I strongly believe Peckham Library is the best place ever and if the entire world was destroyed but they left that square in Peckham which contains the Library, the gym and the notorious discount brand pub that sits ironically next to the gym, then things would not be so bad. I mean for me at least, soz if you didn't make it to the square, these things happen. That is Peckham for me, that and Rye Lane and Burgess Park, those are the places as yet undestroyed by gentrification where everyone in the community hangs out, the best places. OK, maybe the destruction of the world could spare Rye Lane and Burgess Park. Oh alright, Nunhead Cemetery too, but anymore and we may as well not destroy the world at all.
I always feel such a sense of satisfaction going into Peckham Library. I used to work for Camden Libraries and I think all are great places, but perhaps I didn't feel the same sentimental attachment to Camden because I didn't live there. But attached I still felt. When I first started working there I was mostly at Highgate/Archway, young kids would come in from local estates and play in the children's library, they were all very interested in me and would try and work out whether or not I was a boy or a girl based on a series of carefully thought out questions and clues they'd collated. We'd have really fun chats about gender and whether or not it mattered and I introduced the idea that you didn't have to be one thing or the other, it felt a lot more honest, worthwhile and enjoyable than most chats I have about gender with adult queers.
Occasionally the Librarian would ruin it by trying to enforce gender roles on them. There'd be some after school craft thing and the kids would be making model people: 'Are you going to make that one a boy or a girl?' he asked one of the kids. She replied a girl. 'A girl? Well why don't you give her long flowing blonde hair?' he suggested. Like many of the kids who came into the library the girl was Somali and did not herself have long blonde flowing hair but that hadn't occurred to the white librarian. Sometimes a parent would come in and tell the kid what my gender was, or rather what they thought it was. Kids are way more astute than adults though, adults have been told how everything works so many times we believe it and cling rigidly to ideology, plus we've been told not to question, we can't be honest with each other because we've learnt that so many things about ourselves are wrong and we don't want to be further rejected by daring to be forthright, with kids stuff is still possible.
Anyway, a bit of a tangent there..I was originally writing this blog to talk about the last three books I read, all of which I got from Peckham Library but then I got distracted thinking about how great it was.
THE LONELY LONDONERS - SAM SELVON. Written in the 1950s, still completely relevant today and one of the best and most astute novels about London I have ever read, as well as race, migration and class. Narrated in the third person in creolized English, LL tells the stories of 'the boys', all of whom are young Caribbean men recently arrived in London. Amongst the things they come up against are the 'polite' but actually devastating racism of the UK, the internalisation of that (at one time a character angrily addresses the colour Black as the cause of all his problems: '...is not he who causing botheration...but Black, who is a worthless thing') and the hardships of trying to survive in London in the 1950s as a Black working class immigrant. But it's not all Dickensian bleakness, moralising and 'issues' - it's told with warmth, wit and humour. Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters, Cap (most characters are known by their nicknames), struggles to feed himself by attempting to trap seagulls outside his window. This is soon after another episode when poverty drives 'Sir Galahad' to hunting pigeons in the park only to be screamed at as a 'monster' by a passing white woman who rushes to locate a policeman. The novel touches upon many of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the UK, which are of course always most visible to 'outsiders'. The novel also talks a lot about the inexplicable lure of London:
What is it that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything - sleep, eat, dress, cook, live. Why is it, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of thing about this and that, why is it, that in the end, everyone cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?
The conclusion you'd have to draw from the book, and possibly from living here, would be it's something to do with summer. But then 'Lonely Londoners' is pretty short, read it for yourself why don't you?
THE ROAD - CORMAC MCCARTHY - Holy fuck. This book destroyed my mental health. At least for a day or so. Not because it's disturbing, which it is, but because I couldn’t BEAR to leave the characters and go to sleep. I had to find out what happened to them, it was completely impossible to close it without knowing. It’s the story of a father and son, but don’t let that put you off, it's set in some horrible dystopian future which is of course a definite possibility, some kind of enormous environmental catastrophe has struck and most of the world’s resources have been destroyed, nature itself has been ransacked and all trees are burnt out, charred. Few people have survived and of those that have, many become cannibals capturing and eating (and worse) their fellow survivors. There is a constant sense of danger and fear of capture but the father and son must keep moving, though seeing as nowhere has been spared the devastation their chances of finding any sort of happy ending at their destination, the coast, are pretty slim. It’s such a brilliant book. I read it because it was on Oprah's bookclub. Not really (although it was on the bookclub, it was even made into a film), I read it because someone told me it was the one book they’d save if their house was on fire and I totally understand why.
There’s an obvious metaphor which I doubt the author consciously intended because it’s maybe a bit trite, but I was reading the book and thinking, why the fuck are they even bothering, it’s hopeless? But that could probably be applied to most peoples’ lives even when not in such a grave situation. You could also read it as all our lives are pointless if you wanted to be more cynical, but you'd have to be a bit of a jerk to not feel at least in some ways moved by the plight for life. I see it as a defense of living, no matter how hard.
ANTWERP – ROBERTO BOLAÑO. I love Roberto Bolaño but I have to admit I didn’t really follow this novel, perhaps because it's told in fragments and I kept putting it down and then picking it up a few days later. This is one of his early efforts, written in 1980, 22 years before it was published. A few things jumped out at me though, but actually mostly the intro where he looks back on his situation at the time of writing:
My sickness, back then, was pride, rage, and violence. Those things (rage, violence) are exhausting and I spent my days uselessly tired. I worked at night. During the day I wrote and read. I never slept. To keep awake, I drank coffee and smoked.
Thank god there was no Facebook to distract him!
Seriously I really recommend Bolaño. I read ‘The Skating Rink’ and his short stories and I want to read more by him but I honestly couldn’t make a critical comment about ‘Antwerp’ one way or the other, I've heard it's good from other people, so it may be more my poor concentration skills than Roberto himself. One day I’ll give it another go maybe.