It was another bitingly cold day from the East and I knew what that would mean for my visit to the Library.
I’d gone well-prepared, with a scarf obscuring nose and mouth yet still, as the doors automatically parted, an over-heated atmosphere zapped my olfactory senses with a mix of body odour and dried urine. For there, scattered amongst the browsers, students, computer users and researchers were, quite literally, the Great Unwashed.
On days such as this, more than usual numbers of the homeless gathered, slinking in to read the paper and doze noisily in comfy chairs. Some just sat and gazed, evidently relieved to be indoors and even though they must have known each other, if only by sight, there was no conversation. A bearded young man rolled up his trousers to give his well-defined, walkabout legs a good scratch, which prompted me to flee from ‘Crime’ into the As.
I was quite willing to forgo an electrifying whodunnit in favour of one or two historical novels. Failing to find this genre in its own section, the librarian informed me that although that used to be the case, they’d recently been subsumed into General fiction. “Hardly surprising”, I muttered, “given that Historians have adopted a present tense narrative to enliven events of aeons ago for dullard listeners”. Evidently the Now generation does not gravitate to the past and so the historical novel is lost and found amongst stories of the present day. Interestingly, science fiction was still sectioned off so obviously it has a future.
My selecting a library book follows the needle in a haystack principle because it has to meet a stringent criteria: not too heavy, literally and metaphorically, for bedtime reading; not a Booker or Orange prize winner; nothing with ditzy families and the hilarity of children/neighbours/pets, in various states of dysfunction; no harrowing tales of high drama that are only 3 notches up from Mills and Boon. The M’s proved to be fertile ground, garnering Betty Miller’s ‘”Farewell Leicester Square” (1939) and Simon Mawer’s “Swimming to Ithaca” (2006).
Before long I’d reached the Ps but the reek of one of the solitary sitters scattered around the periphery, sent me hurtling a few letters further along the alphabet.
“It was pleasant enough to linger here, with silence and shadows all round the pool of candlelight, that lit the polish of the table, the curves of the silver and the dark wine in the round bellied decanters;”
Ah! There’s nothing like the over-privileged, early 20th century women novelists to elevate the milieu with a staggering display of literary talent and a most gratifying narrative in Sackville-West’s “The Heir” (1922).
As the automatic check-out was scanning my books and issuing a receipt, I pondered what would become of the escapees from the cold streets, were more of our libraries to close. It’s quite evident that instead of shutting these last bastions of communal space we need to expand them into community centres, where a shower, clean clothes, warm environs and escapist reading matter is something we can all enjoy. But that comes under social policy, which is probably filed now under history.