Monday, 22 October 2007

The Fourth Ingredient

You're not going to be surprised to hear that I love libraries, and can happily spend all day in even the smallest and most scantily stocked. One of my favourites was Canton Library in Cardiff. I only used it for a few months, just after I moved to South Wales in 1996, before it was burned down, but it was a nice old building, with a good collection for a small suburban branch library.
The piece below, by my old friend Mark Howard Jones, is about another South Wales library. I don't suppose you'd see its like these days, unfortunately.

Metal, wood and paper. Those were the only ingredients. Or, at least, the only physical ingredients. The only visible ones. But there was a fourth, hidden and invisible.
Old wooden shelves lining the walls, alongside newer metal ones standing free; all holding up masses of heavy paper, bound into books.
And not even a proper library, it seemed. A leaky old drill hall, remnant of a ‘Dad’s Army’ mentality perhaps, but now pressed into service as a town lending library. The public purse could only stretch so far, after all.
Through the narrow double doors and up a short flight of steps, turn right and into the carpeted quiet of the large room. This is where the books lived.
No windows, just skylights, usually running with rain. To the left of the door was the issue desk and, through an opening behind that, the children’s library. I don’t remember staying there long, though, before pushing out into the deeper waters of the main collection.
And when you slid a book off the shelves and opened it, the fourth ingredient, the missing something, spilled out all over you – ideas.
Waiting for me there were the terrors and treasures of Ray Bradbury, the strange and daunting words of James Joyce, Picasso’s sickly-looking blue acrobats staring down from the wall above the shelves.
I was dumbfounded and appalled by Bob Dylan’s novel ‘Tarantula’ but delighted to the point of incoherence by BS Johnson’s collection of short pieces ‘Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?’
The intellectual conundrums of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Aleph’ defeated me several times over the years, so much so that I grew wary of the Argentinian librarian’s twists and turns, only coming to love his work long after my library card had expired.
More earthly joys were to be found in the sophisticated and challenging adult fairytales of Angela Carter in her collections ‘Fireworks’ and ‘The Bloody Chamber’, while Michael Moorcock’s cool and multi-faceted creation Jerry Cornelius, along with his many friends and enemies, pointed towards dangerous delights to come.
There were hints of sexuality outside ‘the norm’, discovered, it seemed, in Alexandria by the likes of Constantine Cavafy and illustrated in 1960s Technicolor by some Yorkshireman called David Hockney. Though I was fairly sure this exotic brand of love wasn't for me.
A Frenchman called Baudelaire, long dead, did strange and enticing things with language (or perhaps it was all the fault of his translator). And a book of Concrete Poetry (strangely light for all that) introduced me to words straining to be pictures as well. Or vice versa.
American poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens seemed to hold a glamorous allure, beckoning from their ranks along the back wall of the room. Poetry crammed with ideas by the likes of Octavio Paz jostled for position with more popular verse from Rod McKuen, while, closer to home, the work of Idris Davies, Peter Finch and Herbert Williams proved there was poetic life right here in Wales.
In the non-fiction section, Wilfred Mellers’ book ‘The Twilight Of The Gods’ taught me that there was more to The Beatles’ music than met the ear, while a huge book of photographs by Lord Snowdon called ‘Private View’ introduced me through its richly-coloured pages to many of the important British painters of the 1960s.
And there were so many more. Their titles have slipped beyond the reach of my memory now, but each of them was a stone laid in the path that led me beyond the narrow confines of school, street and home.
This extraordinary literary phantasmagoria, now long disappeared, was the work of just one man, the branch librarian. Fur-hatted like a Soviet commissar against the Valleys winter and striding out of his small corner office in a big overcoat, his beard and eyebrows set firm. An unsettling figure to a small boy.
Only years later did it become clear why he had chosen the books I had the pleasure to read. Despite what he did to earn his daily bread, he wasn’t REALLY a librarian at all; he was a poet in disguise.
Swansea-born, Oxford-educated and a former Royal Navy seaman, Harri Webb took up his job at Mountain Ash in 1964, virtually creating the library service from scratch.
His own poetry found a place on the shelves, of course, and I found it entertaining if too political for my then limited understanding. I’ve since met people who knew Harri Webb personally and I’ve found out about his fervent Welsh nationalism. But I prefer to remember him as the enigmatic and important keeper of the books, with his stern gaze and grey-flecked beard; if I’d met him, no doubt that character would have disappeared like mist being burned off by sunlight. But he retired in 1974, passing away in 1996, and I never did get to meet him.
That library has gone now and a new one has taken its place, across the bridge and down the main road a little way. I don’t live in Mountain Ash any more, so I’ve never visited it, but I know without looking that the books there wouldn’t be half as enticing or mysterious as the ones in the old drill hall. It’s still here in my head, of course, and echoes of it remain on my own shelves.
No doubt there were pennies to be pinched in the relatively halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s, just as there are today, but Harri Webb did it in an elegant, learned way and never bowed to the pressure of the merely popular.
One autumn day, I picked out a book written by a man with a glamorous name. Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe. A strong, dangerous name if ever I’d heard one. This had to be a good book; nobody with a name like that could write a bad book, surely? Flipping open the cover to taste the first paragraphs, I passed the date stamps and couldn’t help but notice when it had last been borrowed. Over five years ago. Imagine that, the poor unloved thing.
My teenaged mind thought that maybe this wasn’t such a good book after all. But then, I reminded myself, so many of the others that had sat largely ignored on the shelves had proved to be crammed with jewels.
Maybe ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ would similarly introduce me to ideas I wasn’t quite ready for, dictionary-hard words previously unread and novel notions that would stretch my thoughts beyond the everyday.
I clapped the cover shut, making more noise than I’d bargained for, and headed for the issue desk, hoping to negotiate the formidable library assistants without any problem and sneak my latest find out to the windy, unworthy street beyond the narrow double doors.

Mark Howard Jones is a prose writer who lives in Cardiff. His latest novella 'The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows' is available from Manchester's ISMs Press at


Ivy said...

Hey, Canton Library's my local! Yay!

Matt Merritt said...

Is it still going strong?
I used to live on Cowbridge Road, near Victoria Park, and then later on Conway Road, near the Methodist Church.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's still there. refurbished, repainted, reanimated.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully lyrical and evocative piece. Mountain Ash Library definitely did a good job with Mark. I would love to read more articles by him.
I would like to learn more about Harri Webb too.

Janet Cook said...

Very nicly written. Even make a list sound interesting

Ivy said...

Matt, it's got a couple of men crawling over its facade at the moment, but it's still a pretty cosy building -- in fact, I managed to snag a 2004 Writers and Artists Book [the one put out by AC Black?] from their book sale trolley this morning, which I thought a good find for 50p. Woohoo!

Is Conway Road near the Conwy pub? Or am I being ignorant. ;-)

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, that's it. The pub's at the top end, near Cathedral Road and Pontcanna Fields, and the church is down at the Canton end.