Southwick Library, by Robert Sheppard

Southwick Library had been the epitome of modernity in the mid-1960s, he realised now. Its Mies van der Rohe functionalism – angular breeze-blocks, slatted stairs beckoning him to the light, and sheets of glass to frame trees and sky – felt like the Barcelona Pavilion full of second-hand books. As though a Victorian hoarder had stumbled into the 1920s. He remembered queuing at the thigh-high issue desk with his books. To be inputted into West Sussex’s new computerised system. Library tickets were pliant red plastic rectangles. Flicked and slapped onto glass by librarians’ fingers, face down alongside the card docket tweezered from the book, they were photographed together. A record of the marriage of borrower and book. A faint glow like that of a photocopier. More scrabbling peeled them from this epiphanic moment. Ticket returned to him, book issued.

Everything smelt of plastic. The ticket as he stowed it in one of the flaps of the book, the protective sheath around the book itself, even the atmosphere, stale under glass on a summer’s day. His weekly raid upon Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ saga with their ship-shape plasticated spines turned him into a reader. There was no contradiction in his mind between the austere architecture, its cutting edge information system, and the excitement of reading about sailing boats decorated with creaking oil lanterns, piracy along the mud-flats or on the magic lakes of the North. They formed a unity. Later, upstairs in the reference section – thoughtful large tables for doing homework, a view of the doctors’ surgery over the road, the Barn – he handled ancient bound volumes of still more ancient history. The finger-pointing pedantry of the local historian. The Roman Villa. Thunderbarrow Hill. Amid an aroma of old paper, biscuit-crumbs and wood-rot mingled with plastic.
The poetry section – surprisingly varied – furnished what today is a ‘collectable’, but was in his mid-teens a curiosity: a hardback Faber volume of one of the most impenetrable parts of Pound’s ‘Cantos’, Section: Rock-Drill de los Cantares (1955), with its use of colour to illuminate the red playing card symbols. Part of an ideogram spelling ‘fifty 2 weeks in 4 seasons’. They are impoverished in black and white in the complete Cantos. It seemed (and seems) a small but significant moment in modernist poetry, the abortive re-entry of colour from the days of incunabula. He also borrowed Ulysses for its first test-run, the Bodley Head house-brick, whose text has gone from canonical to apocryphal and back again in a generation. Both books are of a piece with the fragile modernity of the place, if only he’d known it.

Librarians in his filmic memories appear almost only as claws, barely touched, as he surrendered his ID, his slender belonging. The sound-track runs near silent: a hush broken by the rats’ feet toccata of digits, plastic and glass, the squeak of a chair, a cough, the thud of a reference volume clammed shut. Reverential vacuum. Visually it’s in black and white. Like the librarians, re-stocking the shelves, patting rows of books. As invisible as Jesuits.  

Into this absence a glorious creature flew one day. The new library assistant. Behind the desk and between the shelves. Between other shelves he peeped at her. Perched on her stool, avian, exotic. Straw hat, long blonde hair, flowing white cheese-cloth dress, she should have been humming, but couldn’t have been. She compensated with broad smiles. Her cheery, floating post-hippie post-modernity outshone the scuffed angles of the modernist building. It acquired dark corners in an instant. In ten years the stairs had become grimy, grips worn down. Glass scratched, opaque in sunlight, oppressive. It was as if this was only noticed now. Newsreels of sixties tower-blocks detonated to dust were playing, silent. Daisy-chained Primavera was dancing in cannabis clouds between collapsing skyscrapers. The game was up. Modernism was officially dead. The new baroque-and-roll was in. A year or two later, after she’d flown, he discovered she was the wife of a then not-very-famous but soon-to-be pop star who lived locally. She died young, tragic, not of drugs. Memory ages with her: antic avatar, autic anima, pantomimic muse. Elective mute.


Southwick Library has been knocked down and replaced by a smaller, near-bookless computer-hub, blustering for custom. Attached to the new doctors’ surgery, as though reading is good for us. A Postmodernist brick barn, picking its quotations from the locality (‘community’ would be its buzzword) but neither understanding nor offering a challenge to it from a wider world of reference. An eternally-signifying disappointment. As is its poetry section, which consists of a few unrifled Penguins and the constipated workouts of interchangeable lyric Irishmen.        

For Borges, the greatest librarian-writer since Callimachus of Alexandria, the library is pure symbol of infinitude, ever-branching, hyperlinked eternity. Southwick Library offers finitude its refuge – but small revenge. The ’Wickers became administratively embarrassed by it. The perfect embodiment of imperfection, the library was a dream of the new that became first mundane and secondly expendable. Then demonised. Finally demolishable. Funereal plastic wraps our mummified knowledge, its choking book dust. Its wisdom. Wraps even the decay of librarians’ flesh.

The spaces of the ‘old’ library still form in his memory, unfolding out of friable memories in homage, stubborn, persisting. He inhabits them, the ghost dimensions of a blind man, tingling nerve-endings. Hacking virtual space. He senses again the waft of a dress passing, catches a trace of patchouli in his throat, clearing. Plastic polish rises from the desks. 

Memory rustles, a loose sheet from an opening book between undisturbed shelves.


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