Tag Archives: famous librarians

‘Til Daddy takes her Tbird away….

One of the activities with which I clutter up my life  now that I have sloughed off the cares of labour and one of reasons why there is less time than I originally hoped for the blog is presenting radio shows. By a series of events that I shall spare you, several years ago  I became part of a group of enthusiasts presenting a weekly folk music programme on the local community radio station (Hermitage FM in case you are bothered which broadcasts on 99.2 FM but only if you are within the licence restricted reception area of North West Leicestershire unless you listen on the net). It is still going strong but as usual with mission creep I also found myself helping out to fill gaps in the day time schedules with the standard diet of pop music; just until they found someone better you understand. That was 6 years ago and I am still doing that two days a week less because they can’t find anyone better more because they can’t find anyone with the time and inclination to sit in a soundproof room talking to themselves desperately hoping that someone, anyone is listening.

So just what exactly has this got to with a blog about libraries?

As a presenter I have access to an enormous database of popular music covering the past 60 or so years and if you asked me to find any library references from that database with two minor but in my case significant exceptions I would fail. I mention this because having explored books films, TV and comic books for references to libraries and librarians to which I could apply my juvenile attempts at humour I had assumed that I had exhausted the possibilities. It never entered my head, therefore, that I would need to explore the world of music for references to libraries and librarians pretty sure that the last place I was ever likely to find references to libraries was in music.

Even Haydn who managed an astonishing 104 symphonies many named after every imaginable thing from hens and  bears to clocks and schoolmasters never managed a Library Symphony and no one not even librarians have been stupid enough to suggest that John Cage’s 4’33”, four and a half minutes of silence, has anything at all to do with libraries. Miles Davis never did a follow up to Kind of Blue entitled Kind of Quiet, and despite the off-the-wall nature of their songs even great humourists such as Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swann found libraries less of an inspiration than the Periodic Table of the Elements which Lehrer set to music or the antics of a gnu “moving in next to you” which was such a success for the latter.  When Herman’s Hermits sang about “There’s a kind of hush” disappointingly but unsurprisingly it was not a celebration of the life transforming qualities of the nation’s public library system but was actually the sound “of lovers in love”; bless. Even English folk music, obsessed as it was with sailing off to sea, marching to war and the fatal sexual antics of Lady Arnold and Matty Groves did not as far as I know have a single mention of libraries in its entire and extensive canon despite the use it frequently made of the day to day work of ordinary people. Libraries were clearly not as romantic as all those herring fishermen, cunning poachers and Orcadian weavers. So I was astonished to find that I was wrong and in unlikely circumstances which is how I discovered the first of my two exceptions.

And where on earth does he fit in…?

Our management team were looking for good, pithy marketing strap lines to help us imprint the value of the Library on the limited attention span of our student brain  occupied by beer or sex and sometimes beer and sex,  and the even more fleeting attention of the university’s management team. “Come to the Library; we pay the heating bill so you don’t have to” or “Use the Library it’s close to the Union bar” that sort of thing. It is the sort of exercise that is treated as mission critical by University senior management and by most staff on a continuum that runs from complete boredom through barely disguised ridicule to utter contempt leaving the service Directors in the middle to sort out the mess with as much imagination as they can muster. To my amazement one of my colleagues in an otherwise unconnected conversation suggested  “Libraries gave us power” which he explained was taken from a Manic Street Preachers song that had used this slogan as the opening line to one of their songs, Design for Life. Despite my love of just about any genre of music throughout my life the Manics along with all the other artists who appeared and flourished in the 1980’s had completely passed me by as it was from that period in our lives when our entire listening material to which were contractually obliged to sing along comprised an endless repetition of “the wheels on the bus go round and round” to very young daughters. When I pursued this with my much younger colleague he explained that the Manics were very much his era and added that he was glad to be reminded of the track because he hadn’t listened to much music himself recently as his entire current listening material to which he was obliged to sing along comprised an endless repetition of “the wheels on the bus go round and round” to his own very young daughter. And before I move on and to complete the cycle we are now in the phase of our life when my wife and I look after our grandson every week and guess what he likes us to sing with him…endlessly. But I am digressing

The slogan that the Manics employed is adapted from the inscription above one of the doors of a branch library in their home town of Newport, South Wales. The actual phrase is “Knowledge is Power” originally coined by Francis Bacon. Not the C20th painter who always seemed to clumsily smudge his paintings but from a much earlier Francis Bacon, the philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who is also definitely not to be confused with Ken Morley better known as Reg Holdsworth former star of Coronation Street who chose “Knowledge is Power” as the title for his autobiography because it was a phrase he used a lot apparently. You will know better than me because the last time I watched Coronation Street Ena Sharples was still a pinup! The quote inspired the band to write Design for Life and seems to have come to their attention because bassist Nicky Wire’s wife was working for Newport Libraries at the time. It is rather bleak song that links the proud aspiration of working class learning that has always been a major part of public library history with the emptiness of the lives of some modern day young people who “don’t talk about love we only want to get drunk”. Borrowing inspiration from libraries is something they are unlikely to do again though as for their pains the band were roped into perform the official opening of Cardiff’s new Central Library where the lyric  “libraries gave us power” has been inscribed on a plaque at Cardiff’s new £15m library. This inevitably involved making all sorts of positive quotes about the value of libraries  which I am sure were very genuine but I can’t help wondering what Keith Moon the late drummer of the Who would have made of it? His claim to fame was driving his Rolls Royce into his swimming pool! Now that’s rock and roll!

This chance encounter as usual led to another. You wait years to find a song that mentions libraries and then several come along all at once. A few weeks after discovering Design for Life, I was inattentively listening to one or other of the Radio 2 programmes that act as aural wallpaper on my drive into work when John Humphries had become just so unbearably bombastic on the Today programme on Radio 4 that you would rather listen to the snivelling insincere and poorly briefed politicians than have him in interrupt again before they have got two syllables out in response to a his rambling question that was loaded with malice aforethought. I found myself singing along to a Beach Boys classic, Fun Fun Fun, about the poor little Californian rich girl driving round in Daddy’s Thunderbird and for once actually heard what they said about “she forgot all about the Library that she told he old man yeah” How come after listening to this track on and off for donkey’s years had I not heard the mention of the Library or at least the mention had not registered with me. Of course it was the classic teenage kids ploy “Just off to the Library Daddy, can I borrow the car please”, “Sure Honey, study hard” And off she goes to a clandestine assignation with the boy of whom Daddy disapproves but the mention of the Library is enough to deflect any parental concern. After all what could possibly happen in a Library?

It is exactly the same across cultures. One of my former PAs, a Muslim assured me that the reason why we had so many Asian students in the library was not because they were a particularly studious lot determined to make the most of the privilege of a place at university, although many were that as well, but because it was the place where parents would trust their youngsters to go without them messing around with the opposite sex which was what they wished to strictly control.  What Mum and Dad didn’t know and as we discovered every day in my own university library was that as soon as their daughter got to the library they went straight to the Ladies toilet put on their makeup changed into a shorter skirt and then spent all the rest of the day flirting with all the blokes who had driven up in their smart cars and spent all day in the library without a single book or notepad because their intention wasn’t studying either! In the evening the makeup would come of the skirt was changed and off they went home truthfully telling everyone that they had had a good day in the Library.

There was even a poster on exactly that theme on my office wall many years ago, which I have since lost, showing the back of a sofa, several naked arms and legs and random underwear strewn about with the caption “If Mom calls tell her I’m at the library” which has even been hijacked as the strap line for a London bar adjacent apparently to Barnet College cleverly called The Library. So I think we are beginning to see a trend here which as we shall see will feature prominently in this chapter.

These two quite unexpected encounters with libraries in pop and rock music set me off on the trail of other musical references that I might have missed or simply knew nothing about. After all if headliner bands such as Manic Street Preachers and The Beach Boys have used the library motif then who knows what lurked in the dense undergrowth of the music that rarely gets air time on national or local radio from performers hoping to make it big, bands who never will and the largest sector, acts that don’t care whether they make it or not but are just happy to keep on making their kind of music for their kind of fans. What I discovered will keep us occupied and I hope interested for the next few posts.


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Librarians on the Edge

If the Librarian of the Unseen University, whom we met last time in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the best known librarian in fantasy fiction he is also unique not just because he is the only librarian with arms that reach the floor, eats only bananas and peanuts and is in short an irascible, bad tempered orangutan but also because apart from the odd catastrophe caused by random outbursts of malevolent magic he is a librarian with no immediately obvious predators and sufficient strength to see them off if there were. Other librarians are not so fortunate. Elsewhere librarians may be slightly greater in number but those numbers are persecuted by ruthless and merciless predators determined to drive them to extinction forcing those remaining to find sanctuary wherever they can but we don’t have time to talk about the real world of local council budget cuts as this week we are talking about the fantasy world of the Edge; on the other hand the similarities are remarkable.

The first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

The first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

The Edge not unlike Discworld is a huge chunk of rock floating in space and again like Discworld has so far managed to remain undetected by those offensive creatures on Earth and so spared the fly-tipping of their malfunctioning space probes. The Edge is also the setting for The Edge Chronicles[1], the marvellous fantasy creation of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell which despite a target audience of pre and young teens are a bit less flippant than the irreverently comic tone of Terry Pratchett’s novels. The dangers to which the inhabitants of the Edge are exposed are considerably greater than on Discworld. The Gloamglozer, Rock Demons, Hoverworms, Muglumps and a variety of vindictive gnomes and trolls are amongst many lurking terrors that are to be avoided at all costs as are the most frightening of them all the dreaded Shrykes, who instil the same cocktail of terror and loathing achieved only in our own world by the Gestapo, The Spanish Inquisition and for at least half the world population apparently, Marmite.

In the world of the American fantasy comic the world would be protected from those terrors by an army of superhuman mutant heroes able to destroy any threat to civilization when their awesome supernatural strength, agility, speed  or weapons grade martial arts skills are automatically activated as a soon as they slip into a garish lycra outfit. In The Edge this task is delegated to librarians. But the people of The Edge needn’t worry because these are not just any librarians, these are Knight Librarians; the authors clearly attracted by the comic dissonance of a name that has the same oxymoronic plausibly as poet-footballer, ballet dancer-accountant, or philanthropist-banker.

Part of The Edge is being destroyed by a deadly stone sickness and the Librarians are part of an alliance with The Guardians of the Night (pay attention because there is a lot of this to take in) to try and save their world.  Unfortunately tactics were never a librarian’s strong point and whilst they researched the problem collated findings and called meetings to agree solutions the rest of the Guardians led by the unscrupulous and ruthless “evil usurper” Vox Verlix decide it is a simpler solution to blame the librarians and drive them into exile.  Vox Verlix appears to be an early prototype for the Chair of the most current council councils with a remit to destroy libraries but whereas the Chair has strictly limited legal powers Vox Verlix maintains an army of goblin mercenaries solely for the purpose of hunting down Librarians. The forces of darkness, like some local councillors, fear scholarship and hate those who promote it and protect the fruits of its research, which pretty much means The Librarians. As Vox Verlix says in his best Ernst Blofeld voice “That’ll show those accursed librarian knights … they think they are so clever with their books and learning.”

The Great Storm Chamber Library - award winning and innovative... and damp

The Great Storm Chamber Library – award winning and innovative… and damp

Outmanoeuvred by The Guardians of the Night the hunted and persecuted librarians have been driven into exile in the Great Storm Chamber Library otherwise known as an underground sewer that serves Undertown one of the tougher neighbourhoods of The Edge; a bit like Victorian Whitechapel but not quite so safe. In the Great Storm Chamber Library it is a constant battle to keep out the rainwater and damp as it seeps down the walls playing havoc with the lighting, the books and the arthritis of older librarians. Older librarians in theb real world will instantly recognise the similarity with many early Polytechnic libraries which were housed in old factories, converted Nissan huts or leaky extensions to faded stately homes; public librarians will recognise this as a description of any newly built library described as innovative, award winning or ground breaking.

In the Great Storm Library the apprentice Librarians continue to look for a solution to the stone sickness studying the great barkwood scrolls of the Library  each housed in large and unwieldy wooden lecterns suspended by what appear to be large helium balloons left over from someone’s birthday party presumably to protect them from the damp floor. When they are consider ready the apprentice librarians make the next stage of their development. They are sent off on a journey to the Librarians’ Academy at Lake Landing in the Freeglades in the heart of the Deepwoods where they can and seek more solutions and if they are successful become fully fledged Knight Librarians. The delightfully sounding names of course give you no clue to the insurmountable obstacles that have to be overcome before they can achieve their goal. They are confronted at every turn not only by that menagerie of fantastically deadly creatures and shadowed everywhere by Guardian spies but more dangerous of all they have to avoid those fearsome menacing and deadly Shrykes. Shrykes are six foot tall birds of prey in full body armour with a huge, vicious raptor beak and 8” talons as sharp as stilettos and wielding a sharp and very deadly weapon. So they are best avoided ; if it helps try to imagine the bloodthirsty and sadistic big brother of the Gruffalo. Shrykes combine the murderous brutality of the Stasi with a merciless slave trade business and a ruthless extortion racket that would make a Mafiosi smile in admiration thanks to their control of the only route across the dreaded Mire and which will be familiar to travellers across the Severn Crossing or the M6 toll.


Shrykes – don’t be fooled by their appearance; they are much more evil than they look

Even worse it turns out that Vox Verlix was a pussycat compared to Orbix Xaxis who overthrows him (I told you there was lot to keep up with).  Orbix Xaxis harboured a pathological hatred of librarians in fact he hated them so much that he simply slaughtered as many as he could using his favourite method of lowering them in a cage to let the Rock Demons tear them apart which might cause real world librarians to reflect on just what unseen and long lasting psychological damage they might be inflicting on young readers when they give them a hard time for putting the books back in the wrong place. But the result is that last stage of the Librarian qualification is a bit like sitting your Finals but with a sword and hunted by a pack of psychopathic monsters.

So it’s a good job that the young trainees have spent their time in the Great Storm Library developing the skills and knowledge needed for such an ordeal giving them a firm grounding in the librarian martial arts of classification, cataloguing and putting the books in order as well as the rudiments of hand to hand combat and piloting skyships, skills that could usefully be added to the real world librarians’ curriculum just in case it ever comes to a last ditch defence of The Last British Library which it might[2]

Rook Barkwater - don't be fooled by his appearance - he's a Librarian

Rook Barkwater – don’t be fooled by his appearance – he’s a Librarian

The young librarian hero of this strand of The Edge Chronicles is Rook Barkwater and of course the novice Knight Librarian succeeds even if like many of us who became chief librarians he succeeds without really understanding how it happened. Unlike the rest of us in the real world however young Rook even gets to rescue a maiden in distress and he gets to utter the immortal words after the style of the great super heroes “I am a knight librarian I’ve come to rescue you.” Despite the fact that she has been captured by and is guarded by those terrible Shrykes he surprisingly gets a positive response and not as you might imagine a dismissive  “Thanks but at the moment I am trapped in a dungeon guarded by birds the size of a grizzly bear with 8” talons and I’m waiting for a real superhero in a tight lycra outfit to help me. I’ll call you when my books are due back.”


[1] I am eternally grateful to my former colleague Sandy Forster who brought The Edge Chronicles to my attention

[2] It is not surprising that Chris Riddell as the current Children’s Laureate has made the defence of libraries and in particular school libraries, one of the major themes of his tenure. He is the illustrator of The Edge Chronicles and obviously of all the illustrations I have taken the liberty of including here.

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The bookworm holes in space

There is no British equivalent of closet librarian superhero Batgirl and it is perhaps just as well. A mysterious spaceship depositing an alien baby in a Midwestern town like Smallville might work as a backstory but substitute a Pennine village like Ramsbottom and the effect is not quite the same. It has also spared us British superhero librarian backstories that might have run like this

It had already been a bad day for Kevin. The Chief Librarian was on his back because he was behind with the cataloguing, three old ladies had been very abusive about the lack of copies of Game of Thrones and as he stepped out of the local library his mother had rung and once again left him feeling inadequate. It was bad enough that his girlfriend had refused to come back to his flat again until he cleaned up a kitchen she said resembled a grease covered scrapyard which explained the box of powerful household cleaner now clutched to his chest under his coat because the thunder that had been rumbling all afternoon had finally brought the threatened torrential rain. Just as he wondered how his day could get worse he lost his footing on the pavement that now resembled a shallow lake and was forced to steady himself against the school railings just as the first bolt of lightning sent 30,00 volts of explosive energy through the evening sky, through the school railings and right through Kevin’s body. Kevin was left semi-conscious in a pool of water as the contents of the cleaning product seeped into the water leaving him lying in a pool of liquid detergent. At least that was the story that Flash would always tell when asked to explain his mysterious sudden appearance as a crusading superhero committed to battling the forces of darkness and stubborn household grime.

Desperate Dan

Desperate Dan



No there has there never been a comparable British comic industry to rival the American fantasy experience of DC and Marvel Comics; the Beano and Dandy may be iconic comics but Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx are unlikely to be confused with Superman or Harley Quinn and Roy of the Rovers may be a superhero for snatching vistory from the jaws of defeat with his spectacular winning goals but he’s never going to save the world especially when he comes up against a Lex Luthor XI.

The British have fared better though at fantasy literature US although unsurprisingly there is, no mention of libraries or librarians in Lord of the Rings; Hobbiton doesn’t appear to have a library but then it doesn’t appear to have a pub or a post office either but maybe Hobbits live simpler lives than we do or have already been badly affected by Middle Earth County Council cuts, or perhaps once again I am just missing the point! Apart from one brief visit there isn’t much of a library in Harry Potter either despite being set in a school but then when did kids in secondary education ever use the library apart from for detentions and rainy lunchbreaks. In fact the only uses of the school library I can recall are finding endless books on Gladstone when I had to do an essay on Disraeli and having my Green Lantern DC Comic confiscated as it was not suitable reading material for a sixth form student in a Grammar School; and I never got it back did I Miss Smith?!

Sir Terry Pratchett the presiding genius who created Discworld and much much more

Sir Terry Pratchett the presiding genius who created Discworld and much much more

Discworld on the other hand not only has its own university but it features a library and librarian who makes frequent cameo appearances throughout the fantasy world created by the genius of Terry Pratchett. For those of you unfamiliar with Discworld, maybe you have been trapped for some time in a parallel universe, following the US Presidential race for example you  may need to know Discworld is as its name implies an entirely flat disc-shaped world supported on the backs of four elephants themselves supported on the back of “Great Atuin the star turtle shell …with eyes like ancient seas and that The Unseen University is the Disc’s premier college of magic so not one to bother with on young Charlie or Amelia’s UCAS forms then.

Obviously because it is a college of magic the Library and the Unseen University is not like any public library you may be familiar with, partly because unlike your local library it’s still open, partly because  the Library is probably the only one in the universe that has Mobius shelves which the pedants and quiz nerds will know, go on forever but mainly because the library comprises mostly books of spells or grimoire as they are known in the trade and they are much more violent than your average Lee Childs novel.

The novel in which we are introduced to the Head librarian and the perils of looking aftre grimoire

The novel in which we are introduced to the Head librarian and the perils of looking aftre grimoire

The Library and the Head Librarian appear for the first time in the novel The Light Fantastic in a story that demonstrates just how dangerous magic libraries can be to the unwary librarian.  After a lifetime in libraries I can say with some confidence that libraries are at the “more risk free than average” end of the health and safety industry continuum; a pulled thread on a pair of trousers, a phantom case of RSI and the occasional dust originated sneeze are about all the hazards with which I can recall dealing . It’s not like that in the Unseen University Library. Librarians sensibly like to put all the books on the same subject together to help their customers but in a library of grimoire this is a lot less sensible than putting lots of cans of petrol near an open furnace.  Grimoire “are deadly”; they not only read themselves but also write themselves and have been known to swallow up readers who then spend the rest of their life as an extra appendix to the volume. When too many of them are put too closely together their magic can leak and cause “randomized magic with a mind of its own” and if the Librarian is careless enough to let a Critical Mass build up then “a flock of thesauri” tear themselves from their shelves and hurl themselves at any passing reader, books shred their own bindings and begin to fight amongst themselves. The worst books are chained to the shelves not as you were taught to prevent theft but to prevent flight and at least one grimoire is so powerful that is bound closed with chains designed by “someone who had spent most of his life making training harnesses for elephants”[2]

When the library first appears and before we have even met our Head Librarian we discover just how dangerous the role of Librarian is. A fireball of elemental magic has drifted through part of the Library as it always seems to do when you are least expecting it “reassembling the possibility particles of everything in its path”, not unlike our annual experience of wave after wave of bewildered new students forced to be introduced to their university library before they have even managed to get pissed or laid for the first time. Part of the floor of the Library of the Unseen University has been transformed into small newts, some of the books appear to have become “pineapple custard[3]”, and “several of the wizards later swore that the sad looking orang-utan sitting in the middle of the floor looked very much like the formerly human Head Librarian”. When we do eventually meet the

Unseen University Head Librarian - like the rest of us paid peanuts

Unseen University Head Librarian – like most librarians – paid peanuts

Librarian he has hands like a leather glove, the only noise he makes as he attempts to talk comes out as “Ook” and he has developed a strong preference for bananas and a liking for payment in bags of peanuts. In a later novel he is described as “a small pot-bellied man with extremely long arms and a size 12 skin in a size 8 body”[4] and I am almost certain I worked with someone fitting that description earlier in my career. Actually on second thoughts it probably was me earlier in my career.

You would think that in a University of Magic it would be a simple matter to return the Librarian to his former incarnation and indeed it may well be but as we discover in a later novels[5] the Librarian is the one resisting this having discovered that life as an orang-utan is infinitely preferably to that of a human and that having seen humanity “not a day goes by without thanking the magical accident that moved him a few little genes away from it”. All those tricky philosophical questions pondered by humanity have now “resolved themselves into wondering where the next banana was coming from” and when pondering the unfathomable antics of humans he has reached the conclusion that “the human mind was a deep and abiding mystery… and he was glad he didn’t have one anymore[6]

His simian state does not prevent the Librarian from taking a full part in University activities. As well as being the goalkeeper for the university team chosen on account of his ability to reach both goalposts without moving from the centre of the goal he was also in a magical rock band, The Band with Rocks[7] in which he played a mean and pretty destructive keyboards but more culturally he also played lunchtime organ recitals though of distinctly atonal music in the University’s Great Hall.  And like all good librarians the Head Librarian is as feared as he is loved by academics. Some of us used to instil fear by threatening to move the ancient, unused but seminal texts of particularly obnoxious professors to the remote store where remote, we tell them means the Orkneys when in fact it was down in the basement but it got their attention, or by cutting the racing results from the daily newspapers.  The Head Librarian’s fearful reputation is though on an altogether higher plane of menace. Inadvertently call him a monkey, even address him respectfully as Mr Monkey, and you will find yourself trampled very flat by several tons of angry simian and with the honourable exception of sharing them with the rest of his hungry football team the Head Librarian’s usual response to anyone hoping to take a banana from him is simple enough; “if you try to take these bananas from me I will reclaim them from your cold dead hands”[8].

The head librarian took a full part in the University's leisure activites

The Head Librarian took a full part in the University’s leisure activites

By contrast I usually achieved the undying respect of academics by offering to reprieve the threatened seminal texts or racing results provided the usual plain brown envelope was on my desk by the end of the working day.

The second biggest library on the Disc is the Library of the Ephebians, according to its detractors “crammed with useless and dangerous and evil knowledge” and books that were never meant to be read but had to be written to secure your reputation,  a good description of those real library collections built up to pander to the vanity of the academics who wrote the books rather than to provide any actual benefit to succeeding generations of scholars, a process known to UK universities as the Research Assessment Exercise. Sadly the Library of the Ephebians suffers the same fate as the Library at Alexandria, destroyed by a fire started incidentally by its own librarian for the blindingly simple reason as he explains that “I am the only one qualified to do it.” Thankfully many of its rare scrolls are saved by a mysterious time travelling ape like creature who gathers many of the most valuable scrolls together and then disappear almost as soon as he had appeared and they find a new home in the Library of the Unseen University.

Terry Pratchett has clearly stumbled upon one of the library world’s best kept secrets; how you can order just about any book from any library and they will get it to you in your local branch. This service is known rather prosaically by the profession as interlibrary loans or by customers as “It will take how long to arrive!?” Librarians agrue that this made possible by a carefully constructed national collaborative network of highly committed customer focused library services but  Pratchett carelessly reveals that this wonderful service is in fact possible because  “all libraries everywhere are connected by the bookworm holes in space created by space time distortion found around any large collection of books.”[9] Librarians of course would rather you didn’t known this and so they keep harping on about Batgirl to distract you.

[1] You can discover many of the references to the Head Librarian in Discworld from a paper entitled The Fictional Librarian Part 1 – The Orang-utan in the Library by Daniel Gwyn which you can find at the following link sis-webspace.mcgill.ca/marginal/mar7-2/ape.htm. however when faced with this goldmine of information I felt it only proper to read all of the relevant novels myself rather than just plagiarise the excellent work of Mr Gwyn!

[2] Colour of Magic p218

[3] This is clearly not that unusual as in Ermanno Cavazzoni’s novel The Nocturnal Library some of the books turn to peat apparently.

[4] Equal Rites p268

[5] Equal Rites and Unseen Academicals for example

[6] Maskerade p 283

[7] Soul Music

[8] Unseen Academicals

[9] Small Gods p215

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Regular followers may be able to cast their minds back to the section where we discussed famous people who had also been librarians and will recall that the posts were overwhelmingly, in fact completely, dominated by men. This was because for a long time it was a bit tricky for women to get into the library business when the top line of the job description usual said “Must be a monk”. So female examples of good role models for the library profession are a bit thin on the ground but we have saved the best one until now. You would think that a female librarian who not only reached to top of her profession but also overcame severe disability to develop an internationally important information business and was even elected to the United States Congress and who also became internationally famous in a quite different field might have come to your attention by now and who knows maybe she has.

Barbara Gordon - Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon – Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon was from Ohio and was adopted by her uncle Jim Gordon and his wife Barbara after her parents died in a road accident when Barbara was still only 13 years of age. Barbara was a very talented pupil partly because of her photographic memory and earned a scholarship to the local university eventually graduating with a doctorate in library science and took a job as a researcher at the City Library whilst she sought to pursue her ambition to join the police force in which her uncle was a senior officer. Unfortunately back in those days being fearsomely intelligent and a martial arts black belt wasn’t enough to get you into any US police forces,  They would claim that at 5’7” and weighing 126lbs she did not meet the physical requirements; they seemed to prefer brute force and ignorance and being a man always helped too.  Unable to make a career in the law Barbara remained in libraries and because there weren’t any monks in that part of the States and 5’7” wasn’t a problem either she eventually became Head Librarian of the City Library.

Sadly Barbara’s career was cut short when she was shot and paralyzed during an armed raid and she became very depressed. In a remarkable recovery however she realised that even confined to a wheel chair she could still be a valuable member of the information community and she created one of the earliest and most powerful computer information systems synthesising all the major news publications across the world and making them available to the crime fighting community. Her success eventually led to her election to the US House of Representatives. Barbara’s achievements have been celebrated in print, on television and even in film and there are dozens of web sites and blogs from other librarians where her accomplished are used to raise the profile of both her information profession and her gender so it is remarkable that someone that apparently well known and with such a rich backstory is still not familiar to you but then the most remarkable thing about Barbara Gordon is that she doesn’t exist.

Despite her complete backstory Barbara Gordon wasn’t born in Ohio at all; she sprang to life a fully formed adult in 1967 from the fertile imaginations of Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino the creative talent behind Detective Comics  and if you are wondering what a librarian is doing in a comic dedicated to fantasy superheroes well in DC #359 Barbara made her debut where she became the second incarnation of Batgirl replacing an earlier version that first appeared in 1961, you see now you know her don’t you?

batgirlThere was a general belief that the only reason Betty Kane the original 1961 Batgirl was introduced into the Batman series was to counter the growing suspicions amongst middle-America readers about the relationship between Batman and his young protégé Robin in the absence of any obvious female presence. Middle-America had warmly embraced the c20th as far as farming technology was concerned but their moral outlook was still firmly rooted in the Dark Ages so the absence of the little lady at home had to be addressed and Batgirl was the answer.

So in 1967 Barbara Gordon became the new and for some the definitive Batgirl. Her day job was in Gotham City Public Library where her first outing in a Batgirl outfit really was just fancy dress because she was just a bit obsessed with Batman. As comic book stories have it of course she has to go to Bruce Wayne’s mansion to deliver a rare book and she is involved in helping solve a crime by one of Batman’s many arch enemies. After this of course she decides she prefers the figure hugging Lycra suit and the sexy mask to her librarian clobber and sets herself up as a crime fighter in her own right but it is only later that she is let in on the secret of Wayne’s heroic alter ego although presumably not what is going on with Robin. So although Batgirl is constantly quoted as a positive female role model for librarians in fact she is just another fantasy woman invented by men hence the tight Lycra.

For those of you who have spent your life worrying about positive female role models for librarians, or the influence of fantasy characters in tight fitting Lycra costumes on women in the information professions, on YouTube you can see a pilot for a possible Batgirl TV series  featuring her first ever TV appearance. It has all the usual clunky, camp stuff; deceptively attractive female librarian in big glasses helping a random handsome unattached male millionaire called Bruce Wayne who just happens to be passing time in the local city library, random sinister looking blokes in space uniforms and funny hats and antennae whom no one has noticed are not your average library users but obviously are waiting for a chance to kidnap any unsuspecting millionaire who just happens to be dropping in to renew his books.

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl - spot the difference

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl – spot the difference

Fortunately Batman and Robin are a lot more observant than the Library staff and can recognise the  henchman of the notorious criminal, Killer Moth for what they are, returning to challenge their nefarious plans with all the usual POW, THWACK, BIFF stuff you know and love. Sadly they are thwarted by one of the bad guys but are rescued by the mysterious new hero Batgirl (played by Yvonne Craig) whom we, the viewers, know was quiet librarian Barbara Gordon who was conveniently locked in her office with its secret closet containing her equally secret superhero outfit[1]. Who is this “dazzling dare doll racing away on her Batbike?” “Is the dynamic duo about to become the triumphant trio?” says the corny voice over at the end that was probably the final nail in the coffin and the series never reached the schedules. It was though enough to persuade the studio to include Batgirl in the third series of the Batman TV show in 1967 making more than 20 subsequent appearances.

Eventually as any dedicated librarian would she tires of dressing up in fancy dress and thwarting master criminals with ridiculous names and can’t wait to get back to the doing the annual library statistics for the City Council and dealing with all of those dysfunctional customers who invariably plague public libraries when you retire from crime fighting.  But once a Lycra clad superhero there is no hiding place for Barbara and she is shot and paralysed by The Joker which seems excessive revenge just for giving someone a hard time about a damaged library book even if it was a Walt Whitman first edition. But then again it might have had something to do with her being the adopted daughter of Gotham City’s Police Commissioner and the Joker wanting a bit of revenge on him. Barbara is cast into a deep depression.; maybe its because Batman just doesn’t fancy her or that she has failed with Robin too, clearly having missed all those rumours about their relationship, and now she is stuck in a wheelchair and to cap it all she has been pensioned off by DC Comics

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever...

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever…

But you can’t stay depressed for long in the graphic comic game and Barbara realises that being shot by a madman with a permanent rictus grin a maniacal laugh and a bad haircut is not a fitting epitaph for any self-respecting female librarian role model and this conveniently coincides with DC realising just how popular Batgirl was and so Barbara returns and establishes herself as the leading anti-crime information broker and rebranding herself as Oracle providing crime fighting intelligence for superheroes. As for her on-off relationship with Robin that continues to be.. well on and off…and on and then off and in any case the  character has well and truly lost the librarian link by this time. So much so in fact that when Oracle did briefly re-appear in a Warner Brothers TV series as recently as 2002 Barbara Gordon was now a teacher and so despite being an admirable role model for female crime fighters with mobility difficulties she serves no further purpose in this blog. But just so you know not to mess with fantasy librarians the show where she was not a librarian was canned after just 13 episodes.

I was made aware of Batgirl’s legacy not just in the essays and articles by librarians still mithering about the librarian stereotype but also in Michael Chabon’s celebrated novel Kavalier and Clay which amongst other things uses the golden age of the US graphic comic as its setting. Joe Kavalier the creative genius/hero of the novel, inspired by his girlfriend to create a female hero, begins sketching the ironic plot line of the story of Miss Judy Dark, Under Assistant Cataloguer at the Department of Decommissioned Books in Empire City Public Library. Inevitably she is “a thin, pale thing in a plain gray suit, and life is clearly passing her by” Well she is a librarian stereotype what did you expect, Scarlet Johansen. “Poor little librarians of the world, those secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a big pair of black eyeglasses.” Judy back in the emptiness of her lonely apartment decides to return to work late that evening, as lonely spinsters so often do, to view the mysterious and priceless Book of Lo devoted to the ancient Cimmerian Moth Goddess when the alternative is watching Bridget Jones again and when the wine rack is empty.  Finding thieves about to make off with the book, like the good librarian Judy feels the need to tackle them.  Somehow poor Judy manages to wrest the book from the large muscular villains but, as I am sure you have found, on the run from ruthless villains, Judy runs into that familiar comic bchabonook contrivance of a wet floor and a live power cable and with a book with mysterious magical powers clasped to her heaving chest. From the resulting shock she finds herself turned into a moth-like creature with huge wings and legs and transported back to Cimmeria a land ruled by women until men took over “and began making a hash of things”. Judy is now the Mistress of the Night with all the power of the Moth Goddess and is sent back to Empire City to right “the worlds many wrongs”. Inevitably she has to have an outfit which she is allowed to choose and as this is a woman invented by a man doing the choosing she sides firmly with the need to keep selling comics to its prime market of pubescent lads by opting for a green number where “tight green underpants are barely covered by the merest suggestion of a skirt” and her legs are “enmeshed in black fishnet and the heels of her ankle boots are stingingly high”. Although it was clearly just an entertaining diversions in an excellent novel and one that clearly had to be included in this book I was nonetheless left with several tantalising thoughts; how does she accomplish her transformation to Mistress of the Night whenever she wants a break from cataloguing; does she have to find a puddle and shove 40,000 volts through it every time; and what happens if she is holding Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or The Gruffalo? But perhaps I am missing the point!

[1] Mine was usually kept in the bottom drawer of my desk, underneath the Good Beer Guide

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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! http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1158740/Revealed-MI5-spied-Swedish-actress-Vogue-photographer-Communist-sympathisers.html

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.

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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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“Not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius”.

Regular followers will know that one of the undercurrents in all this stuff about famous librarians is that librarians take great exception to persistent stereotype of the librarian as a bespectaled, shy socially awkward misfit. So this week we are going to once again see if we can’t disprove that stereotype by looking at a librarian who was, bespectacled, prematurely bald, had a frequent tendency to stammer and was irredeemably shy and lacking in self confidence. He is a perfect Photofit of every stereotype of a librarian that has ever been rolled out by lazy hacks as shorthand for the dull and uninspiring. In fact if a casting director drew up a specification for a stereotypical librarian in a film he would probably end up describing Philip Larkin. But as we shall see appearances can be deceptive.

An awful lot of people know at least two bits of Philip Larkin’s poetry even if they have no idea that it is actually he who wrote them but it is probably the most poetry that many of us know. You know the the bits I mean; one refers to the negative effect your “mum and dad” have on your life(1) and the other accurately pinpoints the year in which sex started (2). Philip Larkin produced what one biographer calls “the Twentieth Century’s most outstanding body of English verse” and his official biographer Andrew Motion declares him “one of the greatest poets of the [20th]century”. Larkin was one of the giants of English literature; articles about him filled the arts pages of newspapers and he was the subject of several profiles on television including the influential The South Bank Show and on John Betjeman’s death he was hotly tipped to be and was indeed invited to be next Poet Laureate, although he declined the invitation. He was the best known most read and most praised poet of his generation but more importantly of course, for the whole of this public life, and indeed from 1943 until his untimely death in 1985 he was also a librarian. So we will be devoting a bit of time to Larkin over the next few weeks.

Philip Larkin in charasteristically carefree mood

Philip Larkin in charasteristically carefree mood

Brynmoor Jones, Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull during the early part of Larkin’s career there commented that people who have written about Larkin have made too much of his poems and not enough of him as a librarian but it would be very difficult to create as impressive a list of Larkin’s achievement in his 40 odd years as a librarian as commentators have of his life as a writer quite apart from the small matter that it would be dreadfully boring even for diehard librarians! On the other hand despite the fact that this is a section about librarians more famous for their achievements in other lives there isn’t a fat lot of point in repeating all the euglogies about his poetry because far better writers than I have done that much better than I ever could. Instead we shall look, briefly, at Larkin’s library career with some help from Andrew Motion’s biography but you will soon realise that this isn’t nearly enough to justify devoting a lot of time to him. Fortunately as we shall see the various posthumous publications about Larkin have revealed that there was quite enough else going on in his life whilst juggling his poetry and his libraries to justify an extended exploration in a publication that has set itself the improbable task of convincing a sceptical world that libraries and librarians can actually be very interesting and even entertaining.

Larkin had no idea what he wanted to do when he left Oxford until he was attracted to the post of librarian in the small Shropshire town of Wellington. Like many who back into a career in libraries when all else fails Larkin was less than enthusiastic and we can surmise that librarianship was not a profession for which Larkin had a youthful passion. Although his mother had chosen libraries as a career his biographer suggests Larkin himself was far from keen and in his letters he reveals that he was “not very proud of the fact” that he had obtained a post in the profession and just in case anyone should mistake his attitude he wrote elsewhere, with the succinct elegance that characterised his poetry, that he knew “sweet f*** all about librarianship.” Although I am sure that he is in good company as many of us even after many years in the profession have woken up in the night with the same despairing thought as we wrestle with perennial problems such as “do we put the physical geography books and human geography books on different floors as Dewey demands or all together where readers can actually find them or do we just put them all in a skip and see if anyone notices?”

To help overcome the ticklish problem of applying for a job about which he knew absolutely nothing his father had provided him with a fascinating read entitled “The Public Library System of Great Britain” which is at least better than Mein Kampf which it might have been given his father’s political sympathies, or Men Only which is the usual stuff dads feel able to pass on to their sons when they reach a certain age. He also encouraged Philip to find out how libraries worked and someone from his home town library in Coventry did indeed give him a rudimentary introduction to “how books were ordered, acessioned and catalogued and then given little little pockets with individual tickets in them that were slipped into borowers cards when the book is lent” all of which must surely have quickened the young Larkin’s pulse.

When he was appointed to the post in Wellington Larkin was hardly more enthusiastic about the career than before; the books in the library were he claimed “mostly very poor with no poetry later than Houseman” (obviously people in Shropshire felt that they did not need any more poetry after “A Shropshire Lad”) and had to deal with the customers particularly the local tramps who found the stuffy, snug and above all free facilities at the Library much to their liking. It is quite possible that his daily encounters with customers of doubtful hygiene whose chief need for the library was a warm place to sleep off their drinking was why he felt so at home in university libraries later in his career

But by 1946, tiring of the rural life, Larkin successfully applied for a post of Sub Librarian in the Library at University College Leicester. It was at was at Leicester that Larkin met Monica Jones whom you will come across again later. Despite confiding that librarian “was not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius” Larkin immediately appears to have taken to the companionship of academic life far more enthisiastically than he did to the customers of Wellington and engaged with local activities including being a regular visitor to Leicestershire County Cricket Club. One of his friends referred to Larkin’s “inclination towards misery” and as a life long LCCC member myself I can understand how Larkin would have been entirely at home with the rest of us who still sit through dull summer days watching the familiar ineptitude of yet another Leicestershire batting collapse against a mediocre Kent pace attack with the air of people resigned to all the disappointments that life throws in our direction before trudging off the the pub for lunch to cheer ourselves up by discussing the imminent prospects for socialism and a fair and just society!

After four years though Larkin felt the need to move on again and he successful applied for a post of Sub- Librarian at Queens University Belfast and after a further five years he felt he had learned enough to apply for the job of Chief Librarian at what had just become the University of Hull. Although he was ambitious enough to wish to move on Larkin was typically unsure of his own abilities. On learning of the vacancy at Hull Larkin was desperately in need of reassurance which he inevitably sought from Monica Jones “The Librarianship at Hull is vacant;” he wrote, “but do I want a headship? Damned if I think I do.. Branch librarian at Bridport is more my line really.” I have to confess that I did nearly miss that important reference as I was distracted by the previous page of the collected correspondence with Monica Jones from which it came. It’s easily done when the letter features prominently in italics the phrase “You and your bottom” and then having caught my eye I just happened to notice that it continued. “…I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after breakfasttime (sic) when you were looking out of my kitchen window and let me tuck your skirt up around your waist to be admired. You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in”

The Brynmoor Jones Library, Hull, planned and designed by Larkin when he wasn't composing poetry

The Brynmoor Jones Library, Hull, planned and designed by Larkin when he wasn’t composing poetry

That was of course just a glimpse of the Larkin that was revealed after his death and if you are patient for just a little longer you will begin to understand why we are investing a bit of time in him. One of the perils of trying to disaggregate Larkin’s library life from the rest of it is that the rest of his life is infinitely more diverting but we shall get to that shortly.

Despite his misgivings Larkin was appointed Librarian at the University of Hull. “I’m now I fancy the youngest University librarian in GB. Much good may it do me” he reflected. Larkin was 32 and he remained at Hull until his death in 1984. From “sweet f*** all about libraries” to being Chief Librarian at a university had taken not much more than 10 years.

On his arrival at Hull Larkin was initialled viewed a little askance by his new Secretary, you’ll come across her later as well, unsure about his bright red socks and her doubts were not much allayed by his installation of a spy glass in his office so that he could peruse the new intake of female students. At the time it seems to have been viewed as a curious but endearing indiosyncracy rather than cause for a discreet call to Operation Yewtree as it would today.

Despite such an inauspicious beginning Larkin oversaw a spectactular increase in the fortunes of the Library thanks in part to an excellent working relationship with Brynmoor Jones his first Vice Chancellor who would joke that he paid Larkin a Librarian’s salary to write poetry but was astute enough to realise the value of Larkin to the university. Larkin too was smart enough to know which side his bread was buttered. In an invitation for an entry for Who’s Who in America he tells Monica that he described himself as University Librarian “as long as I get four times as much for this role as for ‘author’, ‘writer’, ‘poet’ I shall go on doing so”

Under Larkin the Hull Library budget almost doubled, the collection grew more than three fold and staff from 12 to 100 but the self-doubts remained. In May 1955 caught up in the wrangling over whether Hull would get a new library he confides to Monica “Actually they should never have appointed me, I am quite the wrong man since I don’t care 2d about all” which I only mention because he adds with no obvious relevance to the new library building at all “I would much rather kiss your pretty measurements…” But I must try and stick to the library details and not be distracted by all the interesting and prurient stuff. But I did just notice in passing that in the same letter but penned a few days later he ends a sentence about the burden of the huge library for which he is now responsible with a compliment to Monica on how much he “liked the red suspender belt ”

Larkin appears to have had a well respected and until the last few years at least a satisfying professional career to which Andrew Motion gives plenty of air time and as I have said you can read all of this in Motion’s excellent biography from which I have filletted out all the relevant bits as this is a book about libraries and librarians and have done the same with the letters to Monica Jones but to be honest even a world champion library nerd wearing all of their anoraks at once would have to admit that all of the stuff about libraries pales way past insignificance by comparison with all the other things that went on in Larkin’s life and will I hope demonstrate that the life of a librarian really doesn’t have to be even more dull than a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February. So we’ll come to that next time. Just be patient.

(1) “They f*** you up your mum and dad
They do not mean to but they do…”
This be the Verse

(2)“Sexual intercouse began
In ninteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP…”
Annus Mirabilis

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