Jacqueline Morley - Look At It This Way 04/02/11

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The Janet and John reading books never did it for me as a child. They were so prissy, with perfect parents, pets, picnics and playtime in proper places.

It was as far removed from a kid growing up in a slum district of Liverpool, living in fear of a good hiding, and wondering whether the latest “rescue” dog from the RSPCA would stay beyond a day, even after we moved to Blackpool.

I was nearly nine before I learned to read. I’ve told the story before. Learning difficulties, they call it today. “Backwards,” they called it then.

Two things changed my life. My Ma realising I couldn’t actually see the blackboard (still called blackboard then), and a librarian gently persuading me the only way to get a Tufty Squirrel club badge was by reading the application.

(I’d have probably been run over by my dad’s Vauxhall Velox, chasing the latest dog to high-tail it back to the RSPCA, if I hadn’t got specs and read Tufty’s road safety advice...)

I used books to escape. Still do. I’m reading Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, thanks to Anchorsholme branch library, having just emerged red-eyed from McCarthy’s The Road.

I’m reading my younger brother David’s new book, Enchantment (pardon the plug), which draws on the slim mythology of our big fat gypsy background.

No Janet and John influences there either.

My local library made me a reader, and keeps me a reader. Today I still feel that guilty pleasure at spiriting random books away. Each time I go, I glance across at the junior section and walk tall at the memory of my first venture into the adult library. Back then I’d pick a book based on how few stains it had. To this day, I’ll never know whether Famous Five made it back to Aunt Fanny because someone had blown his/her nose on the last page.

We need libraries, not the ghosts of them, just as we need day centres, old folks’ homes, post offices, pubs, hospitals, and CAB offices. I hate seeing them mothballed into decrepitude until they fall down or apartments or yet another supermarket springs up.

Some years ago, I recognised two kindred spirits in one of the two local libraries set to close in socially-deprived districts, as politicians picked over the coalition’s carcass of the public sector. I was there to see what kids made of the relaunched Janet and John. Of all the great kids I met, two stood out – a boy with special needs, and a girl with an air of neglect and no-one to meet her when they piled out into the dusk.

Those children shone...

As they spoke of books their eyes gained a light the others lacked. They were not only transported, but transfigured, by books. “Let there be light.” Carnegie’s words are set in stone above Central Library, which reopens after a £3m makeover, in September. Would that they were set in stone on Grange Park and Mereside...