Monthly Archives: December 2015

The ultimate male librarian fantasy

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

ChristmasThe 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.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition

The Penguin Modern Classics edition

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.

Peter Sellers and Mai Zetterling in the film version of That Uncertain Feeling. Just before they are interrupted by a cow!

Peter Sellers and Mai Zetterling in the film version of That Uncertain Feeling. Just before they are interrupted by a cow!

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cosy crime, a bawdy librarian and a librarian’s revenge

After last week’s digression into things that I perhaps ought to leave to better commentators than me it’s back to novels about libraries and librarians.

I know I have been rather less than generous in previous posts about some of the plucky-librarian-versus-the–shadowy-cabal thrillers but at least I gave them some air time because they had something going for them and did indeed feature real librarians not just another dead body amongst the geography books. The same can’t be said for many of the mystery novels that feature librarians most of which were mercifully consigned to the bin at an early stage of the culling process. Surprisingly, though one of them has put up a bit of a fight and even made it on to the screen.

Popular and well established American author Charlaine Harris is best known for her modern day supernatural fantasy books but she cut her writing teeth on a fictional librarian called Aurora Teagarden before she moved on to the hard stuff. The Aurora Teagarden series ran to about 8 titles on and was originally completely ignored in my research as the reference to her in the Bibliomysteries catalogue is quite dismissive (“not much about libraries” or something similar I think). The only reason she now rates a mention is that I noticed quite by chance that a couple of books are now out as TV movies the first premiered this April. So to on the off-chance that some of you might have spotted that and to avoid all of you asking where Aurora Teagarden is I thought I would acknowledge her existence but then swiftly move on. And no I didn’t watch it. Quite apart from having little or no library interest it was produced by Hallmark Pictures, that’s the twee greetings card people and although I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime, I even watch Midsommer Murders after all but that suggest that this was likely to be at the cuddle-up-with-a-cute-cat-and-hot-chocolate-in a-cosy-blanket end of the cosy crime spectrum which is way beyond where I draw the line!

So this week some other novels which I haven’t actually read but found out enough about to think them worth a passing if somewhat dismissive mention in dispatches before we look at one I have indeed read. Ridwan Sururi and his horse named Luna with their version of a mobile library bringing books to the remote villages of Indonesia. The Kudapustaka ( 'horse library' in Indonesian) brings donated books to villages and schools in Central Java where illiteracy remains high
Ridwan Sururi and his horse named Luna with their version of a mobile library bringing books to the remote villages of Indonesia. The Kudapustaka ( ‘horse library’ in Indonesian) brings donated books to villages and schools in Central Java where illiteracy remains high

A librarian and library are central to The Last Reader by David Toscana. “A fascinating, if bizarre, tale, set in a Mexican village, about an eccentric librarian who sees life through the books he reads” might sound a pretty good fit with my own fascinating if bizarre book about libraries but I decided against taking it on for a number of reasons. Firstly I noticed that one reviewer said that Toscana avoids “plot, character and structure” which left me think what’s left, a crossword puzzle? The premise of the book was also disturbing enough to put me off. A dead girl is found in the well in a drought ridden Mexican village by the son of the village librarian who immediately advises his son, as any sensible librarian would, to ditch the body and play dumb in case the dim witted authorities blame him for the death. Thankfully this isn’t a circumstance I have ever come across in my professional life so it is difficult to make value judgements or to offer a professional opinion on the wisdom of his moral approach. I do though have a lot of sympathy with the librarian’s idiosyncratic but simple book selection policy; the ones he likes he keeps, the ones he doesn’t are ditched including The Bible because “he has read it before”.

Claims that the book was a “spell-binding read” were tempered by another that it “can be a chore to navigate” but the real reason I avoided the book was that reviewers did keep mentioning Toscana in the same breath as Roberto Bolano. I have tried this much praised Mexican writer I really have. I persevered through all of Bolano’s highly acclaimed Savage Detectives and remained baffled to the end about what the book and indeed all the fuss was about. I was left reflecting, as so often with these intellectual writers, whether I wasn’t better off sticking to something a bit closer to my own intellectual level, like the new Ian Rankin thriller or maybe even The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was a relief to discover Toscana’s book was not available in the UK.

A book I did feel tempted to try and get hold of but it too wasn’t available was The Grand Complication: A Novel by Allen Kurzweil if only to find out more about a librarian protagonist described in reviews as a witty, browbeaten employee of the New York Public Library and a sexually malfunctioning husband which sounds just like something straight out of the “Librarian” section of the bit-part character directory in Central Casting. Even more intriguing not to mention less feasibly there is also a “bawdy” library director whose nickname is the “Librarian of Sexual Congress”. But then again bearing in mind my theory about the disconnection between excessive marketing hype and actual reading satisfaction I decided to pass on a novel that reviewers refer to as “a remarkable novel a flawless blend of adventure, intellect, suspense, humour and antiquity, an enchanting quest and an intellectual romp.” There is way too much to live up to there as other reviews confirm and the description “bawdy librarian” has the same alarmingly cringe inducing ring to it as “Dad dancing”!

Of course if we want better portrayals of librarians or libraries in novels we obviously need more librarians to write them and the idea had fleetingly crossed my mind in those rare idle moments between masterminding yet another miraculous escape for the library from the annual university budget crisis or responding to another lecturer’s lament that we have too few journals in their esoteric branch of some obscure field of science and the complaints from the students that we don’t have enough books because we spend too much on obscure esoteric science journals I often contemplated packing it all in and trying something less frustrating like solving the Middle East crisis or inventing a perpetual motion machine or more realistically writing the novel we are all said to have in us. For many years I had enjoyed writing elaborate library strategies, identifying unlikely performance indicators, preparing glowing reports charting stellar progress against those indicators, composing my annual appraisal review and similar works of fanciful creative fiction so how difficult could a novel be; after all Jeffrey Archer manages them. More importantly other writers like Patricia Cornwell, a forensic scientist, Dick Francis, a jockey, not to mention all those former SAS soldiers have produced hugely popular fiction using their experience from previous professional lives to provide added authenticity to their plots. So why not a librarian; and how about a librarian sleuth? It’s got to be better than yet another dead body in the library plot.

A good plan if a little ill developed and with just one small snag; I had been beaten to it.  Veronica Stallwood, who worked at the Bodleian Library and also at New College Library writes crime mystery novels which regularly include scenes in, or the use of, libraries or librarians and feature Kate Ivory, a novelist who used to be a librarian, well there’s a surprise then, but who also does a handy side-line in amateur detective work in Oxford which must get right up the noses of that Morse and Lewis. Mention of her library background is curiously ignored on Veronica’s website which suggests that she didn’t have that great a time in libraries a thought reinforced by her brief portrait of the unhelpful and obstructive Librarian’s secretary in one of her novels “upholding the old, unfriendly traditions of Leicester College Library” *.

Image from Google books

Image from Google books

No one, though, has used their own unhappy experiences as a librarian quite as effectively as Philip Larkin who seems to have used his second novel to wreak some kind of literary revenge on his first place of work and his first employer. A Girl in Winter was published in 1947 shortly after Larkin left his first library position in a drab, run down provincial branch library in Wellington in Shropshire to take up his new post in Leicester. Given the endless creative possiblities for a location for his unhappy leading lady who would have thought that he would come up with the idea of using a drab, run down provincial branch library as one of the backdrops for his story of love, longing and disappointment. Larkin describes his fictional library with all the sympathy of someone who loathed and despised his own workplace from the moment that his illusions about the stimulating intellectual cocoon that it promised evaporated. Larkin’s fictional library “smelt inimitably of poor children” and is staffed by disaffected library assistants “forced to do everything to books but read them” and blighted by “the daily round of string bags, trembling old men, tramps reading newspapers through magnifying glasses” This is unsurprisingly close to Larkin’s openly confessed detestation of Wellington Library , “a quite impossible job…handing out antiquated tripe to the lower orders of the general public…It was horrible” The Library doesn’t actually play much of a role in the narrative arc of the novel but it does provide an opportunity for Larkin to get a few things off his chest including his contempt for the pompous bureaucrats to whom he reported in Wellington. They were used as the inspiration for the novel’s despised Head Librarian, described in one memorably graphic passage as resembling “a clerk at a railway station who had suffered from shell shock”

Larkin was very justifiably proud of his novel and presumably found some satisfaction in exorcising some of the ghosts of his early career by including them in his fiction. He was considerably less impressed, however, by another novel about a librarian that made scurrilous use of more of his experiences particularly when that novel was by one of his close friends and confidante’s. We’ll look at that next time when we explore Kingsley Amis’s follow up to his famous novel Lucky Jim.

*Leicester College here is a fictitious Oxford University College not the tertiary education College in Leicester the city, a college library which is I am sure admirably helpful.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized