There are lesser circles to Dante’s Inferno. The hell of the underachiever is one of the outer rings, some satellite town off the M25. I imagine this frozen hell located in South Mimms services where all that flashing architectural glass promises so much, those cheap travel taverns where I could take Amanda Wang for an afternoon of love, feasting on her biscuit-coloured nipples. And yet when you get there the coffee is thinner than Alpine air and the fountain is a reluctant spurt in the wilderness! Teens lope about like wolves, guys swallow bad pastries– the air is thick with small-time schemes gone bad. Underachievers compare maps and road routes, wondering why they turned off here so long ago. Will they ever get off this roundabout and do anything worthwhile again?
The library is a small personal hell, a place to be humbled, if not exactly one of the outer rings of hell it has its own tailor-made torments. My daily battle with the chewed up Smurf reading Harold Robbins, swearing if anyone comes close to him, is absurd. When I tell him his swearing is unacceptable, he tells me he hasn’t done a thing and he isn’t ‘fucking swearing. You want me to leave? Just the same in fucking Richmond…’ Dead-time. Afternoonishness all day. And the bodies sleeping open-mouthed by the magazines ram home the lesson: human life is time-wasting.
The book dust affects my skin and psychologically I should really keep away from literature. Not that Grey Gables these days stocks anything other than cookery books and misery-lit. My long-term condition diagnosed as Groubillard’s Syndrome means I misconstrue symbols and conversational nuances for direct come-ons. Even a simple request, when a borrower asks if to renew a book they need to ‘place their finger in this little box’ on the kiosk screen, becomes sexualized. My tattooed manageress told me if she’d known ‘I needed the statistics on the intranet she would have pulled it off for me this morning when I logged in.’
I handle books all day, books written by contemporaries. Men and women I studied with on a campus in the middle of a great tidal plain. There was nothing there but wheat and geese and speciality pigs daintily tiptoeing about in their piggy stilettos. Another library with a cupola moulded into the twin spheres of a human brain, alight across the wheat fields with its tangle of fiery synapses, as we walked in the evening and demonstrated our fitness– a flash of white underpants when we vaulted wooden fences. No matter where we walked, along roads or through fields, we all lived in the shadow of the tall chimney continually puffing out smoke, burning blackly, and rumoured to be fuelled by all the creative writing and abandoned novels that made up the course. Yes there were women too, the one with her dyed hair and little inspirational catchphrases: ‘It’s the crack in the door that lets the light in…it’s healthy, hon, to find a crack in your self-belief…’
I try and delight in their success (I actively wish for hers because she was generous) or hide their books behind the radiator or even, at a pinch, ask a reader for their opinion. ‘What did you think of that crime book? Not up to much…’ ‘On the contrary, it was brilliant. Completely unformulaic…’
Books drop like suet all over the shelves and into the sorter. There’s Justin Escudorell’s The Persimmon Gatherers — one of those horrible things a ‘literary’ novel. Something unreadable with plotting more convoluted than a balloon poodle, heavy with false sentiment and groaning with adjectives. And then there’s Govinda O’Leary, a Pakistani with an Irish Dad, who claimed he had been kept for months as a Taliban sex slave. The truth is that the Taliban had to pay his parents to collect him. He went on to write the enormously successful Dhoti Harry series. Nowadays the only books I can read have to be strongly escapist and very clear. I dream about a collection of tales narrated by a dwarf in knickerbockers. Stories as bright and jewelled as Medieval stained glass. Writing with the imaginative flair of George MacDonald’s The Golden Key.