Libraries have been an important part of my life since I first learned to read, although I am slightly ashamed to say I’ve never been in any of the important London reading rooms, such as those in the British Museum or the London Library. I grew up with a mother who considered that fresh air was the most beneficial of health aids – or did she just want to get rid of us all for an hour or two? – so my brother and I were often locked out of the house, which was fine by us. We simply walked the mile and a half into town, breathing deeply of the fine sea air, and headed straight for our local library. It’s all been revamped now, with fancy curving stacks, spaces for Senior Citizens to sit and play cards, open-plan Reference and Children’s sections, plus computers, art displays, greetings cards and newspapers. Given the cuts which seem endemic all over the UK, in our small south-east Kent town, we consider ourselves deeply fortunate.
But back in the day, as the phrase-du-jour has it, the town library was housed in an adapted suburban villa, staffed by dour women in hand-knitted lacy jumpers which flaunted their underwear to the unwilling gaze of book-borrowers. As well as the normal collection of books, there was a big room for childrens’ books – though no toys or games or playthings in bright yellow, purple or pink plastic – and two reading rooms. Reading Room One was full of newspapers and smelly old men, some of whom merely rustled the pages as they pretended to read, some of whom slept, unshaven faces flat on the table in front of them, some of whom from time to time reached surreptitiously into the pockets of their tattered Army greatcoats and brought out hip-flasks from which they took stealthy nips.
However, it was Reading Room Two that drew in my brother and me. We would clatter up the linoleumed stairs, turn the handle, push open the door – and there we were! Our own private Aladdin’s Cave. Our treasure trove. Our new found land. Or almost. The room was about ten foot square, shelved all round and crammed with books. There was a gas-fire, always lit, and a table in the middle where we could sit and read all day long, if we wanted to. No-one else ever came in to disturb us though I sometimes wonder now if the disapproving ladies at the check-out desk didn’t occasionally creep upstairs to see if we were behaving ourselves. Which we always were. Or appeared to be.
We did learn to bring a furtive sandwich with us, from which we’d occasionally take cautious bites, despite the sign informing us that no eating or drinking was allowed. We were always very very careful not to get finger-marks on anything, having been taught from our earliest years that Books Are Our Friends, and must be treated accordingly. So no turning down the top corner of a page. No placing the book face down with its pages splayed. No careless replacing of a volume so its covers were damaged, though that would have been difficult, given the hard-carapaced treatment that library books were given back then.
You may think we were insufferable little swots but we weren’t. Just two out of the five children of a poor Oxford academic with not very much money. Just two avid bookworms.
The main disappointment was that the longest wall with the highest shelving was reserved for books in foreign languages, which meant fewer books of the kind we enjoyed. It’s difficult to imagine, in a town of 30,000 people, whose inhabitants included two huge barracks of Royal Marines from the School of Music, and miners who worked in the coal-mines near Canterbury, that many people would have been busily borrowing books in French, Italian, Spanish or German. Or even one of the two fascinating books in Japanese which we knew had to be read from the back page to the front.
But there was plenty of other stuff for us to read, mark and inwardly digest. Poetry. Classics. History. Humour. Biography. Essays. I was particularly fond of essays and essayists (still am). Max Beerbohm. G. K. Chesterton. Hilaire Belloc. Francis Bacon. Hazlitt, Addison and Steele. Lord Chesterfield’s admonishments to his travelling son. I devoured them all. Indeed, as I grew up, I bought my own copies in order to go on devouring.
One of the delights of our house in France is the number of small dépendances attached to it. So as well as my Writing Room, I also have my very own stone-built, vine-draped Reading Room. It measures approximately six feet by eight feet and was once the farm bake-house. When we arrived, there were the remains of the brick kiln in one corner, a dirt floor, about four million spiders and tumbledown stone walls. We converted it last year into what I suppose is a tiny library, complete with shelving of the crudest sort, made out of recycled beams rescued from the barn which burned down during the occupancy of the previous owners. It’s furnished with two wicker chairs, a painted pine chest and a couchette, a thick-mattressed wrought-iron sofa thing which just fits across one wall, It’s ideal for sitting on and idly plucking a book from the shelves, or for lying on prone when the really hot weather kicks in. As with the days of my childhood in the public library, there is an eclectic mix of poetry, biography, Collected Letters, humour, art. And, of course, dozens of crime novels. There is no specific ordering of the books.
It’s the wonderful Oh-look! surprise of spotting some book I’d forgotten about which gives the little place its particular charm. Of taking the volume from the shelves and rediscovering the fine careless rapture I experienced on first opening it, maybe last year, maybe years ago. And added to that is the fact that some of the books are still waiting to be read. In other words, they are brand-new, untouched, virgin. Who knows what treasures are waiting to be unearthed, what new vistas will be opened to me, what fresh countries may I visit, what new people meet?