After the first post to Paul, he emailed me back, his message ending with a question about my past – "I’ve wondered what waw (sic) it like to be a child in the library at Glen Cruitten?".
Glen Cruitten is in Scotland, and is – for readers who do not know the location – a large house in the West Highlands on the ridge of a hill overlooking the sea to the west, a channel of water some twenty kilometres wide between the mainland and the island of Mull, where I was not brought up as a child, but visited, my grandmother and aunt living there during the summer months, for family holidays. The library however with a three metre wide bay window at the end of the room points east, and therefore does not enjoy the fine sea views. It is a large room with high ceilings, wood panneled in oak throughout, and unfurnished the room is long enough to give the appearance of a ship’s deck, with its wide oak-planked floor and books shelves tiered from floor to ceiling on either side, but some of the oak panels are so intricately carved with foliage birds and fruits that it might also at times appear a forest, and then turning to look at the west wall of the room, completely filled by the engine and apparatus of an electric organ, two keyboard tiers, stops, large pipes, and oak panels with traditional ecclesiastical designs topped by angels at times it might also seem a church, but mixed with the secular, something between a chapel and a music hall.
For a child therefore the library belongs in its own world, interior to the house and not belonging to the surrounding location, and the shelves now filled with books, and tables and desks, beautiful ornaments, sofas and armchairs designed for its space, it is become an invisible city, a place apart. Literally as it happens, the room being located upstairs on the first floor, to reach it therefore is to pass by the bedrooms of older women, and to smell the scent of aging talc make-up powder and stale rose-water that repulse more than they attract, and hurry a child on, as within the library itself the large portrait of the white-haired and kindly-faced old woman sat in front of a piano that is positioned over the central fireplace, a great-grandmother of whom the child is ignorant, she having died before he was born, creates dislike and an urge to go beyond.
For all is to be risked, and for a child, beyond the landing of bedrooms, there is the long, dark, windowless corridor, searching for the location of hidden light switches and leading up to another half landing, the dimly lit threshold. Place of fear; it is the darkness of the brown glass in the leaded windows; it is the eighteen Buddhist Lohans on the wide window sill, several incarnated as half-man, half-dragon in fearsome aspects; it is the shelves of books on the Dark Arts, witchcraft and demonology, as well as on poetry, and bibliographies and those on the printing of books, but the room too dark to distinguish kind from kind, and the child, now hurrying though the smaller oak panneled corridor surrounded by apparatus of the organ towards the double door entrance to the library itself, is focussed on reaching the light.
Within the library, the child mostly looks at the spines of the books, the hardback reprinted literature complete-works series, Conrad, Stevenson, Balzac and Tolstoy, the late eighteeneth century editions of Shakespeare and Pope, the bound Scottish histories journals, and the twentieth century private press limited editions, among the other books on travel, Florida and in French the works of Baudelaire and Verlaine, and spines with exotic titles as ‘The Ban of the Bori’ and many more unremembered. The child is not an energetic reader, unless exploring again the fear of the threshold, when he will read an MR James book of Ghost Stories late into the night and shiver himself to sleep, or discovers his desires through the private-press erotica , the paintings of DH Lawrence or works of Casanova, none of the glass-fronted bookcases being locked or there being any restraint on his searching, the master of the library, my grandfather, having died twenty years before.
Here in the library the child is free to roam. Therefore he begins to love the shadows of corridors, and half-landings, and the places in between, to learn the art of reading and writing undertaken where it is possible to pause but impossible to stay. He learns to love the dread of thresholds. He learns to love the made-up pleasures, the heightened attraction of invisible scents, of younger women and the wisdom of their corrupting age, in the library,that is ship and forest, mechanical apparatus of song, chapel and music hall, here where he is free to wander the invisible city, a young vagabond.