FAB PREFAB: A SOUTH LONDON LIBRARY
March 1st, 2020
Jack Hill / Library and Clinic at London Colney
It was a one-storey building with thousands of stories in it, if you will forgive the pun. We always called it the prefab library and it may have been built as part of the post-war prefab project; it was almost certainly built on a bomb site: each side of it were large Victorian houses split into flats. Details about it are scarce and I know from long searching that there is only one picture of it on the internet, and that blurry and black and white: google Anerley prefab library in image search and you will see it. You will note it was not much to look at but it happens to be one of the most important buildings in my life.
It was my father who got my sister and I into the library habit. Here it was that my love of books and, in particular, imaginative literature, began. We are told that boys do not read, but I did and I’m sure many others did in those days.
The first book I can recall borrowing was Snatched by Richard Parker, a tale of child kidnapping about which I can remember nothing but the title and the cover. Thanks to Amazon I see that it was first published on June 27, 1974, so it was about two years old when I laid hands on it. After Snatched came countless books, usually adventure novels. When I say countless I don’t use the word lightly. During Proustian reveries in recent years all sorts of books from that era have popped back into my head to amaze me at the amount I read in between mucking about in the streets, football in the park, telly and whatnot. This is worth noting for, apart from winning a couple of school prizes for art, I was more or less an academic failure from first to last.
It’s odd what you yearn for in middle age: I would love now to have a complete list of what I borrowed from that library; in fact a list of the library’s entire contents would be nice. As it is I fall back entirely on memory. In recent years my musing on this subject has given rise to a fun little hobby, collecting the books that I used to borrow – and ones that I never got round to. Thus I have a shelf that looks a bit like one in the library 40 years ago. And the good thing is that there are more, many more, to collect.
It is startling what lies buried in your mind, and what you can dredge from it. I was a fan of Jim Starling, a working class boy who with his pals from a secondary modern solved crime in a northern town called, if I recall correctly (I haven’t yet laid hands on any Starlings), Smogbury. If I think about it hard enough, Smogbury, my view of it via EW Hildick’s pen and the line illustrated covers by the now enigmatic R Payne, comes back to me. Illustrated covers! We are frequently told not to judge the book by the cover but I usually did. In my view the golden age of the book cover was the decades after the Second World War, up until cheap photography demoted the illustrator and the art schools started to go wrong. There were tons of books from this period around in the Seventies, and I’m very glad they were: one look at book designs for children now shows you that progress is not inevitable, despite what the optimists say.
It was through the attractive and colourful Hodder and Stoughton editions, beautifully illustrated in line and gouache by Leslie ‘Studio’ Stead, that I discovered Biggles, the Sopwith Camel ace turned detective, that bête noire of left-wing librarians: though if they had troubled to read the novels of Captain WE Johns more thoughtfully they would have seen past Biggles’s imperialist gallivanting to see a rather serious, moral character who, in Biggles in the Gobi, is ‘thankful’ to be involved in a humanitarian mission and not war. Likewise in Biggles – Foreign Legionnaire he rails at money and greed in a manner that would probably win him slap on the back from the left of the Labour Party today. Biggles tells his boss Air Commodore Raymond that someone is ‘keeping the wars going’. He adds:
‘Money. That’s the answer, and it sticks out like a sore finger. No – wait a minute. The effect of these incidents is to keep the whole civilized world sweating in a non-stop arms race…this has been going on for years, everybody blaming everybody and the peace planners getting nowhere. Every time peace looms up the stock markets slump. Every time a bomb goes off they soar. One bang and up goes the price of oil, rubber, steel and the rest of the basic commodities known as war materials. Someone is making millions out of this gamble in human lives and you can’t deny it. Would you want peace to break out if you were holding millions of pounds’ worth of materials and equipment?’
Air Commodore Raymond is clearly shocked by the conchie streak in the old warhorse. He says: ‘This is a very serious thing you’re saying, Bigglesworth.’
What Biggles says is also probably wrong, but it shows that he was not quite what the duffle-coats of the Sixties said he was.
It is perfectly true that in my favourite Biggles’ story, The Renegade, in a collection called Biggles Takes the Case, he is firmly against the rebellion against the British authorities in Malaya but he could hardly not be as a member of the ‘air police’ at Scotland Yard in 1952. Now of course he would be writing tweets extolling transsexual operations and quoting the Race Relations Act to his arch enemy Erich Von Stalhein. But I very badly and extensively digress. Read The Renegade if you can find it. It is, notwithstanding obvious criticisms you could level at any children’s fiction, a good piece of atmospheric thriller writing. I identified with Biggles then and somewhere inside, down very deep, a tiny part of me still does.
Any boy nowadays would be better off reading Biggles than whatever politically correct ciphers are offered them in libraries, if only because the stories are good and the prose writing is better than the average adult thriller today.
There were politically correct ciphers beginning to appear back then of course. In about 1980 I remember borrowing a tale called My Mate Shofiq by Jan Needle. I read it but can now remember absolutely nothing of it but I dare say it was a sort of instruction manual for the management of interracial friendships. I had a few of those when I went to comprehensive school and who knows, it may have helped, though my recollection is that they were not much different to all white friendships.
I had discovered the illustrator Edward Ardizzone through borrowing Clive King’s Stig of the Dump at school – and, in a similar and smaller way to Victor Kiam and the Remington electric shaver company, I liked Stig so much I bought my own copy, the better to pore over Ardizzone’s beautiful and atmospheric cross-hatching and to puzzle once again over the midsummer night when Barney and Lou, the book’s protagonists, are transported back to prehistoric times. Thereafter I was on the lookout for Ardizzone and Anerley library came up trumps, with many volumes, from an abridged Don Quixote to his picture books about Little Tim. Tim was an adventurous child who lived on the Kent coast and got mixed up with steamers and pleasure boats. ‘You’re too old for that book,’ hissed my sister when I picked up the first, Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain (first published in 1936 and still in print as far as I know). It was true. I was about eight or nine. ‘I like the art,’ I said airily and borrowed it anyway. It was true, I was developing a taste for paintings and the Tim books – I read them all – are full of lovely pen and wash paintings of the sea and the seaside, some of which you could easily have on the wall. I learned new words from these supposedly babyish works: ‘That’s a barquentine on the port bow,’ Tim says at one point. I used to like saying that 40 years ago and to this day, very occasionally, when it comes up at random in my mental rotadex, I still say it.
Occasionally in second hand bookshops and church hall jumble sales I will come across a book borrowed back then that I have completely forgotten. I love it when that happens. Recently this was the case with Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, about two sibling evacuees in the Second World War. Stories about that conflict were an important part of my childhood. As far as I am concerned the two giants of the genre from that era were The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailler and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, the former a very international story of Polish child refugees in Europe and the latter located entirely in Tyneside, northeast England. I loved both and must have read them a dozen times each back then. The Silver Sword was brilliantly illustrated by C Walter Hodges (Google him, he was great) though in truth it was so compelling and vivid it hardly needed the ‘hook’ of drawings. I would recommend them to any adult, who will find them more satisfying than the trash in WHSmith’s top ten fiction list today.
Westall’s gripping tale of a boy who pinches a machine gun off a crashed German bomber had no illustrations, but the cover of the 1975 Puffin paperback edition has a wonderful painting by John Williamson of Chas and his pal Cem in an air raid, moving the gun hidden in a Bonfire Night guy. Research reveals that all subsequent covers have been more or less awful. It’s strange how publishers get things so right then get them so wrong.
The Machine Gunners is a first class piece of realistic writing that does not duck the hard edges of childhood. It was also the first book I ever read the word bollocks in. Critics are apt to say that among adult writers only Elizabeth Bowen and perhaps Henry Green really caught the atmosphere of wartime Britain (if you are interested in the fiction of the Second World War and haven’t read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day then you are missing out). This may be true of work produced during the conflict, but The Machine Gunners, again notwithstanding the limitations of children’s fiction, certainly offers a vivid and totally convincing picture of the home front from someone who was a child then.
Sadly there isn’t space in this piece to cover all the books I’d like to pay tribute to from those days. I did not think to discriminate between male and female writers and often read books via my sister that were clearly meant for girls. Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield comes to mind. I recall it being the largest book I’d tackled at that time. There are also books I cannot name as memory fails me: I would give a lot to find one particular picture book, Dutch I think, which showed the life of a village in beautifully detailed paintings. I have occasionally searched for it but how do you find a book when you don’t know its title, its author or its publication date? But it’s out there somewhere.
Eventually I made the jump into the adult fiction section, seduced by the sight of four volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories. It would be nice to recall – I can’t – how much toing and froing there was between the children’s section and the adults’. This period led to one of the first adult novels I ever read and one in which I saw renewed possibilities of fiction and good prose: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. I still have my library copy, Penguin paperback with a typically atmospheric cover by Paul Hogarth (I mislaid it and had to pay for its replacement, something that slightly scandalised my dad). I see it was due back on April 11, 1985.
The prefab library met its end near the close of the Eighties, not long after I had moved out of the area. In the ugly spirit of that confused era, its beautifully peaceful precincts were torn down and replaced by an ugly building which itself has since been torn down and replaced with yet more ugliness. I am glad I did not see anything of its death.
I once passed a cinema I knew well which was under demolition. I stopped to watch as the wrecking ball knocked half the front down to expose the auditorium. As a great cloud of dust passed, I could see the art deco proscenium arch and the screen, the screen where Bogart, Cagney, Monroe, Gable and all the rest had appeared. It looked strange in harsh daylight. A place of collective, collaborative imagination was dying, much as the library had done.
For me, that library has become a sort of symbol of a country and an era that, despite being dowdy and troubled in many ways, was civilised in many ways that have now all but vanished. What a child could find there for free was so much more enriching than the sterile screen-based diversions that have since colonised children’s minds and depleted their imaginations.