The Bajan who founded the Virgin Islands’ Saturday Morning Walkers advised newbies struggling uphill to “stop and smell the roses” — enjoy the view! As the Reverend Thomas Traherne proclaimed nearly 400 years ago: “To walk abroad is, not with eyes, / But thoughts, the fields to see and prize; / Else may the silent feet, / Like logs of wood, / Move up and down, and see no good / Nor joy nor glory meet.”
After graduating from library school (as described in my Aug. 30 Beacon commentary, “Life notes of a dedicated walker, 3”), I ran the new branch that replaced the library centre I had managed in my home village. It lay in a built-up area I got to by bus, passing housing estates on either side. My old primary school was within walking distance, but out of sight. I had no incentive to go for lunchtime walks.
Garden of England
I concentrated on extending the new library’s services to the neighbouring secondary school. Then I followed the chief librarian’s admonition to me, as a late entrant to librarianship, to “get on and get out” by gaining the post of manager of Maidstone Central Library in the county of Kent.
My home was not far from some abandoned raspberry fields prolific with fruit, epitomising Kent’s sobriquet, “the Garden of England,” and rejoicing with Robert Louis Stevenson: “Come, here is adieu to the city / And hurrah for the country again. / The broad road lies before me / Watered with last night’s rain.”
One reader told me her young son had been frightened of the bushy beard I sported then until he saw me as a pirate!
I was recruited to oversee the installation of a pioneering automated library system in an early 1900s central library in Worthing, on England’s south coast, and to help design a replacement for it. A third of the town’s residents were seniors, attracted by its mild winters, warm sea air being trapped by the South Downs, a range of hills behind it. Frosted vehicles emerged through a gap in them to snow-free roads.
Hillaire Belloc recalled, wistfully: “The great hills of the South Country / They stand along the sea; / And it’s there walking in the high woods / That I could wish to be.”
Long lines of seniors waiting to return books had stretched outside, but after the automated library system went live they just walked in, leaving them at the counter. However, some users complained about the noise and smells there. These came through holes ducting cables to a machine next to the staff kitchen below that punched holes in paper tape to update loan records. We had to fit a soundproof cover to the machine and relocate the kitchen.
I nearly got an undeserved promotion when a rogue ball and chain clearing the building site demolished the wall behind the deputy librarian’s desk and narrowly missed him.
One summer the smell of rotting seaweed engulfed Worthing. Some walkers trod on it while fresh to inhale the ozone reputably released when the air sacs were popped, and farmers transported loads away for use as fertiliser after leaching out the salt, but the council bulldozed the rest back into the sea. Reports back to the 1920s produced no consensus on how to overcome this phenomenon.
I was transferred to a neighbouring village with a population of over 18,000 to launch a new computerised library. I got to know the community and its leaders by walking round the area as much as possible, including its industrial estate. This resulted in our noticeboards, display areas and meeting room being heavily used.
Out of the blue, I was invited to join a local service club. The county librarian approved my request to attend its weekly lunches, provided I did so in my own time and at my own expense. It certainly made a change from sandwiches in our workroom.
When the all-male club heard I had worked in Austria, they elected me chair of the overseas committee. A head teacher had expressed his fears for local culture after the owner of the village’s first Chinese takeaway brought his small son to school, while few members had been abroad for more than a packaged holiday.
That was my last public library post before I worked at the University of Malawi (see my April 4 Beacon commentary titled “Malawi chronicles continue.”)
I had thought that my successful torchlight procession to raise funds for overseas aid had sparked club members’ interest in developing countries, but my letters to them went unanswered.