I wrote this in the library of the university where I worked for a decade and a half. These days as I concentrate on writing I’m using the library space as a form of mini-retreat. I know there are writers who can take themselves off to a nearby café or coffee shop but I get too distracted watching the other people and too self-conscious about whether I should order another drink and how long one can stay.
So this morning I and my writing notebook and laptop are in the history section, with the diaries of Samuel Pepys to my right and a life of Nye Bevan to my left. I am at my happiest surrounded by books. Of course when I was growing up books were the main sources of information, entertainment and enlightenment. They opened doors into other worlds and still do.
Like many writers I read voraciously as a child. My parents were willing to buy me a book a week but I could borrow far more than that on my yellow cardboard library ticket. At the time public libraries were not so keen on my preferred reading; Elinor Brent-Dyer, the Pullein Thompson sisters and Enid Blyton so I read other books, discovering in the process a spirit of adventure and that you can’t judge a book by its cover nor necessarily by its title. You have to open it and start with the first page.
While I was attending school in Salisbury, the public library moved from its old fashioned premises into a new building with floor to ceiling windows at the back and lots of light and seemingly lots of books. This was when I discovered the travel section and oh the places I visited.
The main library in my school was small and mostly reserved for sixth formers but I discovered there was an even smaller junior library at the end of one corridor. In my memory it was scarcely larger than my bedroom and hardly any one used it. So I did and during one of my periodic spells of worrying that I wasn’t keeping up academically and that my grades weren’t good enough I discovered Dickens. There was a book of Christmas stories with A Christmas Carol and also a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. I was hooked.
At university I had a wealth of libraries to choose from; the main University of London library was in a tower in Senate house which was often dark and gloomy but secluded. My college library at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies had all the books I needed as reference copies and across the road from my hall of residence was Birkbeck College which in those days was empty during the day.
During the summer vac I found out I could go to Southampton University library. This was excellent as my father worked at the Ordnance Survey headquarters nearby and could take me there on the way to work and bring me back at the end of the day. Without these whole days at the library I doubt if I would have got my final year project started or finished.
As a graduate living and working in London I left behind university libraries in favour of public libraries. You needed either proof of your address or for someone at your place of work to sign the form saying that you worked in the area. This was how I acquired tickets for a number of London borough, including Islington thanks to a two week stint working at Mecca Bookmakers on the Essex road. The manager was somewhat bemused at being asked to sign but being firmly working class he approved of anyone who wanted to improve their life by reading.
By the time I left London books seemed to have become much less expensive, or perhaps I was earning more and so could buy the books I wanted to read.
My love of libraries returned in full measure when I began studying for an MA at the Institute of Education and it was the peace and quiet the library offered as well as all the journals which I valued.
Librarians are the nicest people. I have been fortunate in never encountering the starchy bossy librarians. Instead I’ve only met people who exuded encouragement; from the librarian in Fordingbridge when I was very much younger who introduced me to the idea of requesting books from the county book stock when I had exhausted the possibilities of the small branch librarian to the university librarian who recently wanted to ensure I could still borrow books as an alumni after ceasing to be a member of staff. In recent years the poetry library
on the South Bank has become one of my favourite places in which to read and write, as they stock most of the UK’s poetry magazines. Best of all they have copies of Convoy (for reference and for borrowing), according to the online catalogue, somewhere on their shelves.