The Birmingham Central Library

From summer 1978- summer 1980 I lived in Birmingham, so without the aid of a calculator I figure that I was 13 and 14 there.  As I look back now these seem like quite young ages, but of course at the time I felt borderline grown up.  Sentient, even.

It was an interesting time for me.  I had moved as a result of my father’s job to a new school, joining in what we used to call the third year but which in decimal currency these days is apparently (and appropriately) year 10.  It was a single sex grammar school. I elided the original 11+ by virtue of an interview, an ad-hoc exam and a reference from an inner London comp, but seemed to justify this by coming top of the class (and my gosh did they  measure the relative positions – to four decimal places).

So my weekdays were filled to sufficiency by Handsworth Grammar school and my education there was (I now see) based on some sycophantic attempt to ape public schools.  I was in “Stanford” house.  No sorting hats were involved.  And as far as I can tell the house system was nothing other than a galactic scale distraction from any sort of reality.

I saw boys who failed to perform well enough in their work (or be difficult) walloped – hard – with a dusty plimsoll in front of the whole class.  As I write this the name of the prinicipal plimsollist, a miserable c-swear of an RE teacher (and why is it only now that the supreme irony of this is occurring to me) has just slipped back into my brain, but it would be unfair to name Mr Fairbairn. Oops.

It was never me that was publicly whopped- a startlingly large proportion of my academic performance, as I look back on it, was motivated by fear.

I did learn some great stuff during those years though – Euclidean geometry and the concept of axioms remorselessly and inexorably flopping into truth once feeble brains had tetris-like aligned a suitable argument from happenstance and occasional inspiration. Quite Easily Done.

Committing to memory was definitely a thing.  I can still recite huge lumps of the periodic table.  Far better to expend hours on superficial knowledge than spend time actually understanding about electron shells…

We spent hours and hours performing multiplication with the aid of yellowed logarithm tables (note to younger readers – calculators had actually been invented by then).  That said it’s surprising how often since then it has been useful to know that the base 10 logarithm of 2 is 0.3010.  And that of of pi is 0.4971.

Michael Gove would be proud.

But the thing that I remember as a source of intellectual development far greater than that of my school was a building in the centre of Birmingham, a few stops (and I think, 8p) on a bus from my house.  It was … (soundtrack has drums rolling at this point) … the Central Library.

The Birmingham Central Library has recently taken a lot of stick for being a really bad building design-wise, and this entire blog is prompted by reading about the new library, which I am enormously keen to visit as soon as my travels pass me by the door.

I wanted to write this blog in an attempt to describe what the Birmingham Central library was for me.  I fear that I will fail … but I will try.

Facts first, then feelings:  It was huge. Floor after floor of knowledge.  Loads and loads of books, factual and fiction.  A reading room for hundreds of current periodicals, in hard perspex covers, a space that was silent and with chairs more comfy than we had at home, and newer smelling carpet.  The room ran along one edge of the building looking out over the square.  It was incredibly grown up.

Highly sophisticated library cards made of plastic with holes in, whose pattern could identify a person or a book and combine both, albeit temporarily. Computerised!  And let me tell you that my other experience of computers at that time was a teletype in a cupboard which connected us to the Maximop schools computer.  In those days computers had a smell, of ribbon and ink.  And they were slower than you could read.  Tacka tacka tacka.   Those holes were 2001, the Trigan Empire, Tomorrow’s World.

No child will ever experience this again.  The Birmingham Central Library was the internet.    But it was physical – you could visit it.  You could sit in it.  You could smell it.  The smell of ageing paper.  The smell of civilisation.  The epitome of the best of humanity.

I used to sit in the reading room and (erm) read.

To be entirely honest at this point I mostly read the satirical and comedic magazine called “Punch”.  I did also encounter New Scientist for the first time and subsequently subscribed to both.  But I most remember Punch.  It was funny and – wow – it was funny by being clever, a concept which was not at that point reflected by mainstream television.  In any way.

I later discovered “Week Ending”, but the sycophantic Radio 4 blog and my remote love affair with Sheila Steafel is yet to be written.  And may I just record for reference purposes that at this point the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy was  “only” a radio programme.

The Birmingham Central library had everything.  It had every copy of the Times ever published – on microfilm.  Microfilm.  Dum-diddy-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum-diddy, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM.  Totally James Bond.  You filled in a piece of paper stating the year and month for which you wanted the microfilm, handed it over at a counter, and a uniformed (uniformed!) guard went and got it for you.  Then you put it in a reader and wound through.

Sorry Google – you have yet to replicate that experience.  And you have yet to deliver me the content of a newspaper on the day that I was born.

I’ve just read a piece in the Observer which says that the new Birmingham Library is likely to be the last ever of its type.  Seems reasonable.  So why did that make me feel such a terrible sense of loss?

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