Friday, 11 March 2011

Thank You Mum

I grew up in a village in Cornwall. It lies on the coast road, midway between Lands End and St Ives. From the kitchen window at the back of our house you can see the Atlantic- an almost indivisible reach of blue sky and sea- except, that is, on the days when the fog rolls in. Of these days there are many. My parent's way of describing this challenging weather (and it is a challenge, both physically and emotionally) was to say that  'it was as thick as a bag'. Fog aside, my Mum never tired of that view down to sea. I can see her now standing in the kitchen, with her half-apron on, looking out the window at the horizon. 
It was my mum who took me to the library as a child. There was neither a library, nor a doctor's surgery, in our village. But both were available at St Just, a small mining town, just further along the coast in the direction of Lands End. The doctor and the library represented opposite poles for me as a child. Suffering from frequent throat and ear infections I was a regular attender at the surgery. I would sit with my mum, a feeling of what? shame or loathing I think, waiting the interminable wait, for my name to be called and the inevitable bottle of antibiotic medicine, yellow and reeking of bananas, to be prescribed. This being the 1970's the spectre of multi-drug resistant bacteria was yet to impact upon prescribing practices.
Having endured the horror of the doctor it was but a hop, skip and a jump next door to the library, the reward, the pay-back for good behaviour. To me, as a child, St Just Library was simply unlike anywhere else. A modern, single storey building, sitting  elegantly at the top of a low flight of wide steps. A million miles away from the  ubiquitous and dour granite from which virtually every other building in the locale seemed to be hewn. And inside? Tucked away, partially blocked from the view of the librarian's desk was the children's section with row upon row of books lining three sides of a square space. And the ultimate in sophistication and elegance  was the central area to sit when reading, or being read to. This seating was unlike either the scaled down, child-sized chairs that we sat on at school or the rough wooden benches at Sunday school. Instead the children's section boasted black vinyl banquettes, with short legs made of square, silver coloured metal, no backs, no arms, utter decadence. That first feeling of exhilaration and excitement never diminished and after a quick sit down I would be ready to start choosing. The books that shine across the years are Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit books with the beautiful illustrations by Margaret Temple and end papers of tall trees, sometimes green, sometimes blue, against a white background, inviting you to peer within. How I loved that rabbit and the squirrel although Hare struggled a little to find a place in my heart. Little Grey Rabbit, so hard working and diligent, ( it is only in reading these books now as an adult, to my daughter, that I understand that that is what she is), a paragon of rabbit-virtue.
My mum understood about Little Grey Rabbit and would always help me search. My mum understood about children and books. She had grown up, one of eight children, in the Nineteen Thirties and Forties when working-class children had little access to books. Once a year there was the Sunday school prize, but that was it for her and her siblings. These books were so precious, she would say,  she was almost afraid to hold them. So my sister and I had a book-filled childhood, many of our own (including our own Sunday school prizes) but always library books to satisfy my insatiable appetite for reading.

After my mother died three years ago I found myself making the same journey after a gap of twenty five years- first to the doctor's surgery to return a pharmacopoeia  of unused tablets and medicines and then to the library to return her library books for the very last time. The doctor's surgery had changed beyond all recognition but the library remained just as I remembered it. The black vinyl and chrome benches in the children's section still looked new and inviting.  Perhaps these were a nod and a wink to Le Courbousier, a fitting modernist touch in a modern library where children were to be welcomed and to be given their own space, not grudgingly or parsimoniously but with  joy and exuberance. So I sat for a few moments before checking, yes, Little Grey Rabbit still had a place on the shelves.   
Later, my sister and I talked over the last few days of mum's life,  spent on an NHS ward, with a bed facing the patient opposite and a windowless wall- no longer a seascape (not much of a view to do your dying to). My sister and I trying to understand the point at which it had all started to go so catastrophically wrong for her. My sister remembered a League of Friends volunteer coming round with the library trolley. She asked Mum what kind of books she liked and Mum had been well enough  that day to say that she liked a family saga- it was always family with Mum. When I was a nurse I must have seen a League of Friends volunteer push the library trolley from bedside to bedside hundreds of times. Sometimes I would ring their office if a patient was particularly in need of something to read, or if somebody needed something specific such as a talking book. I never really gave it that much thought. But now I think of that volunteer with her trolley of books, stopping at my mum's bedside. The choosing and issuing of a book, with hindsight, elevated beyond the mundane, a gesture of humanity, a shared experience, that resonates still. I think of my mum choosing her library book, her very last library book but not, I think, knowing it to be so. The tangible act of choosing a book creating a bridge between her life lived at home with the view down to sea, and her life, now in that hospital bed and a view of the wall, slipping imperceptibly away.
Sometimes now when I take my daughter to our library here in Ipswich and she chooses Little Grey Rabbit or Flat Stanley or Nurse Matilda (all books that mum read to me) I wish that I could thank my mum, for the love of books and libraries  that she gave to me and that I in turn am giving to my daughter.

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