In the village-becoming-a-suburb where I grew up, there were two school buildings. The ‘Old School’ – a solid early 1900s red brick building with high rooms and high windows – had been outgrown by the expanding population, and I did my primary school time in the new school (a sort of flat-pack late 60s construction: our teachers used to mutter that it would fall down long before the Old School did, though as far as I know it’s still going strong).
But the Old School remained hugely important since a portacabin in its playground housed the local library.
My mother was (and still is) an assiduous library user. We went there – in my memory – once a week: stepping through the porch into the entrance hall where the librarian sat at her desk – guardian of arcane systems of small brown envelopes, blue tickets, date stamps and ink pads.
After a hello and a gossip, mum would turn left into the adult section while I turned right into the children’s library.
If I close my eyes I can recall a nondescript (brown or olive green, maybe) carpet with skewed rectangles of sunlight falling on it from one side; the green shade of trees through the opposite windows. Ranks of shelves stood on either side and filled the end wall. It was the end wall I headed for, with its collections of children’s novels in plasticised dust covers. I remember JP Martin’s Uncle series; Cynthia Harnett’s historical novels; Lucy Boston’s Children of Green Knowe. And then there are the books I can’t remember: the ones whose titles I can no longer recall (who on earth wrote a series set in the Australian outback about a possibly mythical creature called Bunyip?) These unremembered books have sunk into my subconscious; they have become the shapes of language: words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters; a training in how to write.
In my early teens, I graduated to the adult library: to Mazo de la Roche, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Nora Lofts – and Anne Melville (whose Lorimer Line books mum and I fought to be first to read. Later in life, I found them again – on the bookshelves of the man I would eventually marry. ‘Why have you got Anne Melville’s books?’ I asked him. ‘She’s my mother,’ he answered.)
As life went on there were other libraries, including some famous ones (the wax polish, dust and leather smell of the Bodleian upper reading room where some dusty, leathery readers seemed to occupy the same seats for decades: who knows if they ever went home…; the lofty round reading room of the old British Library with all its ghosts, the lovely airiness of the new British Library) and some not so famous, like the local library where I took my own children.
The first library has left the deepest resonance, I think.
But they have all mattered to me; have all created a feeling of the importance of libraries as a part of communal life. So I was delighted when A Fragment of Moonswood was selected to be part of the US Library Journal and Biblioboard SELFe scheme – a curated collection of self-published ebooks which will be made available free to library users across the US. I feel as if I have become part of a circle of reading and writing; and it is humbling and deeply touching to be able to give where once I took so much, to be part of something that will keep the bloodstream of libraries (with all their unrivalled possibilities of discovery) flowing into a new age, for new readers, for other children.