Sunday 2 September 2012

The Librarian's Appliance(s)

Many years ago Cneifiwr supplemented his meagre student grant by working part-time at two libraries in central London for a few months.

Both had mildly eccentric staff, including one young woman who liked to wear a Mao suit and cap to show solidarity with the Gang of Four as they awaited their show trial, but some of the library members were far stranger. One was an elderly man who was acknowledged to be the world's leading authority on Albania, then one of the most secretive and repressive countries on earth. He dressed as an Edwardian gentleman, including spats and a monocle.

The other library specialised in Jewish history, and several of the staff had escaped Nazi persecution as children or teenagers. They included the chief librarian whose rather fierce demeanour hid a heart of pure gold. She was a chain smoker and liked to boast that nothing improved a home-made mayonnaise so much as a bit of fag ash.

One day Cneifiwr was rummaging away in the cellar which housed a treasure trove of first-hand accounts of life in Jewish communities before the Holocaust, as well as some extremely gruesome artefacts donated by benefactors, when one of the library regulars turned up in the ground floor reading room. He was a big man, and for some reason on that day he went berserk and began shouting and throwing books and papers around.

The chief librarian, who was a very delicate looking woman, grabbed him by the collar and ejected him forcefully from the building.

A couple of weeks later he returned and struggled out of a taxi with a huge pile of heavy books. He apologised profusely for his tantrum and handed over the tomes to say sorry. They were a set of dentistry manuals from Nazi Germany, complete with page after page of diagrams depicting what were claimed to be jaws and teeth belonging to different races. Jewish and African jaws were different from Aryan jaws, of course.

This taught an impressionable young Cneifiwr that the experts could not always be trusted.

Working alongside Cneifiwr at both libraries was a young woman from Belfast who went on to become something important in the BBC. As we sifted through the archives we flirted and made jokes about  librarians. Oh the arrogance of youth!

One of our favourite jokes was a device we called the "Librarian's Appliance". This consisted of a pair of NHS spectacles attached to a false hair bun and invisible wires which put dark hairs on the unfortunate wearer's top lip. We were going to patent it and sell it to otherwise attractive women so that they could be transformed instantly into librarians. No need for qualifications or an in-depth understanding of cataloguing systems.

Later in his career, Cneifiwr worked for an international news agency. His boss, who clearly had a sense of humour, decided it would be fun to send the boy off to the library to argue the case for recognising emerging Soviet countries as independent states so that clients could find them more easily on the newswires. The chief librarian was a battleaxe who ruled the department with a rod of iron, and Cneifiwr was clearly onto a losing wicket. Margot, as I shall call her, was very keen on recognising only the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Cneifiwr suspected that she was a Stalinist. She also looked a bit like Rosa Klebb.

Margot in flirtatious mood

After an initial skirmish Margot declared that it was lunchtime, and she invited the boy Cneifiwr out to her club. We were greeted by a very camp Italian waiter, who clearly knew her very well. She picked at her food but downed at least two bottles of Chardonnay before we headed back to the library. Margot was rather unsteady on her feet.

The library staff knew the drill, gently propped the old girl up in her chair and hinted that our meeting was now over. Outside her office they told me that Margot was generally not at her best in the afternoons, and that sometimes she slid out of her chair and slept on the floor. Come home time she was usually sober enough to head off to the pubs in Fleet Street.

Some years later Cneifiwr was visiting a large oil company in Norway, and was due to meet the librarian. A very beautiful blonde woman came into Reception, and our eyes met. We made smalltalk in the lift up to the umpteenth floor, and once in her office, she offered me tea. Just then the phone rang, and it turned out I was in the wrong meeting. Back along the corridor and down to Reception where a tiny and very cross older woman was waiting to meet me.

She was wearing the Librarian's Appliance and gave me one hell of a roasting over an article in which we had revealed that the then King of Norway had been living quietly with his mistress for many years. Although this was common knowledge, it was not done to mention the King's domestic arrangements in print. "You are worse than the gutter press", she told me.

Back in Carmarthenshire, the County Council recently completed a £3.8 million refurbishment of Llanelli Library, but it seems that some of the users are deeply unhappy with the new regime there because changes have been made which would have been unimaginable to Margot and the other librarians of Cneifiwr's youth.

Users of the library were recently surprised and annoyed to find that it has been equipped with what one complainant to the County Council described as "loud speakers, a jukebox and a telly" broadcasting two disparate pieces of music and the BBC news channel simultaneously to members of the public in the reading room.

Responding to the complaint, a council official preferred the term "state of the art facility" to the fuddy duddy word library, and insisted that the widescreen television was in fact an electronic data screen, albeit one which shows television programmes. It had been switched on to ensure that "service users" did not miss coverage of the Olympics, he claimed.

The council is so pleased with its new facility that it intends to roll out this multi-media experience across the county so that we can all enjoy it. You have been warned.

The officer's reply continues:

Various library collections are showcased in this iconic building fit for the 21st Century with state of the art technology complimenting  the traditional library offer, satisfying changing patron desires and expectations, resulting in a community building that suits all. The new Llanelli Library is designed to be a vibrant community space, but at the same time somewhere to meet friends or just sit and relax with a book in one of the quieter areas provided.

Iconic.... state of the art.... community.... facility..... This officer certainly has a career in the council's PR department ahead of him, and the dodgy grammar in the next part of the response to our complainant will not be a problem there:

Not all areas of the library has (sic) sound enabled at the same time, and whilst I appreciate your concerns, staffs (sic) have reported a demand by service users for greater participation; at the same time staff members are able to limit the sound within each section if requested by the majority of users at any given time.

As our complainant pointed out to the council, democracy in Carmarthenshire is a delicate flower at the best of times, so perhaps greater participation should be welcomed. He wondered, however, what form this might take.

Should "service users" vote in a secret ballot to decide whether they wish to hear (a) Smack My Bitch Up by Prodigy, (b) The Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakmé, or (c) Dafydd Iwan - Y Goreuon (a bit far-fetched that one)? Or should the vote simply be a show of hands? Who will ensure that there is no voter intimidation, and will there be a returning officer to verify the vote (possibly a new lucrative sideline for our chief executive)? Also would there be a minimum voting age, or would children be asked to wave their Noddy books? 

Life can be so complicated at times, and he is waiting for a reply to his questions.


m1books said...

Oh your stereotypes are wicked. But I do wear glasses and sometimes my hair in a knot! Despite the library encounters of your youth remember that in libraries today search engines do not smile!

Mrs Angry said...

Goodness me, Cneifiwr ... I knew you were a fecking liar, pretending to be a sheep's hairdresser, and now you have outed yourself as a librarian, although your duties appear to have consisted entirely of flirting with moutachioed lady librarians. My mind is still boggling.

By the way, I used to work in libraries too, and I had neither a beard, nor a moustache. I can see where your fascination for women with buns originated, however.

It has always been the case that public libraries attract, on both sides of the counter, some of the most eccentric characters. It offers a sanctuary of sorts, I think.

I too am horrified at the intrusion of commerce, noise and all the other inappropriate extras being forced into libraries by philistine councillors who cannot understand why the places should not all be sold off for development, and of course have never read a book in their life.

Or is that just here in Barnet?

Cneifiwr said...

Some of my best friends are librarians, although I never was one - just a humble temp employed to sift through the archives. And having listened to heated debates about cataloguing systems which went completley over my head, I would never aspire to become one.

Back to the sheep.

Tessa said...

I have a moustache and a bit of a beard. But I'm not a librarian - so there! In fact I'm an accountant - although to be fair you'd probably guess that from my pallid complexion, big arse and limited social skill.