Monthly Archives: August 2015

Never judge a book by its cover… particularly if it mentions libraries

Back when I was a young librarian in the days when now extinct creatures such as typewriters and library card catalogues roamed the earth some colleagues used to play the kind of game that entertained us before we became seduced by Xbox, Netflix and Strictly Come Dancing. They would quote a sentence or two from a novel featuring a reference to libraries or librarians and challenge the excited reader of the magazine in which the game featured to identify the book. It was an early prototype for University Challenge where they play about two bars from some obscure oratorio by some even more obscure baroque composer and ask the panel to identify the work and composer from all the accumulated canon of western classical music, a game better known to most of us in its dumbed down, pub quiz version of spot the ABBA lyric. The game was of course not intended to be won by its readers but was intended as a chance for people who should get out more to show what a smart arse they were, demonstrating the broad and classical sweep of their reading habits to make people like me feel inferior because my reading was chiefly Len Deighton level thriller pulp occasionally given some gravitas by yet another unsuccessful attempt to finish Middlemarch.

I mention this only because that was one of the very early triggers that set me off thinking there might be some mileage in that as an idea for a book that eventually led to this blog. The idea was simple enough; find some books that used libraries as a setting or for a plot or where librarians were the protaginist or part of the cast and bring them together in a witty and entertaining narrative. A surefire hit provided I could find sufficient raw material and the small matter of hoping a librarian could make it witty and entertaining.

Finding the books seemed the biggest problem. I did begin to look for and occasionally spot references to libraries in books that I read and duly noted them over several years rather half heartedly to be fair hoping to be able to raid the back issues of New Library World , the magazine in question, but this idea was scuppered because the journal and probably the novels it referenced had sunk into well earned obscurity. But when all else fails there is always serendipity.

extract from"Hear It Again" by Ted Hughes in the introduction to New Library the People’s Network still available on the internet at

extract from”Hear It Again” by Ted Hughes in the introduction to New Library the People’s Network, 1998, still available on the internet.

The thing about serendipity is that you never know when it will strike. Strolling through the pleasant lounge of a lovely little hotel in Cambrils in Spain for example casually browsing the dog eared copies of Tom Clancy, Maeve Binchy and Jeffrey Archer together with a several random German novels left by thoughtful previous holidaymakers I came across a title I couldn’t ignore and so decided that as I had a week of relaxation ahead of me I might as well abandon my intended holiday booklist and read this one instead in the interests of reasearch. Sadly I should have realised that something falling into your lap like that was just too fortunate and bound to be a disappointment. Glenn Cooper’s Library of the Dead is an entertaining enough gothic fantasy but isn’t so much about a library as a sort of cosmic Registry Office, in fact if they had kept its original US title The Secret of the Seventh Son, it would have saved us all, well me at least, a lot of wasted time as you will see when we look at it in a future post.

This should have been a warning that serendipity as an alternative to proper research can be a triumph of hope over outcome and if it wasn’t well finding Gregory Norminton’s Arts and Wonders whilst browsing the bookshelves at some of my in-laws should have convinced me as the reference to “a Library of Arts and Wonders” on the cover encouraged me to invest several hours of my life that I will never get back. I even began to spot stuff that would never have registered on my consciousness before. In the local public library I spotted The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw but a casual skim of this Victorian melodrama about a dead body in Kings College Library was enough to convince me that as so often apart from providing a location for a dead body the story had nothing to do with libraries or librarians at all. Others teased in the same way. The Herring in the Library by L. C. Tyler turns out of course to be really the red herring in the library because once the body has been discovered the library is of no further interest; Janice Keefer’s The Ladies’ Lending Library isn’t about a library at all, it’s a book club, and if you are even the slightest bit prudish please think very carefully before you start reading Alan Hollingshurst’s intriguingly entitled first novel The Swimming Pool Library. If you are expecting to discover lots of matronly librarians swapping their cardigans for a spot of the breast stroke or hunting for the latest Lee Childs in the deep end you will be surprised to find it doesn’t include any books or any ladies and any breast stroking has very little to do with swimming. As a clue to what you might expect to find, the philosophy of the book’s protagonist, William Beckwith, is that “a day without sex is a day wasted” so don’t expect much cataloguing either. It is a bit rude, no it’s very rude. So rude that it nearly didn’t find a publisher. The title comes from the practice at Beckwith’s boys prep school of naming the prefects “librarians” with specific duties thus Chapel Librarian , Football Librarian and in Beckwith’s case Swimming Pool Librarian. The Swimming Pool for which he is responsible becomes abbreviated to The Library where he and his fellow pupils gather to explore their common adolescent sexual preferences. You will find that they are explored with great gusto not to mention gay abandon and in considerable graphic detail regularly throughout the book.

Even when you have completed your research which we will come to later serendipity still strikes and is no more satisfying than before despite that initial frisson of excitement as you discover a potentially useful title in a quite unexpected location. On another holiday in Norfolk, at the compulsory second hand book stall, I discovered not one but two books featuring Library in the title, or least expected of all amongst the Book Swap volumes in the coffee shop that helps support the radio station that lets me present some if its shows. The Library of Gold, The Library of Shadows, The Lost Library I have them all; all hokum and worse, hokum with only the most tangential link to any library that you or I might recognise as you will also see later. Clearly the publishers’ marketing people feel that “library” has the same irresistible appeal to readers as BOGOF offers, two for the price of one or anything to do with baking.

So serendipity is not the best approach to research and anyway you can’t just go on browsing library shelves, second hand books stalls or the lounges of random European hotels and hope to find enough volumes featuring real libraries and recognisable librarians to produce a book about books about libraries .

Loafers HollowSo to complement serendipity and as an alternative to expensive Spanish holidays I started my research where all librarians start without actually admitting it; I did some trawls of the internet. Its remarkable what comes scurrying out once you disturb the undergrowth out on the world wide web and I was as amazed as I was disconcerted to discover two sources that supplied more references to books about librarians and libraries than I could possible imagine existed. First I came across an erudite academic paper the authors of which had discovered 120 novels featuring librarians which they had used for an academic analysis of the image of librarians in literature (1) a subject that continues, as I have explained, to vex many librarians and for which they were seeking to establish a proper understanding. I of course had no such noble intentions as you will see when we discuss those novels with nothing more in mind than cheap jokes. A list of 120 books that featured libraries or librarians, many of which were new to, was enough I figured, if I followed them up, to fuel this quixotic project. It was reassuring. All I had to do now was find that witty and entertaining narrative from somewhere. How do you make a list of 120 books featuring librarians interesting even to other librarians without it becoming the worlds most boring list of books since that often quoted book about watching paint dry. As It turned out this was the least of my worries thanks to a college in the States which I came across shortly afterwards.

Apparently the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts has been gathering what they refer to as bibliomysteries for about 30 years and have a collection in their Simmons Library of crime and mystery books that feature libraries or librarians so naturally I needed to follow this up to check how useful this would be for my own project. It was to say the least a bit of a shock to discover that over 30 years of assiduous collecting they had accumulated something like 600 books featuring libraries, librarians and anything else to do with books. Trying to match a collection on this industrial scale with the understandable expectations of readers for something pacy and entertaining and some way short of War and Peace in length was going to be a problem. I did flirt with plausible deniability; pretending I had never seen the website or its amazing list but librarians can’t lie so I needed a strategy to reduce this to a manageable number of references for an entertaining read. Just how this was accomplished will feature in the next blog and after that we will begin to look at some of the many books where libraries features with the hope that they are explored with wit and good humour but we’ll see.

(1) Christopher Brown-Syed and Charles Barnard Sands. “Librarians in Fiction; a Discussion.” Education Libraries. v.21. no. 1, 1997. There are other publications that do similar things but these are just unlucky that I happened to find theirs first!



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“A short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket”

Having given you a break whilst I was away ( very nice thank you since you ask!) its time to conclude our look at famous librarians with an unapologetically prurient look at the the personal life of a librarian. By his own estimation Philip Larkin was no leading man summing up his appeal in one of his letters to Monica Jones. “Youth…” he exclaimed “Why didn’t I have one. I’ve always been aged 65”  sto how did someone looking like a stereotypical librarian from central casting manage to keep a string of women dancing in attendance for most of his adult life?

The courtship rituals of people in western society have been established for centuries. At a certain age we start taking an interest in other people with a view to creating some form of family unit for the purposes of companionship, procreation and mutual happiness, after, we hope a brief period of rampant sex of course. We may try a few people out for size as part of this process before we settle on a permanent lifelong partner of our dreams after finding that there wasn’t much beyond the sex or that the sex wasn’t up to much anyway. We might also when we discover that when the sex wanes we need a third party as well as the partner to get through life or we may need a couple of goes at finding the right partner when we realise that lifelong companionship with TV remote permanently attached to a barely conscious blob in on the sofa wasn’t what they were selling in all those teen magazines. Larkin’s life wasn’t at all like that containing as it did at least two life long loves co-existing uneasily in parallel, a series of affairs involving neither of these, other attempted affairs, at least one instantly regretted proposal of marriage and a number of other apparently platonc relationships with other women. And yes all this whilst a practising librarian. It is, as they say, complicated so pay attention.

You too can folloe in larkin's footsteps. Its a lot easier than tracking his love life

You too can follow in Larkin’s footsteps. Its a lot easier than tracking his love life

After some frustrating and humiliating experiences at Oxford Larkin found his first real relationship with one of his younger borrowers at Wellington Library, Ruth Bowman to whom he became very close and eventually fell in love. Larkin and Ruth were a typical courting couple sharing lengthy discussions about their range of common interests as well as meals, holidays and of course sex. In private though Larkin was already falling prey to the indecision and anxiety that was to come to characterise his life Larkin confided his fears that this developing relationship might clip his wings especially as in the same letter he talked through the pros and cons of trying to get one of Ruth’s friends into bed. Despite all of his vacillation and his private priapic fantansies, when he went to Leicester Larkin remained very close to Ruth despite the fact that she was now studying in London. His confused emotions did not prevent Larkin becoming engaged to Ruth though it was on the clear understanding that it would not necessarily lead to marriage straight away or indeed any time soon thank you very much. Part of this confusion was because, engagement notwithstanding, he was now developing an interest in another woman, Monica Jones a lecturer at Leicester University. He found an intellectual relationship with Monica that he could never share with Ruth but he was not brave enough to end his relationship with her. Then, just as Ruth moved to be nearer Larkin, Larkin like many men faced with a difficult choice between women decided that the most adult and honourable way to solve the problem was to run away, to Belfast. As always of course it only made matters worse. Realising the enormity of the implications of his engagement he withdrew the offer by letter, the contemporary equivalent of dumping someone by text message. Ruth decided that she had enough of his ambivalent attitude to her, returned the ring and got on with her life.

In Belfast, free of the suffocating committment to Ruth, Larkin still had the consolation of a developing relationship with Monica Jones. The fact that she was still in Leicester, rather than being a barrier to a successful relationship as it would be for many of us, was just how Larkin liked it and would continue to like it for the rest of his life and he found himself attracted to a completely new cast of women in Belfast. There were several women colleagues who seemed to welcome him if for no other reason than he was the only presentable male on the staff. Larkin also found their company enjoyable and became particularly close to Winifred Arnott alhough, or perhaps because, she was already in a relationship with someone else to whom she eventually became engaged making her unavailable. This didn’t stop Larkin dropping heavy hints about his ambitions towards her. Whilst this relationship was flourishing Larkin still continued to visit Monica in Leicester who may or may not have been aware of his interest in Winfred and as Monica did visit Northern Ireland to spend time with Larkin as far as she was concerned this confirmed that she had a particular place in his affections.

Larkin’s idea of such a commitment was to begin an affair with another woman, Patsy Strang, undeterred by the fact that she was the wife of one of his close friends. This was apparently a passionate affair and Patsy did offer to leave her husband and support Larkin whilst he wrote but again Larkin found the idea of commitment a bit tricky. So just to recap then in case this is getting a bit confusing and before we move on; Ruth, to whom he became engaged and then broke it off, has gone and so too has her best friend Jane whom I mentioned Larkin also attempted to bed, but Monica, who was around at the same time as Ruth, is still there and under the impression that she is the only one in his affections, but unfortunately there is now also Winifred in Belfast who has been joined by Patsy as well. Oh and I almost forgot Larkin has also started another entirely platonic relationship with another married friend from Belfast, Judy Egerton, with whom he corresponded very candidly for the rest of his life. Its complicated isn’t it but I hope you are keeping up because there is still more to come. If we had the space we could do one of those maps of the country with brightly coloured pins showing the location of the women and sweeping arrows showing the complex relationships between them all as newspapers do when they try to illuminate one of their “web of deceit” stories, or track the route of your flight home compared to that of your luggage! But we haven’t the space or the time so you will just have to pay attention.

Humble Boy Poster

Humble Boy Poster

Eventually this potentially tricky situation with various women was resolved by the simple expedient of Winfred marrying her fiancee and Patsy, despite her offer to Larkin, following her husband to Newcastle. Suddenly left with only the ever persistent and astonishingly faithful Monica still hanging in there Larkin now in his 30’s thought that Monica might be a good bet for settling down so of course it was also time then to meet yet another colleague to whom he is irresistably attracted and who appears to reciprocate his feelings. I told you to pay attention.

Maeve Brennan had worked with Larkin for five years at Hull before they started to become close and she soon became a serious rival to Monica. Part of her mystique was that as a fervent Roman Catholic she was firmly against sex before marriage which must have been some kind of new challenge to Larkin for whom at times sex seemed the only reason for a relationship. Once Larkin and Maeve became close for the rest of his life Monica and Maeve co-existed in full knowledge of each others existence and they ebbed and flowed for supremacy in Larkin’s affection showing remarkable loyalty in the face of both his frequent displays of cruelty and neglect to both of them and his all consuming selfishness towards both. And in the face of his terminal inability to choose between them. Eventually after a break in their relationship Maeve did sleep with Larkin and he professed his passionate love for her even though he had been telling Monica that the relationship was over.

Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones provided a fascinating glimpse of the emotional contortions he appears to have gone through during this period of his life. Maeve Brennan appears merely as “Ms Brennan” in a 1955 letter but in February 1962 her presence in Larkin’s life has clearly upset Monica and he attempts to deflect any suggestion of a close relationship referring to her dismissively as “old Charity Boots”. Eventually however he does have to go into full damage limitation mode in 1964 when Monica discovers his affair and he has to grovelling admit how ashamed he is of the pain he has caused her as he attempts to expiate his guilty admitting he is“infantile & cowardly and selfish” and his inability to settle for one woman or the other “perhaps too fond of you perhaps not fond enough of her perhaps just too cowardly all round”. Unfortunately this awareness isn’t enough to prevent Larkin thinking that it is perfectly all right then to share with Monica his feelings for Maeve and using her as if she was just a close mate and not as he so frequently claims something significantly more. If you or I were having an affair, even if our regular partner were aware of it, we might well avoid any mention of the third party in letters home but not Larkin. In one letter he shares with Monica how upset Maeve gets when he is away on holiday with Monica, presumably expecting her to be understanding and sympathetic. It is perhaps as well that this was done by letter because if he had done it face to face across the dining table for example he may well have been surprised at how painful it can be when both hands have been pinned to the table by kitchen knives and your partner is attacking your head with a blunt instrument. I am sure she was just as understanding when Larkin explains how he tries hard to keep the balance between the two of them in his life. I am sure she found that very comforting and must have been even more touched when he adds that he recognises the sacrifice she has made for him and how lucky he is that she has not “frogmarched him to the altar”.

Perhaps her forbearance wasn’t quite as noble as it seems as their sex life appears to have been less than wonderful not helped by Larkin’s own admission of his rather inept lovemaking which gets more than a couple of mentions in his letters. Despite my best intentions to stick to library matters for some reason I found myself drawn to his letter of 9 August 1958 as I caught sight of the sentence beginning “I’m sorry our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon, as you rightly noticed” and he continues “And of course qualify it how I may I am not a highly sexed person or if I am not in a way that demand constant physical intercourse with other people. I tire very easily & and always more prepared for sex in the morning than at night.” Elsewhere he laments their “love making that hadn’t been concluded”. Adding intriguingly “I was a fool to bring those pants – I can’t think where to hide them – the cleaner will think I am robbing clothes lines.” Yes I know this is book is supposed to about libraries and librarians but I am trying to show how interesting librarians can really be so bear with me here.

Perhaps also there is a hint that Larkin was intimidated by the women in his life and that would explain why each of them was reduced in correspondence to a cuddly pet name; Monica was a rabbit and habitually addressed as “bun” in his letters, Maeve became “Mouse” a name Larkin borrowed from her previous relationship, Ruth had been a cat and Patsy a honey bear. A desire for life in a pet shop was clearly buried somewhere deep in his subconscious.

So the two women in his life coexisted uncomfortably for several years each striving for ascendancy but each at least aware of who and what the competition was. It would have been fascinating to be there when they each discovered that despite all of this; the intimate attentions of two women and his enjoyment of it; the pain he clearly realised he was inflicting on each of them; his self loathing guilt about this and his love hate relationship with sex, it hadn’t prevent him from beginning a deliberately planned and carefully conducted affair Betty Mackreth a relationship about which Maeve and Monica were blissfully unaware. Unlike Orson Welles’s Third Man the third woman was not skulking in a dark alleyway to avoid detection but right there in plain view in the office next to him every working day. Betty was his Secretary of the past 17 years and no one knew about Larkin and Betty until Andrew Motion’s autobiography of Larkin several years after Larkin’s death. You see I told you it would get more complicated.

Ben Brown’s play Larkin with Women tells the story of these relationships much better than I ever could and so if you want to follow up this intriguing menage then you might like to track down a copy of his play or find a revival when one comes along. In her very even-handed and generous review of Larkin with Women Maeve Brennan confirms that the play is a pretty good reconstruction of at least parts of those relationships although she wished that the author had shown “more of the tenderness and vulnerability which were present in such good measure in the man I knew”. Nor did she recognise the Larkin that that emerged after his death.
After his death of course and the subsequent biography and release of some of his letters Larkin’s reputation as the quiet avuncular poetic genius took quite a battering with accusations variously of racism, misyogny, misanthropy, a love of pornography and the frequent examples in his letters of what he called his “boiling rages” which led him to say of his Deputy that he would like to “bash his head in” or refer to his librarian colleagues at their annual conference as ”jolly ladies with hearing aids, awful seedy looking men with side whiskers and wet teeth who look as if they ought to be employed ghosting hack biographies of royal mistresses in the B.M., and thin young men in new chocolate brown suits & Brylcreem who resemble engineering apprentices.” Larkin had died long before I reached the same level as he did and earned the right to attend those same conferences and of course times change. For a start no-one still uses Brylcreem, but, actually, thinking about it apart from that, they hadn’t changed much. I don’t want to dwell on all that stuff, though, as it has been well documented elsewhere but I did want to mention just one critical essay about the revelations from someone who I would have thought knew better.

Alan Bennett gave voice to his feelings on the posthumous relevations in his 1993 review of Larkin’s biography in the London Review of Books. In the review entitled Alas Deceived. Bennett expresses his “disappointment” following the relevations saying that he feels he has lost a friend even though he never knew Larkin and although he is dispassionate enough to acknowledge that Larkin’s work just about emerges unscathed from its association with such a perverse character Larkin himself and his chosen professions don’t fare quite so well. Bennett is convinced that Larkin was always tarred with the brush of his father’s Nazi sympathies  but youcan’t help thinking he goes just a little too far when he spitefully suggests that his decision to go into libraries was an obvious one because “if you cannot be a gauletier then a librarian’s the next best thing“, adding just to sure you get his meaning that “It’s a short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket.” Which is a bit harsh really and as far as I can recall not even academically accurate. Although I have only a hazy recollection of the various projects and other tests that were required to achieve my professional accreditation as a librarian I am pretty sure I would vividly remember the practical exam in Formation Goosestepping, for the boots if nothing else.

When he died in 1984 the shy, stammering unprepossessing librarian had three women all of whom shared some of Larkin’s affection, all aware of his inadequacies, his neuroses and his utter selfishness and his frequent cruelty, all painfully aware that as Monica Jones put it they would never be able to make him want them enough, but all totally devoted to him. Not bad for a librarian who could write a bit of poetry as well. It is perhaps all best summed up by the word Monica speaks to Larkin in Brown’s play, as he is dying “Oh well. I guess you must have some redeeming qualities. Otherwise we wouldn’t stick by you, would we?”

And that concludes our look at all those famous people who you never knew were librarians together with our look at library history we have a common base from which we can now explore the many incidents of libraries and librarians on the world of literature, film and television and even music. All that will be coming up in future posts.

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