‘I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges. Me, too. A week or two ago I was in the London Library and it occurred to me that this is very nearly my favorite place on earth. Libraries have always been very special places to me. I wrote an article a few years ago on independent libraries which you can read elsewhere on my web-site. I’ve been a member of the London Library for, oh, twenty-six years? But my love of libraries goes back a lot further than that. The first library I remember visiting was in Helmsley, the little market town near Ampleforth, the village we lived in when I was a child. Every week my mother and brother and I would go in by bus and visit the library and I would choose a book. I would have been seven or eight and I was fascinated by Norse legends. Even then I was a fast reader, had soon read my book, and longed for the next one. Most of the books I actually owned had been my mother’s when she was a child and at some point I catalogued them according to a simple system. Later on at Cleveland Grammar School I became School Librarian. The library there was a refuge for a girl who wasn’t very sporty or very good at anything except English and History. It had some daring choices: I read Stan Barstow’s A KIND OF LOVING there. There have been many libraries that I’ve loved over the years: the art library at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, the British Library (old and new), Dulwich Library, where I used to come out with armfuls of Collins Crime, Cambridge University Library . . .
Bookish girls, such as I was, are sometimes asked if they want to be a librarian when they grow up. It wasn’t for me. I’m very grateful to all the librarians over years whose hard work has so much enriched my life. But in the end I’d rather be reading the books – and now and then writing one myself – than cataloguing them. And maybe that is why libraries are still for me magical places of adventure and escape.
(Thanks, Anca, for putting me onto the quotation from Jorge Luis Borges.)
A few weeks ago it was my mother’s birthday (she would have been 83) and in memory of her I made a donation to Oxfam to help stock a library in a school. It seemed appropriate, in part because she valued education so highly, not least because she chose to leave school at sixteen and regretted it later. She was thrilled by my educational achievements and those of my brother and came to all our degree ceremonies.
But also, she loved reading and in my mind’s eye that is how I often see her, in the sunny sitting room of her top floor flat in Scarborough. Quite a number of her crime novels were passed on by me – I used to take bagfuls when I visited and I can see her now, looking through them and exclaiming. I even remember where I bought some of them. That copy of the THE SWAYING PILLARS by Elizabeth Ferrars with the wonderfully lurid cover was bought about 20 years ago in Chiswick when I was working for the Victorian Society, for 50 pence, I note.
In my earlier blog about my mother’s books, I wrote about the difficulty of knowing what to do with them all. A couple of months after she died, I joined my brother at her flat to help him sort through her things. He was keen to get rid of as much as possible – the charity that runs the hospice where my mother died was coming to collect. What to do with all the Dick Francis novels? I had a hunch that my mother-in-law, also an avid crime-fiction reader, might like them. I rang her and she said she would. My brother decided to take the Robert B Parkers because my mother had thought he might enjoy them. I’d already taken the ones I especially wanted, either because I might read them again or because I associated them particularly with my mother. But there still remained several hundred. I did another trawl and then at my brother’s behest I bagged up all the rest in black, plastic bin lins.
On the way home I knew that I had made a mistake and I couldn’t let them go – not all of them,anyway. I rang my brother, who was still at the flat and told him so. And that is why there are boxes on my study floor containing dozens of copies of books by Elizabeth Ferrars, Anthony Gilbert, Patricia Wentworth, Sarah Woods and others. More about this another time.