – “and immediately took me off the poverty line. I don’t know what the first thing I did was – I probably bought my wife a present – but certainly the second thing I did was get myself a subscription to the library. My membership was my first expensive treat – well, it seemed expensive, it was probably £80, in those days. [Inez Lynn, the Librarian, notes the figure would have been, in fact, 14 guineas. Those were the days…] And I’m quite soft-boiled, you know; I am very receptive to the idea of continuity back into history. I hang on to things that don’t change. The idea of handling a book that was among the first 500 books that the library ever possessed, the idea of passing through doorways through which passed extraordinary people a century and more ago – you simply can’t put a value on those things.”