Saturday, May 10

Chris Townsend, In The Library, With the Hardback?

I first bumped into Chris Townsend in a library - or should I say his classic work "The Backpacker's Handbook" A memory that popped into my head earlier today when I popped by the library to pick up a book reservation, one apparently long since forgotten by contemporary readers. And with it arrived another train of thought.

I was a working class kid raised in the industrial Midlands with a good level of intelligence, an overactive curiosity, and (although I wouldn't have recognised it at the time) a high level of self awareness.

That's right - a right annoying little bugger always poking into the Whys of things. And not an easy fit amongst fellow pupils at the 'posh' secondary school. One outside my immediate neighbourhood, but a place I felt obliged to attend based on spiffing examination results and a chance to "better myself" as my parents put it at the time. Or more likely improve my chances to achieve more than they had; Or could.

Outside the school gates my opportunities were largely limited to roaming the streets amongst the football fantasists I'd left far behind, or try to avoid undue interest from the many skinhead gangs that were the rage at the time. Disaffected youth? No. More like fodder for the local factories. So much for fond memories of teenage years.

However there was an escape from such tedium and tension by way of books and amateur forays into the local countryside (or green belt as it would be called these days) To follow the usual boyhood pursuits of that period and mostly frowned upon, or illegal, for today's generation. And Chris's work was part of my way of finding out more about this thing called Outdoors.

Spare money was non existent. However I discovered that the library provided a chance to spread my mental wings. Pre computerisation it was possible to borrow widely across the library network by playing the system. As a result I would regularly cycle around the nearest four or five libraries, taking out the maximum no. of items at each branch, to increase my reading options, later applying the same to music cassette tapes. A necessity really as the more I read, the quicker my reading speed rose. A skill honed over years of ploughing through IT technical papers such that a 200-300 page novel is usually polished off in a single sitting if I can find that much 'me' time these days for such a glorious luxury.

One fateful day found me empty handed in the city's central library having failed to find any suitable books, but reluctant to depart without something to read. It was then that I decided to walk along the length of the many shelves. Stopping at the first row, the start of the index sequence - '0000.001' There selecting a handful of books that seemed mildly appealing. Happily for me the library indexation system across the UK used the same method of No./Subject classification. As a consequence the following months were spent slowly working my way along the shelves amongst works of philosophy, psychology, world religion, politics and history amongst others. True, at times, there were some truly weird works. But with it came an increasing awareness of the rich variety of thoughts and experiences so easily available to an open mind ready to think for itself, rather than follow the crowd.

You may recognise that this was heady stuff for a young teenager. But intensely valuable. A gift whose magnitude is only truly appreciated looking back over the years.

At the time? Well self education of this sort can be a wonderful thing, but also a burden. Nobody likes a gobby teenager, and the hard reality of life around me did not necessarily relate to those ethereal pictures painted by those works I was devouring. As a result I swiftly learnt to keep my opinions to myself, and my mouth firmly closed. Withdrawing into my own mind as I felt increasingly disconnected from the beer/birds/bash-em-up mentality of those around me.

With the passage of time and the maturity that life's experiences can bring there was a slow relaxation of this protective shell with the realisation of the value and benefit of sharing such personal experiences and knowledge with those around me. Cunningly nowadays this is more likely to be looked on as Wisdom, where perhaps once it was considered less positively.

But today, stood at the library desk I instantly recognised in the the book binding, the plastic protective cover, the garish cover photo - that typical look and feel of printed work so common on library shelves from my past. Flicking open the first few pages I spotted the print date - 1969. The year man first stood on the moon. When so much seemed possible.

The library flysheet tracked the book's recent history. Archived away as no longer likely to be loaned out. A few fading date stamps indicating three borrowings over the last seven years.

"£8.10" the assistant requested. Coming back from my musings I cast an eye over the small pile of books, film DVDs and music CDs I'd also decided to borrow. Meanwhile conversations could be heard from all around the library, above the continual tapping from the rows of Internet PCs sat nearby.

I paid up, commenting wryly on those times past when to talk aloud in a library invited a stern warning, and possible ejection out onto the cold street. A time when people chose to enter these hallowed halls to acquire knowledge, rather than just seek entertainment.

The library assistant smiled back recognising a kindred spirit as she observed now it was easy access to the Internet PCs that was the main attraction.

Times change. But I'd like to think that people's inner needs don't. But for many these days it seems all to easy to become sidetracked along the way. And miss out on the real lessons available.

So thanks Chris T for deciding to place your own individual ideas into a book, and thereby be one part of my early influences, leading to who and what I have become so far.

Words. A pitiful means of communication really. But never to be underestimated.

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I successfully managed to order a copy for Reading Central library, and you know what? Some little sod has got it out on loan again - the cheek!
Wasn't quite sure what you meant by '"£8.10" the assistant requested' a library?
I loved this post, John. An inspiring story and message.
Baz - the cost of the library items loaned.

SW - yw as ever
John, I've only just come across this post, as I catch up on my post-Challenge web reading. I'm delighted to hear my book was such an influence. That's why I write so it's always good to know of people who've been inspired by my words.

I like your thoughts on libraries. I too spent much time in libraries as a youth growing up on the very flat Lancashire coast. A book that had a big influence on me was, I think, called Fellwalking and written by one J.Ingram. As I didn't keep details of the book and forgot about it for many years my memory is probably faulty as to the details. I've never been able to find it since I remembered its existence.
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