Read Regional: A memoir

As my train to Hull passed under the north end of the Humber Bridge, taking me to my last Read Regional event, my thoughts, as they always do at that precise point, turned to my childhood.

Specifically, this time, to the basement of Grimsby Library.

I’ll need my mum to do some fact-checking on this tale, but I seem to recall that the children’s books in Grimsby Library were stored in the basement in the mid- to late-seventies, and that my brother and I spent an awful lot of our time in there.

I grew up in Cleethorpes, the other half of Grimsby, just the other side of the Humber from Hull. And books were my life.

We weren’t a well-off family, but there were lots of books in the house. Tim and I were voracious readers, and the local libraries were our Aladdin’s caves.

But it’s one particular thing I’m reminded of, on this train to Hull, now I’m in my mid-forties.

One time, in that magical basement, I found the library staff had dismembered two copies of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, taped their pages together in order, attached the great long scroll of them to two cardboard tubes, and fixed the whole rig into a cardboard box with a rectangular hole cut out of it, so that I could wind through the story as if I were watching it on TV.

And I loved it. I read it through over and over again.

I’ve thought about that often over the last forty years. Perhaps because, as a book-lover, I’m still a bit shocked by that act of vandalism. I’m someone who can’t bear even to take a pencil to the margin of a page, or fold the corner over to mark my place.

More likely, though, it’s because I’m more and more impressed by the small iconoclasm of that act.

That ‘destruction’ of two copies of a book was about care. The library staff cared enough about their young visitors that they exercised their imaginations, their craft and their time to offer up a book to kids who might not naturally be inclined to read a book in the most traditional way.

And let’s remember, this is decades before e-books came along.

And this is what I’ve found, travelling around the north of England this year to read to eight different library-based groups. I’ve said poems in some grand new(ish) libraries like Newcastle’s and some grand old(ish) libraries like Darlington’s.

I’ve even said poems in a non-existent library – Methley’s, on the outskirts of Leeds – which was shut down some time ago, and whose readers’ group now meets in the village’s exquisite Rivers Meet Café, facilitated by staff from the magnificent Leeds Central Library.

Each library has been utterly different from the rest, but has had a couple of things in common with the others.

Firstly, the gloriously iconoclastic staff. In the face of funding cuts, swathes of redundancies, floods, legal battles over proposed relocations and more, they have been uniformly optimistic, determined and wry. They are people wonderfully out of step with an environment in which they and their work are horribly vulnerable.

Secondly, the community of people which gathers in each of them. Inquisitive, welcoming, challenging (in the best way) – there is no library without them.

And this is the point, for me. The librarians in Darlington, Morpeth, Hartlepool, Newcastle, Methley, Marple, Keighley and Hull have all talked about community.

Libraries ought to be part of the NHS. They promote mental health. They tackle social isolation. They are places for – and full of – people, being together. They are among the best and the highest of things that we have made. They make us all – individually and collectively – better.

Please lie down in front of a bulldozer to save one, if it comes to it. I will.

And now Read Regional is over for me. I had to wait 55 minutes for a train home from Hull, and treated myself to a glass of wine in the Royal Hotel Hull to mark the end of this whole magical experience, then walked out past the statue of Philip Larkin on the concourse, onto a train which took me under the Humber Bridge and back to reality.

I’d like to thank New Writing North for inventing Read Regional, and for inviting me to join in. I’d like to thank the peerless poets Polly Atkin, Anna Woodford and Linda France who’ve been my collaborators in these eight events.

I’d like to thank the communities of library-dwellers I’ve met, who’ve challenged me to think afresh about my relationship with poetry and my own poems.

And I’d like to thank the library staff that have looked after me – after their working days have ended, in most cases – and given me cause to look back over a lifetime of loving libraries. Keep up the good fight.

Find out more about Antony Dunn’s poetry collection Take This One to Bed, featured in Read Regional 2018.