The fantastic experience of visiting the 250-year-old Leeds Library started me thinking about how my life has been marked out in libraries and, specifically, my first library. It was a small, very definitely a suburban sub-branch. But its great virtue was that it was at the end of the road. Ten minutes walk from home, tops!
And it had a visiting cat.
(No, not this one. This is my own TK. My own books too, come to think of it.)
Joining My First Library
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go to the library. My mother, an intelligent woman who had left a high-powered job in her forties to become a full-time wife and mother, clearly found it a lifeline. She took me along with her from the age of four. I stayed a member until I finally left home.
In those days Hayes End Library was a plain, single storey building. I remember a table in the middle. Maybe a chair or two. But mostly there were floor to ceiling shelves of books. Except that the children’s section was in one corner and the shelves were pre-teen height.
I remember a history section, geography (not “travel” in those days, when comparatively few ordinary people went abroad), sport and, for some reason, architecture. Lots of dictionaries, which I loved. Several encyclopaedias, which we sometimes consulted when our home encyclopaedia failed to support my homework. Lots and lots of fiction.
My mother and I would arrive, usually in tandem with the cat. He was a well-fed ginger and white job, who would saunter in whenever someone held the door for him. Then he’d find himself a quiet corner and go to sleep until he felt like leaving. The librarians would nod cordially as he passed.
Mother and I would return our four books each. Receive our library cards. Part to browse. Then make our choice of books and leave. It never took less than an hour.
Librarians in My First Library
That left the other standing in the middle of The Defensive Square: Books In facing east; books for shelving to the south; a simple wooden waist-high stationery cupboard to the west and Books Out to the north.
On busy days, they looked beleaguered.
There were three I remember. One was a kind, firm person, who restored me to the children’s section whenever I broke out. She helped me discover Pamela Brown, for which I shall always be grateful. The Swish of the Curtain had me convinced I wanted to work in theatre for the first thirty years of my life.
But then she lost Brownie points for pushing the Dimsie books at me. I loathed the idea of boarding school, schoolgirl politics sounded vile and Dimsie was, frankly, a pain in the butt.
The other two guides and mentors in my first library were quite different. They let me go wherever I wanted, adult section, children’s, fiction, non-fiction. Everything. Happy sigh.
And then there was a tall dark Assistant Librarian who looked like Mr Spock and was mostly too shy to talk, but told me that if he didn’t know what he wanted to read, he took the first four books off the returned shelf and dived in.
Why didn’t I try it?
So I did.
My First Library Experiment
That man taught me to read with an open mind, play with ideas that were new and strange and keep on going, despite confusion, in the hopes that I would learn enough to understand by the end of the book.
In the course of one sample month, for instance, I read —
- a nasty romance by Philip Lindsay in which the heroine ended up as the hero’s mistress, even though she clearly didn’t want to. “Made me grumpy,” I told Mr Spock. He commiserated. “They do sometimes.”
- Swann’s Way which I quite liked but decided was too like The Archers — lots of people who all knew each other and never did anything interesting. Mr Spock’s eyes bulged a bit at that.
- The Last Tresilians by J I M Stewart, which disturbed me enormously (I can still remember the physical recoil) though I didn’t really understand why. “Bit like Daphne du Maurier,” I said, rather ashamed. “Fair enough,” said Mr Spock calmly. “Just not your bag.” Thereby teaching me that you were allowed to dislike stuff that other people admired.
- Blandings Castle and Elsewhere — which was the start of a lifelong love affair.
I’m almost certain that it was Mr Spock who instigated the NEW IN TODAY notices. I found some great stuff there: fantasy, science fiction, magical realism. Shared them with my mother as well. (She was would go with me as far as The Dragons of Pern or John Fowles but drew the line at science fiction.) So basically, he opened doors for both of us, God bless him. How I love librarians.
My First Library Today
I haven’t been back for years but these days Hayes End Library looks impressive — and three times the size.
They have WiFi and study areas and a coffee shop. Talking books. All sorts of stuff in community languages.
Reading groups. I can’t help feeling Mr Spock would have loved a reading group or two.
I suppose it’s too much to hope that a local moggy drops in sometimes. But I really hope they still have some sort of NEW IN TODAY stand.
NEW IN TODAY
And here, as a final salute to the Mr Spock of My First Library, is a book published today: Flickering Lights by debut novelist Michael Purton.
It’s a mystery, a crime novel in every sense of the word. It dips and spins between now and then, between the staccato dialogue of old associates and the slow revelation of self-examination.
The town centre is almost deserted — just shopkeepers locking up and office workers hurrying home — but still he does not notice the towering man following him like a disconnected shadow.
Oh yes. This is one I’m taking home to see where it leads me.