by: Alan Bennett
The first library I did find my way into was the Armley Public Library in Leeds where a reader’s ticket cost tuppence in 1940; not tuppence a time or even tuppence a year but just tuppence; that was all you ever had to pay. It was rather a distinguished building, put up in 1901, the architect Percy Robinson, and amazingly for Leeds, which is and always has been demolition-crazy, it survives and is still used as a library, though whether it will survive the present troubles I don’t like to think.
We would be there as a family, my mother and father, my brother and me, and it would be one of our regular weekly visits. I had learnt to read quite early when I was five or six by dint, it seemed to me then, of watching my brother read. We both of us read comics but whereas I was still on picture-based comics like the Dandy and the Beano, my brother, who was three years older, had graduated to the more text-based Hotspur and Wizard. Having finished my Dandy I would lie down on the carpet beside him and gaze at what he was reading, asking him questions about it and generally making a nuisance of myself. Then – and it seemed as instantaneous as this – one day his comic made sense and I could read. I’m sure it must have been more painstaking than this but not much more.
The Armley library was at the bottom of Wesley Road, the entrance up a flight of marble steps under open arches, through brass-railed swing doors panelled in stained glass which by 1941 was just beginning to buckle. Ahead was the Adults’ Library, lofty, airy and inviting; to the right was the Junior Library, a low dark room made darker by the books which, regardless of their contents, had been bound in heavy boards of black, brown or maroon embossed with the stamp of Leeds Public Libraries. This grim packaging was discouraging to a small boy who had just begun to read, though more discouraging still was the huge and ill-tempered, walrus-moustached British Legion commissionaire who was permanently installed there. The image of General Hindenburg, who was pictured on the stamps in my brother’s album, he had lost one or other of his limbs in the trenches, but since he seldom moved from his chair and just shouted it was difficult to tell which.
The books I best remember reading there were the Dr Dolittle stories of Hugh Lofting, which were well represented and (an important consideration) of which there were always more. I think I knew even at six years old that a doctor who could talk to animals was fiction but at the same time I thought the setting of the stories, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, was a real place set in historical time with the doctor (and Lofting’s own illustrations of the doctor) having some foundation in fact. Shreds of this belief clung on because when, years later, having recorded some of Lofting’s stories for the BBC, I met his son, I found I still had the feeling that his father had been not quite an ordinary mortal.
In 1944, believing, as people in Leeds tended to do, that flying bombs or no flying bombs, things were better Down South, Dad threw up his job with the Co‑op and we migrated to Guildford. It was a short-lived experiment and I don’t remember ever finding the public library, but this was because a few doors down from the butcher’s shop where Dad worked there was a little private library, costing 6d a week, which in the children’s section had a whole run of Richmal Crompton’s William books. I devoured them, reading practically one a day, happy in the knowledge that there would always be more. Years later when I first read Evelyn Waugh I had the same sense of discovery: here was a trove of books that was going to last. I wish I could say I felt the same about Dickens or Trollope or Proust even, but they seemed more of a labour than a prospect of delight.
It wasn’t long, though, before we ended up going back to Leeds where we now lived in Headingley, with the local public library on North Lane, a visit to which could be combined with seeing the film at the Lounge cinema opposite. When I was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern School, a state school at Lawnswood (and now called Lawnswood) I used to do my homework in the Leeds Central Library in the Headrow. It’s a High Victorian building done throughout in polished Burmantofts brick, extravagantly tiled, the staircases of polished marble topped with brass rails, and carved at the head of each stair a slavering dog looking as if it’s trying to stop itself sliding backwards down the banister.
The reference library itself proclaimed the substance of the city with its solid elbow chairs and long mahogany tables, grooved along the edge to hold a pen, and in the centre of each table a massive pewter inkwell. Arched and galleried and lined from floor to ceiling with books, the reference library was grand yet unintimidating. Half the tables were filled with sixth-formers like myself, just doing their homework or studying for a scholarship; but there would also be university students home for the vacation, the Leeds students tending to work up the road in their own Brotherton Library. There were, too, the usual quota of eccentrics that haunt any reading room that is warm and handy and has somewhere to sit down. Old men would doze for hours over a magazine taken from the rack, though if they were caught nodding off an assistant would trip over from the counter and hiss, “No sleeping!”
One regular, always with a pile of art books at his elbow, was the painter Jacob Kramer, some of whose paintings, with their Vorticist slant, hung in the art gallery next door. Dirty and half-tight, there wasn’t much to distinguish him from the other tramps whiling away their time before trailing along Victoria Street to spend the night in the refuge in the basement of St George’s Church, where occasionally I would do night duty myself, sleeping on a camp bed in a room full of these sad, defeated, utterly unthreatening creatures.
With its mixture of readers and its excellent facilities (it was a first-rate library) and the knowledge that there would always be someone working there whom I knew and who would come out for coffee, I found some of the pleasure going to the reference library that, had I been less studious, I could have found in a pub.
In my day, it was a predominantly male institution with the main tables dividing themselves almost on religious or ethnic lines. There was a Catholic table, patronised by boys from St Michael’s College, the leading Catholic school, with blazers in bright Mary blue; there was a Jewish table where the boys came from Roundhay or the Grammar School, the Jewish boys even when they were not at the same school often knowing each other from the synagogue or other extra-curricular activities. If, like me, you were at the Modern School – and there were about half a dozen of us who were there regularly – you had no particular religious or racial affinities and indeed were not thought perhaps quite as clever, the school certainly not as good as Roundhay or the Grammar School. The few girls who braved this male citadel disrupted the formal division, leavened it, I’m sure for the better. And they worked harder than the boys and were seldom to be found on the landing outside where one adjourned for a smoke.
Of the boys who worked in the reference library a surprising number must have turned out to be lawyers, and I can count at least eight of my contemporaries who sat at those tables in the Fifties who became judges. A school – and certainly a state or provincial school – would consider that something to boast about, but libraries are facilities; a library has no honours board and takes no credit for what its readers go on to do but, remembering myself at 19, on leave from the Army and calling up the copies of Horizon to get me through the general paper in the Oxford scholarship, I feel as much a debt to that library as I do to my school. It was a good library and though like everywhere else busier now than it was in my day, remains, unlike so much of Leeds, largely unaltered.
There is no shortage of libraries in Oxford, some of them, of course, of great grandeur and beauty. The Radcliffe Camera seems to me one of the handsomest buildings in England and the square in which it stands a superb combination of styles. Crossing it on a moonlit winter’s night lifted the heart, though that was often the trouble with Oxford – the architecture outsoared one’s feelings, the sublime not always easy to match.
There are in that one square three libraries, the Bodleian on the north side, on the east the Codrington, part of Hawksmoor’s All Souls, and James Gibbs’s Camera in the middle. There is actually another more modest library, neo-Gothic in style, and built by George Gilbert Scott in 1856. It’s over Exeter’s garden wall in the north-west corner of Radcliffe Square, but you can’t quite see that. This was where I worked, though it was possible if one was so inclined to get to study in the much more exclusive and architecturally splendid surroundings of the Codrington, and a few undergraduates did so. They tended, though, to set less store on what they were writing than on where they were writing it and I, with my narrow sympathies but who was just as foolish, despised them for it.
Staying on at Oxford after I’d taken my degree, I did research in medieval history, the subject of my research: Richard II’s retinue in the last 10 years of his reign. This took me twice a week to the Public Record Office then still in Chancery Lane and in particular to the Round Room, galleried, lined with books, a humbler version of the much grander Round Room in the British Museum. Presiding over the BM Round Room in his early days was Angus Wilson whereas at the PRO it was Noel Blakiston, friend of Cyril Connolly, hair as white as Wilson’s and possibly the most distinguished-looking man I’ve ever seen.
The Memoranda Rolls on which I spent much of my time were long, thin swatches of parchment about five-feet long and one-foot wide and written on both sides. Thus to turn the page required the co-operation and forbearance of most of the other readers at the table, and what would sometimes look like the cast of the Mad Hatter’s tea party struggling to put wallpaper up was just me trying to turn over. A side effect of reading these unwieldy documents was that one was straightaway propelled into quite an intimate relationship with readers alongside and among those I got to know in this way was the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith.
The author of The Great Hunger, an account of the Irish Famine, and The Reason Why, about the events leading up to the Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil was a frail woman with a tiny birdlike skull, looking more like Elizabeth I (in later life) than Edith Sitwell ever did (and minus her sheet-metal earrings). Irish, she had a Firbankian wit and a lovely turn of phrase. “Do you know the Atlantic at all?” she once asked me and I put the line into Habeas Corpus and got a big laugh on it. From a grand Irish family, she was quite snobbish; talking of someone, she said: “Then he married a Mitford… but that’s a stage everybody goes through.” Even the most ordinary remark would be given her own particular twist and she could be quite camp. Conversation had once turned, as conversations will, to fork-lift trucks. Feeling that industrial machinery might be remote from Cecil’s sphere of interest I said: “Do you know what a fork-lift truck is?” She looked at me in her best Annie Walker manner. “I do. To my cost.”
When I first bought books for myself in the late Forties they were still thought to be quite precious and in poor homes books might often be backed in brown paper. “Books do furnish a room”, wrote Anthony Powell, but my mother never thought so and she’d always put them out of the way in the sideboard when you weren’t looking. Books untidy, books upset, more her view. Though once a keen reader herself, particularly when she was younger, she always thought of library books as grubby and with a potential for infection – not intellectual infection either. Lurking among the municipally owned pages might be the germs of TB or scarlet fever, so one must never be seen to peer at a library book too closely or lick your finger before turning over, still less read such a book in bed.
There were other perils to reading, but it was only when I hit middle age that I became aware of them. Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a television play written in 1978 and though it doesn’t contain my usual scene of someone baffled at a bookcase the sense of being outfaced by books is a good description of what the play is about. “Hopkins,” I wrote of the middle-aged lecturer who is the hero, “Hopkins was never without a book. It wasn’t that he was particularly fond of reading; he just liked to have somewhere to look. A book makes you safe. Shows you’re not out to pick anybody up. Try it on. With a book you’re harmless. Though Hopkins was harmless without a book.” Books as badges, books as shields; one doesn’t think of libraries as perilous places where you can come to harm. Still, they do carry their own risks.
In the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn’t require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn’t. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learnt to read. I needed books. Add computers to that requirement maybe but a child from a poor family is today in exactly the same boat.
The business of closing libraries isn’t a straightforward political fight. The local authorities shelter behind the demands of central government which in its turn pretends that local councils have a choice. It’s shaming that, regardless of the Party’s proud tradition of popular education, Labour municipalities are not making more of a stand. It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through. Libraries are, after all, as a think tank clown opined a few weeks ago, “a valuable retail outlet”.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the current issue of the London Review of Books. www.lrb.co.uk