Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Day in Manchester Library

Manchester: 9am. I walk down the small hill to the road commonly known as 'Oxford Road' but is actually labelled 'Oxford Street' wondering if this slight confusion is unique to Manchester, and if, in some obscure way, it matters. I decide it probably doesn't. St Peter's Square is just a short way away - a place I saw last just three months ago - and for a while just look at it thinking about how much has changed.

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.


Blogger Adrian Benson said...

Oxford Road and Oxford Street are extensions of each other. It's linguistically useful that they exist in close proximity to each other. Say them both out loud. Observe upon which syllable(s) in each you've automatically put the stress. Isn't English weird?

Thu Nov 30, 01:30:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scrumptious library, dour quotes smelling of old library paste, good Hodmandod resolve...

Thu Nov 30, 01:46:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

A beautiful post. If you don't collect these essays into a book, then I'm threatening that I will.

And I agree wholeheartedly about the waste-of-time talks and signings. Whatever for? Just do the work you were meant to do. Tomorrow it might be you (or me) in your mother-in-law's bed.

Thu Nov 30, 08:51:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adrian the percussionist: aha - that explains it...I've been trying saying the two out loud but to be honest can detect little difference in stress. Maybe a little more on 'Road' than 'Street' perhaps, how about you?

Marly: I just have to stick to it now. And yes they were dour... there were a couple that weren't, of course, but overwhelmed, in my mind at least, by the ones that were.

Lee: You're very kind. Thank you. And yes, that's exactly it - it is all a waste of time. I wish I'd had this great revelation much earlier.

Thu Nov 30, 09:40:00 am  
Blogger Adrian Benson said...

I was posed this conundrum some while ago by a linguistics graduate. I think you definitely stress the ox in oxford street and stress the road in oxford road. Actually, "stressing the ox" sounds like a all-advised activity that would incur the wrath of animal rights activists. No references to muffin the mule, please.

Thu Nov 30, 01:35:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Good Heavens! And I though (era wise ) Adrian The Percussionist was more Basil The Brush than Muffin The Mule..He looks remarkably well, doesn't he?

Thu Nov 30, 03:49:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't give up the talks, Clare, unless you really hate them. Someday, unbeknownst to you, you will inspire some incipient artist in the audience. Your talk will be the one that changed her life, made her want to find the cure for schizophrenia, or write the novel set in Iceland whose lovely prose will, in turn, inspire someone else.

However, it would be nice if they gave you an honorarium or something! Years ago, when I edited a literary magazine, I spent half my time fundraising. Why? Because I wanted to pay the poets, writers, dramatists, photographers, and artists for the work of theirs we were publishing. If art is free, it is less valued. At least, this is so in the capitalist West.

Thu Nov 30, 06:23:00 pm  
Blogger Susan said...

I've always considered you a very noble character, Clare. You seem to give so much of yourself. However, consideration must be a two-way street. If people are incapable of understanding your position they simply don't deserve your time. You need to look after yourself and your family. Time for your own interests or five extra minutes with your mother-in-law are much more important than wasting your energy on outsiders. It's also a gift to your husband and your son.

Fri Dec 01, 05:13:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

Susan B, one really needs to do a proper investment/return analysis here: the chance of inspiring a fledgling artist vs. the time and energy and frustration the talks may cost.

Fri Dec 01, 08:38:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point, Lee. It is a drag to give a lecture when people aren't really paying attention, or interested. Also if you really dislike public speaking. I was a professor for years, so I kind of like it -- indeed, an occupational hazard of teaching is how much pleasure one derives from telling people (a captive audience of students, usually) your ideas, thoughts, etc., and they basically have to listen (unlike, for example, one's teenagers). Of course, I love dialogue more -- my classes were (are) filled with discussions and I often learned as much as I taught.

But, Clare, the question is: Do you really hate those lectures, or only when the audience is so lame?

Fri Dec 01, 01:57:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments - you are certainly making me think!

I'm sorry for my slow reply - I've been entrenched in some research.

I do love to give my talks, and I do love to teach but I am afraid it does not come naturally to me - I always feel I write a lot better than I talk.

But I guess this isn't really the issue - the issue is should I give talks for nothing? Although I have had some really good experiences giving my free talks there have been some where I feel I have been taken for granted and I have to come to the conclusion, sadly, that in future I am going to charge a fee. My time is precious - as precious as the man who comes to mend the roof or plumbs in the sink - and unless I show it is valuable to me I don't think librarians or other organisers will realise this.

Sat Dec 02, 12:13:00 am  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

I was here last night reading your posts and trying to catch up on the wealth of good writing - I appreciated catching up with your news - you are as busy and involved as ever - and that mind of yours Clare, continually ticking over! I agree - don't go where you aren't appreciated - I was horrified at such lack of sensitivity and appreciation- what dolts!

Sat Dec 02, 05:56:00 am  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I used to have a friend who, after finishing her degree in English, got a job as a security guard in that library. It wasn't a holiday job, it was a real one. She didn't tell her employees or workmates that she had been to college. I've got a feeling that she might still be there (after 18 years or so).

Sat Dec 02, 08:55:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello - nice to see you back CB. Yes, I am becoming more confident of my decision...

Jeremy: Ha - maybe I ran into her and didn't know it! I've done jobs a bit like that. I found they palled after a while. I admire your friend for persisting.

Sun Dec 03, 12:55:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clare, I have just realised that bloglines has not been registering posts on your blog for a while, I will "resubscribe", but just to let you know that I haven't been here becuase I didn't realise you'd been posting.

I was going to say the same thing as Oxford St/Road as Adrian, and I should know, because I was born on it! (St Mary's Hospital used to be there.)

I moved from the Manchester area when I was 5, returing only for 2 years when 16/17 to do my A levels. I spent many hours in that library, reading all its playscripts for one thing (there are a lot of them in there!), going to the theatre there, being in love with the Shakespeare window, and just generally hanging out there. Thank you for the memories.

Fri Dec 08, 07:42:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maxine: the same thing happened to me - I think it happens when a blofspot goes over to beta so I've had to reinstall a lot.

What a wonderful place to study! I'd not heard of a Shakespeare window - I'll have to look out for it next time I'm there.

Fri Dec 08, 08:30:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I hope I haven't got my libraries in a muddle, but I recall going in, turning round after you go through the front door and looking up, and seeing a stained glass window of Shakespeare's characters.
But please forgive me if I am muddled with another library -- I plead advancing years.

Wed Dec 13, 09:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sounds straightforward - next time I go I'll take a look and report back! Thanks Maxine.

Thu Dec 14, 12:26:00 am  

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