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The beautiful librarians

The title poem of Sean O’Brien’s The beautiful librarians (Picador Poetry, 2015) starts off with the poet remembering how, as a schoolboy in the early ’60s, he was in awe of the young librarians – ‘Like Francois Hardy’s shampooed sisters – in his local library, how he yearned to inhabit the life he glimpses in them.  “I shared the geography but not the world / It seemed they were establishing.”  He says he has tried to “nonetheless keep faith with them“, that “Book after book I kept my word“, and is mourning the passing not just of those librarians (poetic license – there will still be some survivors), but also, austerity driven, the very libraries themselves.  He closes with: “And all the brilliant stock was sold” (of which more later).  You can read the whole poem, and a further, more erudite exploration of it, here:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/16/the-beautiful-librarians-by-sean-o-brien-poem-of-the-week

It’s a fine and varied collection.  He’s been likened to Auden in his breadth of style and subject matter, so making a poem called Audiology the opener shows a certain swagger.  Particularly in his state of the nation stuff he can be sour, dour, often on the miserable side of melancholy, but he can bestow dignity on hidden voices and simple pleasures.  Oysterity describes a meal in an expensive restaurant discussing austerity and guzzling oysters, later contemplating morality and “the sink’s own non-committal eye“.

He made me laugh out loud drinking coffee while waiting for my wife in the caff in Sainsbury’s in MK with Do you like Dickens?, a pithy tale of a small plebian victory concerning a girl through the power of literature, deliciously heisting the title of F.R.Leavis’s The common pursuit to his own ends.

Indeed, literature is never far away, along with nods to the Ancient World and popular culture.  His endurance of writers’ weekends and performances (‘the thin but earnest crowd‘) are entertaining, but there’s the fear, in War graves: Must this be / ‘The trap of elegy’, to find ourselves composed / Entirely of literature?” In The lost of England he’s marking EngLit students’ exam essays on a train, including one on Hardy: “Forgive me, England. As so often I was dreaming / On a train that drowsed along, cross-country / By an insane route that takes the reason prisoner.”  It’s a rewarding if somewhat depressing journey, rich in descriptive passages, momentary landscapes past and present.

This one made me smile, not least because I’ve just read a book on Bob Dylan as Latin scholar (another time), and it reminded me of John Williams’ extraordinary historical novel Augustus.  It also encapsulates a lot of Sean O’Brien’s concerns:

Damn right I got the blues: Ovid live in Tomis

I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
I hate to see that Euxine sun go down
Cause Lord it reminds me that for reasons of state
I been exiled and confined to this one-horse Pontic town.

Reading allowed

One of the narrative themes of the Reading allowed: true stories and curious incidents from a provincial library (Constable, 2017) is the grinding effect of rumours of austerity and cuts in library budgets, with redundancies of experienced, qualified librarians – the next generations on from the ‘beautiful librarians’ – their posts rationalised out of existence.

It’s never stated but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that Chris Paling is mostly working at Brighton’s award-winning showpiece Jubilee Library, that opened in 2005.  When still working I’d been there on a fact-finding visit and thought I recognised what he’s describing, and his Wikipedia entry confirms it.  An exile from BBC radio production (voluntary redundancy) and a published novelist, he’s worked there for 2 years for spending money as a Casual Library Officer – in old money a Library Assistant.  The life of a mid-list writer is not a happy one, he sadly relates.  This book comes as a result of his agent suggesting he try doing non-fiction.  This book is proof it was a good suggestion:

Although I’d published nine novels it had been clear for some time that the likelihood of ‘breaking through’ was now remote. Nobody sets out with the intention of becoming a mid-list writer but that is the destination of most. There is, so far as I know, no such thing as a bottom-list writer.

He has a novelist’s eye for character, and it’s the quirkier users that get most of the attention.  He has his favourites, and there are some decent heart-tugging stories in there.  The only staff that figure prominently are Trev and Bob, walkie-talkie wielding ‘Facilities’ (aka security), who seem to be needed more than in my own experience, so good for them.  I worked as a Librarian for 40 years, half of those in busy central libraries, and the picture Chris Paling paints is easily recognisable, though the recent rise in homelessness and rough sleeping must have had an impact.

Some may be surprised by what’s going on, but Public Libraries serve the public, and all that entails.  So, a typical staff room scene on a bad day:

The conversation … is all about rude, intolerant customers throwing their weight and, occasionally, their books around. A normally mild-mannered colleague admits that she has wanted to slap every other customer. This is compounded by the computer system seizing up mid-morning, making issuing tricky and anything more complicated impossible. Not our fault but the staff take the blame for the ever-failing system. It’s the closest I have ever got to calling a customer a f***stick, kicking over the terminal and storming out. When a full concession customer (two free hours on the computer ostensibly to aid job-seeking) tells me YouTube is inaudible, I resist suggesting he get on with his job searching and stop watching Beyoncé videos …

Not to mention junkies, thieves, creeps, blocked toilets, cyclists(!), challenging behaviour, building failures, printers running out of toner, self-published authors … easy to forget that the vast majority of readers, users, customers (whatever you want to call them) are appreciative, supportive and no trouble (or worth the taking of it).  Which this book understandably is thin on, save the parenthesized latter – a bit like newspapers and mundane good news

Paley throws in a potted history of libraries at intervals, useful for those who have taken them for granted, as the book progresses.  His conclusion on the importance of the continuance of the public library:

Customers are, of course, in and books are being issued and returned via the automatic machines, but the primary function of this place today is a community hub – an old-fashioned village green with plate-glass windows.

And as Mr Dylan says in Chimes of freedom (this is me, not Paley, though he has tales that bear it out), “An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

A slight return to The beautiful librarians.  Setting the scene near the beginning of the emerging dystopia of the Thirteen o’clocks sequence we get: “Parks and Gardens, Ways and Means, / Drains, Finance, and General Purposes / And all the virtuous tedium required / To underwrite the civil surfaces, The lawns on which the lovers lie …” 

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Here’s what Annie Spence, a young American librarian, thinks:

The library is genius in its usefulness. It can be a different place for each person who walks in. Your library can help you find a job, go vegan, read up on the new medication you’ve been prescribed, or learn a new language. Your librarian can listen to your knock-knock jokes …

At parties she’ll linger by the bookshelves, and warns about plying her with drink:

But seriously, I can’t go overboard with the alcohol because I tend to pontificate about reading and the social significance of the public library when I get drunk. Two drinks: funny work stories. Poop in the dropbox, Lady with the Face, the guy whom we caught looking at porn and eating a big can of sardines and we didn’t know what to be more offended by … that kind of thing. But if I morph into telling inspiring patron stories, look out. I can give a rousing/annoying lecture on the benefits of getting your library card. I’ve shouted, “I disseminate information to the masses!” while being helped into a cab before.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: a librarian’s love letters and break-up notes to her books (Flatiron Books, 2017) started out as a series of letters she’d write to library books she was withdrawing from where she worked, for all sorts of reasons.  It’s called weeding in the trade, and it’s a decent metaphor: you need good husbandry, a bit of space on the shelves, for the decent, up-to-date stuff to breathe and potentially bloom and be read, and the longer a book stays untouched on the shelves the less likely it is to ever go out, no matter how worthwhile it is (one of the textbooks named this phenomena ‘fatigue’).  It used to be one of my favourite parts of the job, and I’ll admit I’d occasionally indulge myself, by extending the shelf life of a few quality favourites (hello Andreii Makine).  So I know where she’s coming from, and it’s a very good place.

Dear Fahrenheit 451 broadens from that initial idea to take in books happened upon in all sorts of places, and gives us a glimpse of her home life, youth and more.  The main part of the book is the letters, but there are also a number of entertaining annotated lists, like Excuses to tell your friends so you can stay at home with your books (example: “Ack, sorry. Kids are fighting again” when you’re in bed reading Lord of the flies by William Golding).

Library nostalgists will appreciate the use of old 5×3 catalogue cards as chapter heads.  That page opposite reads: “Dear Librarian, Please don’t weed me. Love, Annie.”  I’m charmed, air high-fiving and laughing out loud, even though I don’t recognise a fair number of titles which don’t seem – particularly the teenage material – to have crossed the Atlantic; but I wish she wouldn’t swear quite so much.

Annie kicks off the discards with Donna Tartt’s The goldfinch … because it’s falling apart, affectionately addressing the author as ‘Finchy’.  She covers the full range of materials from picture books to out-of-date text books.  When she finds a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (a favourite of mine, too) in a friends bathroom she tells it, ‘YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS BATHROOM‘.  And so it goes.  She has such immaculate taste; there are three books she raves over I’m definitely going to have to add to my pile.  Immaculate taste you say?  Here’s her take on Richard Russo’s Nobody’s fool (hello, Sal!) as therapy:

Read this when you’re down about mankind, and you may start to notice a roguish glint in the eye of the curmudgeon who bitches at you about your grass being too long.

She has a list of Good books in bad covers, and considers her own:

Well, anyway, think about how difficult it is to come up with ONE image that totally evokes an entire book’s identity. Nearly impossible. I can’t even think of an example of a book jacket that 100 percent captures its insides. Except maybe this book. If I get my way, the cover of this book is going to be a knockoff of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band album, except I will be all four of the Beatles’ faces and all of the decoupage heads are going to be famous authors (plus Jared Letto) crying because I’ve weeded them from the library. Also, I promised my cat, Barb, she’d be on the cover.

Sadly, this didn’t happen.  I loved this book but was exhausted by the end of it.  If Annie Spence had been a colleague I think I would have appreciated the first couple of days of her being on holiday; but soon I’d have been missing her.

Afterword

I stumbled on The beautiful librarians browsing the literature shelves in my local library.  It had almost certainly been purchased as part of a seasonal standing order I had set up with The Poetry Book Society a couple of years before I retired.  I don’t know if the standing order has survived, given the relentless austerity-driven shaving of the book fund since.  On a pence per issue basis it’s arguable they probably shouldn’t, but it was a subsidised bargain and we Brits are meant to be good at poetry.  I fancied a copy of my own and bought one cheap from Better World Books via Abe.  Only published in 2015, it was already a library discard.

Such a purchase is tinged for me by guilt, though at least it contributed a few pence to that library service’s income generation, Better World Books is a charity supporting literacy charities around the world, and it’s a small profit Amazon doesn’t get to not pay tax on.  So The beautiful librarians becomes a subject of Sean O’Brien’s closing line to the title poem of his collection – “And all the brilliant stock was sold“.  Actually, he was probably thinking more of the selling off of the major resources of out-of-print material that extensive reserve stock collections like Manchester’s – ‘the stacks’ away from public gaze – that have been sacrificed in the course wholesale re-building and refurbishment projects of grand old buildings.  But it still makes for a nice rhetorical flourish at the end.

Or maybe not quite the end.  I was looking for a book cover to decorate the last couple of paragraphs – something library-y I thought – and thought of that Peter Sellers film, Only two can play, where a lot of the action springs from a public library in South Wales, based on the Kingsley Amis novel That uncertain feeling (1955).  What I found – and there are many – took me straight back to Annie Spence‘s Good books in bad covers list.  Along with many examples of her pet hate – the movie tie-in cover (seconded!) – there in Google images we find something really quite tasteful and apposite … and an outrageously bad seventies abomination, shown here for educational purposes only.  One of the worst.  Ever.  (Though any ex-Camdenites reading this might recall a certain branch librarian).

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Back online after a hiatus of a week and a day off after a cowboy contractor working for BT managed to cut through a cable and then concrete and tarmac over it again, so disconnecting half our side of the street in the process of progress.  It’s been interesting, not having the opportunity to waste time with FaceBook, print off the Guardian cryptic crossword (how can anyone do it online?) and other such pursuits.  Anyway, it’s good to be back.

Ellen Altfest - The handI’ve had the exhibition guide to Ellen Altfest‘s survey exhibition at MK Gallery staring accusingly at me from a pile of stuff to be dealt with for a while now.  It’s now well over a month since I went.  I had an absorbing time there – I might well go again before it closes – but I’m at a bit of a loss what to say.  That picture on the cover – The hand (2011) – I keep seeing as a landscape (that’s my red wine stain, that semi-circle, I hasten to add).  I think that’s probably OK, given the Guardian’s short preview mentioning ‘mind-altering drugs’ – the paintings’ intensity, that is, not the artist’s life style – and the guide mentions ‘wordplay, innuendo and psychological impact‘. Anyway, 22 life-size oil paintings, 15 years, painstakingly incredible life-size detail in the realist tradition, yet, to quote the guide again, pushing ‘realism to the edge of abstraction‘; I can’t say anything meaningful about its relation to the photographic, except that it’s interesting

Ellen Altfest - Log 2001

Ellen Altfest: Log (2001). Picture taken from MK Gallery’s website at http://www.mkgallery.org/exhibitions/ellen_altfest/

The paintings are presented roughly chronologically, diminishing in canvas size if not fascination, with the subject shifting from the natural world towards intimate male body parts. If it is reasonable to expect of a gallery show that you come out – at least temporarily – with new eyes, then Ellen Altfest’s show certainly passed that test for me; my walks in the local nature reserve were refreshed by her early work like Log (2001).  I’ll say nothing further about studying my body parts anew, though, but I would venture it’s a sign of the times in a good way that her The penis (2006) did not – as far as I’m aware, anyway – give cause for any shock horror scandal in the local free sheets.

All that I am

Funder 2Funder 1Funder 3 Harper US

I recall a time when the phrase ‘Heavy, man’ actually meant something, before it was hi-jacked by certain forms of rock music, and then dealt a death-blow by Neil in The Young Ones. Anna Funder‘s All that I am: a novel (Viking, 2011) is heavy, man. I think it’s that the bravery (and ultimate betrayal) of a small group of friends is set so vividly in the context of their ordinary existence; I was living in that Bloomsbury attic with Dora, Ruth and Hans. Ruth’s deceptively light opening words of the novel set the tone: “When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

All that I am the latest book group book – is a fictional reconstruction of real events – not quite a faction. It tells the tale of a small group of friends exiled from Germany for their opposition to the rise of Hitler, and their continued endangered resistance from abroad. Two alternating voices do the telling: Ruth, the survivor, a feisty old woman in her 80s, reminiscing in her home, and then from her hospital bed, in Australia, where Funder, who was brought up there, knew her, about her exile in London in the 1930s; and the playwright Ernst Toller, dictating material for a new expanded edition of his autobiography, in New York, in 1939. Toller had been the reluctant President of the short-lived Communist Republic of Bavaria, at the end of the First World War, a position that was immediately rewarded with 5 years in prison; he also spent time in London with the others before crossing the Atlantic. Both narrators are in awe of the charismatic, committed and free-spirited Dora (Dora Fabian in real life).

It’s a staggeringly good novel. The historical situation is vividly spelt out – no mere box-ticking background is rolled out here: “Reality was becoming so silly, we thought, that intelligent people could no longer tell the difference between a report and a satire,” says Ruth, and her husband, Hans, a satirist, is all at sea in London. What appalls – what I never realised – is the level of appeasement maintained by the British government during Hitler’s first years in power: if these exiles were found to be politically active they risked the British – us – sending them back to Nazi Germany and certain death.

Toller I was a GermanAnna Funder takes you there, to the midst of the group, how it felt.  “Half our energy came from the cause, the other half from each other,” says Ruth.  It’s bracing.  But the human cost, particularly on Teller, the international figure: “After a time I learned to be the person they thought I was. I was needed everywhere … I knew there were two parts of me, the public man and the private being, and they would not, ever, quite fit back together.” All he can do in New York is write letters to the papers and important people. “Do you think letters can make a difference?” his secretary asks. “I pull as much power as I can from somewhere inside me, from the actor, the orator, the hope-pedlar and the charlatan. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I do.’“  His friend Auden is not much help either: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s a matter of record what Toller does but I’ll not say what here.

There is so much going on in All that I am: friendship, political commitment, philosophy, literature, perseverance, espionage, betrayal, food, the English, love, sex. It is exciting, emotional and profoundly satisfying. For all its despair … here’s Ruth, run into by a boy on roller skates in Paris: “ ‘Pardon, Madame, je suis desolée. Desolée.’ We are all desolated here.” And poor old faithful-to-his wife Toller: “Sometimes your life feels like a pile of wrong decisions.” For all that, Ruth in Oz at 80, remains life affirming.

I had hoped good things of a book kicking off with quotations from W.H.Auden and Nick Cave. That’s setting the bar high, I thought. I was not disappointed.

A brief word about the book covers. From left to right: the UK hardback tastefully saying nothing, the pathetically misleading UK paperback (was there any snow? – even so, so what? – and what sort of a pose is that anyway?), and the tasty evocative American hardback with the red flag flying on a German strasse (which is a big deal in the book).  As my sons used to say, I don’t know what to tell you.

Worcester

A day in Worcester (whisper it, an Age UK coach trip; we were not the youngest there). The weather held. A fine cathedral, the spectacular The Hive (an innovatory central library, shared with the university, and so much more), the rather special Karmic Café and a stroll by the river. Reminders too of just how awful ’60s architecture is in historic town centres.  Click and click again to enlarge the photos, all mine own).

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Something there is about modern cathedral altar decorations.

Worc mirror

Worcester cathedral window

In the cathedral a grand memorial “Sacred to the memory to Mary [d.1794], the truly regretted wife of WILLIAM HALL Esq of the island of Jamaica …” making you wonder if here was the origins of the story of Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. Elsewhere a poetical tribute to Bishop Nicholas Wighorn (d.1576) as “ a painful preacher” (albeit, it must be added, “of the truthe”). Every hour a voice comes over the PA reminding us that we’re in a place of quiet and prayer and inviting us to join with them by stopping what we’re doing to be still for a minute. About half the visitors do, including atheist me, and it was moving to be urged to think of … well, pretty much a full litany of “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” with specific mention being made of the Mediterranean boat refugees. Powerful stuff, communal stillness.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Odds and sods in the cathedral yard.

Karmic Cafe Worcester

Every town should have one – see for yourself at www.thekarmiccafe.co.uk/index.php

And in the very wonderful Karmic Café – a smart but unpretentious and eminently reasonable tasty vegetarian caff (every town should have one) – a poster of a package tour I went to in the Slough Adelphi over half a century ago.

I can’t remember much about the Beatles‘ performance (I suppose Beatles posterthere was screaming) but bizarrely what has stuck was the Pacemakers’ drummer (Gerry’s brother, I seem to recall) doing that thing whereby he hits his cymbal and looks up and moves his head from left to right then down again, so as to appear to be following the arc of the cymbal’s tshhh with his eyes.  And Roy Orbison, so impressive, standing there immaculately dressed – is that bootlace tie a false memory? – with guitar and dark glasses, sounding – hitting all those high notes – just like the records.

Finally, one for the archives. Your humble blogger, part-time poet and poster boy.
Vaultage late May 2015

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Library of unrequited loveEnticed by the title, I almost gave up on this odd little book very early in but I’m glad I didn’t.  I was a librarian for 40 years and the set-up in this large French provincial library jarred with me on both macro- and micro- levels; I’m pretty sure this isn’t just down to cultural differences.  And professional pedantry has been known to get in the way of the appreciation and enjoyment of many a good story, so I let it go. And overlooked the petty artificiality of an initial episode involving a misplaced book.  Sartre’s Existentialism is a humanism as it happens.  Is this title significant? one wearily wonders, on the very first page.  Reader, get over yourself, I ventured: it’s 92 pages long, only 81 of them actual text, albeit in one paragraph 81 pages long (but the lines are generously spaced).

Sophie Divry‘s The library of unrequited love (UK: MacLehose Press, 2013; France, 2010) is a contradictory, stream of consciousness, monologue, rant and meditation delivered by a bitter 50-year-old library worker, an eccentric (shall we say?) loner of a woman who is out of love with the modern world.  This is delivered to some poor bloke she, coming into work 2 hours early, finds, who, somehow locked in, has slept in the library overnight.  Unless you were expecting some sort of romantic denouement (unlikely given the aforesaid 81 page paragraph) it’s not really giving anything away to say the poor sod never gets a word in.  Poignancy and wisdom are among the qualities that emerge from this by turns entertaining, depressive and solipsistic maelstrom of thoughts about art – “damned souls like us, the captives of culture” – reading, French writers and intellectuals, modernity (“I don’t go around with those earphones bombarding tuneless rubbish straight into your brain“), the state of librarianship and “a beautiful neck seen from behind“.

That neck belongs to Martin, a regular user of the library, researching a thesis, with whom she is obsessed and closely observes, but with whom she has no meaningful communication.  It’s all very sad, this corner of life and longing she has passively painted herself into.  She has tried love: “Arthur (that was his name, Arthur) was my version of the Black Death, he ruined my life.  So then I got a job here“.  Which is both a good and a bad thing.  She watches the library’s seasonal flow, winter’s central heating refugees and spring’s noisy tables of exam kids, though I don’t recognise her busy summers; or actually, her dismissal of all her colleagues, who she isolates herself from because, “What would I talk about with women who go to karaoke bars in winter and museums in summer?”  Foreign travel’s out too, because, “Napoleon’s been there first“.  Napoleon, “that uncivilised little runt“… “the real gravedigger of the Revolution“.

Her captive audience also gets a short lecture on the history of the public library into the bargain and, initially, a hymn of praise to Melvil Dewey, who delivered us from shelving anarchy:

He’s our founding father, for all of us librarians.  Just a little guy, from a poor family somewhere in America, and he was only twenty-one when he thought up the most famous classification system in the world.

Also, incidentally, though this is not mentioned in The library of unrequited love, a monster of a man as far as sexual harassment in the workplace goes.  Just saying.  And nothing to do with the dramatic change of emphasis as soliloquy turns into diatribe:

There are plenty of ways to humiliate the virgin reader, to abuse or terrorize him or her. […] What a perverse invention, an instrument of torture. […] Stupid, anarchic, megamoronic.  The Dewey system is a secret code invented by the Axis of Evil that binds books and librarians together in order to scare the reader off.  It’s terrifying, the Dewey system.  Totally inhibiting.  Everything goes into it, like a mincer.  Your holidays, your house, your tastes, your furniture, just everything.  There’s even a classification for sexuality – and plenty of different shelfmarks for all the complications.

There’s a lot packed into this odd little book.  It ends with the library opening and our heroine (“The Homeric struggle.  Every day I go back into the arena.”) hoping for a glimpse of Martin’s neck to give meaning to the library and her day.  I could not resist being affected by her magnificent and pathetic affectations.  Forget odd: intriguing.  I shall read it again, I’m sure.

The Rox & Hounds' rather fine new sign.  Blowing in the wind.  The lion lies down with the lamb!  Earlier in the day, of course.

The Fox & Hounds’ rather fine new sign. Blowing in the wind. The lion lies down with the lamb! Earlier in the day, of course.

What else?  Back to school at Professor Frost’s Poetical Academy – More than words, a poetry workshop.  The theory stuff – meter, pattern, form – I managed to miss up till now made fun.  And down the pub afterwards.  As part of an exercise in rhyme came up with one of my better lines this year, “An ancient truth stuck in my teeth” (never mind what it, nay they, rhymed with) which I might find a use for one of these days.

Scribal Fox 0315By Sunday the Prof had put down his pen and picked up plectrum and bass guitar (a plectrum may not have been used, but, hey – I’m going all out for alliteration here) in order to funk it up with Second Hand Grenade at the second Scribal at the Fox.  And it was good, Emma as ever to the fore.  Louder crowd that Tuesdays at The Crown, tougher gig for poetry but the bravehearts of the word pretty much prevailed.  Danni Antagonist‘s Crisis was on fire.  The subtler sounds of  (now a trio) Glass Tears, newly bass-augmented – a lovely sound from a hollow bodied bass guitar – deserved closer listening attention than they got with two of their own songs and a flamenco-flourished take on Mr Dylan’s One more cup of coffee.

One more pint of Mad Goose, as it happens.

 

 

 

 

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