26 March 2014

Last week, for the first time in years, I returned to my home town, a Victorian model village and Unesco World Heritage site. When I was growing up, the village – Saltaire – and its mill had both seen better days but, helped by the vision of the late, lamented Jonathan Silver, who bought the old mill and set up a gallery there to celebrate local favourite son, David Hockney, coupled with the serendipity of a satellite dish manufacturer establishing itself there just as the Sky TV boom really got under way, Saltaire is now a thriving place once more.

However, what caught my attention was neither that, nor the rash of restaurants, cafés and bars where there used to be junk shops, plumbers, and empty premises, but the public library. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this library was where the path that led to me becoming a writer began. I began haunting its shelves and book stacks when I was twelve or thirteen and set off home every time with an armful of books that I then devoured, often reading deep into the night by the light of a torch under the bedclothes.

I was a pretentious little twirp at the time – I know, so what’s changed? – so there’d always be something heavy duty on the outside of the stack under my arm as I left the library, just in case someone happened to notice (they never did, of course) that young Neil was taking home the new Samuel Beckett. But having got them home, I read them all. I was an omnivore, consuming not only literary giants like Beckett, Camus, Dickens and Lawrence, but other novels, non-fiction, poetry and plays of varying literary merits – everything, in short, up to and including the kitchen sink… for along with Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse there was Sillitoe, Osborne and Storey. Alongside local heroes like JB Priestley I also discovered American literature and read Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos and e e cummings.

I could do this because the library was well-funded and staffed by people with a genuine interest in, and often a passion for literature, who were delighted to find anyone – even a thirteen year old pretentious twirp – with whom they could share their enthusiasm.

The grand Victorian library building is still there though it’s no longer used as a library. In what might be a fitting comment on the times in which we live  – o tempora, o mores, indeed – a new library was built a few years ago as part of a supermarket complex. There are books still among the DVDs and computer terminals, and I’m sure many staff – or those who have survived the rounds of local government cuts, anyway – are still book lovers, but the shelves no longer bulge with new books and great literature, and I wonder if any thirteen year old twirps today will find enough there to inspire them, as I was once inspired.