The Slow Death Of A Library
It should have had a poster in its window: Kids! Read Books Here Without Paying For Them!
Instead were just warnings and notices of shorter opening times. A disfiguring red plastic sign had been affixed above the door, information without grace.
Libraries always held a sacred place in my heart. They are utilities as necessary as health centres or parks. They were always an escape and a pleasure. As a child I spent so much time in the East Greenwich Public Library that I walked around the departments in my socks. I never got over the fact that I didn’t have to pay to take books home. The librarians helped me choose what to read, starting with Rupert, Babar the Elephant, Winnie the Pooh, Finn Family Moomintroll and Toby Twirl, ungendered creatures who had adventures in places that were utterly alien to a suburban child, like woods and meadows.
After that it was anything the library could provide, including Professor Branestawm, Dr Dolittle, ‘Whizz For Atoms’ and Biggles. This last one was a big jump into Boys’ Own Adventure, and opened the world to Robert Louis Stevenson, R. M. Ballantyne, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and anything with pirates, tigers, caves, airships, tunnels, islands, stern patrician role models and secret evil Chinese societies. I made lists of words I didn’t understand: Incognito, Ingot, Contraband, Hottentot, Capstan, Runcible, Inscrutable, Quartermaster, Chocks, Infidel.
The East Greenwich Public Library was run by a woman of thrillingly diverse tastes who defied council regulations by letting me take out books from the adult section. I once withdrew a book called How to Make Your Own Explosives. It featured photographs of beaming housewives mixing volatile incendiary cocktails from ordinary household items in Pyrex bowls, as though they were baking cakes.
Greenwich Council should have given her a medal. Instead, they plotted to have the place torn down and sold off behind her back. I imagined the library becoming emptier and emptier, as this gentle, thoughtful lady remained seated at her counter with a look of doomed hopefulness on her face. A custodian of treasures with the power to improve more young lives than any politician, I saw her facing the forces of ill-informed darkness with a rallying cry like that of Boadicea.
When my family moved I had to change libraries, and it was like getting a divorce. The next one was small and quiet and immaculate, and had an excellent gramophone section. I would say ‘Do you have the new Rolling Stones album?’ and the librarian would gently say, ‘No but we’ve got Gilbert & Sullivan. Try The Pirates of Penzance instead.’
Amazingly, the axe didn’t fall on the East Greenwich Public Library and it struggled on, now in the shadow of a concrete flyover that was shedding soot over it. Forty years later I went back and was horrified by the library’s sad state, its damp and rotting emptiness and the paucity of its shelves.
In a society that prides itself on culture and progress it should have been bigger, better, more beautiful and filled with books. Instead they had shut half the building down, reduced the opening hours and stock to a fraction of what it was. The library had finally been defeated by negligence and unplanned obsolescence. The last time I saw it, it seemed so very tiny, but it had once contained the world.
Thanks go to the Greenwich Phantom, where I found this better shot of the library than the one I’d managed to take.