Evolution: QH

Death howl of dinosaur

Sometimes there is a place imagination holds so deep that it returns over and over to the lines it once drew, and the colours applied; it must dive down and complete this circuit no matter what.  I think this was the case for the old man who came into the library recently, a calm Saturday afternoon.  He had been sitting for some time in the corner by the large succulent near the entrance, before I noticed him rifling in an agitated way through a wheelie bag that reminded me of my mother’s buckled shopping trolley long gone.  Eventually, thinking he might be looking for the badly signposted vaccination centre that occupies a temporary building on campus, I went over and asked if I could help at all.  His eyes were dark and remote; his scalp was visible through thinning hair, and he had the slightly androgynous appearance of the very old.  He paused for a long time and then sighed at being disturbed.   I’ve come from Singapore, he said.  I need to find the library.  I studied here; I have the letter with me.  Just give me a moment, please.  

I returned to the desk and eyed him occasionally from behind the counter to see what he would do next.  After a while when I had become absorbed in doing something else, he appeared, holding out the paper for examination.  Still wondering what form of enquiry this was, I skimmed over the typewritten sheet which attested to him having been a student in the School of Engineering in 1975.  

How can I help?  I said.  I need to find the library.  For my memory, he explained.   Looking steadily into his eyes I asked if there was anything in particular and he told me that unfortunately he had not completed his studies and had returned to his homeland, and then he received a communication about a book, an unreturned book, a book whose precise location on the shelf he remembered.   An open space, a round space, with shelves, and steps.  He was clearly mystified by the so-called library he had currently found himself in.  

 I checked with my colleague, (who had been a cinema manager previously and is surprised by nothing) if I could leave the desk for a few minutes and I walked round to the visitor.  Come with me.  I think I know where you mean.   When we were outside, I asked if he was maybe remembering the Old Library.  It was an open space, with books and shelves and steps he said again. 

The former library was located in a listed building on campus, a part of the Victorian People’s Palace, and inspired by the Reading Room of the British Museum, with galleries and marble busts of famous men.   Since its renovation in 2006 (which occasioned a scandal when skips of discarded books were discovered by students and academic staff), it has been used for such occasions as weddings, exams, and the BBC’s Question Time.  The old books were replaced by more ‘authentic’ looking red leather-bound volumes. The original Library sign, embedded in the brickwork and also listed, still confuses visitors.  (During the UCU strike a few years ago, the students occupied the space for a week or so and made, amidst the intimidating grandeur, a cosy home for themselves.  For all the fakery it remains the symbolic heart of the campus.)  

I’m afraid the Old Library is closed, I said, but I pointed up at the sign, which he peered at, nodding slightly, as if it made sense to him.  He asked me if we were at the back of the building, and then seemed content to leave the matter there.  Maybe he circumnavigated the building after I left him and put the library together in his mind.  I’d like to think that a kind security guard may have let him in, but I doubt this.  He may have been disappointed, but his pilgrimage was complete and he thanked me for my time.

* * *

I also harbour such places; most likely we all do.  One that my imagination returns to is a place that I have never actually visited, and never can.   I thought of it recently when I chose a withdrawn book to take home: History of the Earth, An Introduction to Historical Geology, by Bernhard Kummel, Harvard University, which presented for undergraduates the state of knowledge at its publication date, 1961.  On the inside front and back covers are projections of the globe, the kind that look like flattened orange peel with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Burma labelled.   

The shelf mark was reconsidered at one point and changed from a subdivision of Science (QE 501) to Geography (GBE 501). The book is date stamped steadily from 6 November 1963 to 7 December 1979 (when I guess manual issuing ceased) and the cloth cover smells of damp pavement.  There are ample diagrams and maps, and the paper within is silky to touch.  Courtesy of Her Majesty’s Geological Survey there are a few idealized landscapes of geologic eras, from the Pre-Cambrian to the Recent Pleistocene. The Anthropocene was yet to be coined. One period in particular, The Cretaceous, evokes the scene that my imagination frequents. According to the writer, this was a period of Geologic transgression where sea levels rose, shorelines moved toward higher ground and flooding ensued: as a consequence, our modern world was beginning to take shape.

Southern England during the Early Cretaceous. The large dinosaur in the centre is Iguanadon.

 The portal to this place of mine was the BBC Schools Broadcasting Service. On November 6, 1964, a class of nine year olds sat cross legged, or in a knee- hugging brace, on an institutional parquet floor, on the second floor of a Victorian school in East London, one that had a caretaker in a long black coat, a ghost, and base notes of dinners and disinfectant.  Facing the group was a large box: a radio speaker, with a mesh-like entrance to the other world. 

The voice from the box was authoritative, hypnotic and male and I suspect I missed the first half of the programme as I was settling in, but then it segued into another section, accompanied by music of a very different texture to anything I had heard before. Different to the singles stacked up on the living room radiogram in my nan’s council house which we shared at that time. As evocative as they were, in their white paper sleeves (with Nights Having a Thousand eyes), they were of this world, and the music from the box was of another. Then the man said: ‘I am standing on the shore …’ and gave an eye witness description of a lush prehistoric landscape where dinosaurs appeared on land and in the water and skies. I have a strong recollection of the colours, and the damp smell of the fern-like vegetation but like the engineering student of 1975, my memory consists of fragments: the spell-binding sounds, a gently spoken male voice uttering these words. It was as if the programme appeared from nowhere and then returned there.

When I embarked on my own quest to identify the basis of this memory, I was forced to accept that, many tides having visited that shore since, much of the historic BBC is a lost continent.  The recording was not saved and all I was able to retrieve was a barely legible copy of the microfiched script, provided by a kind individual from the BBC Written Archives.  Just as the former student had to settle for a mere sign that the Library had once existed, I had only this meagre record of the aural experience.

From this script I pieced together the programme, which was part of a series called How Things Began. This episode was Giant Reptiles Rule the Earth, by Henry Marshall, with an observer scene by Honor Wyatt. One of the consultants for the programme was the Professor of Zoology at Birkbeck, WS Bullough. The first half was a recap of the speaker’s previous visit to the Natural History Museum, but the eye-witness section continues:

I am standing on the shore by the mouth of a wide river.  All around me ... are creatures that look like dragons.  ...  In the water monstrous shapes only partly seen.  In the air the silent flight of bat-like wings circling overhead, narrow scaly heads with bright unblinking eyes looking down at me.  Landwards on the crest of a little hill, a huge monster is staring towards the horizon - staring without movement, as still as a carved thing, terrible in its hugeness - lord of the earth!

The land-based creature is an Iguanodon, a plant eater with dagger-like claws, and I can’t help but notice that the scene closely resembles the illustration in the obsolete geology text book now in my possession. But then the tableaux takes a dramatic turn. Forced to leave the shore by the arrival of swooping flying reptiles with 20-foot wing spans, the narrator moves to a nearby wood where he watches this ‘queer world’ as if standing outside it looking in. Nearby where he is standing in the woods, he spots a small creature that looks like a rat, but covered in fur, frightened-looking but still, cowering among the tree roots. Then he notices a little cluster of eggs just behind it. Tiny squealing noises are indicated and ‘one of the eggs is cracking’.

What he witnesses next is the water-based reptile with lashing tail attacking the Iguanodon, both so huge that they seem to ‘fill the whole world’. The flesh eater wins. The Iguanadon is brought down: (FINAL DEATH HOWL OF DINOSAUR – LONG DRAWN OUT, THEN PAUSE).

The episode concludes with the demise of the giant reptiles, the focus now on the birds possessing the sky, the fish the sea, ‘the tiny furry mammals’ the land, and the observer asks: ‘What would they make of it?’

* * *

The past changes from year to year, and with every descent. In my excavation of this period of BBC radio broadcasting, I discovered that the series was exceptional in several ways, aside from having the ability to create awe in a nine-year-old child. One was its approach to evolution, the series, How Things Began (HTB) having itself evolved from the first radio treatment of evolution, a series of short lectures in the mid 1920s called The Stream of Life, by the evolutionary biologist, Julian Huxley.

An important departure from the didactic lecture format was the use of drama in science broadcasting, the influence of the playwright Nesta Pain, who joined the BBC in 1942, (after separating from her husband in Liverpool and moving to wartime London with her fifteen year old daughter). A further contributor to this dramatic turn was a progressive author and broadcaster Rhoda Power who joined The BBC Schools Broadcasting service permanently in 1939. What she brought to it was an experimental approach, bringing radio broadcasts to life with the use of sound effects, period music, dialogue, and dramatisations of historical events. The writer of HTB’s ‘observer’ section, Honor Wyatt was a journalist and radio presenter (mother of musician Robert Wyatt) who had been friends with a group that included Robert Graves.

During the Second World War, Wyatt worked for The BBC in Bristol as a writer for the Schools service. What she had at her disposal when HTB was produced, was The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up in 1957 by the trained musician Daphne Oram with Studio Manager, Desmond Briscoe, in Maida Vale. Using magnetic tape, razor blades and found objects, this pioneer of analogue electronic music created sounds that no-one had heard before, something she did by stretching, overlaying and altering the speed of tapes. She had left the Maida Vale Studio, by the time HTB was produced, to work on her own machine, Oramics, which enabled her to control sound through snake-like drawings on glass. In this way Oram was imbuing electronic wave forms with the human qualities she considered were missing. But she had released her creative spirit into the world, and it reverberated as far as my classroom in 1964.

These induced resonances in all wavebands remain with us, if renewed by memory and repeated experiences, so that eventually they become frequencies in our own personal wave pattern.

Daphne Oram, An Indvidual Note, Anomie Publishing, 2016

Other Reading

Alexander Hall, Evolution on British Television and Radio, 2021

With thanks to Emma Holding from The BBC Written Archives.

Infectious Diseases: WC

Channel Fear

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes

Episode 1: Ignorance (BBC2 and iPlayer)

In 1985, I had got the job of dreams, oral historian to the parallel universe I lived in, thanks to a Greater London Council grant.  My employer, the Hall-Carpenter Archives was based in the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Farringdon, and myself and a group of volunteers were honoured to record the life stories of diverse speakers, whose experience, in their totality, spanned the twentieth century.  In the process we documented activism of many kinds, from the campaigns for Homosexual Law Reform to Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, sombre years of AIDS related deaths and red-top hate crimes, but also ones of passion and tenderness.  

 This is the setting of the first of the documentaries, Ignorance and, among the source materials used, are audio interviews we recorded with people living with HIV/AIDS, testimony which is held, alongside other collections used in the documentary, at the British Library.  This episode tells the stories of vanguard campaigners and of how fear and anxiety were channelled in many creative ways by the communities and health care staff at a time when the next chapters had yet to be written.

The reviews and twitter posts following transmission registered a strong physical response from viewers, as in this small sample from #aidstheunheardtapes:

‘It breaks my heart especially as a nurse now to see how these men were treated at the time.’

‘Pounding heart watching AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.’

‘I’m near in bits.’

‘This programme is giving me flashbacks already’.

Two aspects of the production are mentioned regarding this powerful impact: the soundtrack, and the use of lip synching by young actors who embody the voices on the original C90 audio cassette recordings.  

The Sound Track itself has a narrative arc:

Smalltown Boy, Jimmy Somerville

Forbidden Colours, David Sylvian

Searchin’ (I Gotta Find a Man), Hazell Dean

Love to Love You Baby, Donna Summers

Native Love, Step by Step, Divine

Why? Bronski Beat

Leave in Silence, Depeche Mode

Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil

Terrence Higgins, among the first persons to die of an AIDS-related illness in the UK, had worked as a barman at Heaven and the club features in the documentary as a unifying site of both sexual abandon and the sacred.   The advance of the disease is recounted by Terry’s partner who touchingly describes his dancing style – a human slinky – and then his progressive weight loss and death.  As the health crisis intensifies, disco gives way in the episode to the lament: Song to the Siren, which references at least in title, Odysseus’s crew, lured to their deaths by Siren song until, bidden by the goddess Kirke, their ears are plugged with wax.  A twitter post, commenting on the succession of men sharing the pain, fear and confusion of their HIV/AIDS diagnosis, describes them as ‘wreathed in the swirling majesty’ of This Mortal Coil.

The soundtrack prompted me to recall my own aural memory of the time, which would include Arvo Pärt, chosen by David, one of the episode’s witnesses for his funeral, and also the darker, more visceral musical intervention of the Greek-American composer and singer, Diamanda Galás, whose AIDS trilogy I attended at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on New Year’s Day 1988, the year after David died.    Galás describes her work as exploring ‘the extremes of exaltation and despair’, something she does by channeling, through her extraordinary voice and technology, external forces, including the callously banal and the retributive, and rebuking them, goading them to show themselves.

You who speak of crowd control,

of karma, or the punishment of God: …

Do you tremble at the timid steps

of crying, smiling faces who, in mourning,

now have come to pay their last respects? …

from Let’s Not Chat About Despair, 1988

This world that Galás channels and spits out is covered in the documentary through headlines and media clips, and one post speaks of the religious fundamentalism and social and political conservatives that ‘tried to crush us at our most vulnerable’, but the soundtrack of recorded music fittingly is gathered from popular culture alone.

The second aspect picked up on in social media, the lip synching by young actors was initially resisted by a number of commentators: ‘You’d think actors lip syncing archive testimony would detract from the power of the words.  It added another layer of poignancy,’ wrote one.

This artistic choice likely related to the constraints of the original analogue audio, but, as is known, limitations can conversely enable greater freedom, and lip-synching has many resonances with gay culture. Lip-synching has been described, for example, as a key technique in a drag artist’s toolkit which enables both a channelling of the past and a reinforcement of community feeling as performance commingles with popular culture. The black queer artist, boychild’s, performances which developed from drag club to art house in the USA consist of lip-synching to a recorded backing track of pop song remixes to subversive ends.

Importantly for Aids: The Unheard Tapes, the re-embodiment of disembodied voices allows a particularly powerful connection between the actors and those originally interviewed. Hugo Bolton, who plays the campaigner Tony Whitehead, speaking about the technical challenges of lip-synching said: ‘When I was practising I was moved but not in a cerebral way.’ The process, he said, of attunement to the patterns of breath and speech, allowed him to distill ‘the essence of what the true experience of something was’.

Just as lip-synching as a form has a distancing effect, the ‘characters’ are liberated from the setting of the original interview with the potential to be placed in settings that reflect diverse aspects of personality and community: a stylised sitting room, traditional boozer, theatrical dressing room, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

An important point is that the original recordings are long in duration and the speakers not involved in usual conversational turns with interjections and interruptions. They are enabled to go as deeply as they wish into an episode, and the silent interviewer (to avoid the ‘noise’ of normal active listening) holds close eye contact to compensate for the silence, enabling and forming part of the ‘flow’. This accounts for the richness of oral history.

Street poster, Stepney Green, June 2022, The Library Assistant

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes was made by Wall to Wall Media, in partnership with the Open University, directed by Mark Henderson and produced by Morgana Pugh.

For further information about the Hall-Carpenter and other interviews used in the documentary and the full extent of the British Library oral history collections on HIV/AIDS see the BL blog:


Terrence Higgins Trust, (founded in 1982): tht.org.uk


Stephen Farrier, Alison Campbell, That Lip Synching Feeling: Drag Performance as Digging the Past from Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer, 192-209, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan

Diamanda Galás, The Shit of God, High Risk Books/Serpent’s Tail, 1996

Leila Riszko, Breaching bodily boundaries:posthuman (dis)-embodiment and ecstatic speech in lip-synch performances by boychild, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 2017, Vol 13, No 2, 153-169

Politics: J

The Bench     


It is 25 years since New Labour won its landslide victory on May 1, 1997 an event I watched on TV with friends in an attic flat in Estrela, in Lisbon towards the end of a decade of self-imposed exile from Thatcherism.  We were delirious with wine and the spectacle of the order changing at last: a long and heavy 18 years.  The joyful bells of the nearby Basilica, which pealed regularly across the freguesia, became attached in memory to that night alone.  

Just before I left England, I had been teaching school students who wore gloves in class because the windows didn’t fit properly.  When I returned, in early 2001, the mantra of the new government was education, education, education. I got a job in a FE college managing an ESOL department and soon came to realise that this translated in practice to audit, audit, audit.   There was a new vocabulary to acquire: Individual Learning Plans, the new Curriculum and Standards, competence-based frameworks, market segmentation, stakeholders, the Knowledge Society, the High Skills Economy.   Endless mapping exercises were conducted each of which left the teachers persuaded they were not trusted to do their jobs.   Still, there was money for conferences with catering, something teachers were not used to, high production value materials to support the new learning infrastructure as it was called, and funding sufficient for the young adult provision to treble.

A year after September 11, the elaborate and frenzied exercise of enrolments took place, with queues forming around the block and the corridors echoing with the raised voices of sweltering women in burkas and hijab, some with children, and exhausted looking men who had come straight from working a restaurant shift to have their level of English assessed and sign up for an English class if they were lucky.  Demand for places far exceeded supply even with the investment in Skills for Life, as it was called.

This was when I met Tareq.  He walked with a limp and had come alone.  He was clean-shaven and wearing a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up revealing bony forearms.  When I assessed him, he seemed to have flashes of understanding and some fluency but then would close down completely.  His writing resembled a cardiac trace.  He had soft hazel eyes which he trained on my face.  He smiled too much.  Then, even more unnervingly, he began to laugh, his face wrinkling, his gaze eventually resting on the ceiling, as if an internal story had reached its punch line.  Just as unexpectedly, he fell silent.  I made a note to follow him up, and in the meantime assessed him as a near beginner and moved on. 

As it turned out, the following week he arrived in my class.  I learned from the Student Services team that he had fallen or jumped from a fifth-floor window and that he was being looked after by his younger brother, Alan, who shouldered the responsibility, but had numerous difficulties of his own.  They lived in rooms together a fair distance from the college.  Tareq had been studying engineering at the University of Kabul until it closed and had left Afghanistan some years before, after the rise of the Taliban.  

When he responded to the other students’ with inexplicable mirth, it was obvious that something had to be done.  It was all very well to laugh at a joke that no-one else could hear, but another thing to seemingly ridicule others’ efforts with the tricky new language.  With Tareq’s consent, I explained the situation to the class, who behaved with impeccable tact.  Hawa, a nurse in Somalia, who had the gentlest face and humour and lived in a local hostel called Hope Town, was the first to extend a tentative hand of friendship.  Abbas, thin and swamped in an oversize print shirt, who had come from Somalia by way of a refugee camp in Ethiopia, who took months to speak, but weeks to learn how to use a computer and write his story, was next.  The rest of the group, which included a cab driver, a University graduate from Chittagong, three Somali mothers and a mother to be, a part-time security guard, a teenage boy who worked in Perfect Fried Chicken, a girl of similar age from Mogadishu, and a number of Job Seekers, eventually expressed their good will to the aloof young man. 

By December the class were chatting away and had organised a Christmas party.  Through their writing and anecdotes, I came to know more about their quirks and circumstances.  Salma, the bossiest of the group, seven months pregnant when she enrolled, had her baby and returned to class a month later.  The student with the economics degree got married and invited us all to the wedding.  Some were called away to do Job Seekers’ courses.  Tareq remained a mystery, even to the Pashto speaking Counsellor, who concluded that his injuries would not prevent him from learning, but that the Afghani boys were a wild bunch, adrift in the UK away from their families.  Tareq was sometimes late for class; apart from that he fit in well enough, though the others were slow to partner him.  

As winter deepened, the prospect of war in Iraq loomed and in February I joined the mass demonstration, as did others from the college.  The soundtrack was whistles, the driving rhythm of the batucada, and the dirge like drone of a group of women who called themselves Voices from the Wilderness.  In homage to the US President’s incomplete grasp of his own language, the friend I was with carried a banner that read:

Bush is evil personificated

His regime must be resistified

In the evening a man in a white boiler suit with Weapons Inspector painted on the back, warmed up the Non Violent Direct Action crowd: ‘Is everybody happy?  Are you feeling nervous?’  In Piccadilly Circus, the university students chanted: Oh sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me.  Some did and were dragged away by the police.  Others like me left willingly.  Despite the Mall being a sea of placards all saying, ‘No’,  it wasn’t enough to stop the Government preparing for war.

The adult ESOL students mostly kept their counsel, I imagine reserving their honest views for the mosque.   On the day of the invasion, however, the reality struck home and many students walked out of the college at lunchtime and joined the march to Parliament Fields, from Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, named after the textile worker murdered by racists on his way home on the eve of the local elections in 1978. 

I went with two young women from the class, just back from the compulsory Job Seekers’ course, who viewed the day as an adventure.  Girls in maroon shalwa kameez from the local girls’ school gathered with their teachers in the park and set off in their sling backs, clutching handbags, chanting ‘Bush, Bush, we know you; Daddy was a killer too’ and ‘Who let the bombs out?  Bush, Bush and Blair!’  Hours later as we passed under the bridge at Embankment their voices echoed: ‘We are not in shock; we are not in awe.  What are we? Angry!’  The London Eye glinted in the late afternoon sun.

Shortly after that day, the students heard that another class was going to Parliament and they wanted to go too, so I wrote to the aide of the local MP giving details of numbers and the visit was confirmed.  Meanwhile, I made materials on how laws are passed and showed the students the website.  They came to know more about the system than the average person, and so did I.  They were intrigued.  They joked about having tea with Tony Blair.  None of them had met their MP.  I told them about Emily Wilding Davis hiding in the broom cupboard of the Palace so she could give this as her address in the census, and how she threw herself in front of the king’s horse so women would one day be able to vote.  They told me about noble martyrs from their country, Tareq offering the name of Meena, an Afghan freedom fighter, a teacher, shot by the KGB.  ‘Women are like lion asleep,’ he giggled.

The day came.  I made sure the older men kept an eye on Tareq.  The women had dressed up.  In the tube train, the teacher of the other class walked up and down the carriage in a crisp cotton jacket, as if he were the emcee and London itself his party.  I tried to relax.  

When we arrived at Parliament Square the students noted with surprise the handmade posters of the Brian Haws Peace Camp across the road.  We made our way through the security gate.  Then the MP appeared in a button-down with perpendicular striped tie.   My warm greeting was interrupted by the words: ‘Who are these people?  How many are there?’  I stood speechless for a moment and then reminded him of the arrangement.  ‘I was expecting one group; you can’t just go adding numbers willy nilly,’ he said.  ‘We only have time for one group.’  My worry had been that the students might not follow the tour guide’s English, not that we might be turned away unceremoniously.  I felt both cold and sweaty and rummaged around for the email which luckily I’d stuffed into my bag at the last minute and passed it to him.  He scanned it, blamed his aide and attempted a smile which he gave up halfway.  ‘We’ll have to do this quickly’, he said.

To my shame, I tried to usher the group through at a brisk pace.  But Tareq’s limp slowed us down and the students were determined to savour the experience.  I also had to explain the tour guide’s commentary to them.   We made our way to the Central Lobby and stood for a moment at the centre of the Parliamentary compass.  In the red room as the students called it, we were shown the woolsack – an economy built on livestock was familiar to them – and the Throne.  Then we tripped into the Commons Chamber, through the Churchill arch, built using stone that survived the incendiary bombing of Parliament during the Blitz.  To have one’s seat of government destroyed, this was also something they knew all too well.   The MP tended to the other group, and a guide told us about the arrangement of the benches, the Government to the right of the speaker, the Opposition to the left.  ‘Tony Blair sits there,’ she said and then told us about the Divisional bell, and the surprising fact that members had eight minutes from that point to reach the Chamber: ‘The ayes to the right, the noes to the left’.  

 While I was imagining the nation’s politicians re-entering the Chamber in a country dancing manoeuvre, there was a scuffle behind me.  From nowhere, two uniformed guards appeared, causing the student from the Job Seekers programme to recoil in fear beside me.  But it was ok.  The guards weren’t armed; no-one was hurt.  Tareq was making himself comfortable on Tony Blair’s place on the bench, but faced with the guards, paled visibly.  ‘There is a notice’, the angered tour guide said.

 After that, it was a relief to move into the old Westminster Hall, with its timbered roof and hammer-beams rising from the backs of carved angels, a wide open space.   We all had tea in the restaurant and went home.  The class soon forgot about the incident although jokes at the MPs expense circulated in the staff workroom for a while.  The students prepared for their speaking exam.  I don’t remember much about the rest of that year.  Tareq started missing classes.  He began to look dishevelled, stopped shaving and complained about the walk from his accommodation to the college.  He was distracted when he did appear; then he stopped coming altogether.  I called his number several times but got no reply.  Before college broke up for the summer, I ran into his brother in the corridor and asked after him.  Alan looked tired and drawn; he had got a cleaning job at Canary Wharf and was just about managing to keep up with his own classes.  He told me with sadness that he couldn’t look after his brother anymore.  He said that Tareq would leave the UK and go to Pakistan, where their mother, a widow, and the rest of the family now lived.  Maybe Tareq would get married.  Judging from his recent erratic behaviour, I couldn’t see him travelling without his brother.  I didn’t know how he would fly back to his mother’s arms alone, and I never saw him again.


Last month, to mark 25-years since the 1997 election, a day conference was held by the Mile End Institute in Coram Fields where Tessa Jowell had launched the new government’s Sure Start programme in 1998. Opinion was divided about the overall Legacy, but amicably exchanged and a buffet made it feel like a large family party. Will Hutton drew attention to what had been left off the table, a critique of capitalism, arguing that Thatcher had made it her business to shift public opinion, but in key ways, New Labour did not. He spoke of an unstable settlement that blew up in 2007/8, with London at the epicentre of the crisis.

My time at the college spanned the period that began with the new policies and investment and finished with the looming financial crisis in 2007, voluntary redundancy and an end to free English classes for asylum seekers. I don’t know what the members of the class did next, though I did come across Abbas after I left the college, in a porter’s uniform with a patient at the Royal London. Every political era leaves a feeling tone and vignettes that stand apart like witnesses. I think of that kind and resilient group and the boy that wanted to be an engineer, the refugee who fell.

Paper: TS

Hyde Park Corner, London, April 13 2022, The Library Assistant

Trail: I

I approached Swedenborg House in Bloomsbury, where the event was taking place, with a familiar gnawing anxiety, but once inside and warmly greeted, I settled into an unexpected ease, the effect of a wooden floor under my feet, oak panelling, and a sturdy leather-backed chair. The Neo-classical meeting room was skylit at first, but twilight soon fell, the groups of friends sat down and the talks began. Welcome to XR Writers Rebel. By the time the last of the speakers addressed us, her features were indistinct in the shadows. In a calm voice which also carried a sense of urgency, she began a dispassionate argument for a more sophisticated paper recycling system, citing a work by Mandy Haggith entitled, Paper Trails, the name the group adopted for the campaign, which I made a note to read.

For every 25 books produced a tree felled. 75-90% of books printed on virgin paper. Paper plantations existing at the expense of old growth forest, biodiversity and the mycorrhizal network. Landfilled paper emitting methane gas. Overproduction of books … Timely interventions by writers Margaret Atwood, JK Rowling and Alice Munro, taking action not just with words but against their stock in trade: paper. In 2007 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows becoming the greenest book in publishing history. In the UK more than 15.74 millions trees saved annually if the industry only switched to post-consumer-waste paper …

Then it was time for drinks, and I felt the need to move around, or maybe leave, so I investigated the basement for toilets, noticing an inspiring quote in the stairwell by Ali Smith on the way back up. Though knowing nothing about Swedenborg, I thought I might return here one day; I decided to stay and, back in the meeting room, approached the drinks table, the organisers channeling a soiree or a book launch. After taking in the scene, emboldened by the first sips of wine, I picked up a leaflet from a pile near an animated trio who immediately drew me into their conversation.

The creator of the leaflet was a Librarian from Powys who was compiling an ever-expanding list of climate emergency literature. His name and contact appeared at the bottom of the A4 sheet and I shared with him my impression that Climate Emergency did not have a shelf mark, that it was not a distinct classification: as Montaigne said, the subjects are all linked to one another. He agreed and offered to top up my glass. When he returned I leant into an evocation of Powys Public Library. His view was that Librarians are invisible except to those who can see them. He expanded, describing the assignations that sometimes took place in the building, readers assuming the person behind the counter was oblivious to their behaviour. In contrast there was one particular homeless man who wrote a poem every week and gifted him it. Every week. I wondered aloud if the street was his home, and maybe the Library an extension. I told him about the mathematician, then realising the second glass of wine had taken hold, folded the leaflet into quarters and placed it in my pocket, saying I looked forward to exploring the Rebel Library.

After the event I looked up the book Paper Trails, From Trees to Trash – the True Cost of Paper, now out of print. My British Library Readers card had expired just before lockdown and when I went to renew it, in March 2020, I didn’t have the right proof of identity and so left. In any case the library was fraught, the Assistant who dealt with me, brusque; another recoiled when someone in the queue coughed. Every evening there were the news images from Italian hospitals and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the devastation reached us, yet the Government here acted as if they existed in an untouchable parallel universe. Now two years later I brought in the correct ID and ordered the book.

When I went to collect it a couple of days later, I noticed that several people had made the pavement in Midland Road, outside the Library, their home, though the tents were empty. I thought that in such a situation there was no choice but to trust fellow human beings not to steal your belongings while you saw to the business of the day. When the Assistant handed me the book in Humanities One, I was disappointed to see that it had no proper cover and was imperfectly bound, even for a paperback, cracking as soon as I opened the pages; by the time I finished the introduction, several of them had come loose. If ever a book should be made to last at least one reading, it must be this, but even though I tried to angle and not flatten the pages, I could feel the miserable object disintegrating. Was this an example of Books on demand publishing? The answer to overproduction? I left the building, rattled once more, and when I got home ordered a second hand copy online for 50p plus postage: ‘Ex library with usual stamps & stickers.’ 

Trail: 11

While I waited for the ex-library copy to arrive, I gathered my knowledge of paper technology, limited to a vaguely recalled diagram of an idealised paper making process used to practise the passive voice in an old-fashioned Language course, and an experience years ago when I taught English briefly in a paper factory in central Portugal. A taxi would collect me and before the factory came into view, the smell – a bit like decomposing barley – indicated its proximity. The class was held in a training room far from the factory floor and the attendees wanted to talk about anything but paper production. They liked reminiscing, though, and, when the narrative tenses were revised, wrote short texts, about the ritual burning of ribbons (Queima Das Fitas) in their college days, or leaving Angola when the Portuguese army withdrew. These recollections were written on small scraps of paper neatly torn from notebooks as if, producing paper, they had a code of honour not to waste it. I became fond of the foreman, Antonio, who showed me pictures of his boys and gave me a paperback book, Novos Contos da Montana, by Miguel Torga, stories set in the ‘remote and barren’ Tras-os-Montes, as a leaving gift. I remember his parting words. He addressed me by name and said: ‘You must make your decisions and not look back.’

Nearer home and the present, I considered the ratio: 25 books: one tree felled. Since working at the Library a massive and untypical book weeding project, long overdue, has taken place to catch up with changed times. I have now played a small part in the withdrawal of around 40,000 books, involving 1,600 trees (using the ratio).  The Library Assistant’s role is to ease excess volumes from the tight shelves, utilising a spreadsheet created by the Librarian, which lists books that failed to be issued in however number of years and those rendered obsolete by more recent editions. Also, with digitisation the number of set books required for a module is much reduced.

The withdrawn books have been desensitised, stamped, and boxed up for the charity, Better Books, to donate and sell on. The books targeted for the weeding project were those John Feather, Professor of Library and Information Studies would describe as ‘dispensable’, with the proviso that information content was preserved somewhere. After all, the quality of service is measured by the speed with which a user’s demand is realised, the mission served, rather than numbers of books on shelves. In other words, these weren’t rare books or members of specialist research collections. Still, the Librarian sighed at their passing, but you have to make your decisions and not look back.


The ex-library book has arrived; it’s a proper book with a cover design, a paperback that doesn’t crack and lose its pages and it’s printed on 100% recycled, good quality paper. I can’t do justice to its content. The global journey Haggith researched from tree to trash, which she undertook in 2006, starting from her home in Scotland, then overland to Sumatra and across North America, is a heart-breaking one, though told with humour and humanity. She lays bare the impacts of industrial paper production: the loss of forest habitats, abuse of human rights, contribution to global warming, pollution and waste, and identifies the agents of this destruction. She documents thoroughly a global regime of multi-national corporations that thrive at the expense of indebted southern countries The process could not be represented by a diagram practising the passive voice. If we are beyond fucked, we at least know who by with this book. But her parting message is more hopeful than that. It is not so difficult to reduce paper use, especially if we value it, every sheet of toilet paper, every page of every book.

For more information, visit http://www.shrinkpaper.org

The Library Assistant

  Exhortations to slow down expansion, to plant fewer acres, … are of little avail as long as the motive is lacking.  If it pays to waste we waste.  When it pays to conserve we will conserve.” 

Scoville Hamlin, The Menace of Overproduction, 1930
I folded the leaflet into quarters and placed it in my pocket, saying I looked forward to exploring the Rebel Library.


Feather, John (ed.), Managing Preservation for Libraries and Archives, Ashgate, 2004

Feather, John, The Information Society: a study of continuity and change, E-book, facet publishing, 2013. 6th edition.

Haggith, Mandy, Paper Trails, From Trees to Trash – the True Cost of Paper, Virgin Books, Random House, 2008

Hamlyn, Scoville, The Menace of Overproduction: Its Cause, Extent and Cure, Wiley, 1930

Libraries: Z

Fragile History

… we need to bring the classroom and the academy into the library, thinking more about playground and less about sanctuary.

Jim Neal, former President of American Library Association

TuktuktuktuktukteteteteteBAAH Hubbubhubhubhubhub

The sound of the red and green alarms, the inflow and exit of users, mostly undergraduates, groups of brothers, loud affirmations, serious girls, and not, sometimes researchers and academics returning bags of books that have reached the limit of automatic renewal, some lone readers like the mathematician who come and go unobtrusively. It could be the tube or an airport but for the clapping, shouting, laughing. Excuse me excuse me, meaning Stop, when a Library Assistant has spotted a KFC bag, or an attempt to bundle in a friend who doesn’t belong. The electronic sentinels still not fully functioning after their long covid sleep, giving messages that are all awry: it’s saying I am unknown, it’s saying I am in when I’m out. Scan the barcode scan the barcode.

Once the threshold is crossed and the barcode acknowledged, behind glass walls is the Group Study Area, and here there are elements of a playground if this is what the former ALA President had in mind. This is down to the space, as long as a sprint track, and the chairs which have irresistible wheels; the library, too, is one of the few places where you can hang out without spending money. For the most part the library never closes and maybe that is a type of refuge. Group projects are commonplace and not everyone is a solitary scholar by nature. Some of the group study areas hum with concentration but the main room is often noisy, disarrayed, apparently how the users like it.

As Andrew Pettigrew and Arthur der Weduwen, the authors of The Library A Fragile History write, libraries need to adapt to survive, and today’s University libraries are, generally speaking, as much social spaces as sanctuaries. What the authors of this immense study of the fragility of libraries document is what they consider the historical norm: ‘ a repeating cycle of creation and dispersal, decay and reconstruction.’ This they do, from the library of Alexandria, to the French renewal of dilapidated public libraries, in the form of Médiathèques. A powerful UK example offered concerns the University of Oxford which, in 1556, its book stock ruined, sold off the Library furniture only for the institution to rise again fifty years later with the establishment of what was to become the Bodleian Library.

The key accelerator for the current cycle being enacted in the library is shortage of space, and the adaptations most in evidence concern digitisation and the giving over of space to readers in response to consumer demand. This has involved a financial investment that needs to be capitalized primarily in terms of growth in student numbers and so the wheel turns.

Leaving the bookless expanse of group study, stairs lead to the silent Reading Rooms, the stacks unlit until a reader appears, the carrel-like tables beside the wide windows, rows of heads bent over laptops, with the accoutrements of study: earbuds, crisp packets, coffee cups but please note no hot food. Here space is a constant concern, all books having to pay their way. But how is this determined?

In May 1947, Charles F. Gosnell of the New York State Library, published his response to the question in an article entitled ‘Obsolete Library Books’. I imagine Gosnell intoning his words: ‘Books are born, they grow old, and die, certainly as far as our interest in them is concerned’. A page later he continues, ‘The causes of book mortality or obsolescence are many, varying from pure fad through extension of scientific knowledge and technological advances to fundamental changes in our civilisation.’ He emerges eventually with complex formulae for establishing a satisfactory demographic among the books, but all the care he took now seems redundant, as library policy today is simply to buy the e-book wherever available, technological advances and fundamental changes, including the pandemic, having decided the matter.

And so Circulation Managers may dream of the end of the actual book, but, Not so fast, Pettigrew and der Weduwen counsel, citing the futurologist Richard Watson who reversed his initial prediction that libraries would go virtual and librarians be replaced by algorithms. The reason: ‘Libraries are slow-thinking places away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.’ Would they be places of deep reading without books? James M Donovan, a Law Librarian, meditates on this question, arguing that universal digital access would entail ‘informational homogeneity’ and an ‘antithesis of the value of particularity embodied in the library’. In other words, libraries are more than aggregates of books, because each collection has history and its physicality holds traces of a time and culture. In another article he takes this further, conducting a study on the impact of books even solely as backcloth or ‘wallpaper’ and concluding that, supposing all books were in reality replaced by digital resources, the space that remained would not be a ‘library’. The changes would leave the reader with a degraded environment in which to comprehend ‘content’.

This is known. The essayist Michel de Montaigne was famously influenced by the library he wrote in, a tower with over 1,000 books. Ray Bradbury, who learned to be a writer in his hometown library, describes the way that books need to be sensed by smell, look and touch: only then can the reading process be contemplated. In a piece written for National Library Week the writer described the moment of reaching the Carnegie Library as a child:

And there was always that special moment when, at the big doors, you paused before you opened them and went in among all those lives, in among all those whispers of old voices so high and so quiet it would take a dog, trotting between the stacks to hear them.

Ray Bradbury, Monday Night in Green Town

We should not neglect the body: I still recall the Foundation student who said, when asked about her reading, ‘I need to hug the book.’ What is required to embrace learning is still not fully understood. What I feel about the library is what the Surrealists understood: the power of assemblage, the value that randomness adds. I wonder what type of market research a Surrealist would conduct. It would certainly not involve, What do you want? but, maybe, What is a book, a Library, a group, study itself?

Every subject is equally fertile to me: a fly will serve the purpose … I nay begin with that which pleases me best, for the subjects are all linked to one another

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Volume Three
The Library Assistant


Donovan, James M., Keep the books on the shelves: Library space as intrinsic facilitator of the reading experience, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 46, 2020

Donovan, James M. Libraries as Doppelgängers: A Meditation on Collection Development, from the Selected Works of James M. Donovan, University of Kentucky, Winter 2009

Eller, Jonathan R., Becoming Ray Bradbury, University of Illinois Press, 2011

Gosnell, Charles F., Obsolete Library Books, The Scientific Monthly, May 1947, Vol. 64, No. 5

Montaigne, Michel de, (1553-1592) Essays, (electronic resource), Translated by Charles Cotton, 2001

Pettegree, Andrew & Der Weduwen, Arthur, The Library A Fragile History, Profile, London, 2021

Calculus: QA

The Mathematician

Mathematicians speak of the beauty of their subject, something I can appreciate only obliquely because of lack of understanding. There is a beauty to the language of mathematics I realised during a period in the library when the sorting system was out of action, and returned books had to be manually checked for holds. Opening a returned graduate maths book at random one day, I noticed the writers had prefaced their text with a quote from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets:

The end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Flicking through, I landed on a random paragraph, which posed a question concerning the limit to a family of ideals and contained the words: polynomial and infinite co-dimension.  I wondered about this family and what its limits may be. 

Recently, a mathematician approached the Library Welcome Desk. Unlike many students, he hadn’t fixed on any particular look; he wore a plain hoodie and his hair was unstyled, although heading for an afro if given license.  He looked like he was still at school and, eyes lowered, came out with it straight away: I can’t find a book. I need this book.  I asked if he had checked the catalogue and he said: It’s daunting, finding a book with all these books. That’s the word he used. I went with him to the OPAC terminal and he keyed in his title, a text on calculus, which came up pretty quickly; I scrawled the shelfmark on a piece of scrap paper, using one of the small child-size pencils kept in a tray. I was surprised that the book was published in 1975, but assumed that this was the timeless beauty of mathematics. He had no idea where to begin to find the object of his quest.

Together we took the stairs to the First Floor Reading Room and halfway up, I asked if this was his first year.  Second, he said. Lockdown was the first year.

Teaching during lockdown, I was aware of various phases.  In the emergency phase of March, 2020 the group I was working with was small and at an independent stage of their module.  In the first weeks, attendance was erratic as all the international students who could get out, did so.  They dropped in and out of calls and struggled with broadband and were bemused at first to talk to me through a screen.  Regrouped according to time zones, we were together, still, and once they were transplanted in their new locations, returned to cats and family decors, and I had views of snowy scenes and stray family members, or luxuriant tropical gardens, we settled into a routine.  I used my hour of exercise learning to run again and put up prayer flags a friend had brought back from Nepal in a tree in my locale. A few students who couldn’t get flights out were worryingly isolated. As the months went by, I watched the prayer flags bleach.

The mathematician would have started his degree in the October of that year, when, in the middle of the new normal, the modules had all been migrated and students had settled into whatever patterns suited them.  I wondered what it would be like to study maths online, whether his books were digitised; maths students often praise the certainties of their subject.  Maybe this made it easier.  Could that be true? 

Most of my new group of home students at that time were muted and unseen.  I had all the tools of Teams, mentimeter, video sharing apps.  We were reminded to look after our mental health and there was some talk of the affordances of the situation, of exciting opportunities.  After some months, I left teaching.

Now in the Reading Room, we wove in and out of the shelves, scanning. sometimes in shadow as we waited for the light sensors to engage.   We were in data science, before the confluence with classical mathematics.  The data science spines were uniformly silver and the class marks fiendishly complex.  Before the bulbs in the stack were triggered, the space appeared like a shimmering tunnel leading to the light of the reading room.  When data eventually met mathematics, this uniformity changed, each volume now possessing a distinct personality.  This was partly the work of the Collection Care team tenderly effecting their repairs.  We were getting closer.  It’s there, the mathematician said.   He plucked the book from between two weightier ones and a smile released his face.   

In the following weeks as I tried to inform myself of the basic functions of calculus, I wondered how the mathematician estimated his own progress during that period.   I doubted an exact rate of change at one precise moment would be calculable.  There would be slopes, though: the rise over run.  I thought of a time many years before the pandemic when, precariously employed by the Humanities Department of a university where the attachment of mathematicians for chalk was accommodated, I would sometimes find myself in a classroom previously used by such a scholar. When that happened, I would study the unreadable constellation of symbols for a moment before erasing them, then wait for the chalkdust to disperse and begin again.

calculus noun

an area of advanced mathematics in which continuously changing values are studied

Cambridge Dictionary
Prayer flags, The Library Assistant

The Nervous System: WL

On Falling

New Year’s Day, 2022.  As I leave my block of flats,  my downstairs neighbour, buttocks contoured in his dressing gown, steps out for a smoke, unselfconscious.   Halfway to the station, coming in my direction, a girl in flapping PJ bottoms and an oversized T-shirt, is trying out new blades in the middle of the road, sod the traffic, but there isn’t actually any.  She’s making fair progress, some static, followed by some fluidity, hair blowing around her face.  Leaving the skater behind, I arrive at the station, stamp up the stairs of resonating concrete to the bridge then down onto the platform with a rucksack of swimming gear.  I can hear something.  From the end of the DLR platform comes a sound, a keening, and as I get nearer, a figure, unaware of any onlooker, slumps to her knees, surrendering apparently to sorrow, or abandonment or some other anguish.   The keening continues.  From my vantage point all I can see is the vulnerable crown of the head, fine hair partially dyed pink with darker roots.   White lacy tights, slightly torn, delicate knees.   Then, I notice the exposed arms, finely cross hatched, the past work of a razor.   Standing a metre or so away, I say ‘Hello’.  Then I say it again.   Later, I realise my voice sounds as if I am addressing a beloved child.   The head is slowly raised and a pale narrow face emerges.  When she takes in the source of the voice I wonder what there is for her to see.   As a protection for wet hair I am wearing a bobble hat, and a mask covers half my face.   With remarkable control, the girl, who is actually a young woman, levitates from the concrete, and stands for a moment.  I am sorry to see you are so upset, I say.  Is there anything I can do?  The same beloved-child voice.  She says No and turns to walk away but before she does she tells me: You are beautiful.  Then there is a catch in her voice, an opening, and the keening returns.  I watch her progress up the steps, and after she is gone, the injured sound hangs in the air.

Three days later as I flew to work on the first day back, I too fell to earth.  Seconds after exchanging a smile with a woman at the bus stop for no other reason than sharing a species, an uneven paving slab brought me down.  Instantly the woman was at my side, offering me her hand.  I noticed she was wearing a lanyard and had perfect teeth.  I patted myself down and then pulled up the loose work trousers I wear in the library: abrasions on the knees; the elbows could wait for later.  I was wearing a large overcoat of my mums that I kept when we were clearing her wardrobe, and it had offered me considerable protection.  My hand showed a graze.  The adrenalin got me on my way again, but before I set off the young woman looked me directly in the eyes as if it were the most serious of missions and told me I must avoid falling again.  I told her I was wearing my mum’s coat and just as I had seen the British juduko, Kayla Harris do, in the 2012 Olympics, to honour her dead mother when she won gold, I brought my hands together and looked to the sky.

An event which results in a person coming to rest inadvertently on the ground or other lower level.

WHO definition of a fall
The Library Assistant