Monday, January 31, 2011

Significant libraries of my life 1970-1988

There aren't many things that would get me to the barricades, truth be told. But I make an exception for swimming pools, libraries and woodland. We all need places to roam.
Lytham Library. I think I may have spent half my childhood in here. The children's library used to be upstairs, but the issuing desk was downstairs, so you had the place to yourself. I used to read four books at a time, which was the most you could take out at once (unless you could persuade your sister to lend you her tickets). The tickets were cardboard, with a little slot for the book slip in them. The children's ones were orange, and the adult ones were aqua (it was the 70s, after all). The children's library is where I found the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Arthur Ransome, Willard Price, Eve Garnett, Hugh Lofting, Susan Coolidge, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, and countless others. I would borrow more or less at random, then if I liked something I would look up its author in the card catalogue to see what else there was (sometimes it didn't tell you on the book cover, and sometimes it did, but the library didn't have them all). I can still remember the little flip flop my stomach did when I looked up the author of The Four Story Mistake (Elizabeth Enright) and found that the other books in the quartet were there, I just had to request them and wait.
I can remember the smell of the place, and the thick gloss paint on the banisters and the windowsills. In the summer holidays, I used to wait on the windowsill of the main steps for my mum to finish her shopping, and start my first book. She would come and get me, I would put my books in my bike basket and we'd cycle home.
It played its part in my adolescence too. Teen books weren't up to much in the early 80s, with rare exceptions, like I Never Loved Your Mind. So I graduated early into the adult library, using my mum's tickets (the librarians would stop me borrowing books they considered unsuitable on my own tickets, but I guess if I had managed to get hold of adult ones, they thought it was someone else's responsibility). There followed the summer of Mills & Boon (TM), but in those days they had no sex in them at all, except the elaborately euphemistic, wave-crashing kind, and that was no use to me, I was looking for detail. So I went shelf-trawling for books that looked like they might have sex in them, which is how I found Harold Robbins. Who gave me eye-watering amounts of detail. When he said Dreams Die First, he wasn't wrong.
But you know, knowledge is power, and soon enough (well, maybe not quite soon enough) I came out of my trash-and-filth phase and into proper books. I didn't have a lot of guidance, and I didn't know what was cool (or what was deemed 'good'), so I just read everything. I picked a letter of the alphabet, and I looked at all the titles till I saw something that sounded interesting. A lot of it was formulaic low-end fiction by numbers, probably, but that's not what I remember, I remember Ordinary People, The Sea The Sea, The Little Drummer Girl, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Grapes of Wrath, Chesapeake, Sons and Lovers, Frost in May, Howards End and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I hadn't been into Lytham Library for over 20 years, but instead of carting books from Oxford when I was dog-sitting for my parents last September, I borrowed my dad's card and nipped over there to stock up for the week. This is a cliche, I know, but I literally could not believe how small it was. I remember it as a cavernous place, and it's tiny (and so is the windowsill I used to be able to curl up in). I nearly went outside to check they hadn't cut it in half and converted the rest of it into a coffee shop. But even tiny libraries can supply endless reading appetites. We lose them at our peril.
Blackpool Central Library. I never came here for books, because I got those at Lytham Library, which was within easy walking and cycling distance. But when I was a teenager, I came here for records. I would dearly love to have one of those 1980s Blackpool Record Library carrier bags, which were, of course, tangerine coloured. Blackpool Record Library was a place of wonder. Again, I didn't have much guidance (there was no chart music in there, this was all about the old stuff) and I just used to borrow things that looked interesting, take them home on the bus, put them on my big Amstrad turntable and see what happened. It may have been about this time that it became 'my' big Amstrad turntable, now I think about it. It was originally in the living room, and my parents probably realised they would be better off not being subjected to what I was listening to.
There was a lot of early Billy Joel in the Blackpool Record Library, but also lots of 1970s rock, prog and folk, with many fine gatefold sleeves to admire. And a bit of early 80s stuff too... I borrowed some Jam, and some Joe Jackson, but it was mostly things like Loudon Wainwright III, Barclay James Harvest and Cat Stevens. The highlight, though, was my discovery of Leonard Cohen. I can still remember my mum coming into my room to find me lying in the dark, burning joss sticks and listening to Songs of Love and Hate. 'Dear god,', she said, 'do you *have* to?' I did, of course, and am a big Cohen fan to this day.
Blackpool Central Library is currently closed for refurbishment, so there is hope. Its web page reminded me that this fine building has the words "let there be light" engraved over the door. Indeed. And let there be lights that never go out.


jonathan said...

Beautiful. Lytham library sounds very much like Fenham Branch library where I spent many pre-teen hours- it had its own smell (polished wood panelling) and our books were always late back so our mam would send me or my sister down with them in a Fenwicks carrier bag in the hope that the stern assistants would peer over their high counters at our cherubic faces and let us off with the fine. Or perhaps it only happened once, but it has become part of family folklore. What I do know is twenty or so years later I briefly became one of the stern assistants myself and got to spend long evening shifts lovingly shelving the Colin Bairstows, and serving the branch regulars, including the old bloke who came in every day and took out eight random generic Westerns (they looked like Mills and Boons except with a yellow cover, and had their own shelf next to the Urdu fiction).

To the barricades, indeed. Damn these Tories...

Fiona said...

made me cry.

Miles said...

I went to a significant public school: Harrow. It had a library. All I can remember of its contents was bound editions of Punch magazine from the nineteenth century.

Even though many of my friends think I'm a bit of a posh boy I didn't really fit in. It was an almost hermetically sealed bubble on top of a hill and claustrophobia was inevitable. Escape was possible, but only for a limited time granted by means of a chit from the housemaster. I don't recall the precise t&cs but I didn't get offsite too often. When I did, my only recollection is of going down to the bottom of the hill where the public library was.

And my only recollection of the public library is the large books section. In particular, the art books: Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. Harrow School taught me nothing about them. Dada and surrealism were irrelevant to its concerns.

Posh boys need public libraries too.

Jo said...

J: Yes, it's the Branch Library that is under threat. Fine buildings (or 70s prefabs) in the middle of communities. Maybe we should start a campaign round the smell thing, it might just do the trick! I used to dream of getting a job shelving books, HUGE ENVY! There were no Urdu books in Lytham, mind, just large print. Loads of Westerns, though.

F: sorry! I made myself cry too, if that's any consolation...

M: I have seen you enough times in the music section of Oxford Central Library to know that public libraries are important even to grown up posh boys... x

Spine said...

In Derbyshire a library van would come round. I remember something the size of a Pickford's lorry that parked just outside our front gate. Can that be right?

In Bath it was in the Guildhall, which also housed the market and its second-hand booksellers. If the Julian May I was seeking wasn't in one, it would be in the other. And the same for the tales of Thomas Covenant.

Unknown said...

Joella, that was lovely. Your experience of Lytham Library, in your childhood, was the same as my experience of Bridgwater (Somerset) Library, in mine!
I now work in a public library, and am always thrilled, every day, to see how important the public libraries are in so many people's lives. :)

jonathan said...

Hello again Joella, I'm on the barricades with you and to prove it have written my own post (the starting point was my comment above) about my own Significant Libraries, it's not as good as your one but a contribution to The Cause nonetheless

Jo said...

Thank you Melanie, and I recommend Jonathan's post too, wood panelling and carrier bags in the north east...

Spine, yes, that can be right, though more like a loooong ambulance than a Pickfords van. Look, they still have them!