This ordinary looking building is a library. It is also a treasure trove.
Theale Library, in the village where I did much of my growing up, is set to close due to austerity budgeting. This will be a great loss to the village. Not only does the library provide reading, it is also a place to meet, to talk, to connect. It is an invaluable resource and the village and its readers and other residents will be the poorer without it.
On Wednesday 23rd March (tomorrow, as I write this), supporters of the library will gather to protest against the closure. The event is from 4.30 to 6.30. I will be there, and if you live nearby, please try to come by. It will be greatly appreciated.
The sad news about Theale Library got me thinking about all the library books I have read over the years and I remembered this piece I once wrote for another purpose. Its original purpose was to illustrate the workings of memory and the cross-pollination that takes place between books, but it works equally, I think, as an instance of the value of libraries for childhood reading and the way such reading can bear fruit many years later.
Writing The Thirteenth Tale, there was one particular scene that I wrote and rewrote many times. In it my two main characters – Margaret Lea and Miss Vida Winter – meet for the first time, and the reason it was tricky was because there had to be a very fine balance between the giving and the withholding of information. After a lot of hard work it was almost there but it still needed something else. It needed a little bit of magic.
For months that bit of magic eluded me. There was something specific that would make the scene work, and I knew that in some far-flung realm of my mind the answer already existed. In bed, on the border of sleep, my brain sent out search signals and I could sense something answering feebly, but it wasn’t enough to give me a compass bearing. I had no map. No X marking the spot.
The answer took time to come to me, and when it did it was perfect: the magic of 3! All those folktales and fairytales with three questions, three wishes… I had got it! I went back to my pages and inserted a few words here, a few words there. The scene opened up to make space just where I wanted it to and absorbed my additions quite if it had been expecting them:
Some time after The Thirteenth Tale was published I found myself reminiscing with a friend about childhood reading.
‘There was a book I used to borrow from the library. How I adored it!’ I told her. ‘It was about a lonely girl by the sea who found a magical sort of friend. I wish I could reread it.’
Soon afterwards my friend gave me this:
When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson had been reissued by Collins in their Modern Classics series. (Thank you Collins!)
I settled down to read with that rare sense of doubleness that comes when you reread a book after many years and still find it enthralling. My adult hand turned the pages, my adult mind reacquainted itself with a world it had all but forgotten, and all the while I felt the presence of a ten-year old self, reading over my shoulder, across the decades – and she knew the story better than I did.
I had got to the part where lonely Anna has met the mysterious Marnie. There is something unexplained about Marnie. The two girls need to get to know each other, but not too well, not yet. Certain things must remain unknown. I turned a page to Chapter 11. It was entitled Three Questions Each and the moment I set eyes on those words a thrill ran down my spine. What was it? I did not know, but my shadow reader was anticipating something. I hurried on, and then there it was:
Two characters, newly met, must tell each other something about themselves. It must be the right amount of information, neither too much, nor too little. It is a ghost story, so there must be magic in it. Joan G Robinson wrote it first. I read it, forgot about it and twenty-two years later wrote it again (from what Miss Winter would call the compost of memory).
In my work I am constantly delighted by the incessant whispering that goes on between what I am writing and what I have read. The years fall away, an old story brushes against a new one and leaves a trace of itself. It is magic: of reading, of writing, of memory.
It is also the magic of libraries. When Marnie Was There was a library book and I must have borrowed it countless times. Almost all my childhood reading came from the library. Amongst the children using Theale Library and so many others that are under threat or have already disappeared, there must be a number who have it in them to become the storytellers of the future. Their reading imaginations need to be fed. Libraries are there to do it. What will happen to story telling when the libraries disappear?
If you cannot come to Theale Library at 4.30 tomorrow, Wednesday 23rd March – or even if you can! – please help protect local libraries everywhere in the UK by signing this petition: