‘The library was the extra treat in my life of reading’ – Robin Ince

Robin InceRobin Ince is an award-winning stand-up comedian, actor and writer, perhaps best known as co-host of Radio 4’s ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ and writer of Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club. We are delighted that he’s joining in the fight to save public libraries, and has written an exclusive guest blog post for Voices for the Library.

My first library memory involves the mobile one that would come to the Hertfordshire village where I spent my childhood. It is one of those nice little villages that looks like the sort of place you’d see John Nettles investigating a bell ringer’s assassination in Midsomer Murders. The strides up those three steps seemed enormous to my five year old legs, but the effort was worth experiencing the splendor within. I have a misted memory of the children’s books I borrowed, but the first clear recollection was when I was six and decided to borrow a book on Adolph Hitler. Now I have no idea why the scab-kneed boy felt he should have a date stamped in this particular book. I think I wanted it because I thought it would make people feel I was grown up, as many children with a mother’s spit smeared parting wish they were. I lied to my grandmother and told her that I had read the book and that it was historical fact that Hitler had never been observed smiling.

As I grew up I spent more time in the less mobile local library of Chorleywood. I would walk through the door, past the old men in uncomfortable comfortable chairs reading newspapers, straight to the children’s section. Every Saturday I hoped to find that The Making of Doctor Who was back on the shelf. Every week I had missed it again, another week unable to read about Celestial toymakers and Brigadier Letherbridge Stewart. I found solace in the Usborne books of Ancient Greek or Roman life, and a few months later I dipped into Red Rackham’s Treasure and reveled in the furious and imaginative expletives of Captain Haddock. Eventually the librarian kindly got hold of the Doctor Who book via a loan from Hitchin.

University was the location of my only library crime. I had presumed that my O level pass note cramming on Thomases Hardy and More might lead to a poor degree result. I knew that you were not given your results until all library books were returned, so I retained the two musty copies of John Donne critique from the 19th century and feigned innocence when my parents asked when my results might turn up. Eventually I knew students would be unable to intellectually thrive without a couple of texts from 1873, so returned them and received my certificate. I praised the O level passbooks excellence and questioned a system that allowed a scurrilous shirker like me to receive a certificate.

The monotony of cashless days living in London and counting chilblains in a ten bedroom, one gas fire Victorian pile was broken up by borrowing books on serial killers and sexual outsiders by Colin Wilson. On top of that there was the occasional VHS rental of a foreign film I thought might make me a better human being after reading too much about human mince in Hornsey drains.

Now I sit with my three year old under cats in hats and Charlie and Lolas as we frantically debate which eight books will make it into this week’s basket (eight books? Poor me, I was only allowed to borrow four). I am happy to say he is going through the Anthony Browne phase of charming simian picture books and the talking dinosaurs may well be next. The excitement of the library visit and the brevity of the tenure somehow makes the library books even more precious to him than those he actually owns.

That is my truncated library life so far, the story obviously doesn’t end there. I turn in my library card on the day of my death, hopefully with no overdue fees that will make my estate a messy affair to manage for my relatives that live on.

I am lucky. I was brought up in a house full of books. The library was the extra treat in my life of reading. Perhaps it was those additional books that helped encourage my myopia due to the extra hours required to read books under the bed cover. I know many people whose only access to books was at the local library. For some, it was the only access to another world away from being the school outsider. What world is it if those doors of escape, of self-improvement, of joy are shut due to budget cuts. The budget cuts of these “we’re all in it together” days. Don’t worry, because we’re all in together I am sure your nearest hedge fund manager or bank high flyer will let you pop into their house and read their books. They might even let you use their internet too. Isn’t that big society?

As a teenager I remember the agony when watching a Twilight Zone episode starring Burgess Meredith as a cursed bookworm. Criticised for spending too much time reading, a bibliophile bank clerk returns from a book break in the safe to discover humanity has been destroyed. He is not too bothered and sets about putting the library in order ready to spend the rest of his life reading. Just as he has finished his cataloguing and is about to start his reading, the spectacles slip from his nose and smash on the ground beneath. Any avid reader can feel his agony.

For Burgess Meredith, it took Armageddon and some clumsy spectacle shenanigams to put him in a world without reading. If we are not vigilant, it will just take a few budget cuts to put thousands into a world where books are increasingly an unreachable luxury.

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