Why buy when you can borrow?

“Here you are ladies, kissy-kissy-hug-hug” said the library van driver as he brought forth a pile of bodice-ripping romance novels, the stack so high that his chin had to hold them down to keep them from toppling.  The women in the van surged forward with coos of delight. Their hands grabbed any book, and passed it on to their neighbour, if it was one they’d already read. The pile soon disappeared.

I stood by my front door gazing in wonder at this exuberant melee in the street, while holding a baby, our toddler at my knees clinging to my skirt, fascinated by the whole event. 

We had recently arrived back to England from a spell in Iran, had had a second child, bought a house with no furniture, moved to an unknown area of the country, and I was trying to adjust to the overwhelming culture shock of it all, with an infant who cared not to sleep at night. 

Until Iran, I’d always taken libraries for granted.  I had never appreciated what they could mean to a penniless human being.  I had understood that somewhere in Tehran there was a showcase library, behind plate glass, for tourists to see, but I never heard of anyone actually borrowing a book from it.

Here, a library van, parked directly in front of our door, was offering books to borrow, books to request, as well as any information I cared to ask them about – all for free, to me, a bewildered woman who barely had money enough for the next meal.  It was so amazing, so generous, so awe-inspiring that I could scarcely take it in!  Wonderful!

I was also impressed, when visiting my sister in mid-west America, that it was her young children who wanted to take us to their library, to show off the cushions and private cuddly places where they could curl up and read.  Our nephew recalls how important this was to him:

I still remember the library very fondly.  [Dad and I] would run errands together on a Saturday and then go to the library. It represented a strong sense of safety, and time away from my identity where I could entirely lose myself in whichever book caught my interest. ….. I very swiftly went beyond the children’s offerings and would get lost in the well-stocked stacks, so it literally was in many cases my first introduction to the world of adult authors.  I was a voracious reader, so it was never unusual to see me checking out 10-15 books at a time and having at least two done before the weekend’s end.  It definitely was a seminal part of my childhood.

Our children had similar experiences.  One daughter said:

“I remember feeling woozy, but reading anyway, in the car on the way home.  By the time we arrived, I would only have one or two books left.”  Her new Christmas book was finished even before the roast turkey was carved.  No way could our budget have sustained the number of books she willingly consumed!

Well, that was then.  The toddler, the baby, the nephew, and the niece (now a university librarian) have all grown to adulthood.  Of course, the mobile libraries have long since ceased to function, and I react with horror every time I hear that a library is threatened with closure.  Libraries are such comfortable places to be in.  I know of some people who go to a library first, when entering a new town. 

You can see the bell tower ropes at the top of this picture.
Accessible to small people

Our local library, is quite an attraction.  It is in the church tower.  Probably it is the only library in the world where the cushions you sit on are hand-tapestried kneelers that tell you to have peace and joy in your hearts.  It is run by volunteers, and it is a County library, linked to a network of existing libraries in the country, so I can go there and ask for any book in the world.  Not bad for a remote village, miles away from towns. 

I’m really sad that libraries are closing because nobody wants them anymore.  I wish I could find a way to convince people that reading real pages is wonderful and actually links into our brains better than reading on screen.  Of course libraries can offer much more than books, but for me the most important part is that they are a real, not virtual, place for the whole community, non-judgmental, accepting everyone and offering a world of adventure, information, humour, brain-widening experiences totally new, totally different to their own identity.  In a library the rich and the poor are together, treated equally.  No matter how homeless, how poverty-stricken, or wealthy you are, they are there for you.

If you can find them.  In Hereford, the library wasn’t even on the tourist map, and folk in the street looked baffled when I asked where it was.  A homeless Big Issue seller from Birmingham had to give me directions.  Most of the libraries closed during the worst of the COVID attack, but some, like Hereford, became the centre for borrowing and returning books.  Recently, I joined the queue waiting for it to open at its prescribed time during lockdown, well protected and sanitized, with each borrower’s selection in a paper bag, handled with gloves.  I was thrilled to see such a long line of waiting people, delighted that so many were making use of the library’s books during our times of isolation and shop closures.  No.  Wrong.  They were there to pick up green garden waste bags they’d ordered.  I was the only one with something to return…… 

…..except for a later arrival: a father, two children, and a stack of library books.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Omelette Arnold Bennett

The only thing I knew about Arnold Bennett was this recipe created for him by the Savoy Hotel when he visited London from his home in Staffordshire, England.  However, Gyles Brandreth declares him an excellent writer and sadly ignored today.  So I borrowed our library’s copy of The Old Wives’ Tale, gasping at its number of pages (725), but utterly absorbed by the story.

This is my adaptation of Delia Smith’s* adaptation of the Savoy’s original recipe. It is easily prepared in two steps, which means that the final step could almost be done with everyone sitting at the table, fists holding knife and fork to attention.

INGREDIENTS

6 ozs 175g skinned smoked haddock (I used more, 2pieces skinned, 10 ozs)

6 ozs (175 ml 2/3 cup) milk

A bayleaf

Salt and pepper

A half tablespoon of flour, and a tablespoon of butter.

Hollandaise sauce (home-made or from a jar)

1 oz (25) grams gruyere cheese.  (I used 2 tablespoons cheddar)

1 heaped tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese. 

5 large eggs (I used three, for 2 people)

STEP ONE

Cut up fish and cook gently in the milk with the bayleaf.  Strain well into a jug.

Melt half the butter in a saucepan, add flour and mix well.  Stirring constantly, add the fishy milk.  Bubble on low heat for 5 minutes. 

Add half the fish and the hollandaise sauce.  Cover, while awaiting the next step.

Ready for Step Two

STEP TWO.

Whisk eggs (use 5 if serving this is for 4 people).  Add the rest of the fish.

Melt half a tablespoon of butter in a large heavy pan over medium heat, while heating your grill on to High.

Add egg-fish mixture, and spread evenly around the pan.  When half-cooked spoon the prepared sauce over it.  Sprinkle on the cheese.

Pop it under the grill until bubbly but not browned.  Let it rest a minute while dishing out the other food on plates.  Then cut in wedges (a pizza cutter is good) and serve to the awaiting multitudes. 

Whew!  That took longer to write than it did to prepare!

*Delia Smith’s Christmas 1990.

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