A Day in Manchester Library
It was warm then - still mid-summer - my mother-in-law was still in her house, her handwriting still strong and purposeful, but then one day something happened. Hodmandod Senior saw it in some diary she left open around the place. Bold upright strokes became fainter, no longer keeping to the lines and the sense of them changed too. 'I don't feel right. I don't feel well today...' Shortly afterwards she rang - and kept ringing - waking us up, disturbing us at night, a sense of anxiety about nothing she could name - except nothing felt right; and, as it turns out, she was right.
Now she is in the hospital down the road: a stay in a rehabilitation home in London was followed by a stay in a home for the elderly nearby. She stopped eating then drinking and then was admitted to hospital with kidney failure. Last week we thought her end had come but astonishingly she recovered. Since then she has stopped making sense. Each time Hodmandod Senior visits it is as if it the first time; a perpetual Groundhog Day. She asks for her husband and her mother and has to be reminded again and again that they died long ago. This she accepts with equanimity. She turns away, becomes distracted by her bed linen, holds it up and declares she is going to use this to make...but her voice fades away. Then, when she turns back, everything begins again.
But I didn't mean to talk about that. I meant to talk about today. Manchester library: the glorious domed building opened in 1850 when learning was something precious and revered; when it was accepted that learning was good for its own sake.
Nowadays there has to be a purpose. Everything has to make a profit. Books have to sell otherwise they are discarded within in a year.
There is little pride in a beautiful ceiling
or a finely lit staircase.
These desks apparently are 'listed' (good!). Sometimes I wish some of the other values of the Victorian library were 'listed' too.
This day was a follow-up session to the one that I went to in Liverpool in September 2005. Unfortunately nothing came out of that at all. However, 12 writers agreed to persist in helping the librarians think of events to entice more readers into the library and I believe we came up with some grand schemes. From 10am until 4pm we worked hard and at the end were thanked for our efforts.
As I stood on the overcrowded train to make the 40 mile journey back I remembered snapshots of conversations:
'Ah, Clare - that library event I asked you to go to - it's been changed. They no longer want you... I should have said.'
'It's vampire novels they're after now. They're really popular. I just read one and it's really good raunchy fiction.'
'Like Buffy grows up?'
'Yes. Bollocks to literary fiction, I say.'
'You know, I was reading some Ackroyd, and there was something in it that reminded me of your work.' (grins) 'That's quite flattering, isn't it?' (laughs) 'I mean comparing your work to Ackroyd's!'
'...which we hope will be of benefit not just to established authors but people like you too - local authors.'
'I went to the gent's just now and was just trying to stab in that code on the door they gave us when this man came along - you know the sort - and he said,"You're not staff. There's a toilet for you downstairs."'
Then I reflected on how writers like me are expected to work for nothing and are not even paid travelling expenses. I thought of what I could have achieved today at my desk and how I'd probably wasted my time again.
Then I came to a decision. Life is short. For too long I have given talks and written articles for nothing. No more. If I don't value myself, I decided, then no one else will.