I’d spent a year dropping liquid LSD in a tiny remote cottage on the East Suffolk Coast writing a novel variously called Conundrum, The Phoenix Protocol and finally Nipple Fever about a search for the purest form of breast milk known to man, a milk so stupefying that when a Romanian refugee is suckled by a nursing mother he falls into a coma for fifteen years. But man the dreams!The rhythms of lactation and the warm, watery fore milk — like coconut beer– and then the thick creamy hind milk. And there was I keeping it real on semi-skimmed goat milk from the local Budgens.
The truth was I was turning to seed. Luxuriating like some prize marrow in the coastal sunlight. Was I unemployable? Definitely. But I told myself I was developing my social conscience– the only job I would do outside academia would involve books and simultaneously serve the community. And there really was such a job– Outreach Librarian, driving a bus around the estates and sheltered housing schemes of West London as well as doing door to door deliveries.
The interview was a breeze. My manager had a bleached blonde bob and cold porridge complexion. Maroon tracksuit bottoms were tucked into fluffy boots, a cross between a Gestapo officer and a Polish sex worker from the poorer provinces. She looked at me with those unfeeling Husky eyes and said ‘How do you to intend to reflect the borough’s diversity?’
‘By wearing mirror sun glasses,’ I said.
The job was mine.
We were a small team, an angry soon to be divorcee who quoted Tina Turner and wore cowboy boots and a girl who never washed and wore a Daffy Duck hat pulled sideways over damp black hair. They had no interest in books so I made up the shortfall, visiting archives and libraries to find rare Virago classics, early Elizabeth Taylor short stories for Mrs Breen and Mrs Montefiore and grisly forensic murder mysteries for a woman, Mrs Belper, who lived in total darkness on the ground floor. The job was inspiring. There were readers clinging to life like limpets battling wave after wave of illness and alienation. A bearded poet who had lost both his legs through cancer and was now by the force of gravity having his huge heavy head forced into his lap and yet he continued reading Latin classics, writing experimental verse while marooned in his top floor flat. His parting words to me were always, ‘take the most tremendous care…’
There was Caroline Lucas Tooth (one of the Lucas Teeth dynasty) who had damaged her hip in a horseriding accident and received me in a huge Indonesian four poster bed carved with Gods and clusters of fruit. She told me about dressage and adjusted her pony tail swishing about like an Arab stallion. ‘My mother never really got me…’ I nodded sympathetically rubbing Deep Heat into her lower back, while the council van was parked on the chevrons with hazards flashing.
Our readers represented the whole social spectrum, morphine addicts in Cheyne walk to housewives in the highrises of the Edward Woods so-called ‘problem’ estate where drug dealers were dangled from balconies opposite the Westfield building site. It was here I saw my second dead body, an old boy with his feet sticking out of the lift with the doors nipping and bouncing off them like a guillotine. Someone had thrown a tarpaulin over him but by the smell of whisky and hand rolled cigarettes I knew it was our reader from the 14th floor. Ever the professional, I quickly patted down his pockets and retrieved a couple of large print Westerns.
And it was this community of readers who were the victims of the first wave of council cuts. The council sent out long boring questionnaires about how users (not readers) rated the home library service and when people sent the questionnaires back saying how much they valued the three weekly visits the council cut the service. This was the new thing, the idea of ‘consultation…’ pure PR where people were fobbed off with questionnaires and reassured. The council appeared to be seriously interested in what people thought, as if the whole thing wasn’t already decided. The council finally called a meeting as it became clearer that they were attracting lots of adverse publicity (they had already sold the mobile library van to Africa because Africans have less stringent MOT arrangements). A meeting was held in a library, already a bad decision since the housebound were durrrhh!! housebound and therefore unable to get to the library in the first place. But in they hobbled with sticks and zimmer frames and wheelchairs and carers and minicab drivers, only to be patronized by councillors who told them that the home library just knocked out Mills and Boon romances to lonely old ladies, a breathtakingly stupid remark considering the breadth of our readers. My God! I was taking them in copies of Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic as well as the steamy Middle Eastern bodice ripper Laid in the Sheik’s Convenience.
The readers were desperate. Mr Schooling a confirmed bachelor and lover of theatrical anecdotes said, ‘they don’t give a damn about us. It would be simpler to prescribe two pills. Viagra and cynanide and then we can decide what we to do on a daily basis.’