It was by chance rather than by design that I became a librarian. I had been working in London for the civil service when a family crisis required me to up sticks and return to Scotland. In urgent need of a job, I studied my qualifications and found that my options were, to say the least, limited. What was I good at? I was a reasonable footballer but no Jimmy Greaves or Denis Law. I could conjugate sentences in French and German but I was never going to be able to translate Proust or Goethe. Then it hit me. I had read a lot of books; I would become a librarian.
On the recommendation of a friend of my father, I wrote to the city librarian of Edinburgh, who replied by return of post calling me to an interview. It took place in the boardroom of the Central Library on George IV Bridge. He asked what I was reading. Like everyone else at the time, I was deeply immersed in Middle Earth. This didn’t seem to appeal to my potential boss. The conversation turned to sport. Did I play table tennis? I was asked. Luckily for me, I did, and we chatted for a while about foam bats, top spin and the latest Chinese wunderkind until the subject was exhausted and I was dismissed.
A couple of days later I received a phone call offering me a job as a library assistant at McDonald Road branch library, which, gripped by a nasty bout of nostalgia, I revisited recently. Though it’s much changed, I was transported back to that autumn morning when I first crossed its threshold.
I was shown the ropes by the branch librarian’s deputy, who looked like a rep for Interflora. Her hair was as close-cropped as the grass at Wimbledon. She had a pink bow round her neck and wore an overall that had been a bouquet in a former life. On her feet were lilac Hush Puppies. She moved like greased lightning and talked as if she’d been given thirty seconds to say all there was to say about what was expected of a humble library assistant.
‘Watch me,’ she said, her voice twittering like a bird’s. She took an armful of books and spread them spine upwards on a wooden trolley. Then, with the dexterity of a croupier dealing cards in Vegas, she sorted them into alphabetical order – ‘by author’. I didn’t know there was another option. ‘If you have two or more books by the same author,’ she added, ‘arrange them alphabetically by title.’
The branch librarian was not unlike the character played by Ronnie Corbett in the sitcom Sorry!. Of gnomish build, he wore a child’s size of shoe, which, he said proudly, meant he saved a fair bit of cash. His face flushed like a strawberry when he became flustered, particularly when the ‘issue’ – the tray of cards recording which books were borrowed by whom and for how long – got into a muddle. He thought marketing was an affectation and stoutly resisted the modern urge to turn libraries into supermarkets. Occasionally, in a sop to his masters at headquarters, he mounted a display of war books under a sign saying ‘Cry Havoc’. It did little, however, to increase our borrowing figures.
The most popular display was the shelf of recently returned books, which drew readers like sailors to a bordello. Catherine Cookson was the library’s mainstay and the arrival of a new novel by her was like the first day of the January sales. I will die happy if I never see another copy of The Mallen Streak. The library was ruled by its regulars, stout women like Daisy Miller, who dropped by several times a week with her entourage for a natter and a fix of Netta Muskett and Jean Plaidy. Romance was what these women in hairnets were consumed by; there was no point in trying to woo them off Georgette Heyer and onto Thomas Hardy. ‘I read all that years ago,’ Daisy would say airily, inviting me to take a toffee from her capacious bag.
At McDonald Road everyone on the staff read, and over lunch and at tea breaks in the staff room conversation rarely rose above the monosyllabic. We were a strange crew but a happy one, a mixture of spinsters, young men in brothel creepers and tank tops, and dizzy girls who didn’t know what to do with themselves. Just being surrounded by books made the job enjoyable. What perked up an otherwise tedious day was the readers who, in the pre-internet era, used the library as a knowledge bank.
There was a locked glass cabinet in which were kept books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, along with car manuals and guides to tropical fish. I thought it an odd combination until I was informed that there was a tendency for such books to ‘walk’ when put on open display. One morning, a woman took me aside and asked if we had a copy of a book called The Complaint. I asked if she knew who its author was and she said, ‘Portnoy.’ When I retrieved it for her, I was told by the deputy branch librarian to put it in a brown paper bag. What an age of innocence it was.