On Public Libraries
In October 1995, bushy bearded and unkempt, I started out on a journey along the length and breadth of Britain – with some unexpected detours to France, Germany and Belgium – by bus, by train, by the kindness of travelers who stopped to pick up an unknown hitchhiker, by long, long walks in sun, rain and snow, by ship and by sky. I set out to meet those who were like me and those who were not, set out to speak with strangers and find, in their stories and touch, some new direction in life. For eight months, with not a penny in my pocket, I had the immense privilege of spending just a little time in the lives of so many varied people. When I finally decided to return home on the last day of May 1996, I boarded a ferry at Zeebrugge and watched England approach on the horizon with new eyes.
The journey started quite by accident. On a train from London to Nottingham, I sat opposite a man in a clerical collar. We exchanged smiles and an English nod. Then he started to speak to me, asking me where I was going and what I would find when I got there, what lay ahead and where I had come from. I felt unnerved by a stranger striking up a conversation and he could see my reluctance, so he said, “Let me tell you a secret: speaking to strangers is the most rewarding activity you can ever engage in. Imagine how dull your life will be if you only ever speak with those you know.”
I imagined for a moment, considering my homogenous life, my friends and family, all of whom were from the same class, held the same values. He was right; how dull.
So we spoke. At length. Towards the end of the journey, I realised all the questions, all the focus had been on my life. I asked him where he was going. He looked at me for a long moment, then slowly removed his clerical collar. “I don’t know,” he told me, “but I’m excited.” He went on to tell me he had somehow lost his belief in God, somehow become lost and was now stepping in to an unknown to find direction.
I wanted direction too. So I resolved to keep travelling. For eight months, strangers sustained me; with food, with company, with sex, with friendship, with transport, with joy, with darkness, with drugs, with hope, with intellect.
Since that journey, it has been a routine part of my life to strike up deliberate conversations with strangers. It never ceases to improve me.
Some weeks ago, I was travelling on the very same rail line, heading north through the midlands on a wet Saturday. An announcement informed us that the train would terminate at the next stop and not travel onwards to my destination. A suicide on the tracks had closed the line. We were to alight at the next station and board a bus service. Hundreds of us disembarked in the rain onto the platform in this most average of midlands towns. It was clear the buses would not cope, and clear to me that others were obviously in more need than I. So I walked away from the station and headed into the town centre. The main shopping parade was a mix of pound shops, mobile phone stores, vaping and tanning centres, and a frequent punctuation of empty units. People trudged along in the rain or huddled under small canopies outside of betting shops and bakeries, smoking and eating sausage rolls.
I walked through the Victorian town, exploring and taking the opportunity to see somewhere new. Eventually, I came to a grand town hall and library and decided to shelter from the rain a while and perhaps read a book or two.
Britain’s public libraries used to throng. They were hubs of the community. I realised, as a stepped in to the warmth, that I had not set foot in a public library for many years. Why would I? I have all the books and information that I could ever need at my finger tips from anywhere in the world. What purpose could these places hold any longer?
It was 10am. The librarian greeted me with a huge smile, welcoming me in to the serenity of the old building with sincere delight, as though she had always been awaiting my arrival and, now that I was here, all was well. I walked around, browsing at books. In the entire building there was only one other patron. Just the two of us in the grand old place, with a librarian all to ourselves. I found a book on the history of the town and wanted to secret myself away in some snug corner to read it and imagine how the town had ended up in the circumstances I saw it today. As I walked around looking for somewhere to sit, I noticed that all of the chairs and tables had discreet, nearly handwritten ‘Reserved’ signs pinned to them. I approached the librarian and asked if this was an error. “Oh, we are very busy today,” she told me. I looked around at the empty room. “Okay,” I said at length, “I was just hoping to sit and read for a while.” She beamed at me, “of course,” and guided me to a small, warm, gently lit ante room with oversized, battered sofas. Perfect, I thought and settled into the book.
As time passed, I became aware of more and more voices. I popped my head out of the ante room. The library was bursting with people of all ages. It was incredible and I knew I had to speak to these people, knew I had to hear their stories.
So, over the course of three hours, these are the people I met and spoke with.
Bo and Fraser
At the far end of the library a row of computers and a microfiche machine stretched along the full length of the room. Two young men were seated a couple of metres apart, staring at their own laptops, which they had both placed in front of the public computers and ran power cables to the walls. My approach to strangers is invariably to say hello, exchange pleasantries, ask how they are doing and what they are doing today. From this, I will spin off into whatever conversation feels natural. People love to talk, love to know someone is interested in them. Even shy people.
Bo was 19 years old and had recently started studying in England after arriving this summer from Hong Kong. Why was he in the library? Surely he had computer access at home? He did, of course, but he lived in a shared house with four other boys his age. His bedroom was “tiny”, with no space for a desk, so working on his assignments meant balancing his laptop on his knees in a busy living room, or sitting up in bed. “I find it really hard to work that way,” he told me, “so I come here instead. It’s great, I can listen to music and I am always able to get a desk.”
Fraser, just a few metres from Bo told me that he sees Bo in there “every week” but that they had never spoken to each other. They both laughed when he said this and then shook hands. Fraser was 28 and worked in a local factory. His story was of seeking solace. He was going through a hard time at home, his girlfriend was “probably having an affair. We argue a lot.” His regular trips to the library was just one of the things he did to get away from home for short periods of time. Sometimes, he would drive out of town and just sit in his car for a while. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but told me, “at least here, no one is shouting at me.”
The power of the stranger is that they are fleeting. They don’t know you, don’t have an impact on your life. A discussion with a stranger is contained, is safe. Given the right beginnings, I have always found that those I meet and speak with are able to discuss things freely in a way that it is perhaps difficult to do with someone one knows.
Having spoken with just two people so far, already I am a different person. It had not occurred to me, since it is so alien to my life, that there are people who just need the physical space of a desk or the emotional space of silence. It had not occurred to me that the public library was providing for both of these needs.
The trouble with spending most of our lives with people who are the same, is it is impossible not to become blind to huge swathes of humanity. Reaching into other people’s lives, even if just for a moment, reminds one that one’s own life is just a small example of how life can pan out.
“What a beautiful name,” I told her. Maisie told me she was “somewhere in her thirties”, which I adored, “and loving being there.”
Maisie was standing next to three large tables, each surrounded by, say, eight or ten chairs. The tables all had ‘Reserved’ signs. I introduced myself and asked her why the tables were reserved. Maisie was a volunteer. Every Saturday she and two other volunteers read stories to children whose mothers were “coping with being alone”. The children would huddle around the tables and listen to Roald Dahl, David Walliams, J K Rowling and many more. Meanwhile, the mothers had time to have a cup of tea and a biscuit (“Jane always brings biscuits. Jane is amazing.") and then pop into town to shop. Maisie told me it gave these “very, very young, very, very vulnerable” single mothers a chance to breathe and just be young women again.
The families arrived and deposited wet children, who all looked delighted to be here and spoke to Maisie, Jane and James with the tone of comfortable friends.
I accepted a biscuit and a cup of tea and listened to part of a story. The young mothers looked visibly different as they spoke to each other about the things that normal, carefree young women speak about. They looked completely assured that their children were safe and happy as they giggled their way out of the library towards the shops.
“Are you with us?” she boomed at me. I looked up from my book. “I’m sorry?”
“Are you with St Andrew’s?” she boomed.
“No. No, I don’t think I am,” I smiled.
“Come along then, I need to get to the piano,” she told me, sounding every bit the Ealing matron.
This blew me away; the church amateur dramatics society suddenly appeared from everywhere, clustering together around a semi-hidden piano. Debs hit at the keys in the same way she boomed her words. The group sang (at the beginning of November) Christmas carols fortissimo! It was joyous. Hearty rounds of applause came from all corners of the library at the end of each carol.
Later, I spoke with Debs, who told me (boomed at me) that they were performing short concerts each week in the run up to Christmas in order to raise a small amount of money for their church. I made a donation and thanked them for the performance, it truly was uplifting – I even made a small recording of it on my phone, which I enthusiastically shared with anyone who would listen at home the next day.
In between songs, I occasionally thought I heard crying, but could not pinpoint it. I wandered back to the small ante room where I had been reading earlier and found Laura. She was a mess. Her face was red and black stained lines down her cheeks marked the tears I had heard earlier. “Hello,” I said, “would you like someone to talk to?” I have always found this opener more useful than, “are you okay?” I have never really understood the point in asking someone who is clearly not okay if they are okay – doesn’t that just suggest the asker is blind to the obvious?
“I don’t know what to do,” she told me.
“Perhaps we can work it out together?” I asked.
Laura was 55, unemployed, living at the very edge of poverty. “I sometimes have to use the food bank,” she told me later. Her mother lived near Dublin. She had received a phone call in the night from her brother telling her that her mother was very ill and that she must come home as soon as possible. Laura had used the computer in the library to book a Ryanair flight to Dublin, due to leave at 2pm. She was not able to work out how to use the printer in the library and had begun to lose concentration as anxiety invaded all of her mental capacity.
“I can help you to do that,” I told her. We went back to the webpage and printed the ticket. The printer needed a ten pence piece to work, which Laura hadn’t spotted. Neither of us had a ten pence piece, so I went to the reception desk to try to find some change. As I was asking the librarian, Fraser walked past and immediately offered me a coin.
The boarding pass was printed. As Laura looked at the ticket, her face went ashen and she began to convulse. I helped her into a chair. A heart attack? No, something far more familiar. Laura was having a panic attack.
Let me pause for a moment and say a panic attack is not someone having a little bit of a turn or fussing unnecessarily. A panic attack is terrifying. It feels like death, feels like a heart attack. It is physical and convinces the recipient they are going to die. This is it. The end. As someone who knows PTSD in a close and personal way, I could see what was happening and knew the terror Laura was living.
I comforted her. I was joined by Debs and a friend, who also knew what was happening. We comforted and soothed and waited and waited and waited. The panic slowly subsided, Laura was able to breathe, her terror was calming to a lower level of just severe anxiety. Debs brought some tea and told Laura repeatedly, “it’s okay, it’s okay”. She did not mean that Laura was going to be okay, those false promises are not helpful, but that it was okay to experience what she was experiencing, that we understood, that we had been there and yet life had gone on.
Where had the panic come from? What was it about holding the boarding pass in her hands? The answer seems so trivial, but to Laura was a sign of all that was wrong. She had not booked luggage and, now that we were a few minutes over the 2 hour minimum window that Ryanair would allow for amendments, she would have to check her luggage at the airport and pay £50. “I don’t have fifty pounds,” she told me and tears flooded from her eyes. “What am I going to do? I have had enough, I really have. I can’t go on any more.”
I called the airline and pleaded the case, knowing there was no chance of charity.
“I don’t have fifty pounds,” she kept saying.
“I do,” I said. I took some money from my wallet and went to hand it to her. She recoiled, “No, no, please. I can’t take that.”
“I want you to have it. Please. It would make me happy if you accepted it. Please. Go and be with your mother.”
We chatted some more, I wished her well, she hugged me and then dashed away to catch her flight.
The power of strangers is they are temporary. Conversation can be free and open and without fear of recourse. The power of speaking with strangers is they are enlightening and allow us to hold ourselves to account, to not pass through life blind. Debs and her many good friends will give up some of their time each Saturday and bring happiness to many. The money they raise will help to sustain something very dear to them and allow them to come together as friends.
I did not know about the Lauras. Had forgotten, from the numbness of my comfortable life, that there are so many people for whom simply functioning is an enormous challenge because anxiety and panic overpower them. This reminder of that fact, made me think of old friends and my past as I finally continued my journey north. I am grateful for those memories being reawakened.
This week has been a somewhat difficult week in my life. But, in the darkness, four separate incidences of genuine acts of kindness have lifted me. On Tuesday, the unknown man in West Lothian who helped me, on Wednesday, the middle aged woman in Glasgow who showed me great warmth and friendship, on Thursday the elderly couple on the train from Edinburgh who made me laugh and showed me some new possibilities and this evening, in Cambridge, the man who noticed the physical pain I was in and came to my assistance, wishing me “Merry Christmas” as he vanished into the night. Kindness, above all else perhaps, is what makes us human and gives us connection. It is important to spot it and appreciate it, important to give it and yet ask no thanks.
Some weeks ago, I spent an unexpected day in a public library. I thought their days numbered and thought what they provide could come from other sources. But of the dozens of people in the library that day, only a few of us were reading books. The single mothers were being young women for the day, their children were immersed in another world, the singers were bringing joy to themselves and others and keeping friendships alive that will provide a framework of meaning to their later years, the young men I met were benefitting from the public library’s ability to bring privacy and a woman in a hard place just needed kindness, which is what she found in this place that is only sometimes about books.
Public libraries are the beating hearts of communities. To some, in a very real sense, they are a life line. In these austere times, we remain the fifth wealthiest nation on Earth. It is absurd to maintain the view that we cannot afford to provide these most beneficial of public benefits. Public libraries must be defended with all our might, to do otherwise lacks even the most basic level of humanity.
The train line remained closed for the rest of the day. The body of some never to be known young man laying on its tracks, marking the end of pain and torment for him and the beginning for others.
I had the means, the family, the friends and ability to arrange transport along the remainder of my journey. But, instead, for the first time since 1996, I walked along a busy A-Road and stuck out my thumb. As a car came to a halt up ahead, indicator flashing, I had the feeling of journey again and looked forward to speaking to this new unknown person and playing a temporary part in each other’s lives.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle
- Plato (or, more likely, John Watson)