Monthly Archives: February 2016

“She’s an old maid she never married”

The Professor of Design at the university where I ended my career began his inaugural lecture with a clip from the classic Hitchcock film North by Northwest. You may know it. It’s the scene where Eva Marie Saint has arranged a meeting in the train restaurant car with the fugitive Cary Grant intending to seduce him for dodgy reasons that needn’t bother us here. In the initial flirting she explains that she is an industrial designer. It is, claimed the professor, the only instance of an industrial designer featuring in the cinema. The incident stuck in my mind because North by North West is one of my favourite films but it appeared relevant here for a couple of reasons. First of all in a scene where the beguiling Eva Marie Saint has switched on the come to bed eyes and turned sultry seduction up to 11, enough to arouse any heterosexual male still showing a pulse, it is reassuring to know that it is not just librarians who are more interested in what job she does. Secondly if it is indeed the only appearance of an industrial designer in cinema I now know that librarians can do a whole lot better than that.

Eva Marie Saint as seductive industrial designer

Eva Marie Saint as seductive industrial designer

The other film my research brought to mind was Groundhog Day. Many of you will know of and some of you will be fans of the Bill Murray, Andie McDowell film as it is the hugely popular kind of film that people watch over and over again often oblivious to the irony of that. Fans of the film may also be racking your brains now trying to work out how you missed the librarian in the film and it may take some time because there isn’t one but bear with me. You will recall from our discussions about books earlier in the blog that I knew of a handful of titles I thought would make a good start for this project and that was also true of films. Like all good librarians I was aware of Peter Sellers playing a librarian in Only Two Can Play, the book version of That Uncertain Feeling, which I have already explored at length elsewhere so I won’t bore you here, but Sellers is excellent, of the film version of The Name of the Rose, likewise and of the Ghostbusters wreaking havoc in New York Public Library . I had also become aware, later of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set and came across the reference to Goldie Hawn’s withdrawn librarian, “you used to show some cleavage” her friend reminds her, in Foul Play whilst half-heartedly scanning the TV schedules several years ago ; a film of which one critic said “not a bad film but everything about it screams mediocre” which was reason enough to skip it. Further research on books then revealed a source listing twenty odd further book titles that with my initial list made the project seem viable and so it was with films. I discovered an article referencing around 30 films from which the authors draw the usual conclusion about how librarians have been portrayed in the cinema; badly usually. That was fine not too many to be frightening and just enough to fill a few blank as yet unwritten pages. But you will also recall that smug satisfaction soon turned to alarm and despair when I discovered that the neatly sized collection of book titles which I had accumulated was merely the tip of a Titanic sized iceberg causing many weeks of agonised swearing, editing filtering, discarding and more wearing. This was where Groundhog Day comes in because despite having plenty of film material I thought I would do just one more bit of research and came across Martin Raish, a Librarian from Idaho who has an impressive website (well impressive if you are interested in librarians and libraries in the movies anyway) which lists 550 film titles. I had hit another iceberg.

Goldie Hawn as unlikely librarian -“you used to show a bit of cleavage”,

Goldie Hawn as unlikely librarian –“you used to show some”,

Thankfully the creator has now retired and no longer updates the site so at least I know there will be no more but that still leaves 550.
Thanks to this website I also made the astonishing discovery that he lists more than 300 actors who have played librarians. Yes I said 300. I didn’t know whether to feel daunted or proud as the list included some of the top rank of international film stars across several decades including, Judi Dench, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Bette Davis, Peter Sellers, Hayley Mills, Derek Jacobi, Bob Newhart and Goldie Hawn, not to mention sisters Natasha and Joely Richardson. And indeed I know now that even Eva Marie Saint herself plays an eccentric but inspiring mid-west librarian, her sultry days long past in the children’s film Because of Winn Dixie In 2005 which is either “heart-warming” or schmaltzy according to how much of an old grouch you are!

As I looked down the list of librarians I intended to filter out a long list of what appeared to be obscure B movie nobodies about which I didn’t need to worry. Take the first two references picked almost at random from that list of 300 actors Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan starring Tabanobu Asano as librarian and Dominique Labourier’s librarian in Phantom Ladies over Paris which I intended to jettison without a second thought because neither the films nor the names meant anything to me. Out of curiosity, though I followed both up. Oops? Unlike my first impression that from its title it was going to be some dubious third rate porn film, Phantom Ladies over Paris is in fact director Jacques Rivette’s greatest film and a French classic prompting comparisons to Proust, Henry James and Lewis Carroll. Dominique Labourier is a well-known much admired star of more than 40 films and not some Gallic nobody! So despite my pretensions to being a man of culture I discovered in fact I am really a cultural moron. Tabanobu Asano has been called a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshirô Mifune and is considered to be one of the hottest properties in the Japanese film market, referred to by IMDb as “certainly the hippest, if not the single most important, Japanese film actor working today”, and Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan (The Last Life in the Universe) was a highly praised and award winning film. Who knew? So, not just a cultural moron then, an Anglo-centric cultural moron.

Eva Marie Saint as eccentic librarian

Eva Marie Saint as eccentic librarian

Having said that they have still been discarded. Apart from the director using librarian as shorthand for sad and lonely in Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan the fact that the protagonist is a librarian is far less important to the film that the fact that he is a suicidal and obsessive-compulsive neatness freak in a strange country forced to live with a messy woman in her shabby house. It is a familiar tale of ill-matched-couple-thrown-together-in-jeopardy-who-fall-for-each-other but nothing at all to do with libraries. Oh and being an arty film there is a gecko that keeps appearing meaningful in camera shots but as he is unlikely to be a librarian, he’s far too colourful, I didn’t bother to follow. Likewise the casting of Dominique Labourier as a librarian in Phantom Ladies over Paris also rather bafflingly titled Celine and Julie go Boating is also merely to establish as quickly as possible that the character is lonely, and the character summary is pointedly prefixed by the word “bespectacled” just to make sure you get the message.

I have also spared you all those other films where as so often the librarian character is a handy label that signals sad, lonely, loser, timid, unassuming, domineering, officious or any words like that in any particular order. Clearly referring to someone as a librarian is in the hands of some directors a more modern but equally demeaning if less obvious device to that used in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to cruelly brand someone. As evidence I invite the jury to consider It’s a Wonderful Life where it is the dreadful realisation of how his wife would have ended up if he had never been born which finally convinces James Stewart not to end it all. “She’s an old maid she never married…” he is told “She’s just about to close up the library!”. Thank goodness there are no beautiful and sociable librarians in the world; how on earth would we spot sad and lonely characters in the cinema.

The annotations in Martin Raish’s wonderful resource were invaluable in enabling me to edit out all the references where the library or librarian is seen only fleetingly and often with no impact on the plot. So I was able to ignore any film that boast “brief scene in the library” as well as other equally marginal appearance including “standing in the background whilst Clark Gable kisses his wife in a library” or “seen stamping books” and even “doing a little light shelving” and there is of course plenty of “shushing” and so those films won’t detain us. No, not even the ones where a librarian gets the odd line of inconsequential dialogue, like the Librarian of the Library of Alexandria pleading for Julius Caesar to help save the burning Library in the 1946 Caesar and Cleopatra or the special guest appearance of the Library of Congress when Peter Ustinov has to explain what a library was in Logan’s Run, and definitely not the bizarre case of a librarian wound up by a mischievous invisible man in Don’t look under the bed (1999).

As well as all those examples of “shushing” there are more than a few disapproving glances and several obstructive and callous librarians in the cinema which we can get out of the way quite quickly. Billy Elliot in the film of that title steals a book on ballet from the mobile library because the librarian won’t allow him to borrow it because it is an adult book and he isn’t and in Kes the title

John Rothman the librarian in Sophie's Choice moonlighting from his day job as a sadist

John Rothman, the librarian in Sophie’s Choice, moonlighting from his day job as a sadist

character is turned away because he is scruffy and dirty and not at all the sort we want in our library. The gold medallist in this category though must be John Rothman as the obnoxious librarian in the Sophie’s Choice whose sneering bullying at her perceived ignorance drives Meryl Streep to collapse. They are the old-school librarians for whom the potentially redemptive possibilities of libraries not to mention the occasional smile matter rather less than sticking doggedly to the rules or showing contempt at the ignorance of the customers. Today those attitudes are disappearing fast, as fast in fact as all the libraries but they still thrive in other customer services. Like the Department for Work and Pensions Job Centres where customer care is no longer required because desperate jobless customers have been re-designated shiftless scroungers or in airlines, train operating companies and most mobile phone providers where what were once customers are now viewed merely as human cash dispensers. But I am getting off the point.

There is the occasional sympathetic librarian, well sympathetic up to a point. Mary in the spoof slasher film Wacko is allowed to sleep in the library but gets in trouble from the librarian for screaming after another of her mightmares about killer lawnmowers and like the one in Ironweed who, confronted again by Meryl Streep asleep in one of her chairs kindly says that she is welcome to stay but sleep isn’t allowed, which isn’t as kind as it seems as sleep is all poor old Meryl is looking for as she is terminally ill and homeless. Still it’s not bad for a Depression era librarian and a lot better than the treatment dished out to Meryl by the rest of the town. After that and Sophie’s Choice you can see why she decided to give comedy a go can’t you?

So they are some of the many films I won’t be inflicting on you over the next few weeks but that still leaves quite a lot of that 550 with which to try and entertain you. And if you really want to go into this in proper serious detail rather than the glib nonsense I serve up here are a few other sources that are considerably more serious and exhaustive

Martin Raish’s LIBRARIANS IN THE MOVIES An Annotated Filmography , Jennifer Snoek-Brown’s blog Reel Librarians and the book The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917–1999, Ray Tevis and Brenda Tevis

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Another reason for cherishing libraries

Back with the next instalment of the regular blog shortly but a special one off post this time to alert you t0 a wonderful example of how libraries, society and popular culture are inseparable. As a wonderfully timely example of the importance of libraries to our cultural identity the famous Manchester Central Library will be the venue for the launch of a new album from celebrated folk reggae band Edward II.

The iconic Manchester Central Library

The iconic Manchester Central Library

It is not the Library’s first association with the folk tradition. Folk legend and local resident Ewan MacColl said it “quickly became a popular rendezvous and “Meet you at the Ref” became a familiar phrase on the lips of students, lovers and unemployed youths. I was there on the opening day and on many days thereafter; the Ref played an important part in my life “

Edward II’s album Manchester’s Improving Daily is based on The Manchester Ballads a collection of thirty five broadside ballads dating from the time of the industrial revolution. Collected by two local historians and folk music enthusiasts, preserved in Manchester Library and published with financial help from the education offices at Manchester City Council, The Manchester Ballads is in the form of loose- leaf facsimile prints of the original penny broadsheets accompanied by text with many of the ballads, giving the biography of the song and, where necessary, a glossary of dialect terms. The Manchester Ballads are a snapshot of Mancunian life in the industrial era.EdwardII

The Manchester Ballads and the musical project which they have inspired are a reminder of the importance of public services such as libraries in preserving our heritage and making it available to future generations so that we can understand our past and how it has helped form our present.

Edward II blend the rhythms of the Caribbean with traditional songs from the British Isles this time from the industrial revolution, specifically from their home town, Manchester. The old broadsides are given the full Edward II upbeat, rock-steady treatment complete with horns, fabulous harmonies and fiery melodeon melodies, and give remarkable insights into the lives of our those living through a time of great change almost 200 years ago and celebrating the working people who really forged Manchester and transformed Britain into an Industrial powerhouse.

Edward II

Manchester’s Improving Daily will be launched in Manchester Central Library on 18th February at 6pm. The band and local born singer Jennifer Reid will be performing songs from the album and David Jennings will present the historical context of the songs. Details can be found on their website.

They are also performing at several festivals over the coming months but if  you can’t make the launch or the festivals then you could listen to our folk show, Hermitage Folk on community radio station 99.2 Hermitage FM in Leicestershire where you can hear the excellent single that has already been released, Victoria Bridge on a Saturday Night. It will be on the show on 25th Feb 6-8pm (repeated Sunday 6-8pm) or better still buy the album.

Folk music, libraries and reggae; chuck in a decent pint of real ale and that’ll do me!

 

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“The Library defends itself … You might enter and you might not emerge”

This week the last of our look at books before we move on to to other things

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, barely 30 years after it was published has been acclaimed as a classic, praised for its portrayal of “the late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas” and as a breath-taking novel of ideas and a masterpiece of postmodern literature. It has also been called one of the greatest whodunits. If you wanted to be intellectual you could say it is a novel about ideas, learning and ignorance, about faith and heresy, scepticism and doubt; and it is a novel about truth and who decides what’s true but who wants to be bothered with all that intellectual stuff; most of all it is just possibly the greatest novel about libraries ever. It is a novel about when librarians were not quiet, inoffensive and helpful but powerful, cunning and ruthless; today if you are a librarian you are at considerable risk of being made redundant and replaced by a retired accountant. In medieval Europe if you were a librarian you ran a considerable risk of ending up dead. So if you are tired of all those dead bodies in the library and the dead librarians we seem to be racking up in recent posts you may want to give this post and indeed the novel a miss because the library provides the context for several more mysterious and gruesome deaths. And you thought the worst harm you could come to in the library was dropping War and Peace on your foot!

If this complex and absorbing whodunit had been set in interwar Europe Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple would pop up in chapter two; if it was present day Oxford, Morse would be making cynical noises about academics and if it was Victorian England then it would inevitably involve Holmes and Watson. But as it is medieval Italy step forward a reluctant monk, and just to point us in the right direction about all the twists and turns and false trails we can expect our unassuming hero monk is named William of Baskerville. And yes of course Umberto Eco, a semiotics professor knew exactly what he was doing when he gave his protagonist that name and it’s a lot more subtle than putting his monk in a deerstalker!

Name of the Rose BookSome might consider it quite irresponsible to reduce such a wonderfully rich and powerful classic novel, with more layers than a prize winning onion at the village show, down to a series of set pieces about libraries and librarians but that’s not going to stop me of course because the library, at the heart of a great medieval abbey, is also at the heart of the plot throughout. Anyway it is Eco himself who offers the library of the novel as a metaphor at the heart of his story referring early on to “the greatest library in Christendom” but hints at the mystery of the plot when one frustrated and disgruntled cleric describes the library and the abbey as “a den of mad men…fallen from its pedestal as the champion of learning in the days when abbots acted as abbots and librarians as librarians”.

The Library is so important that the abbey which hosts it has been built as “as a citadel to defend the library” and just to show how clever he is Eco’s has imagined a library that clearly pays homage to one of the most fantastical libraries of literature, Borges’s The Library of Babel. Borges’s Library is “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors…” whilst the Library that William of Baskerville encounters he describes as “the quadrangular form included, at each of its corners a heptagonal tower…” with “a greater octagon producing four minor heptagons which from the outside appeared as pentagons.” If you have read Borges short story Eco knows you will spot the homage and if you haven’t well you don’t care do you and frankly it’s a hard going so I wouldn’t bother on my account! All you need to know is that it probably involved an architect playing their usual games, which is why the Abbott is able to say of the labyrinthine design “The library was laid out on a plan that has remained obscure to all over the centuries”.

But I wouldn’t be wasting your time or mine on a novel that just wants to show how clever the author is. It’s here because not only is it a wonderfully constructed and complicated thriller it is also full of some of the most memorable quotations about libraries that you are ever likely to find. So wonderful in fact that for years I used several of them, and in particular the one above, in presentations about library building design in a desperate attempt to create comic effect. So if you have ever had to sit through any of my talks that might be another reason for skipping this post and taking the cat for a walk or something more rewarding like that. But let’s get on with that plot.

William of Baskerville a monk with a reputation for Holmesian deductive skills has been sent to one of the medieval world’s most famous monastic libraries because it is scene of a gruesome and inexplicable death. No, not another locked library, well not quite. The dead body of a young novice has been discovered outside the library at the foot of a high, sheer, unscaleable wall below the windows of the library, the only place from where the body could have fallen where it did. But all the windows are closed so it isn’t suicide and that part of the abbey is locked and forbidden to everyone after nightfall, when the death occurred, and protected by fiendish defences. With such an impossible scenario The Abbott fears diabolic forces or worse, one of the monk, so Baskervilleand his young assistant Adso are asked to solve the mystery.

And just to make it a little trickier Baskerville is forbidden from entering the library despite the fact that this was clearly material to whatever happened. Not because they are waiting for the scenes of crime officers and forensic scientists, they have not been invented yet. In fact everyone is routinely denied access to the library apart from the select few. As the Abbott explains with logic that would warm the hearts of many old-school librarians who could never understand why, when you had compiled a collection of the most wonderful literature, you would want to pollute it by letting people anywhere near it because they’ll only keep putting them back in the wrong place and getting coffee stains all over them. “Only the Librarian has received the secret from the librarian who preceded him and he communicates it while still alive to the assistant librarian…the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian… has the right to move through the labyrinth of the books and he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them”.

It might help follow the post if you keep the picture of Sean Connery in the film role in your mind, rather than Sherlock Holmes in a monk’s habit. His young assistant, Adso, is Watson but without the moustache and a lot younger.

It might help follow the post if you keep the picture of Sean Connery in the film role in your mind, rather than Sherlock Holmes in a monk’s habit. His young assistant, Adso, is Watson but without the moustache and a lot younger.

Even after a second murder that clearly points to the library Baskerville is denied access because the Abbott and Librarian take the view that despite the vast and important collection in the library impressionable young clerical minds need protecting from all that potentially corrupting literature. As the Abbott explains again “Only the Librarian knows ….what secrets what truths or falsehoods the volume contains. Only he decides how, when and whether to give it to the monk who requests it.” The power of the librarian back then eh…Wouldn’t happen today would it? “Never mind the latest Jo Nesbo, I’ll tell you what book you are allowed to borrow today madam!” But please don’t tell my local County Council because they might just think this is nearly as brilliant an idea as letting volunteers run libraries without giving them any money.

Eco completes his picture of the all powerful library with a quote that I thought was the perfect introduction to a conference paper on the design of library buildings “The Library defends itself immeasurably… You might enter and you might not emerge”

And of course only the librarian understands the classification scheme as Malachi the abbey librarian explains “only the librarian is allowed access to the library. It is therefore, only right and proper that only the librarian knows how to decipher these things.” I am sure that just about any library user in a hurry would entirely concur. Readers have never needed to understand these things despite all the hours librarians spend trying to explain how the Dewey classification system works. As soon as assignment deadlines converge with pub opening times they just wander up to a Helpdesk with a helpless girly or dumb bloke look on their face and ask a librarian to find the material for them which of course we always do. And Dewey is nothing like as infernally complicated as the classification system used in the abbey library, which appears to be a cryptic version of Mornington Crescent, based on a map of the ancient world, the letters of the alphabet and the invasion route for German Panzer divisions during the Second World War. All the combinations of which the librarian would of course know by heart but the hapless reader would give up trying to follow in despair two stops out of Cockfosters. If that isn’t enough to deter the curious minded who manage to get into the impregnable library then the library is protected by its impossibly elaborate construction and by the fear created by the skilful use of ventilation to create unworldly howls, the monsters generated by your own reflection in the sort of distorting mirrors that you find at cheap seaside fairgrounds today or more disturbingly the use of psychotropic drugs cunningly disguised as incense. It’s so much easier nowadays to fob off readers looking for material. The harassed and irritable assistant librarian simply tells the poor reader that due to the budget cuts we can’t afford it. It has the same deterrent effect but is nothing like as satisfying as scaring the pants off them with the drugs and the funny mirrors.

Eco being an accomplished thriller writer of course there are plenty of red herrings and false leads in The Name of the Rose. Is the motive for the murders gay lust amongst the monks? Is it the increasingly worldly venality of the monks? Is it about heresy or witchcraft, is it about the battle between the Pope in Avignon and the Holy Roman Emperor or is it about power because back then of course the Librarian was the second most powerful person in the abbey who automatically became the next Abbot. Unless he gets bumped off of course. The answer is no, no, no, no and possibly. But all, at various times, are used to distract or mislead our sleuths and us. And like all good whodunits our hero finds the solution by accident after misreading too many of the clues by which time the body count has reached Midsommer Murders levels.

If you need confirmation that this really is a novel about a library rather than one where the library is discarded after about Chapter Two, when he does his Poirotesque exposition towards the end William begins “it was always the Library”. Or to be more precise it was about the books. “The library was perhaps born to save the books it houses but now it lives to bury them” he says. The real motive was controlling access to the books that might challenge the established order of things if they were read by the uninitiated which is everyone apart from the monks then. They remain hidden in the Library denying people access for fear that they will think for themselves in a way that the Church and the powers that it supports would not approve and could not control. Of course we are much freer with our sensitive information nowadays, apart from the Official Secrets Act, confidentiality agreements and the use of “commercial sensitivity” to undermine the Freedom of information Act all of which perform much the same function.

From one perspective the book portrays how powerful librarians were in the medieval world, where to read was rare and have access to anything worth reading even more so. Librarians were the guardians of the accumulated knowledge since the beginning of the written word and this bestowed enormous power. It was this power that made it possible for the Librarian to succeed the Abbot. Sadly no longer. I recall a time when out on placement at a college library from my post-graduate library and information diploma I was asked how libraries appeared to have changed and in response being cocky said that it used to be that in academic processions the librarian used to walked right behind the Vice Chancellor, nowadays they were lucky to get in ahead of the tea trolley and the caretaker so much had our position been eroded. So in the Abbey at the heart of Eco’s story the ambitious young radical monk determined to end the conspiracy of the library can easily be bought off by the offer of initiation into the secrets of the library as the new Assistant Librarian. Those were the days; when librarians could control the Abbott, dictate who read what, wield great powers of patronage and were still the only ones who knew where all the good porn was. Nowadays you can read what you like, the librarian is a figure of fun and porn is instantly available on your mobile phone but on the other hand as a librarian you stand less chance of ending up dead.

Spoiler alert!!

If you haven’t read the book and intend to you might like to skip the rest of the chapter as I will be giving the game away.

A splendid edible tribute to libraries created by baker Kathy Knaus. If your library is closed by the penny pinchers just bake your own. Go to Kathy's Facebook page too see more examples of her entertaining baking. Many thanks to Val for sending this to the blog

A splendid edible tribute to libraries created by baker Kathy Knaus. If your library is closed by the penny pinchers just bake your own. Go to Kathy’s Facebook page too see more examples of her entertaining baking. Many thanks to Val for sending this to the blog

In one of my early posts on librarians in literature I referred to an academic article that referenced The Name of the Rose in which the authors decided that “in casting a librarian as one of literature’s most fiendish villains, Eco has paid our profession the ultimate compliment.” It is an interesting thesis that; if we are to get respect for the library profession we need a few good evil psychopathic librarians in novels. Which would be fine apart from the fact that the old Librarian who is Eco’s villain, is Spanish, elderly and blind so painting him as such a consummate villain will almost certainly infringe a whole raft of modern equality legislation on race, age and disability not to mention mental health as he is clearly bonkers. And of course the final scenes in the Library with all those naked flames, blind alleys and absolutely no fire escapes would certainly be used by any health and safety inspectors to prosecute just about everyone involved. I wouldn’t like to be the PR agency given the account to sell The Name of the Rose as an advert for the modern professional librarian even if it is the best book about libraries ever.

And that seems as good a place as any to finish looking at libraries and librarians in novels although as I said many weeks ago there are potentially hundreds more with more appearing as we speak. This was never meant to be exhaustive as it would have been exhausting long before we reached that point but I hope that I have at least managed to provide a taste of the rich and varied range of books that feature libraries and thank you all for persevering so far. But now you can have a rest from literature. As I trailed a week or two back, next we will have a look as some film and TV portrayals of librarians.

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“Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal”

NATIONAL LIBRARIES DAY – February 6th

Libraries in the UK are loved, valued and were visited an astonishing 265 million times last year! Libraries are a vitally important public service. Celebrate them on National Libraries Day, Saturday 6 February 2016. Find out more at http://www.nationallibrariesday.org.uk/

Libraries in the UK are loved, valued and were visited an astonishing 265 million times last year! Libraries are a vitally important public service. Celebrate them on National Libraries Day, Saturday 6 February 2016. Find out more at http://www.nationallibrariesday.org.uk/

Before we start there are more important things to think about than my glib comments about better writers than me. This Saturday is National Libraries Day here in the UK; the day to celebrate all that libraries mean to us, our families, and our communities. if you haven’t been in for a bit drop in on Saturday and join in their events, have a look round or just say hello and show your support for  a vital service under threat from politicians and others who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. In my local library Hermitage FM the radio station on which I present shows will be there all day as they have been for the past few years so if you can’t make your own library tune into 99.2FM if you live in the East Midlands or go along to our website and listen there.

“Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal”

Right back to normal now after that important announcement and a brief period of self indulgent self enjoyment over the festive season and after a trip to Hong Kong to see our daughter so where was I. Ah yes I seem to recall that I had shared with you my barely formed ideas for a novel about a librarian sleuth only to find I had been beaten to it by former librarian Veronica Stallword and her character Kate Ivory. What I failed to mention was that as someone who enjoyed good humorous writing it did lead me to think albeit briefly about a comic librarian sleuth not a combination of words you find very often mainly because when I say briefly I mean that it only took a few nanoseconds to realise what a spectacularly stupid idea this was so I went back to researching librarians in literature.

This was when I discovered the writing of Ian Sansom a journalist and novelist with as far as I can see no previous convictions for librarianship.

SansomIrish literature is rich in comic invention. I have read Flann O’ Brian’s The Third Policeman and thought Spike Milligan’s Puckoon one of the great comic novels when I read it as an 18 year old. When you are an 18 year old bloke a line like ”Vicar, the cat’s pissed on the matches” can easily convince you that you are reading comic genius whereas I had struggled frankly to find the humour in the dark and disturbing The Third Policeman. Well somewhere at a remote rural Irish literary crossroads were The Third Policeman intersects with Puckoon you will find Israel Armstrong. Ian Sansom has produced a series of well received novels about the comic antics Israel Armstrong who somehow or other manages to solve gentle low key crimes as his life slowly falls apart around him and guess what his job is? Yes Israel Armstrong is a librarian, a particularly hapless librarian running a mobile library service in rural Northern Ireland. You see that was my idea apart from the Irish setting obviously and the bit about the mobile library and the fact that the hero was called Israel; so nothing like it all then, but I might have got there too who knows? And now we never will because Ian Sansom got there first.

Israel Armstrong is another fictional librarian whom the library image makers might want to avoid as a potential role model for the library profession. The star of Ian Sansom’s The Mobile Library series occupies that stereotypically charmless and luckless wasteland somewhere between that nadir of the fictional librarian, Timothy Lumsden* , and Mr Bean. His snobbish mother who had hoped he would become a doctor or lawyer considers a librarian “somewhere on the social scale just below a social worker and just above bus driver”, his girlfriend who stays behind in London is too busy even to text him let alone phone or visit and the girl he fancies who helps with the mobile library is far too tough and feisty to be attracted to the sallow soppy librarian. He lives in a chicken coop and drinks beyond his capacity; he is a short fat lapsed Jewish misfit whom women like but never love and he never understands why or what to do about it. Armstrong’s most positive features appear to be remorseless self-pity and a chronic disillusionment with the mendacity and stupidity of the human race or at least the representative sample that regularly turns up as customers at Mr Armstrong’s libraries. There is a lot to admire if you are a short, overweight confused and frustrated former librarian who likes a drink.

Israel has ended up in Northern Ireland as a result of restructuring despite the fact that his previous job was in London and it doesn’t take Israel long to discover that rural Irish customers are just as bad as the readers he has left behind in London. “Reading” he reflects “makes them … even less likely than your fellow man to or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not revolve around you or your ailments”. He concludes that reading is nothing more than a kind of “mental knitting,… a pleasant way of passing time before you die”. Ireland as you can see has not been as successful as Israel might have hoped and it gets no better when he becomes a suspect in a mysterious theft and the disappearance of a company director and falls into the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland where his surreal interrogation has definite overtones of The Third Policeman. The initial sarcastic bravado, “Truth is I am not a mild mannered fellow you see. I’m a dangerous criminal on the run from Interpol”, soon gives way to the comically desperate “Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal” as he realises that he really is a suspect in a crime he was supposed to be investigating, whilst an incident in the church with a fake boulder and a vanishing trick used to recreate the Resurrection was definitely redolent of Spike Milligan’s comic classic, Puckoon. And that is just one novel in the series there are two more!

As Israel reflects on the wreck that is his life he ponders that “If he’d been a detective in one of his favourite writer’s crime novels he’d have drunk a half bottle of whisky and gone driving into the night listening to his favourite music whilst making incredible deductive leaps. Instead he felt sorry for himself, made a cup of tea and went to bed” At that point I decided that this was becoming too spookily like reading an autobiography, made a cup of tea and went to bed.

No home life at all

FalcoLibraries seem to hold a particular attraction for writers of historical mystery fiction, most though not all set in medieval Britain or Europe. Lindsey Davis constructs a whole novel out of a story about a library and a librarian but then again this is the Great Library of Alexandria in a novel helpfully entitled Alexandria so she has a fair amount of raw material to work on there. Davis has written so many murder mysteries featuring her Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco in various parts of the Roman Empire that it was inevitable that one would be set in Alexandria which can only mean a mystery featuring the Great Library as there wasn’t a fat lot else there at the time by all accounts. And a good read it is too although there is so much packed into it that by the end it does give the impression of one of those exercises set by creative writing tutors; “Write a story set in Alexandria featuring a dead body in a locked library, a dead librarian and another librarian as a murderer, a stolen scrolls racket, a clever detective with an even more clever wife, lots of accurate period detail, a femme fatale. Oh and let’s say, to make it really interesting… a crocodile”.

The Librarian appears right at the outset of the novel, and despite being a librarian in Ancient Egypt and therefore a pretty important person he is clearly a character to whom we are not meant to form much of an attachment. We can tell this partly because his shabby clothes are “a fortnight overdue at the laundry” as he is a “natural slob” and partly because he is surly, drinks too much and talks very little unless you get on to horse racing, in fact a librarian after my own curmudgeonly heart. But we know not to get too close to him chiefly because he ends up dead on page 22.

Despite his rather peremptory demise it is clear that the librarian and his death are at the heart of some mystery. When last seen alive he was moody and in a world of his own “which seemed pretty normal for a librarian” and it becomes clear as the story develops that professionally he didn’t just have a chip on his shoulder so much as a very big bag of King Edwards. As for his private life, when the Librarian is found dead the next morning behind the inevitable locked door Falco immediately starts to seek reasons why after a good meal in good company and with free flowing wine the Librarian would want to go back to his office instead of straight home. “Poor home life” he muses out loud. “He is a Librarian, Falco” responds his assistant “No home life at all most probably” I thought that was a bit harsh and I can’t repeat what my wife said when I read it out to her without upsetting the censors!

But who would want to kill someone just because they forget to take their clothes to the laundry every week, and how was he killed in a room locked from the outside and how are you going to work that crocodile into the plot?

Equally significant especially for plot development is the fact that Librarian back then was a position of high status and power, unlike today when the government considers them so unimportant they can be replaced by random unpaid volunteers with as much power as your average trainee filing clerk The role of Librarian was a route to become Chief Ministe and so coveted by several other senior academics all of whom obviously become suspects for the killing of the Librarian. As a University Librarian I have of course heard reports of people saying “I’m going to kill that Librarian when I see him” on more than one occasions but that is usually because I have put a crotchety professor’s ancient unused journals in a skip or told a Dean of Faculty that they have to pay overdue fine just like real people, and anyway they don’t really mean it. Do they? The candidates here are a typical rag bag of immature dysfunctional suspects otherwise known as academics, completely expert in their narrow fields of study and absolutely useless at anything practical to do with the real world. They include a lawyer looking to achieve respectability as a Librarian which you don’t hear every day and two who are feuding over the manifold virtues of the voluptuous Roxanna as well as the Librarian post, and both seem to view winning the title and the girl as the equivalent of doing the Cup and League double.

The discovery of Great Library scrolls on a rubbish tip leading to the discovery of the theft of irreplaceable scrolls on an industrial scale gradually reveals the real villainy at the heart of the Great Library, not the librarian gambling away the book budget on the second favourite at Fontwell Park but the Director whom you never really liked anyway who has been gradually selling off the priceless scrolls from the Library and lining his own pockets. Oh and I forgot all about the crocodile. He’s an inmate in the adjacent zoo who accidentally on purpose is released from his cage by one of the contenders for the Librarian post hoping he’ll kill one of his rivals, leading later to the inevitably watery wrestling match with our hero but you already guessed that didn’t you?

DohertyPC Doherty like Lindsey Davis has written a lot of historical novels many set in the reign of Edward I that feature gentleman sleuth Sir Hugh Corbett and like Davis eventually he gets round to setting one in an Oxford college library. The Devils Hunt manages to tick most of the boxes required for libraries in thrillers including an impressive ancient library “that smelt of pure beeswax, parchment and leather” and houses most of the great works, a locked Library plot, a library book with significant pages removed and another library book that throws up the answer…oh and another dead librarian. Sadly the plot has nothing to do with any of these but revolves around Simon De Montfort and his defeated supporters, political treachery and betrayal and absolutely no cataloguing at all, although the initial mystery does involve the dead librarian trying to write the name of his murderer before he dies. Being a typical smart arse medieval librarian, though he tries to write it in Latin and then dies before he can finish it so no one knows what the hell he was trying to say. Because of his linguistic thoughtlessness there are at least two more murders but one of them is as a consequence of drinking wine on the Library which will, I know, bring a wry smile of satisfaction to some of the more fundamentalist librarians of my acquaintance who think consuming food and drink within a 10 mile radius of a library is indeed a capital offence.

There is of course just one more historical novel featuring libraries and librarians we must talk about before we move on to other media and that is as I keep saying the greatest novel about libraries ever but that will be for next time.

*The character played by Ronnie Corbett in a 1980’s BBC TV so called comedy series

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