First of all Merry Christmas and a Happy New year as this will be the last post (sic) before Christmas. I probably should have found a suitable festive subject but frankly lacked the time to look and the wit to invent an unlikely fantasy in which Jacob Marley was in fact a librarian haunting Scrooge for snatching Tiny Tim’s library books and throwing them on the fire. So a different fantasy to start with this week as well as a cautionary tale about knowing your friends
The fantasy first and unfortunately it probably only works as a male fantasy. It is another of those long slow days when your patience is thin and you are called over to help with yet another tedious customer with yet another inconveniently difficult requests. Only this time the request is from a women of considerable attractiveness, obvious wealth, and disarming charm. The query is soon forgotten in pleasant flirting out of which it emerges that actually this woman has had her eyes on you and actually could possibly put in a good word for you that might considerably enhance your career because her husband just happens to be wealthy and influential and more importantly on the Council’s Library Committee . But of course even in a fantasy we know that she will want something form us in return but what will it be; can I let her off the fines for the 10 books that are 18 months overdue, can she just borrow one of our priceless first editions, just to show some business acquaintances from Sicily , or maybe can I just get rid of the spider that is dangling over the shelf she want to take books from. No. None of those. No this attractive, wealthy and desirable woman is lonely as her husband is consumed by his work, away a lot and probably having an affair with his secretary anyway and all wants from me in return for a word in her husbands ear and the making of my career is for me to sleep with her as often as possible and whenever she is available and in the mood. It is usually at this point that you are rudely awakened by the alarm. It is just a fantasy. All right its just MY fantasy then but it sounds about as good as a fantasy gets apart perhaps from the offer of unlimited sex with a beautiful woman before opening the batting for England against the Aussies on Boxing Day at the MCG.
As I said it probably only works for a male librarian. I don’t know but I suspect trying to invert this fantasy to include a male sex object even one of George Clooney or Benedict Cumberbatch dimensions doesn’t hold quite the same attraction. Purely in the interests of research however I will be very pleased to hear about any fantasies that women librarians think might work in a similar context.
So a vivid if unlikely fantasy but for for young , ambitious and priapic librarian John Lewis it is the fantasy that comes true.
I first came across the Kingsley Amis novel That Uncertain Feeling as the film Only Two Can Play, starring the wonderful Peter Sellers and Mai Zetterling. The comic novel was the tremendously popular follow up to Kingsley Amis’s hugely successful Lucky Jim. Amis had created the outline of his 1950’s comedy but was unsure of a setting for his tale as he wanted an alternative to the academia of Lucky Jim and according to one of Philip Larkin’s biographers it was after receiving letters from his friend Phillip Larkin about his work as a librarian that he decided his leading man would also be a librarian. Larkin may well have been a touch flattered as for once the librarian, Lewis, is not your sterotypical shabbily dressed introverted nobody; John Lewis is young, cocky, clever and charming. He has an attractive wife and young children and a roving eye. Despite all of this, though, Lewis is not a happy man; he is trapped by the souless tedium and routine of his job and not paid enough to allow his family to escape from their shabby existence in a shared house with their dreadful termagent landlady. He is a man looking for escape so when he is asked to help the wealthy, flirtatious and Elizabeth he is tempted by her interest even more so when she later makes her intentions clear and the possible rewards that might be on offer if he were to give in to her advances.
As I say it is a fantasy because I have had several conversations with women customers in libraries but I have never had a woman customer say to me as Elizabeth says to John Lewis “I desire you utterly”. The comments I get are usually something like “Of course I brought the book back are you calling me a liar”, or “just because the book was up my jumper it doesn’t mean I was trying to steal it.” Other librarians may have been luckier than me on that score and I am also happy to receive details, again purely for research purposes of course, of incidents where librarians’ fantasies have been realised and which demonstrate what I have feared for a long time now that I have clearly been leading a very sheltered professional life, working in the wrong kind of library or just possibly indulging in the wrong kind of fantasy.
The plot revolves around Lewis’s clear attraction to the opportunities for social climbing and the tension between the social classes where the working class librarian is seen as an entertaining diversion by the wealthy elite with whom he ends up mixing. Of course it all ends in tears but not before a number of set piece comic incidents the best of which involves Lewis escaping from his lover’s house as her husband returns, dressed in her Welsh national dress and being persistently propositioned by a drunken navvy on the bus home. The ultimate resolution with Lewis turning down the job offer that he eventually realises is tainted and returning to his working class roots Amis presumably saw as some kind of triumph for the principles of labour over the shallow pretensions of the chattering classes. It seemed to me to be the kind of patronising nonsense that the left-leaning middle classes can dream up when they have absolutely no idea of what working life was actually like for the less privileged. But that is for another day and a different blog. More interesting is just how much more than the library setting Amis extracted from Larkin’s letters to which he committed as we now know some compromising confidences.
Larkin and Amis had become close friends and confidantes and exchanged letters frequently, usually typically crude young laddish comments as well as reflctions of their writing. Larkin had helped Amis with revisions to Lucky Jim and Amis knew all about Larkin’s life as a librarian at Wellington and later in Leicester. It was not until reading Richard Bradford’s biography of Philip Larkin that it becomes clear that Amis had his social climbing class conflict comedy of manners already worked out but lacked a setting for it settling, as a result of Larkin’s confidences, on a library but it also seems that he also took a lot morte than just the library and librarian from his friends letters. Although Amis did, as you would expect, distance his setting from his friends background by setting the novel in a library in South Wales the description of the opressive atmosphere owes more than a little to Larkin’s letter to Amis. Larkin describes the books in Wellington Library as “mostly very poor with no poetry later than Houseman” reappears as Lewis’s scornful dismissal of Aberdarcy Library’s “two hundred books of the kind technically known as romances … to supply the entire literary needs of … housewives, office girls, shop girls and school girls”. Lewis’s studied contempt for the library patrons““Can I help you?” I asked. I tried, sucessfully I think to suggest how very unlikely all things considered this would be,”mirrors Larkins relection to Amis that he would spend his time “handing out tripey novels to morons.” And the publicly charming and even tempered Larkin would reveal in his letters his secret “boiling rages” and supressed violent intentions towards work and colleagues whilst Lewis works out his anger in the coalhouse (ask your grandparents!) hacking at the huge lumps of coal fantasing that he is “a wicked giant who’d knocked down the Library wall and was dashing certain borrowers on to the stone floor.”
Much of this came from Amis’s creative embrodering of Larkin’s letters and conversations and it wasn’t just Larkin’s life as a librarian that found its way into the novel. Amis mischieviously appears to have included a little of the darker side of Larkin’s personal life in Lewis too. Larkin was quite candid about his taste for pornography and voyeurism in his confidences to friends even if those tastes were a little more racy than Amis’s protagonist and in a couple of passages presumably intended to offer a comically prurient insight into Lewis’s fantasies Amis shows Lewis left to his own devices one evening digging out a magazine he has discreetly hidden under a seat cushion and a pile of papers in which he finds “ a picture of a full figured girl wearing a curious yachting costume consisting mainly of a peaked cap and pair of seamen’s boots… This I told myself with conviction was the sort of thing that was wanted. If only this paper …came out once an hour instead of once or twice a week….solitary evenings and many more things would be quite endurable”. Later Lewis stops to watch two young women playing tennis and is left pondering “Why did I like women’s breast so much. I was clear why I liked them but why did I like them so much?”
It was no wonder that Larkin felt that his private and personal life shared with Amis, he thought, in confidence had been exploited to produce background colour for his latest novel that was to be shared with tens of thosuands of readers eager to consume Amis’s latest work. Not that anyone today would be the least bit surprised by this; social media has made it possible for every indiecretion and fantasy to be shared instantly with the rest of the world depending on just how a good a friend it was with whom you shared it. At whihc point I will say I will be taking a festive break for a couple of weeks or so so please have a lovely Christmas and New Year.