The Happy Luddite (Goes To The Library)



First visit to our new library and I'm not sure I'm in the right place. There's no obvious sign outside for a start. I pass between the security barriers and head towards reception, banks of monitors flashing beside me. The foyer design is part airport, part international hotel. Behind a long desk, a row of helpful people. One of them looks like a buzzard. When I show her an email print-out announcing the arrival of my order, she nods towards the escalator and sends me up to the fiction floor.

Another desk, this one staffed by a budgerigar. Petite and multicoloured, she flits from one task to another in a series of quick-fire movements, retrieves my order and hands me a pristine book covered in clear polythene. As she makes to log it out, I tell her I want to read some now and then come back to it another time. She looks at me quizzically.

All the spaces at the reading desks are taken, each by a laptop and an earnest reader. Not a book or a notepad to be seen. I move past them towards the windows, where a bunch of teenagers in from the rain are laughing and messing about. I'm reminded of a time when peace and quiet in a library were sacrosanct, so much so that if the sentinel disappeared for a momentary break, a conspiracy of silence would still be maintained.

It's all air-conditioned of course. And there are none of the familiar librarial smells, of ageing books, even older wooden shelving or sweaty schoolkids fresh from the playing field. These teens have a ferocious, if distinctly low-cost regard for personal hygiene. Close-up, they all smell different, overwhelmingly so, but from a distance the collective odour is an eye-watering cross between custard and WD40. And they won't leave their phones and tablets alone. One of them takes a call. I play spot-the-question. He shouts.

"In town. Library."
"Just hanging."
"Connor and Shirelle… Where you to, babe?"

And so on. Mobile control. Who needs a firm grip or a short lead on a partner these days? Soon they'll all be sat-nav'd too. Voluntary tagging. No more location-lies. I try and ponder on the overcurrent fear of freedom and of being alone, but my thoughts are drowned out by the pointless noise of people suffering from both.

I've been told that the higher up you go, the quieter it gets. I take a lift to the fifth floor. They're right. All the tables are full again but the window seats are free. The floor-to-ceiling window-panes are neat, although with toes hands and forehead against them, the long way down feels perilously close and I get that fear-of-heights sensation in my groin.

Outside, bits of coloured plastic and paper roll with the wind like tumbleweed, or swirl in the eddies formed at the arcade entrances. Dynamic young workers all on the phone criss-cross the square at speed, just missing each other, choreographer unseen. Shoppers amble, laden with bags. Lonely people sit evenly-spaced on sculpted stainless steel benches, looking down at the hard landscaping heads-on-hands, or up at the giant TV screen on the side of the civic theatre, advertising stuff 'Blade Runner' style.

Over at the entrance to Caroline Street, seagulls dive-bomb patches of last night's spew and discarded takeaways for a curried chip or a battered sausage. They play chicken with the street-cleaning machines, flying off at the last second. The drivers join in by aiming at them.

I settle down in one of the easy chairs and put my feet up on the giant tennis ball thing placed in front of it, presumably for just that purpose. All is quiet. Finally I open my book. I read the dedications and the preface carefully, then skim the opening pages. All is in order. After a few more random dips, I take the lift to fiction again and seek out its rightful place.

It's in good company now, squeezed tight between Anita Brookner and Brigid Brophy. The Brontës live just down the shelf; Melvyn Bragg sits swinging his legs on the one above. I angle my head to take one last look at the title and of course the author's name. It's my own.

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