Spoke 136 – Building of the Month

l to r: 186 Fleet St., Holborn Library from Jockey’s Fields, Dolphin Tavern, Red Lion St., Camley St rail bridge: 10 Foot, 4.1 Metres

It comes back to this: you have to write for yourself. At least, I do. I write to check I still have a pulse. I write to make connections – any connections, if I’m honest – because I find it hard to make narrative connections that most people take for granted. The bits of your brain that fire up with thoughts of your children or grandchildren or dogs mean absolutely zip to me.

Just the word ‘Christmas’ makes me think of fingernails scraping down sandpaper. Doesn’t make me insensitive: at least, no more than anybody else. How many people will die in January because they were hugged in December?

Anyway, I enjoyed my spoke on the first day after lockdown. I particularly enjoyed the strange coincidence that it took me past Holborn Library. I was signed up for a web lecture later in the day celebrating the library’s sixtieth birthday. I hadn’t thought about the building when I worked there at the turn of the millennium, except that I liked it: the building, I mean, rather than the work. It was the first modern library in the country and was inspired by a library in Copenhagen. The Twentieth Century Society has called it: ‘a milestone in the history of the modern public library’ and ‘the first large, multi-functional, post-war library in London’.

It was great to hear from Tudor Allen, the Camden archivist, about the ambition and the civic pride of post-war Camden. The library had a theatre on the top floor and a gramophone library where people would sit in polite rows and listen to classical music.

By the time I worked there as a library assistant, there was only about one box of records left. But it contained among other things Diamonds in the Rough, by John Prine. I taped it (sorry John, I did buy a copy later) and have been listening to it ever since.

Oddly, I can’t quite recall what I was reading but as I was studying Archaeology at Birkbeck I may have been doing homework when no one was looking.

In fact, memory is a trickster. I was keeping a journal at the time, so I know exactly what I was doing when the library wasn’t busy. I was surfing the web (which looks more like work than disappearing into a book) or idly flicking through Time Out. I had noted that there were sixty books on the Anglo-Saxon period in the library catalogue, but I didn’t read them. I had loved the previous two years: prehistoric and Roman, but now I had, as I usually do, lost interest. Perseverance got me through, but I was an unwilling student.

I was demotivated, listless and rather unwell most of the time. I had two bouts of flu’ that first winter. Whatever front I put on to the world, my body didn’t want to be inside a large, multifunctional post-war library, at least not to work.

But I also see that my life wasn’t monochrome. I had good days and bad and whatever else it was, it was better, I told my diary, than teaching thirty Kosovans in a classroom with only fourteen desks.

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