Bibliophiles: do you remember the librarians of your childhood?
I remember the librarian at Houndsfield Road Library in Edmonton very clearly. She was a small Scottish lady called Mary with very large glasses who spoke in the special whisper that I believe they teach at Official Librarian School. I imagine she went unnoticed by most, but I recall her and my mum often having a hushed chat, like kindred unusual spirits in the Badlands of Edmonton, and she always made a fuss of my brother Jack and I. Mum remembers that ‘she wore lots of tweedy skirts and waistcoats and high neck blouses and sensible shoes. A proper librarian. She was a bit of class in Edmonton. How did she end up here from Scotland, I wonder?’
Reading The Library of Unrequited Love made me reflect on what a mystery Mary was to us. This wonderful novella is essentially the monologue of a librarian who discovers a reader who has been locked in the library overnight, and then launches into the story of her life, failed career, love mishaps – including her current unrequited passion for one of the regular library visitors – and her views on the world at large.
There are so many great lines in this book that I ran out of post-it stickers on the 8.17 to Charing Cross and almost had to start turning over page corners like a badman (I resisted). Our librarian is at turns hilarious (her observation that ‘Ancient Egypt exerts a fascination over the weak-minded, I’ve seen it several times in my career,’ will give anyone who’s overindulged on the Discovery Channel at the weekend a bit of a wobble), controversial (‘I know…the Terror, etc…Well, I’d like to see you have a go. A thousand years of monarchy to get rid of, you needed more than a few wimps to do that job’) and poignant (‘That’s the way it is: wars always kill the sons, never the fathers who took the decisions’). Her thoughts on books and their impact on society reiterate the importance of our librarians, particularly in their servicing of democracy – the following lines had me fist-pumping the air:
The fact is Monsieur le Ministre, that you keep [the populace] entertained because you’re afraid of them. Noise, noise, noise, never the silence of a book…he knows perfectly well that people don’t begin to foster thoughts of revolution when their ears are bombarded by noise, but in the murmuring silence of reading to oneself.
Overall this book reminds us that behind those quiet, almost invisible people we meet on our journey through life, there is a whole unknown backstory and world view, even if they describe themselves as ‘nobody, nothing at all’. I wonder what Mary’s monologue would have revealed. What did bring her to Edmonton from Scotland? For some reason, I am fixated on the idea that she had some exotic hobby that could only be exercised in our special enclave of North London. Perhaps she engaged in an early form of cage-fighting, going under the name of Mary the Mauler. (Edmonton has always been a trailblazer. You should see Leatherbarrows on the Green after dark. It all goes on down there.) You may mock, but I knew a colleague for three whole years before I found out she was a trucker in her spare time. Plus another one who ran the cat version of Crufts. I’m not making this up. You just never know.
On another note, this tale reminded me of the man who was locked in Waterstones in Trafalgar Square for a few hours a couple of years ago (read here). After reading that story, I actually wondered how I could get myself locked in Waterstones overnight so I could bribe them for compensatory books. I’d be like, ‘Give me 100 free books per year for life and I won’t go to the press. Final offer. You are talking to a true born hustler. I come from Edmonton, land of the cage fighters, home of Mary the Mauler. Don’t be foolish now. I could bring the Waterstones empire down with the things these eyes have seen.’ I walk past that very Waterstones every day dreaming up my plan. One day I will prevail. I will get us a good deal and sort you all out book-wise.