Regular readers of this blog may have twigged that a fair bit of the reading I mention here is actually re-reading. ‘Sapper’, Ian Hay, A.E.W. Mason, P.G. Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, Agatha Christie, Leslie Charteris, George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton: these and others are writers whom I first read as a young teenager. Mostly I found them on the shelves of the Whalebone Lane branch of the Borough of Dagenham public library.
This was a large and serious book-filled space. By modern standards it was a bit drab. The fashion for putting dust-covers in polythene sleeves was only just coming in, and most books were in plain boards; many were in unglamorous uniform library re-bindings. But at the end of the fifties this small branch library had more books on its shelves than some major town libraries do today.
At first I was guided by my parents’ taste and suggestions, and followed my father’s taste for thrillers and Wodehouse (though I did not share his liking for war stories). Gradually I branched out on my own. An amateur performance of Misalliance led me to read through the complete plays of Shaw, which had a shelf to themselves in the Literature section. I think it was Shaw who turned me into a serious reader. I graduated to Orwell, and to the writers whose names appeared in the papers, like Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, Iris Murdoch, Keith Waterhouse. I was also investigating the magazine rack, which held, among others, the New Statesman, the Spectator and John o’ London’s Weekly. D.J. Taylor, in The Prose Factory snootily describes this magazine as ‘aimed squarely at the Boots Library-subscribing traditionalist’; maybe, but it opened up literary possibilities to this eager and not very sophisticated reader .
We had a bookcase at home, filled with an odd collection, partly of books collected by my father during his years at sea, and partly oddments inherited after the death of a not very close relative (name now long forgotten, but I owe him or her a debt of gratitude for passing on E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady to us). On the whole my parents did not buy books, except when on holiday. During our week at the seaside, Mum would always buy an Agatha Christie. Dad might get a Leslie Charteris or John Creasey.
The school library was fairly pathetic, packed with ancient and unappetising stuff (though I enjoyed leafing through the bound volumes of Punch and trying to understand the jokes). The public library, therefore, was the place where a bookish teenager like myself could gain access to a range of literature.
Is it still there? It was threatened with total closure a couple of years ago, I gather, and the building is now the Chadwell Heath Community Centre. There is still a library there, though reduced in size, and staffed by volunteers, not someone like the wise and canny head librarian I remember from many years ago. I’m glad to hear that. I wonder if it is still a refuge and a wonder for any bookish and geekish youngster like my teenage self.
Probably there are not many of that kind in today’s bustling Chadwell Heath (now an extension of the East End, where once it actually had something of a village quality). But there were not many like me, I suspect, in the late fifties or early sixties. I came across few other teenagers there, and not many people at all actually, outside the weekends. Back then, though, the library was seen as a resource valuable for its own sake, irrespective of the number of customers.
Now it is the need for community spaces that seems self-evident to local councillors, and libraries are an optional extra, a bit of a nuisance and a drain on limited resources.
Now i live in Huddersfield, where several branch libraries have gone volunteer-only. I visit the Central Library, which is not bad, but seems very under-used. On some days the only users seem to be the jobseekers using the computers to fill in their statutary weekly number of job applications – an exercise in fruitless forced labour that is the modern equivalent of the workhouse treadmill.
How long will public libraries last? I hope they will see out my time. Today is National Library day, which deserves support.