Copyright jim ferguson 2018
What I loved most about my local library was the fact that you could go in and wander about on a cold dreich day when there wasn’t much else to do. It was warm and dry, safe and welcoming. You could sit on a child-sized seat (or a big seat if you were tall enough) and have a read at whatever you picked off the shelf and if you liked the book and had remembered to bring your ticket you could take the book home and read at your leisure: just so long as you brought the book back by the date stamped on the inside. This was important because a library fine would take a substantial slice out of the small amount of pocket money I received as a ten year old.
In childhood I came across two library books more or less by accident that had a deep and lasting impression on me. The first was Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ which I got hold of from the library when I was about ten years old. It was the first novel I read that didn’t seem to patronise but stretched my imagination and my knowledge in ways I had never experienced before. Gone was the simplistic and bizarre unreality of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Three Investigators’ —which had represented the majority of my reading other than comics and the notoriously gendered ‘Janet and John’ reading books— and my mind was swept away to the frozen north of Canada where wild-dogs and wolves were just as valuable and important as people. From the opening lines, “Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation [... ...] It was the wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.” I was hooked. It seemed to me at that time that Jack London was a genius unparalleled: someone who understood nature raw and bold and that as human beings we were part of nature too. I also remember that that first page of the book had ‘Renfrew County Library’ rubber-stamped at the top right corner.
Excluding Robert Burns poetry books were in pretty short supply in our house. One day when I was thirteen or fourteen I was looking along the ‘humour’ shelves of the Library when I noticed a copy of a poetry book. It was a fairly sturdy hardback with the words ‘Shelley: Selected Poems’ on the cover. I held it in my hand wondering if this Shelley was a writer of comic-verse. I opened the book at random to find this:
The Mask of Anarchy
Written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester.
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat ; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
Standing astonished in the aisle between the book shelves I closed the book thinking ‘I’ve got to get this hame and read it’. And this accident in the library made a major contribution to how my life would turn out. After this ‘discovery’ poetry became something of a secret obsession for me throughout my teenage years. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I really felt confident enough to tell other people that I actually wrote the stuff but unintentionally finding Percy Bysshe Shelley at that time was incredibly significant.
The best thing about public libraries is that they are depositaries of knowledge, history, and human experience. They are public spaces where you can safely bump into people and ideas you didn’t ever imagine you’d meet. Beyond that Scotland’s network of public libraries represents a democratic community resource that is in many ways an NHS of the social fabric of our local communities. They give us all access to books, information and information technology on an equal basis without regard to the ability to pay. At this point in history when market-force driven ideas are generally deemed the only ones relevant, libraries suggest an amazingly successful alternative model of how to organise and provide essential services. And it is my view that public libraries are indeed an essential service.
They are the water that helps us grow.
Books are the best form of time travel I know of. Movies, paintings, photography, sculpture, archaeology, theatre (most art forms in fact) can help us all time-travel too, but none of them do it so completely, accessibly or successfully as the everyday mass-produced book; particularly novels, short stories, plays and poetry collections.
Where would you find a better exploration of Calvinism, murder and the super-natural in Scotland than in James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner : Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor’? Published in 1824 and later reckoned by Andre Gide to be a masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature, it remains highly modern in its structure and conception. Most of the action of the novel itself takes place around the year 1687: a politically significant date just before the Constitutional Settlement of 1688 and associated accession of William III in 1689. For readers in the 1820s Hogg was transporting them back over a hundred years: much of the novel is presented as a found manuscript discovered in the grave of a suicide but the Editor’s Notes would have been contemporary for them. For readers in the 21st century, therefore, Hogg’s novel transports us through time not just once but twice.
A well-written novel transports the reader through time and place and into the lives’ of its characters: and this is ultimately what is magical about the invention of the novel as an art form; it has the potential to transport us back or forward in time and takes us to places both real and imagined. What ultimately matters is that the novel contains some kernel of indefinable, yet at the same time undisputable, ‘truth’.
Jeff Torrington’s ‘Swing Hammer Swing’ takes the reader into the derelict arena of the crumbling Gorbals in 1960s Glasgow. If you want to know how it felt to live there at that time this one novel is worth a thousand photographs or any number of official reports.
If you want to understand more about 20th century Soviet Russia and the Russian Revolution of 1917 you’d do well reading Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s plays, essays and poetry. Mayakovsky was a poet of verve and daring, and even in English translation the energy of his language springs forward from the page with all the exuberance and energy of humanity liberated from drudgery and starvation. Yuri Zhivago on the other hand, Pasternak’s protagonist, found less to celebrate about the revolution, as did Mayakovsky when Stalin increasingly tightened his grip on power. Both authors had a complex and tumultuous relationship with the Soviet authorities though Mayakosvky’s was much shorter than Pasternak’s due to the former shooting himself in 1930 at the age of thirty-six. Not unlike Paisley’s Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) who drowned himself at a similar age in 1810. Mayakovsky left behind a disturbingly poetical suicide note, the last piece of poetry Tannahill is thought to have written is as follows:
Air - - “Sons of Momus”
Why unite to banish Care?
Let him come our joys to share;
Doubly blest our cup shall flow,
When it soothes a brother’s wo;
’Twas for this the pow’rs divine
Crown’d our board with generous wine.
Far be hence the sordid elf
Who’d claim enjoyment for himself;
Come the hardy seaman, lame,
The gallant soldier, robb’d of fame;
Welcome all who bear the woes
Of various kind, that merit knows
Patriot heroes, doom’d to sigh,
Idle ’neath Corruption’s eye;
Honest tradesmen, credit-worn,
Pining under fortune’s scorn;
Wanting wealth, or lacking fame,
Welcome all that worth can claim
Come, the hoary-headed sage,
Suff’ring more from want than age;
Come, the proud, though needy Bard,
Starving ’midst a world’s regard:
Welcome, welcome, one and all
That feel, on this unfeeling ball.