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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Sunday, 17 July 2016

The smell of glue

My late father-in-law, who always called me Robin, announced suddenly, "Whenever Robin moves (home) he looks for the nearest library and the nearest off-licence." UK off-licences sell ardent spirits.

These days I buy or download books. Rarely, I read one of VR’s many borrowings. Presently Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage" which starts exotically then fades.

The worst library was the first, in Idle, Bradford, immediately postwar. There was no cash for new books so they re-bound old ones in bomb-proof cardboard. The librarians were two elderly women, one club-footed. Both wore green overalls and, needless to say, hated youth. On the adult shelves was a thick tome "She Married Pushkin" the title of which made me laugh and for which I was shushed. First published in 1939, I see, running to 442 pages.

The most lavish library was in Mount Lebanon, a swanky Pittsburgh suburb. New books were added continuously but I read much H. L. Mencken. The counter staff, all female, were formidably healthy. My last borrowing was in March 1972, since when the library has moved to more imposing premises (See pic).

The smallest library was a trolley with three 1 m shelves on either side, serving the sick quarters of RAF Seletar, Singapore. I was in for incurable athlete’s foot and read to pass the weeks away. I avoided Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim”, foolishly imagining it was a period novel about highwaymen. In the pic, I’m probably reading Aldous Huxley.

Our nearest library here in Belmont, south of Hereford, is under threat of closure because of austerity cuts imposed by our finance minister, George Osborne. Our new prime minister, Theresa May, has fired Osborne and there is some Schadenfreude to be gained in that the library has outlasted pinch-mouthed George.


  1. Bradford Central library was huge. I spent hours in there amongst all that mahogany and brass Victoriana.

    Theresa seems quite promising - she SACKED Gove.

  2. Your RAF image brought back old memories, RR. Some history is relevant. I have always suffered from migraine. When younger it was severely debilitating, needing a day lying down in a darkened room, with vomit bowl to hand. These days I have tablets which clear it within an hour, but leave me groggy for the rest of the day.

    Anyway, it tended to get in the way during army service. On my second visit to the medical centre to be given a darkened room for the day the MO, a young National Service trainee doctor, looked more deeply into my case and decided to have me medically downgraded. In the PULHEEMS system P was for physical fitness. 1 was perfect, 8 resulted in an immediate discharge. He graded me P7. He also said that had I declared the migraines on call-up, supported by a doctor's certificate, I would have been exempted National Service. P8 would have got me out there and then, but that would have involved a medical enquiry board.

    For some reason this excused me all miltary training and doing regular guard duties. (Hence my employment as company clerk). However (and now we come to the nub) the sergeant major, a martinet) hated the thought that I should "get away" from long nights doing useless guard stags. Thinking to punish such "skiving" he invented a unit library and ordered me to be its librarian.

    Actually this proved a wonderful job, which I would have volunteered for quite happily. I liaised with the Education Corps captain who found a cosy room with shelving and got in a varied supply of books. My duty was to staff the library, 6pm to 10pm a couple of days a week and issue books to any who wanted them. Few came, except some like minded mates who enjoyed the club-like ambience of a warm room (I had been fixed up with a very efficient electric fire). So I did what I would have done anyway, settled down to read books of choice and brewing up the odd cup of tea. I also installed a large biscuit tin, which was popular with visitors. The RAEC captain would pop in from time to time, take tea and chat for a while, which kept me safe from the sergeant major's enquiries.

    Army life was OK if you knew how to "manage" it.

    Not a bad way to spend National Service!

  3. Just think, all that "Lucky Jim" laughter might have been curative! Being laid up with such a thing sounds like something that could be in the background of a character from the book...

    My mother was an academic librarian for many years (not the sort you describe), so I have good library memories, particularly of the State Library of Louisiana and Hunter Library at Western Carolina University. At the last, I had the run of the place every afternoon after school, which meant that I got to rummage through archives (lots of early mountain-settlers material) in a way that would never be allowed these days. And the librarians appreciated my book mania and were always kind and encouraging to a word-mad girl. One was a poet (Kathryn Stripling Byer) who always asked about my writing.

  4. Sir Hugh: You've forgotten the Central Library's most characteristic feature - the desperate scrabble round the Returned Books trolley, virtually the only opportunity of finding a new title.

    Avus: Almost by chance the RAF changed my professional life as a journalist. The Bradford newspaper I worked on belonged to Westminster Press, a chain of local papers round Britain, and was quite influential. The London HQ wrote to me as I was about to start National Service, saying they could almost certainly get me a job in the Press Relations Department of the RAF. It would have meant writing press releases about the RAF, something which I suppose I was qualified to do, but I opted instead for the unknown: to let the RAF asssess me and give me what they thought was an appropriate job.

    As you know I became an Air Wireless Fitter, over eight months spent in training, five and half days (08.30 - 17.00) a week, over 25 exams all of which required a minimum score of 60%. I was appalled; this was physics and at school I'd proved I was no good at physics. But the RAF had a sequence of punishments which made exam failure an unacceptable option.

    However when I left the RAF I got a magazine job in London which depended on a theoretical knowledge of technology; and later, the job in the USA hinged entirely on knowing a good deal about electronics. Better still, in much later life, I discovered I had a latent interest in physics born out those eight demanding months at RAF Yatesbury.

    I'm not sure I envy you your "cushy number" mainly because I suspect time would have passed slowly. Working on an operational station (RAF Lindholme, where flight navigators trained in Lancasters (!!!) kept me busy doing moderately absorbing, often manual work. Modifying radar antennae was one such job. And then I was free from strictly hierarchical society, free to roam. However you've given me an idea for a post.

    Marly: I was of course an enormous library enthusiast until I discovered I had enough cash to acquire books in other ways. In a sense ABE books replaced the library. But tell me, many US citizens practice very advanced levels of personal hygiene; is it socially OK to own books others have owned and breathed upon?

    I fully appreciate your gift from heaven (having a behind-the-scenes run of a library) and the two ancient librarians I mention proved to be atypical. I got on well with all subsequent librarians, especially in the USA. In fact the last "amateur" novel I wrote, before I decided to inject a little more technical rigour, had a US woman librarian as the heroine. She suffered, as all my ladies have since suffered, only to be reborn in Pittsburgh. Wendy - Ah! I look back thirty years and find I still love her.