The Reading Room 02
As a local writer of no celebrity, and even less fortune, I dine at the finest joints and hang out at the trendiest of scenes. By these I refer to the lowliest possible table in Costa Coffee, right by the toilet door, where no-one ever wants to sit, and of the reading room of the town’s central library, but it was by frequenting these locations that it put me in the sphere of influence of certain local characters.
In Costa there was a new barista-in-training and whilst he steadfastly and slowly cleaned the solitary toilet he refused to lock the door and so I got to view the constant parade of people who walked in on him before getting a big surprise and having to back out again. However, there was one old gent that pitched up who turned out not to be so fussy as, despite the intimate company, he let the door slam shut behind him, before he got his own “old gent” out, and set about his business. The new barista sprang out of that cubicle, tout suite, all wide-eyed and alarmed and I imagined that he’d just learnt a valuable life lesson.
One of the problems with sitting outside the all-purpose Costa toilet is that when a second customer turns up, and finds it engaged, they have to hang around me in my little alcove, which I inhabited like a troll under a bridge, with an embarrassed silence as we both tried not to make eye contact.
I left the toilet and Costa Coffee behind and journeyed to the library, for the first time in a good while, which allowed me to get in for last orders at what I referred to as my Gentleman’s club.
The library’s late opening on a Wednesday night was special because for these few off-peak hours the reading room gained a concentrated crowd of only the most hardy of characters which gave it the notion of having a certain exclusivity.
Since an incident involving an upturned military vehicle, some flowers, and a camera, the staff in there had started viewing me with suspicion, and treating me like the rest of the whacked-out customers, but there was one girl who bucked the trend as she had a friendly welcoming manner for all and I could happily sit and accidentally overhear her conversations all day long as she spoke with a lilt of the finest local accent, and everything she said sounded like poetry. I mean, she didn’t rhyme every sentence: she was more Lancashire free verse.1
It was whilst sitting in the reading room, quite possibly with the man who wore two hats or the man who drank power drinks that were so sweet and sickly I could taste them, that I once overheard her take a bizarre phone call on the reading room desk where she pulled out a folder, of no-doubt sensitive information, and informed the caller, in her quaint Lancastrian accent: “You’ll have to ask me questions because I’m only allowed to answer yes or no.”
It all sounded like an extreme game of Who Am I?, or an inverse-version of the Yes/No game where if she was caught answering a question, with any other words than yes or no, then a man from Data Protection would ring a gong in her face and give the library a massive fine. She explained it to the caller, and anyone who just happened to be listening, mostly like that.
Later, having a nosey around the library proper, I found a book which I’d been trying to buy for years and ventured to the counter where I produced my age-old library card which had corners turned up more than a Jubilee ham sandwich, the signature worn away by time like the Parthenon, and I asked the librarian with the accent if it was still good. She took one look at it, told it wasn’t, and that I’d have to join the library again; this was despite me believing I’d been a continuing member there since I was a child.2
Knowing how hard it is to join anything3, and not having come prepared with any personal documentation, I was resigned to having to return another day and so was more than a little surprised when the sound of mill towns and rolling moors told me that she’d still let me take the book out if I’d just write some details on a form; which seemed awfully trusting of her.
Now I’m not precious about the “doctor thing”, always remembering a certain individual with a PhD who’d flip his lid at the hint of a mister, but it was certainly satisfying to drop that one word on the form, and see this particular girl read it and type it out into the system, because I’d been getting treated like scum in there lately by certain individuals just because I happened to hang about with the drunks, the criminally insane, and those looking for a warm place to sleep; by that I mean that on a regular basis I frequented the reading room.
When I registered my Costa Coffee loyalty-card on-line I was delighted to see that on the dropdown title menu there existed an exciting range of choices above and beyond the usual Mister, Misses, Ms, Miss, and Doctor. For even though that’ll do ninety-nine percent of the population there was interestingly also the option of Sir, Lady, and Lord; Honourable, Marquis, and Duke; as well as Reverend and Father, and Major and Colonel. It was good to know that Costa truly is the coffee-shop of Kings, and that they’ve obviously drawn the line and don’t allow in any riffraff below the rank of Major.4
Thinking about it, as the library girl was so trusting, I should probably have claimed to be a Marquis, although being honest the one thing that probably did raise me up in her expectations, seeing as to the company I keep, was that that I didn’t fill in the address line with “no fixed abode”.
1 – I do bemoan the lack of local Lancastrian accents and growing up I was surprised when I was told that I had more of a neutral BBC announcer voice. These were in the days, long before the fall of BBC 3, when it implied southern received pronunciation or the Queen’s English. Whilst linguistic scholars have the class touchstones of how British people pronounce “bath” and “scone” and “garage” I was also led to believe that that the town was divided by how the locals pronounced it; with either Burry or Berry.
I also once knew an Italian girl called Leda for a short time who, whilst speaking English brilliantly, I found it unbelievably funny how she pronounced the word milk – “miiilk” – which I would get her to repeat mercilessly, mainly for my own amusement. It’s true what they say about us being split by a common language. Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto.
2 – I also labour under the fatuous belief that I’ve been a member of Birmingham Central Library since the late nineties when I was able to gather enough documentation together to prove that I lived there. This is despite the fact that they cleared out the books to allow the BBC’s seventies-set spy drama The Game to film there in 2013, using the classic Brutalist concrete architecture to pose as the period MI5 headquarters, and then when they’d finished they knocked the place down.
3 – As a student in Bangor it was only after a couple of years living there that I was finally allowed to join the local video rental shop when I was able to produce enough official documentation to prove that I resided on Dean Street. By that time I’d moved out to Friars Avenue, but after all the effort complying with rental store bureaucracy I appreciated the irony. Still, video shops, where are they now?
4 – I sent a version of this observational bit in to Martin Kelner, before Radio Leeds pulled his cult late night show for not being “female friendly” enough, and he read it out. Fancy that, a minute of material being performed on the radio, by a legend of broadcasting, and as a punch line I signed the comment: “Yours, His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh”.