It’s no coincidence that my bolthole while I was growing up, the place I went to when I was bored or sad or just wondering how long I had to wait for my real life to begin, was the local library.
As a child living in a resolutely unglamorous 1970s housing estate out in the suburbs on the farthest reaches of London’s slowest and least efficient tube line, opportunities for entertainment were thin on the ground. There was the playing field, the bus stop. And then there was the library.
It was a low-slung modern building a few doors along from the Budgens supermarket. I would cycle there on a Saturday morning, wobbling under the weight of the carrier bag of ready-to-be-returned books hanging off the handlebars. Inside, the choice was limited: a few shelves of children’s books which I’d exhausted by the age of twelve; an adult fiction section that was conservative in taste and modest in scope.
Over the years, I pretty much read my way through the shelves: Agatha Christie books with lurid covers that I devoured at the rate of three a week until I’d finished them all; Jackie Collins books that I’d try to hide between other, more suitable books when I checked them out; heavyweight Russian tomes that I’d lug to school so I could whip them out on the bus in the hope of appearing deep and interesting. The lack of choice forced an eclecticism in my reading habits that persists to this day. When you’re limited to a few stacks of books, there is no high-brow or low-brow, only mono-brow.
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember it was a pretty austere time. We saved up pocket money to buy records or magazines, but generally there was a marked lack of new stuff in our lives. So it was a thrill to arrive at the library on a Saturday morning or call in on my way home from school to find a new book had arrived, its plastic cover smooth and unyellowed, the pristine label attached to the inside cover still unsullied by the librarian’s return-by stamp, the promise of the unknown in every one of its un-thumbed pages.
It was a wonder to me then – and remains a wonder to me now – that you can stroll into a library, no matter what your home circumstances, no matter how much or how little money you have, and have access to books. For free. And that whatever town you pitch up in, there’s always somewhere you can go and be still and quiet. Where you can take out your laptop, or pick up a book, or browse through a newspaper and be left gloriously alone.
My parents moved away when I was at university but recently I found myself driving through my old home town for the first time in decades. My memories of it were generally hazy but as I approached the library I felt that old tingle of excitement which turned to dismay when I saw it had been knocked down and turned into a bland block of flats. The place where I first learned how stories can transport you, how you can open a book and leave behind the argument you just had with your mum or the party you hadn’t been invited to, all the uncertainty and loneliness of being human and alive, now had Juliet balconies and a mock-Roman portico entrance and a high hedge to maintain the residents’ privacy.
Where will they go now, I wonder, the dreamy kids looking for escape, for a place to shed their own skins for a while when being themselves is too scary or just too limiting or when they crave a glimpse of other worlds, other futures?
You can’t get dreams from a mock-Roman portico.