Libraries I have known and loved

This was written as part of the campaign to stop library closures in Plymouth. It was published in the Library Party’s Anthologia, and then in The Herald, March 11, 2017


Libraries I have known and loved

 “Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container”


 The Children’s Library

Books were not plentiful in our house. We had a few children’s stories – The Water Babies, a volume of fairy tales – but we could not afford to buy books, so the library was our only resource. The children’s library was up the hill, almost a mile away. It was separated from the adult library, which opened on a parallel street and which we could not enter until we had reached the magical age of 14.

An older sibling marched us up the hill every Saturday and, armed with our four library tickets, we browsed for an hour or so, trying to guess what would keep us occupied for the following week. Biggles was good, and his female counterpart, Worrals. Blyton’s Mallory Towers opened a magic window into the mysterious world of boarding schools, but I don’t think we ever came across The Famous Five. I have fond memories of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Elizabeth Goodge. And there were all those books about how to become a ballet dancer, a musical comedy star, or an air hostess, none of which I turned into.

One day I managed to read all the books I had borrowed that morning. What, nothing for another week! I trudged back up the hill, only to be told that books could not be returned on the day they were borrowed. My mother took pity on me and lent me two of her childhood volumes. We were not noted for treating her possessions with respect. We had once borrowed her books to make furniture for our dolls to sit on and we drew gas rings on the cover of a volume of Moliere to serve as a doll’s cooker. Augusta, A Queen among Girls was about a plucky heroine who sacrificed herself for her little brother. I think she fell ill – young heroines tended to contract brain fever and had to have their hair cut off – but she was revived by beef tea. I had no idea what that was, but Augusta won through in the end. And then there was Hollyberry Janet, which reduced me to floods of tears, the ultimate accolade for any novel.

The Adult Library

This was a holy place, hushed, great mahogany book cases lining aisles where silent readers lurked. Old library buildings always seemed to have upper galleries, secret places into which the staff vanished, staircases that borrowers could not ascend.

I read indiscriminately – Virginia Woolf, Colette and Georgette Heyer; James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Alistair Maclean. I fell in love, briefly, with D.H. Lawrence, but was disillusioned when I read a biography that located his characters in real life. I was shocked. He hadn’t made them up, these were people he knew, which I considered cheating.

The classification system was a wonder to me. All knowledge was neatly ordered, and the catalogue resided in a vast array of drawers that could answer an enquiry from any angle, alphabetical by author or subject, numerical by Dewey Decimal. Folklore resided at 398, the arts in the 700s, history at 900, and it all made perfect sense.

Here I discovered poetry, play scripts, travel books. It was an upmarket guide to Paris that sent me there on a solo trip, aged about 16, staying in a two star hotel, navigating the metro with my schoolgirl French. The guide book took me to the Louvre, to Sainte-Chapelle, Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur, to the Jeu de Paume. Lots of very sophisticated night spots were recommended but I did not venture beyond the pages of the book. I was impressed by a reference to James Bond’s favourite cocktail, having worked my way through all of Fleming’s novels. I still wonder what champagne and Benzedrine would taste like.

My First Job

Imagining a world of possibility, at 16 off I went to the Youth Employment Bureau. Unfortunately romance and imagination played no part in their brief so when I said I loved reading and wanted to travel they sent me to Stepney Public Libraries – not quite what I had been hoping for.

The library was very fine, built on the Victorian scale. In addition to the book lending section there was a collection of gramophone records, newspapers and local history. The reference library was always full. Mile End was a deprived area and the elderly and the poor congregated here, often falling asleep in the warmth. On a wet day they would spread their coats over chair backs and radiators, and it was very smelly!

My first library had a section marked Classics, each volume carrying a yellow sticker to distinguish it from the common run of fiction. I rose to this elitist challenge and worked my way through almost all of them. There was a mysterious looking trilogy, grey volumes with a curious border of runes and an eye. No blurb, no excerpts from reviews. It was Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, my first fantasy novel, a genre of whose existence I had been ignorant.

We ran Story Hours in the children’s libraries and I picked up a smattering of Turkish from the children I read to. Many of them, only four or five years old, wore fur coats. It was a traditional area for furriers and some of the older Jewish tailors suffered from hairballs. Car manuals were so sought after that a dummy book resided on the shelf, the original being claimed at the desk, lest they be purloined.

There were smaller outposts, Cable Street, or the Isle of Dogs. Borrowers were fewer, but there were the same types – eccentrics with life stories to share, old ladies who wanted ‘another romance novel, love’, or young Asian men, struggling with the language, educating themselves by working their way through the ‘Teach yourself’ books. Then, as now, the libraries were used for learning and recreation.