All my life I have been a voracious reader and I will read anything anywhere, whether it’s words on a passing T-shirt, graffiti on buildings, anything: as soon as my eyes light on text, I’ll read it. As a youngster, one of the great joys of Christmas was the knowledge that I would receive five or six new books as presents, particularly from the parents of family friends. Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne was one of my favourites: I loved the descriptions of the tropics and the exotic names of the different fruits and vegetables, yams, breadfruit, papayas, and so forth. Published in 1857, it was a text that William Golding drew on quite heavily when writing The Lord of the Flies.
Naturally these Christmas books did not last forever: they were soon devoured and I would be off in search of more. So I have always been a big fan and a great user of the public library system in this country. I grew up visiting the libraries, particularly in Bexley Village, and I got to know all the librarians immediately, or should I say, they got to know me as I pestered them week after week for new books.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, while others were off sunning themselves in foreign climes and enjoying the local vintages, I found myself with time on my hands in the mediaeval town of Dartford. The sun was out and the beautiful displays of flowers in the park were in full bloom, so I sat there and topped up my tan for about thirty minutes. But being a busy busy busy sort of person, I couldn’t sit there all afternoon, so I decided to enter the pubic library which is adjacent to the park. I love to peruse the shelves in these libraries to see what sort of selection they have, whether any of my favourite authors are included or excluded. Dartford is, after all, a funny old town: there you can cross paths with a Chinese man with long straggly dreadlocks wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and take it completely in your stride.
Anyway, into the library I go and I run my eyes across several shelves until I come across a book of poetry, Armada, by Brian Patten, not a poet I usually have had much time for in the past. Truth is, in the early days of the famed Liverpool poets, I went to hear him read in a small venue in Oxford, and he was so shy that after reading one poem he stood up and stumbled out (he’d clearly had one or two pints) leaving his audience mystified and disappointed. Poor man! I’m more sympathetic these days but back then, I thought it was the end. Still, always prepared to give him another chance, I take the slim volume to a desk and sit down and start to read the poems. Five minutes into the process, a man comes up to me and leans on the desk so I get the full benefit of his 40 per cent breath (this is 3.30 in the afternoon). He tells me he’s a local historian and is going to give a lecture on the history of the area on the following afternoon, would I like to go. There was, of course, only one answer to that.
Back to the poetry. Not a fan of the jokey Liverpool stuff, I am pleasantly surprised by what I am reading and I plough on and I’m genuinely moved by the unsentimental nostalgia that Patten evokes for the vanished neighbourhood where he grew up. With my loyal readers in mind, I jotted down a couple of quotations from the text to give a taste, but I would highly recommend the book to anyone who spots it in their local library.
By the time I got to where I had no intention of going
Half a lifetime had been passed.
I’d sleepwalked so long. While I dozed
Houses outside which gas-lamps had spluttered
were pulled down and replaced,
And my background was wiped from the face of the earth.
One by one the souls of these houses and their tenants
have been undone by the fingers of bankers.
Among the debris where the religion lady wept
now only a sprinkler weeps.
from “Neighbourhood Watch”