Sunday, 13 March 2011

Modern Manners

Yesterday morning,  I was at the National Library, waiting for a book to be brought down from the stacks, (I love that phrase: it makes me imagine a footman in a dove-grey uniform, strolling between rows of hand-carved cedar bookshelves, hunting for my chosen volume, which, when he finds it, he slides out from its place with the gentlest of tugs [if a tug can be gentle; possibly, it has too much in common with a jerk to attain any kind of gentleness], before placing it on a sky-blue satin cushion, edged with gold and stuffed with Hungarian goose-down, and carrying it, with due solemnity, [pomp and, possibly, circumstance] down to the public reading room, to await my attention [it pays to cultivate a rich fantasy life in a place like Canberra, I should add]).

'What shall I do while I wait?' I thought. 'I know - I'll go over to that corner with the coffee tables and the circle of armchairs, where they provide the daily newspapers for people who are waiting for a book to be brought down from the stacks.'

So off I went, trying to suppress my inner, skipping Fotherington Thomas, (the bicycle route from my house to the library is more than usually 'Hello trees, hello flowers' at this time of the year). I needn't have worried - my ebullience was about to be deflated without my efforts. What I found when I reached my destination brought my joy and cheerfulness indicators abruptly back to their normal zero point zero zero seven readings.

For there, spread out on the coffee tables, I found, to my astonishment, not the full glory of the Australian press at its weekend zenith. No, far from it. What I actually found was absolutely nothing. I looked from left to right, from top to bottom, but there on the pale wood surfaces there was only a lone copy of the Domain section from last week's Sydney Morning Herald. I suppose some might argue that, in the strictest terms, that means that  there was not 'absolutely nothing' on the tables but, given that a) it was last week's edition and b) we are in Canberra and the Domain section is entirely devoted to the splendours of Sydney real estate, I believe it is not unreasonable to cast it into the outer darkness reserved for the concept of 'nothing', or at least, 'nothing worth reading'.

So where were they, these elusive newspapers that I had been expecting to find? Was it government cuts that had created their absence? Was it incompetence? Was it bureaucratic confusion? No, it was not. It was none of those things at all. It was something much more worrying; it was, in fact, a portent of the breakdown of civilisation as we know it: it was the behaviour of a single rogue individual that had caused this worrying disappearance of the free press.

Luckily, I spotted the culprit almost immediately, after completing my survey of the pale wood surfaces. She was sitting in an armchair diagonally opposite where I was standing. She was a woman of about my own age (for which read probably 10 to 20 years younger than me, since I still haven't caught up with imagining myself as the actual age I am). She was dressed in black trousers, a maroon stretch top with matching cardigan and shiny black running shoes, and she had a pair of sparkly chained spectacles perched on the end of her rather pointy nose.

This creature (oh all right, person, if you think I'm using unreasonably loaded language, [although I shall continue to think of her as a creature - in fact, secretly, I shall continue to use one of my mother's favourite phrases and think of her as 'a frightful shrivelled little creature who appeared to have crawled out from under a stone']) had gathered every single newspaper that had been provided for the public by the library and she had folded most of them up and tucked them between her body and the side of her armchair, out of the reach of anyone else at all.

She had the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times and the Australian Financial Review, (and remember we are talking here about the bumper weekend editions, each one of which contains enough reading for a week), shoved down beside her. Open in front of her, was the one other publication on offer, the  Weekend Australian. She appeared to be reading this paper, but it was the only one she was attending to, so far as I could see. Of course, she may have been absorbing the contents of the others by osmosis (one of the few concepts I fully absorbed - possibly by its very mechanism - during school science), but it did seem more likely that she was simply keeping them for Ron (later on, that is).

Faced with this situation, some people might have shouted. Some might have flown into a screaming rage. Some might have snarled at the woman, pointing out with menacing force that what she was doing was an assault on decency and the concept of the civil society. Not me, though - oh no: I am a model citizen (and a coward). What I did, instead, was smile very sweetly (oh all right, I simulated a rather unconvincing approximation of a smile) and speak calmly and clearly, making a simple, reasonable request.

'Could I have a look at the Australian Financial Review,'  I ventured, more or less successfully excluding any faint echo of outrage from my words. The woman's head jerked up. Her eyes swept over me. She sniffed and then she glanced down at her hoard. 'I'll be wanting it myself in a while,' she told me, 'sorry'. I leaned toward her. 'Let me have it, until you do need it,' I whispered, my tone pitched somewhere between a request and a command. The woman looked at me and sighed. She put down the Australian and slid the Fin out from its position beside her. She unfolded it on the table before her and looked at the front page with an expression that conveyed nothing except a strange greedy irritation. 'Thank you,' I said, grasping one corner of the paper and deftly whisking it out of her reach.

I sat down then in the chair diagonally across from the monster- I mean 'ghastly wizened little creature'; I mean, 'woman' - and opened my hard-won paper and began to read. I could hear her and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see her, shaking the Australian back open, clearing her throat, snorting, rustling and crackling the paper, as she turned restlessly from page to page. I endured this for a while but eventually, when I saw that my book was being brought in at last, I decided I'd had enough. I stood up, closed the Fin Review and reached down to put it back on the table between us, ready for any other library user who might care to have a look.
But my paper-hoarding acquaintance was far too quick for me. Snake like, she flashed forward and snatched the thing from my fingers, stuffing it back quickly into its former resting place. 'I hope you found what you were looking for,' she hissed as I stood up. I turned away quickly, stifling the urge to punch her on the nose


  1. I love the stacks, I love the reading room on the top floor where they bring you things with their hands in gloves. I'll back there Ron.

  2. I suppose you can gain comfort from the fact that a person like this has very few friends. What a piece of work!!

  3. Great storytelling, Zoe.
    And here i was, thinking of a trip to the State Library.

  4. what an extraordinary creature. I do admire your constraint.


    the only solution, stare at her fixedly; when she asks why you're looking at her, let her know.

  6. Oh just smite her. Some people deserve smiting. Tell her you're the woman gathering wood in the fairytale who happens to be the fairy who knows how the third son can kill the giant by finding his heart in the gold casket under the high mountain; in short, you're an oligarch looking for a good and unselfish soul to whom you can give away your millions. She is obviously the first son, who sneers and spurns, or the second son, who yawns, and neither of them come away at the end with the princess. You will give your millions to the small child in the corner who sees your predicament and totters up with charity in its heart, offering a ripped comic book and half a crayon.

  7. Squawking - I love it there, despite renovations et cetera, there is a feeling that time has been suspended in the reading rooms
    Ameeee - you may be right, but I don't want to believe she hasn't any friends, because then I'd have to feel sorry for her
    Eusebius - just stay home and watch Prince Charles, I say
    Nurse - cowardice, as I mentioned
    Elberry - Paddington Bear had a line in hard stares, which I always envied. I'm glad you've settled on Munich and I have been much enjoying your observations on life, Germany and the peculiarities of modern day Britain
    Umbagollah - damn you are right and now it's too late, because she's gone

  8. Manners ... or mental health issues? I do admire your bravery (and your old-school library romance).

  9. Try that in my local library and the other newspaper readers would put her in hospital!

    I presume she's a "someone" or the staff would have spoken to her already ....

  10. Great story telling ... as I librarian (albeit retired), I am only too aware of the behaviour of the so-called community of scholars!

    Info, the staff may not necessarily notice. ZMKC should have snitched, if not smote (smited?)

  11. For some reason this post reminded me of this Douglas Adams story

  12. 9 Fragments - If she was going to do it, she'd have been wiser to sneak off to another part of the room with her stash, I realised later. So she certainly lacked strategic planning skills
    Info - your library sounds rather exciting
    Whispering - you're not suggesting I become a dobber? Shame on you.
    Bank - thanks for that: if it's by D Adams, I think I will enjoy it

  13. I would have walked off with it, then handed it in at the desk as I was leaving, with a "Sorry, I nearly walked out with this" said brightly and with a wry smile (what a silly old duffer I am). Small satisfaction thus gained by depriving her of her 'prize' for a little while.


  14. The beauty of time is that, as it goes by, I'm beginning to feel sorry for her. On the other hand, I shall be back there later in the week and, if she's doing it again, my sympathy may evaporate in an instant

  15. Re. Now she's gone ...

    You could bait a hook with a copy of the Monthly and jiggle it on the floor in the periodicals section, see if she comes out of hiding behind a computer terminal and bites. Quick club over the head with a stick, wrap her in tin foil, heap up some coals, and you're done. Potatoes on the side, perhaps a cob of corn, knob of butter, shake of salt, tell the librarians to bring round the forks, tear the kiddies away from the picture books, give them a useful lesson in domestic cookery, and you've got yourself an Interactive Library Event to add the calendar next to Book Clubs and Rhymetime.

    Funny how time can weather and mollify those emotions. I wonder how that happens. (How does the transition go, I mean, what are the stages, is there a sort of semi-reliable map, like the Seven Stages of Grief? The immediate impact decays, and ... then something, something.)