2.Early adolesence and the dabger of library tickets
It is odd how certain phrases stay with one, even after the original context has become blurred through the passage of time. One such phrase, for me, was a quip made by Elliot Gould - or rather the character he was playing - in the film Getting Straight which appeared in the early 1970s. The quip was made to an elderly professor, who was appalled at his students going on the rampage against the Vietnam war. It ran ‘if you didn't want them to think, you shouldn't have given them library tickets'.
At the time that I heard it I thought it reasonably funny and indicated a certain insight; but it can hardly be classed as one of the worlds most profound statements. Yet it stuck. Perhaps it rang a bell within me, but if it had I was not conscious of it at the time. However, many years afterwards if came to mind again to be immediately followed by memories of my first library tickets and what they meant for me.
As I have mentioned the home I grew up in was totally bereft of books, unless one counts a couple of Catholic prayer books. Now, when I say bereft I mean it. There was not even the usual Family Doctor or Household Hints lurking in a cupboard. I have no recollection of ever seeing either of my parents reading a book. Newspapers we had, The Daily Mirror, Sunday Empire News, News Of The World and the Sporting Buff, yes all of these, books definitely not. Of course I knew what books were, and had even read parts of books at school, but outside of that the nearest I ever got to reading solid chunks of print was in the pages of such literary gems as The Wizard, Adventure or sometimes The Magnet where Billy Bunter and his ‘chums' cavorted through their eternal upper class youth. Anything that smacked of intellectual pretensions, i.e. classical music, art, ballet or books were rubbished in our house. The attitude being that the important thing in life was to get out ‘into the world', get a a job, get ‘good money' etc. Education? That was strictly a waste of time. Dennis had had the chance of attending a grammar school but had left school at 14 to enter building trade as a chippies mate.
It wasn't that our parents wanted to deprive us of any opportunities, rather they took, what seemed to them, a very practical attitude. And they had the experience of our eldest brother to guide them. After scrimping and saving to pay for his apprenticeship premium and accepting the low wages during its term, they had seen him thrown out at 21. The sacrifice and effort did not seem worth it for them or us.
You may imagine then just how perverse I must have seemed to my parents when at the age of 13 I wanted to join a public library. How did such an extraordinary - for our family - event come about?
In so far as memory serves, there were two main influences on my desire to join a library. The first was, that for some inexplicable reason, despite the best efforts of my teachers, I developed a liking and interest in history and geography. Some time between eleven and twelve years of age I began to view these two subjects in a romantic light; romantic in the sense that I could lose myself in stories about distant places and times. I was fascinated and absorbed by the Greek myths, and even the Lowestoft herring fleet, that we learned about in geography lessons, seemed infinitely more appealing than living in landlocked, smokey and dirty Birmingham.
The second influence was again at school. In my last year I had the good fortune to have as class teacher a man who was himself, I now see, addicted to books. He began to read to the whole class, for the last 15 minutes of each school day, such stories as R.L.Stevenson's Kidnapped or Treasure Island. Moreover, he was a natural story teller, able to give life to all the characters that paraded before us as the stories unfolded. There was little or no pretence that this story reading was anything other than for pure enjoyment. A novel concept to all us boys at that time. We used to sit in rapt silence hanging onto every word and groaning when it was time for the finishing bell to ring. This was a most unusual situation since normally we boys would have been straining at the leash waiting for that bell of release.
I don't know what the motive of our teacher was with his story sessions, but they became a much more effective means of maintaining discipline than his cane ever was, and he was no mean caner. The merest hint that there would be no story that day if we were unruly was sufficient to reduce us to silence and assiduous application to the task in hand.
For me these story times were a journey into new worlds, and I began to read such books myself. I even discovered that I could take books home with me from school. Soon I was whizzing through authors such as Ballentyne and Henty, The Coral Island, The Dog Crusoe, The Bravest of the Brave and even Biggles books, in short all the usual patriotic daring do.
My parents became a little concerned at this point. It seemed almost unnatural to them that I should now be spending so much time reading books. My mother used to chide me about this apparently unhealthy habit, saying that I should be out playing games or sports. In fact, when a few years later, it was found that I needed glasses she swore it was because of ‘all that reading'!
The problem was that once my appetite for reading was aroused I had a lot of catching up to do. In the process I became somewhat omnivorous, mopping up the rather meagre store of books that interested me at school very smartly. Our class library consisted of three or four window ledgefuls of books. There was no such thing as a school library.
Fortunately help was at hand. Near the school I attended there was bakers shop which sold bags of broken biscuits for one penny (1d) or bags of yesterdays cakes for tuppence. And, as a growing lad, I was an habitué of this establishment. Now, right next door to this shop was another and this was a member of that now extinct species the tuppenny lending library. I was standing idly chewing broken biscuits one day looking at the books on offer in the tuppenny library window when this great idea came to me. St. Paul on the road to Damascus could not have been more excited. I had pocket money, having been pushed into a Saturday job, if I cut down my consumption of broken biscuits and fags I could pay my tuppence and borrow such books.
That's how I got into P.C. Wren and Zane Grey. The only trouble was that my, by now, insatiable appetite for reading soon outstripped my cash. It was turning out to be rather expensive to indulge my taste for romantic escape. It was when my very first cash flow crisis hit me that I remembered ‘The Public Library'. This was a solid, red brick mock Gothic structure that I had passed innumerable times with my parents on the way to the cemetery to visit my brother's grave. But I had never been inside this place. After all, with its corner clock tower and stained leaded windows it looked more like a church than a den of delight. I had never been one to visit church willingly, having had the catechism rammed down my throat at school and been dragged relentlessly to church twice on Sunday since my infancy I had developed a healthy dislike of religion and all its mummeries. So this large slab of redbrick had never seemed particularly appealing to me, until then that is.
I made some enquiries about the place with my teacher. I think at first he thought I was taking the mickey, since I was not noted for my scholarly activities. Eventually I convinced him that I was serious and he explained that it was indeed a free library (the salient point for me) and that anyone could join.
As soon as school was over that day I headed for the library. The door were heavy, dark, wooden, half-glassed with shiny brass plates. The floor of the vestibule was stone and my metal tipped heels clanked as I walked, making me very self conscious. When I got inside I was immediately aware of the peculiar hush that libraries have, or used to have. It definitely reminded me of church, with its waxed wooden floors, high vaulted beamed ceiling and the rather musty smell that books develop with age. But my need for reading material combined with my lack of cash drove on.
I found the reception counter, behind which there was installed a rather formidable old lady. At least she looked old to me, since at that point in my life anyone over the age of 25 seemed positively ancient. When I eventually plucked up courage to speak to her - in a whisper naturally - she looked at me as though I was an offensive smell. Her nose wrinkled under her steel-rimmed specs and she had a stony look in her eyes. She answered my questions as briefly as possible, in a posh voice that implied I was somewhat cretinous for not knowing every detail of the public library system. The loan of books might be free, but her time was not to be dispensed on demand to the likes of me, or so her manner implied. I almost told her to put her books where the sun don't shine, but I was eager for another fix of my dope, so I swallowed my pride and rode the petty insults she dripped over me and eventually prised an application card from her.
I was most disappointed. It seemed that I couldn't take any books home with me that day. Procedures had to be followed, there was no way around them. I was not even allowed through the wooden gate to look at the books. Worst of all I had to get my parents to counter-sign the application and after seven days - if everything was in order - I would be allowed into the book borrowing fraternity.
Reluctantly I accepted the situation and took the application card back home to my parents. They were most disturbed. I was subjected to some pretty tough cross-examination as to why I should need such things as library tickets. After all, generations of our family had survived without such tickets, and I was made to feel in some mysterious manner that I was breaking a hallowed family tradition. Moreover, I had been to the library on my own, it seemed like a declaration of independence. What seemed to worry my father in particular was the fact that he had to counter-sign the application card to guarantee my trustworthiness. It wasn't that he doubted me (I think), rather he was highly suspicious, worried even, at having to put his name to any official form. It was as though he feared that a part of his soul would be trapped in the toils of public bureaucracy by the mere act of putting his name on that card.
It took some considerable pleading on my part, but eventually the deed was done. My father gave in to the combined pressure of my mother and myself. I duly delivered that precious card to the library after school the following day. The toffy-nosed old biddy behind the desk looked somewhat surprised at my prompt reappearance. I think she assumed that either I would not be able to find my way back to her shrine unaided or my first visit had been a practical joke. She certainly subjected my application to the most minute scrutiny before, rather reluctantly, accepting it. I was told to present myself after seven days to collect my readers tickets.
They were the longest seven days of my life up to then. But eventually they passed and I was allowed loose amongst the book stacks clutching my bright new cards. I felt like a donkey turned out to graze in a strawberry field. I would not say that I actually cantered along the aisles between the shelves, but I was certainly nippy on my feet.
I had been directed towards the children's shelves, which occupied one corner of the ground floor. On close inspection however I found the collection to be rather dog-eared and heavily biased towards Angela Brazil and her ilk. Not at all to my tastes. Somewhat disappointed I made way to the shelves labelled ‘History', there I found, what for me, was a veritable treasure house. I could hardly contain my excitement. In serried ranks there were hundreds and hundreds of books, each one, so I thought, a doorway to another world.
Eventually I made my selection of books and presented them to be stamped. At first I thought ‘old toffy-nose' was not going to let me have those books. She seemed rather affronted that I had had the temerity to select adult books. She looked at me, turned the books over, looked at me again, riffled through the pages and then with obvious reluctance she stamped them, handed them over with. I am sure that she thought ‘no good will come of this' or ‘that is the last we shall see of those'. And I suppose it depends upon one's definition of ‘good', but life was never the quite same again for me. I could indulge my passion for reading, history and geography, to my hearts content, taking flight in my imagination to the four corners of the world and to different times. Opening one of those books in those days was for me rather like unfurling a magic carpet and away I would go. Greatly, I might add, to the worry of my mother, who often had to speak to me several times before bringing me back to earth.
What is certain however is that those first library tickets helped me to learn to think. It is true I was unselective and uncritical to begin with, but gradually I began to compare books on the same subject and to form opinions as to the relative merit of their accounts. Unfortunately I was not able to discuss my reading with anyone, at least not for several years to come, since I seemed to be the only person in my family or class at school who read the type of books I was consuming with such relish.
So there I was, a thirteen year old working class boy who led this rather schizophrenic life. Outwardly I led the usual humdrum life, but inside my head all sorts of ideas were buzzing around and each time I tried to talk to anyone about them I was met with incomprehension. How could any of them know that as I lay in bed at night I was at the same time marching with Pizzaro as he conquered Peru (Prescot's The Conquest of Peru) or watched the Vandals as they sacked Rome (Gibbon's Decline and Fall). But such was the haphazard nature of my reading I had waded through these and many more by the time I was fourteen. And then I progressed to modern history and politics. There was a large supply of books about Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany and the Russian revolution plus many books on the Spanish civil war. Sometime between my fourteenth and fifteenth birthday I had come to some opinions about the role of the Spanish Stalinist Party and its part in the defeat of Republican Spain, along with the Spanish revolution, this was clinched for me by reading Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed. However, this heavy intellectual diet was leavened by Edgar Wallace, Zane Grey and Edgar Rise Burrows and some odd copies of Lilliput magazine. The latter had pictures of naked women in it, and it did turn my thoughts to girls to the point where I began to comb my hair, but that is another story.
Those first library tickets have a lot to answer for. If a few more impediments had been placed in my way I may have been discouraged. Perhaps having been thwarted I might have been content with the family pastimes of booze, football, horse racing and the News of the World. But once you get your library tickets there is a chance to learn to think for yourself. Once that happens discontent sets in. Perhaps there should be a government health warning on those library tickets! It is true, of course, that my autodidactic methods of education left a lot to be desired, but it at least greatly supplemented the meagre intellectual diet provided by home, church and school. There is a silly old saw that says ‘a little learning is dangerous', dangerous for whom I wonder? Certainly not for the person imbibing it, for a little learning can be the basis for building on. And that is what I did many years later.