National Crime Reading Month

Memories of Marshalswick Library: A World of Possibility

by Sam Blake

The world has changed a lot since I was a child, but one thing that has remained the same is the possibility and the excitement I feel every time I open a book.

Like Polaroid snaps, my memories of childhood are partial images – blurred at the edges – but like Polaroids, my memories are full colour. Some of the earliest are of Skyswood School in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, and Sandpit Lane where I grew up. They are disjointed and patchy, like someone tipped the album upside down and the memories floated out of it, landing in a jumble on the floor, but as I sort through them to write this I know they are all very happy, and now I come to think of it, in almost every one of them, the sun is shining. And they are dominated by books.

Some of my strongest memories are of browsing the shelves in Marshalswick Library. But first the excitement of a library trip, of the incredibly heavy double glass doors, of handing up a huge pile of books, already consumed, to be checked in. Books had tickets then, slips of card in a pocket in the front that went into a little cardboard ‘envelope’ with our details on it, the return date stamped on the front of the pocket. We had library cards for ourselves but also other members of the family, shadowy relatives who allowed us to take out the number of books we needed to keep us going for a week. Even so, choosing was always deliciously difficult.

I can still show you where the children’s section was, where I found Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse and Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I barely watched TV as a child, but read insatiably, captured by the worlds inside the covers. I’m a writer, and like many writers my childhood imagination was fed by Enid Blyton, my love of mystery starting with the Famous Five. A good book will transport you to another world, with images that stay with you long after you have put it down – that’s what I strive for in my writing, and is the thing I love in a good book. Whenever anyone mentions geraniums I still, immediately, see the sea of pink flowers in The Little White Horse. But it wasn’t just fiction, I had a fascination for snakes, for ponds, for space, and read every book available on each subject, the wonderful libraries often requesting books from other branches to keep me going.

I live in Ireland now, at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains, and recently we had a national #IrelandReads day – I was chatting online to my local librarian and the library book group and realised how similar my local library here in Ballywaltrim is to Marshalswick. A small local library, it even has those heavy glass doors!

The entrances to many libraries are automated now, but the world inside hasn’t changed since I was a child. The warm nurturing atmosphere, the quiet, hushed whispers as librarians show the next generation of bestselling authors the opportunities on each shelf. Libraries are magic kingdoms of possibility and librarians the curators of imagination, as Stephen King says. ‘Books are uniquely portable magic.’