Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Yesterday afternoon the library very obligingly rang to say that some books had arrived for me, so I picked them up this morning: the first part of The Forsyte Saga, and a collection of Fr Brown Stories, for my Outmoded Authors Challenge; there was also The Maltese Falcon for The Dormouse, which I expect I shall read when he's finished with it. It's one of those books where you've seen the film, but can't remember whether you ever actually read it or not.

I might have done: when I was young I used to go to the library for my father, who liked a regular supply of escapist reading but claimed to be too busy to go himself. Accordingly I used to set off at least once a week to replenish the pile. He liked science fiction and crime novels and, pretty soon, I was reading my way through them before I returned them. I remember being deeply shocked at the undercurrent of eroticism that ran through Robert van Gulik's The Haunted Monastery - I was probably about thirteen at the time and certainly didn't know what it was I was responding to, but when I looked to rediscover the frisson recently, was surprised to find how tame it had been.

The library quickly became a haven. I was a misfit at school, not least because of my English accent in a Highland town (I never really developed the protective colouring my sons did later when I moved back to Scotland for some years) and my passion for books marked me out even more. The library stock was small and relatively unchanging, and I discovered my own collection of outmoded authors then - Mazo de la Roche, Hugh Walpole, Howard Spring, the adult novels of Elizabeth Goudge - as well as lapping up the more popular fare, particularly the historical novels of Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Georgette Heyer. At the same time as I was still happily devouring the contents of the children's section, most notably the Chalet School stories and the pony books by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, I was discovering some of the great works of literature (my favourite was Dante's Inferno. Click here for a tour - it's good to know what to expect, I think!)

The other, summer, haven was the local theatre. I was lucky to grow up knowing all the front-of-house staff and not only warmly welcomed when I arrived, but often given a complimentary ticket, thus eking out my meagre savings for another performance. At the same time that I was reading great works, I was often able to see them, and quickly became familiar with Shaw, Ibsen, Rattigan, Pirandello, as well as many now sadly less familiar - J.B. Priestley was a firm favourite (though my father, after a season lighting it, was very damning about Mary Rose). One summer I saw Hamlet five times (I was in love with Laertes) but the play I loved most of all was T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

For serious library addicts, there is a very beautiful book of photographs of historic libraries by Candida Hofer. I wish I could afford it. You can see some of the photos from it here.

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