Ex Libris

Tessa Hadley in Redland Library, Bristol

March 17, 2020

“It’s strange and haunting to be back here after a very, very long time,” says Tessa Hadley of heading inside seminal childhood destination, Redland Library. " I can still remember the feeling of entering the new book, the first page like a threshold, that excitement and thrill… And  at some point thinking ‘I want to make my own stories...’”

Those stories that Tessa has gone on to write - thus far, three collections of short stories and six acclaimed novels - continue to garner widespread acclaim. She engenders similar wonder today in her own readers.

Her peers are unanimous in their praise. She is ‘one of the best fiction writers writing today,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declares. In the words of Hilary Mantel, Tessa ‘recruits admirers with each book: she is one of those writers a reader trusts.’ And few writers give Zadie Smith ‘such consistent pleasure’.

Tessa’s writing came to prominence partly via the pages of The New Yorker magazine, to which she continues to contribute short stories. Her most recent novel is Late in the Day and her awards include the Windham-Campbell Prize.

She lives in London but chose to meet with Ex Libris in Bristol. Tessa first went to Redland Library with her school, as an infant. Before long, she was going there by herself - devouring the entire children’s section of books before, around the age of 12, foraying further into the library, travelling alphabetically around the adult shelves (Elizabeth Bowen’s writing, first encountered on those forays, remains a key inspiration).

Redland is a striking building, established in the 1880s. Like so many libraries in the UK, it has faced challenges during recent years of austerity. Yet the place has not buckled and remains a vital destination. A proper palace for the people.

Joining Tessa to put all of that into vital context is Councillor Asher Craig, who also grew up visiting the library as a kid and now is responsible for the library services in Bristol. Asher explains Redland’s situation today and lays bare those challenges of recent years. The two share fond, nostalgic memories of growing up in Bristol. They pore over sepia photos from the archives of the old place in its pomp, compare notes on Anne of Green Gables, and delight - all these years later - in exploring the shelves anew.

 

...

 

A full transcript of this episode, featuring Tessa Hadley, follows:

Few writers give me such consistent pleasure as Tessa Hadley.  These are Zadie Smith’s words, but I second them wholeheartedly: “I'm a big fan, as are many other readers. Indeed, Hilary Mantel has observed that Tessa recruits admirers with each book. She is one of those writers a reader trusts”. Damn right.  And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls her “one of the best fiction writers writing today”.

Tessa Hadley is the author of three collections of short stories - that's how I first discovered her work via those stories in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, to which she frequently contributes. She has also written six acclaimed novels, most recently, ‘Late in the Day’.

Tessa lives in London and is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. She has chosen though to meet today in Bristol, at Redland Library, which she would frequent as a child. It's a handsome old place, built in the 1880s. It's faced a few challenges during recent years of austerity that have led to campaigns by Friends groups for its preservation. But Redland has not buckled and stands proud. Indeed, today, it's in scaffolding, they're doing some more works to keep it strong as ever. Like so many libraries up and down the land, it's a vital destination, a proper palace for the people - it has been for well over a century.

Joining us with Tessa to put all of that into some context is local Councillor, Asher Craig, who also grew up visiting the library. Without further ado, let's head on in and get talking with them both.

 

Interview

Ben Holden:

Tessa, Asher, thank you very, very much for joining us and meeting here in Redland Library. Tessa, I know it's a special place for you and you immediately chose it as the venue for today. Can you tell us what it signifies and perhaps also a bit of background, describe the place - it's a very striking library. Perhaps you could evoke it a little bit for our listeners.

Tessa Hadley:

Built in the late 19th century of sort of big, chunky red stone, and with handsome great, grand windows letting in lots of light on the books inside; it's quite a tiny library, although books are small so you can pack an awful lot of books into a small library. Exactly as I remember it from my childhood - you come in through the front door, and both Asher and I, it was that metal door handle on the door that brought memories of long ago rushing back. You come in through the door and the children's section, I think it's still as it was, is laid out to right and left. And then ahead of you, up the stairs is the adult section. It's strange and haunting to be back here after a very, very long time.

Ben Holden:

And we've found the team here have pulled some really beautiful photos, which I'll post online for anyone who's listening and wants to check them out, but they're very evocative, very handsomely framed. Someone knew what they were doing, but they evoke, again, a bygone era of this library.

Tessa Hadley:

They're a little bit before my time even, but it's wonderful in these photographs to look at all the men and women sitting, reading with their hats on, in the women's cases, though I think the men have taken them off. And what spills out from these black and white pictures to me is the quiet of the library, which as a child is so important as you come in, because you recognise this space set apart from the noise and bustle of the street outside and school. I used to come here every week with my school. We came in a crocodile two-by-two holding hands, and we were brought here every Friday afternoon it seems to be in my memory. We all took out books, not just the bookish ones; every child took out at least one book and brought it back the following week. And the sense that you entered this hushed, quiet space, I could see that could be scary if books weren't your thing, and it wasn't your space, but I have to say I was such a bookish, shy child, so to me, it felt kind of like coming home coming into this respectful, absorbed quiet; that was really a place I wanted to be.

Ben Holden:

Some sort of inner sanctum...

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, a place that took reading so seriously, put it at the centre of things. There was no commercial thing going on, there was no money being exchanged, just thought and absorption in words inside books.

Ben Holden:

Yes, and of course they still offer that sanctuary today, and it's still very quiet space or somewhere that people can come into the warm and focus on whatever it may be. But it's obviously changed. In those photos it looks quite stately and like a destination. The librarians at the front look like they're running some sort of department store counter [laughter]; the patrons look like they've sort of put their Sunday best on, it's almost sort of going to church.

Asher Craig:

The area really hasn't changed, I mean, Redland itself. I was saying earlier that I've never revealed to everybody, even in my time as a councillor, that both Redland and Cheltenham Road Library were my local libraries, because I was brought up in Redland, and I was thinking about when you were talking about what things that were evoked, so I had that kind of déjà-vu moment when I was walking through the doors. Because when you're little, the stairs even though there are few stairs, they seem quite big. And I always remember being afraid to go into the adult section, because we were so little, you're not allowed to go into the adult section.

But I was a very early reader, I was reading maybe from about four or five. I just loved reading. And so I enjoyed our visits to the library. We'd all sit down quietly in the corner, we’d choose a book, the book would be read to us, and then we could, “right now you can go off and choose a book that you want to take out”. Just the enjoyment of just, you know, the librarian opening the book, putting that little stamp in there with the date in there to tell you when… you know, it was just all part of that. So, yeah, I mean, everybody's journey is very different. But yeah, fond memories…

Tessa Hadley:

Do you know, I used to do it at home - I used to stick little sheets inside the few books I actually owned and from somewhere had a date stamp and used to make little cardboard ticket holders. [Laughter] That is a bit sad as a childhood play! [Laughs]

Ben Holden:

It's very sweet. And did you, Tessa, come here at a similarly early age? You said you were coming here with school, but was it part of the family routine?

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, it was. I can't really remember when I was coming with school except this once a week thing, and then when it began to be with my family or whether it both coexisted, I'm really not sure. But certainly I've been here with family as well, yes.

Ben Holden:

And was it this place that really fostered your love of reading and writing as well? Was this where those seeds were sown for you wanting to become a writer?

Tessa Hadley:

Absolutely, because we weren't really a bookish family at home; we had books and my parents read but they weren't the sort of parents that said, “Oh, you have to do this. You have to read this person and this person”. So I was free inside this building to pick and choose and I really just devoured the children's books and used to take home this pile of five, I think we were allowed, and I can still remember the feeling - unspoiled by adult criticism because, of course, it's not so straightforward now - of just entering the new book; the first page like a threshold and you cross it, and then you're inside. That excitement and thrill, which, to me is, again, perhaps slightly sadly sort of not surpassed by anything, and mixed up with that love of reading somewhere at some point, quite innocently without any grandeur, thinking “I want to also make my own stories”.

Asher Craig:

So you know what’s really interesting as you’re speaking Tess, I was trying to think about, “well, what books did we even have in my home?” And do you know something; we really didn't have any books. The only books that we had at my house was this beautiful Bible. It was huge, bound, beautiful pictures…oh, I just loved reading it, or just looking at the pictures. I remember one, there's a specific picture in the Bible of one of Jesus's disciples and somebody who had been stabbed in the heart and you can see him being held by Jesus. Yeah, I remember all of that and the other book was the dictionary, equally as big, huge. Those are the two kind of big staples…

Tessa Hadley:

Wonderful, they were like the authority books in your house.

Asher Craig:

They were! And you know something, I've been thinking, “I wonder what happened to it” because obviously you know, my parents have passed away - I might go and Google and see if I can find something that looks like it; but it was beautiful like leather-bound, brown Bible and gold embellished, you know, and the leaves were gold embellished on the side.

 

Tessa Hadley:

And I actually think that's a better beginning in books than you go into a child's house now, often they have a thousand books, piled up, most of them unread. You had one precious book with wonderful language inside it and great pictures what's more.

Asher Craig:

Exactly, exactly.

Tessa Hadley:

In the beginning of ‘Mill on the Floss’ Maggie Tulliver is reading a religious book - they only have two or three books in the house - and she is obsessed with certain pictures of devils and saints being martyred, exactly like you being drawn to that picture of violence. And these feed the imagination.

Asher Craig:

Well, that was it, because I think that's what made the words come to life. When you were looking at the pictures, and then I will be trying to find the story that related to the picture, because maybe the story was a couple of pages away, because obviously they've put the leaves in, but you know, I was really fascinated because I looked at the picture and then I wanted to know “what is the story behind the picture?” So yeah, my first kind of real excursion into reading and books was the Bible.

Ben Holden:

Yeah. And then you could supplement it, obviously with this place with all sorts and Tessa, you found one or two books here that made a big impact on you, and one or two also that perhaps the librarians were a little…unimpressed by?

Tessa Hadley:

Oh, yes, that was a funny thing happened. When I was, I think about 11 or 12 and I'd been using the library for a long time, I borrowed a book called Young Mother, and I kind of didn't really, it was just one of my five for that week, but when I got home I was slightly startled in my innocence to discover it was a very pious and solemn story about a girl who got pregnant and then had the child. Even the cover, I can actually remember, sort of pastel and a girl with a tragic face, you know. Anyway, when I brought it back in, I was already embarrassed as I stood in the queue to hand the book back to the librarian. I remember being slightly, shuffling forward and feeling a bit hot under the collar. She took this book away from me and then she sort of turned to the other librarian and murmured something to her and then they both took it into the backroom; I just felt as if I'd been found out in my salacious imagination. And then she brought it back and she was sniffing it and she said, “Definitely smells of paraffin”. [Laughter] And it turned out it was because my dad had had the paraffin tank from the oil heater that we had at home in the back of the car with the book. But I just, I still to this day think it wasn't just that; it was her reacting to me reading that.

Ben Holden:

The fumes of transgression.

Tessa Hadley:

The fumes of transgression, exactly.

Ben Holden:

So which books really made an impact? I think you've talked about Swallows and Amazons, but from this library, are there some that stand out?

Tessa Hadley:

I can almost seem to see them and I did love the books that there was a whole series of, because that was like, once you liked it and you'd got into it, there were loads of them. So, Swallows and Amazons, which were truly huge for me; Anne of Green Gables, did you read that?

Asher Craig:

Oh I read…I loved Anne of Green Gables.

Tessa Hadley:

We probably had the same book in our house!

Asher Craig:

We could have had the same book! Love that story.

Tessa Hadley:

I loved it so much and cried about it of course and you know, not just the first book but, it never occurred to me that they probably got less good as they went on, as they scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I just took them all in. I also remember books from the non-fiction side. There was a great series called The Young Victoria, and The Young Wolfe, The Young…you know, all great figures from British history as we understood it then. I mean, probably I should think wince-making now in their inappropriateness, but filling out the shapes of time and history and giving on a first sense of different eras, and of the past; that's one of the things we get from our reading more than anything, I think, is a sense of the past.

 

Asher Craig:

I think that's one of the things that I love about reading, just getting lost in it and just the imagination and it takes you to the places…

Ben Holden:

That's the special thing about libraries is that they're a place where you can be alone, together; they’re full of contradictions, nice contradictions in that sense and you can get lost in your own world, but they’re a safe space.

Tessa Hadley:

As in this wonderful photograph; all these people are not sitting talking, they are all alone, together. And yet, they are a community of readers together, sharing but private.

Ben Holden:

And here we are, however many years later, with you two who grew up coming here and we're in the library…

Tessa Hadley:

…holding the same volume of Anne of Green Gables, which I love!

Asher Craig:

[Laughs] Yes.

Ben Holden:

We’ll go and have a look in a minute to see if it’s still there.

Asher Craig:

Oh, yeah, let's see if we can find it. And that was the other thing, I also liked - you know you have the little drawers where they had the details of the books and where you could find them, and I used to love opening the drawers and just flicking through the little cards, yeah, the card index system, and kind of flicking through that and knowing where to go and find the book that you were looking for.

Tessa Hadley:

Because all of that is about authority and power in a good way, isn't it?

Asher Craig:

The early computer days. [Laughs]

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, yeah, but I think those cards were more enchanting somehow than flicking through a computer screen, although that works perfectly well.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, that’s what I was saying; I loved it because it was you know, you know you have to go to A to D or wherever and then just kind of flicking through it. Yeah, loved all of that. [Laughs]

Ben Holden:

We talked about the past, and Tessa, you're a bit of a laureate if you ask me in terms of our relationship with the past; you've looked at it closely in so many of your novels and short stories, but Late in the Day, your newest novel, is very much in that zone. It tells a story of four friends - two married couples - and their intertwined relationships as a quartet, as well as their children. But you flip between the past and the present. For anyone who has not yet had the joy of reading it, do you want to just give us a little snapshot, and perhaps, if you don't mind, read something from it?

Tessa Hadley:

Sure. Yes, it is these two couples and my first idea when I conceived the novel, before I started writing, was that I would run it chronologically and begin with these four in their twenties, then have them in their thirties, then in their forties. Then I thought, “A novel just can't be a line, it has to also be a circle - I have to have a big thing that sort of pulls all this together”. And I knew one of my four had to die, in that slightly merciless way that writers do with their characters. And once I knew that he had to die - I've made the nicest one of the four die I think, the sweetest man, sorry - I knew that I had to put his death right at the beginning of the book, that it would feel really malevolent to write the whole story and make you involved with the characters and then suddenly kill one of them, that doesn't work for me. So I had to begin at the beginning when these characters are in their fifties, one of the four drops dead, and then I had to do this thing that is a little bit tricky structurally, but I think I got away with it, where we're partly running the story in their fifties, in the present, with the fallout from the death and what it does to the three left behind, and how they re-make their relationships around his absence. And then I also dip back into their youth, into their thirties and into their forties, so it's a little bit complex in time structure.

Ben Holden:

The non-linear structure’s brilliant, it works really, really well. And the title of the novel is again redolent of the past. There's a sort of autumnal quality to it.

 

Tessa Hadley:

Well, I think I've always been interested in that. It's funny, even when I was a child, and it was probably because of reading, I would look at an old person on the bus and I would think “they were young once”. And I've always had that layered perception. I talked to my grandparents intently, almost interrogating them about their childhood and their youth. So I've always been fascinated in the different layers of people's lives and how they unfold and have youth inside age. So I can't resist writing about it, it seems to make the present so much thicker.

Ben Holden:

That’s quite unusual, quite perspicacious, or perceptive of you as a young person to think of someone as having a youth. Hats off.

Tessa Hadley:

That’s funny, isn't it? I don't know why, I mean, I'd almost say it was a bit obsessive, and odd. [Laughter] But that's how I was made somehow. So shall I read a little bit?

Ben Holden:

That would be amazing, thank you.

Tessa Hadley:

It's not particularly relevant to anything we've been discussing, but it's in the present part of the book, and this is Christine, and her husband Alex is still alive. Alex is not here, he's gone up to Glasgow, he's on his way home. Actually, something momentous is going to happen on his way home. Not an accident, but something that will change the dynamic between these remaining three and sort of break the pattern that exists. But really, this is just a passage about ‘waiting’.

 

~ Tessa Hadley reads extract from Late in the Day ~

 

Her perception was a skin stretched taught, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards. From half past 10 she began to think she heard Alex's car draw up outside. Each time she braced herself. The more a homecoming was anticipated, the more disconcerting the actuality was prone to be - she knew that. The arriving one walked into a shape prepared for him, not actually his own.

Just because she was relieved to be free of Lydia and looking forward to seeing Alex, the reality of him would be an affront; he wouldn't fit into her preparations or even notice them, would arrive burdened with purposes of his own breaking into the tension of her waiting. Men didn't care anyway about clean sheets or scented soap, both of which she's put out for him. It would be better really if she watched telly and forgot she was waiting. But in the summer night, the spell of her expectation was too strong. She lost herself inside short passages of her novel then couldn't proceed because they affected her too much. She dropped the book and looked about her restlessly, filled up her glass again.

It was only once midnight had come and gone that panic lifted up in Christine's chest like a great bird between one moment of it not occurring to her to worry, and the next when she was certain something must have happened. He'd said he might be home by 10 o'clock, hadn't he? No doubt the traffic was bad, and he wouldn't have called to let her know because Alex never used his phone while he was driving, and also he despised that whole infantile obsession with calling, needing to be in touch at every moment. Yet her imagination, working outside her control began to conjure disasters that were more awful for being indefinite. The poised perfection of her scene was spoiled, a mockery, and yet she couldn't possibly go to bed - sleeplessness there would be worse. And anyway, he would surely arrive any minute and there wouldn't have been anything to be afraid of after all. When he did arrive she would never forgive him, she thought, for putting her through this.

In interludes of respite, she forced her awareness down into her novel then awoke from its dream in palpitations of dread. She hadn't eaten anything since cake at lunchtime - she'd waited to have something with Alex - so the white wine she'd been drinking had given her a headache. There was nothing to think about except the worst. For a long time she wouldn't let herself call his phone then she tried it and found it was switched off. Her helpless fear was a paralysis hollowing her out, and yet was probably absurd. She kept hearing a car whose drones seem familiar which then drone past; or a car would park in the street outside, a car door slam, her heart would lift in paroxysms of relief. But Alex didn't come.

This madness of anxiety was her own to bear. And at any moment Alex would turn up, it would have all been for nothing. But by two o'clock she couldn't help herself. She rang Lydia. She told herself Lydia often stayed awake late reading, and indeed she picked up the phone almost at once spoke into it wearily. Christine knew there was a handset on the bedside table at Garrets Lane. She poured out her distress, so glad to talk to someone.

“Lyd, I'm so really, really sorry to call at this time of night. I know it's completely selfish of me but I'm so stuck, I don't know what to do, I don't know who else to call, I don't want to bother the children. It's Alex, he's not back yet, I don't know where he is. He said he'd be back by 10 and he isn't here and his phone's turned off. I've got myself worked up into a state imagining every kind of disaster. Do you think he’s had an accident?”

Lydia's voice was hesitant, but not as if she'd been woken from sleep.

“Oh, Chris”, she said. “Don't worry. He's all right.”

“I know it's stupid, he'll be fine, but I am worrying.”

“Don't worry, though, really. Alex is here.”

She could hardly take in what she heard at first. “What do you mean he's there? What's he doing there? Why hasn't he rung me?”

“I don't know what to say. I don't know how to tell you.”

It was as if dark forms crowded suddenly into the room around Christine; recognition was so violent. One stark and ghastly white face showed in the mirror. She didn't know her own self for a moment. Lydia ploughed on as if bemused by wonders.

“Everything's so strange Chris. I'm so sorry.”

~ Reading ends ~

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you. It's an absolutely stunning passage. It’s very dramatic as well, you read that so beautifully. But, I was blown away by the sort of James-ion shifting lights and the sort of stretching of time in that interior world, but then you explode it late in the day, like the title, for this person in terms of their lives; late in the day, these lives are changing.

Tessa Hadley:

At a point when you hadn’t thought they were going to. When you think you’re settled and you’ve got what you've got, and that's how it is.

Ben Holden:

Yes, but the timing of the passage as well; there's a lovely moment later on when the younger character says, “up until now, my life's been so straightforward, almost too straightforward. I wish you'd known me in the past.” And of course we do know them in the past because you flip back to those lovely ironies, but here you have a passage where the present is punching through, in such an emphatic way.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, because one never wants to just celebrate the past as if it's a kind of lavender scented, better time. It was only the present then, it was violent and it punched through then and then all those things, they build bricks of ourselves and bricks of our story and it amounts finally to, if we live a full life, it amounts finally to building a place, a whole story, if we get given the whole story, which not everybody does of course.

 

Asher Craig:

Well you've left me completely fascinated so I am definitely purchasing your book.

Ben Holden:

Oh you must.

Asher Craig:

Oh no, I don't need to purchase I just need to take it out of the library. [Laughs]

Tessa Hadley:

You can take it from the library, yes. And in fact I’ve just, to be completely sordid, I've just had my lovely PLR payment, which is Public Lending Right payment.

Ben Holden:

Yes, very important for authors.

Tessa Hadley:

Very important for authors - a great victory for authors and very valuable.

Asher Craig:

Is that a new…?

Tessa Hadley:

It's quite a long time now but, I'm afraid I’m not going to know which decade it was achieved in, but every author is paid an allotted amount according to how many times their book is borrowed.

Asher Craig:

So, interesting because my daughter worked for PRS the Performing Rights Society, so it’s exactly the same kind of, same thing. Well, that's brilliant. Well done.

Tessa Hadley:

It’s wonderful, I know.

Ben Holden:

I got mine as well. It's amazing reading actually, seeing…it's really lovely to see each title, how many people take them out.

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, it is. And of course it invests in the most literal writers in libraries and of course, writers want their books to be in libraries anyway, more for better reasons. But it does, it gives a solid material connection between us and the books we write and these places.

Asher Craig:

Does that also relate to kind of online reading and all of your books online?

Ben Holden:

Yes, it does take into account digital borrowing.

Asher Craig:

Oh, excellent.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, it does. They worked out a complicated system for that. And then there's also ALCS which is the Author's Licensing and Copyright Society and wherever your books are used for copywriting, teaching, or anything like that, you also get a payment.

Asher Craig:

Excellent.

Ben Holden:

There is one, as we’re on library books as well and borrowings, there is one library reference in Late in the Day that I spotted, with my eagle eyed library lenses on it.

Tessa Hadley:

I don’t know that I can remember it!

Ben Holden:

I couldn’t help but notice it but one of your, I think it's Christine or Lydia, I forget, sorry, which character but one of your characters says, they compare people to library books and so “people aren't available, are they, to be taken out, and given back like a library book, date stamped”. Which is great. And completely right of course! But again, it's that sort of conditionality of life or the provisionality of how time passes and our relationships, how they evolve, which you so beautifully explore in the book.

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Well I love both Asher and I being so taken as little girls by the bureaucracy of the library: the stamp, the card index, the tickets.  And obviously, I suppose the irony is that what you're doing inside a library is crazy and free and you can travel anywhere in your head and you can go there, but there is this other side of it, this controlling side, you know. So I suppose that's what my character is saying there, that the crazy and free with people is great, and the trying to control it and thinking you own people and you've got their card in the index, or their card is in your ticket – that’s not on.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, do you know, just as you're talking, it's just these little snapshots that are coming through. Because do you remember they used to, it was those little things that you slotted into the… oh it was just, it was a great system!

Tessa Hadley:

It was a good system, it was very appealing! They took the little thing out of the library book, and put it in your ticket and put it in their box and I think on this photograph, here is where those boxes were, they were all held inside that place.

Asher Craig:

Yes! So the times when we used to sneak, you know, hopefully they weren't seeing and I used to open up the drawers, because I was just really fascinated not just about the books, but yes, even administratively, the bureaucracy and how it was managed and how it worked.

Tessa Hadley:

A councillor in the making, obviously!

Asher Craig:

Do you know something, I was sitting there thinking to myself, you know, where does it kind of come from because, but yeah, I suppose I had no idea that my visits to the library, would end up with me overseeing the management of the very said library!

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, I know. But you were looking straightaway at the system, you see, weren’t you?

Asher Craig:

I did, I did - it’s terrible! [Laughs]

 

Tessa Hadley:

No, no! But we need a system in order to have libraries, in order to get inside books and escape, and be free.

Ben Holden:

And it's lovely listening to you both now, looking back, reminiscing; it's almost like you're looking at your childhood selves, out in the library space there - a bit like your novels, Tessa, you know the interplay between past, present, future and how they collide, ricochet.

Asher Craig:

Yeah. Because the other thing that I used to do when I used to come to the library, we used to go to ABC Whiteladies Road cinema. Yeah, and we used to sing - oh my god it was great! [Laughter] So, every Saturday, you know, me and my brothers and sisters and all the children in and around the community Redland. ABC Whiteladies Road, the cinema, and they used to have a kind of like the children's - I think it was in between like 10 and 12…

Tessa Hadley:

Pretty chaotic and rowdy…

Asher Craig:

 ...very chaotic, very rowdy…watch cartoons, watching films. It was just, again, another great escape and then after, you know, we'd maybe run up here and come into the library and have a read and have a look at the books.

Tessa Hadley:

This is how community is made.

Asher Craig:

Yeah.

Ben Holden:

One other element of the novel Tessa is the again, in terms of the generations, but also the non-linear approach, is the interplay between those generations. In one moment, one of the older characters says “they're more puritanical than us, this generation of children”. Again, listening to you talk about you guys and your youth - now, of course, this is a novel, it's not your memoir, so I get that it's not necessarily your opinion - but I was quite struck by that. And obviously, there are three generations at play, I should say also, because their elderly parents as well are in the mix and they're fantastic characters there. But, were you consciously wanting to sort of traverse the intergenerational dynamics and explore that a bit?

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, and again, honestly, I think that goes back to Anne of Green Gables. Not so much Swallows and Amazons which is one of those children's books fixed in a child time where the adults are peripheral, they give permission, don't they.  At the beginning of Swallows and Amazons, I don’t know if you remember the telegram, but it said: “If not duffers”, the mother telegrams to the dad who's away in the Navy, “can the children go out on the boat?” He replies: “If not duffers won't drown, if duffers best drowned.” Speaks from another era [laughs]. Anyway, enough of that. That's children's world. But Anne of Green Gables wasn't. The reason one loved it was that it was a taste of the adult world in which children grew up, fell in love, got married and had children. And from early, I had a hunger for that. Again, this is like me looking at the old people in thinking they were young once, a hunger for that generational thing. So that when I came to write my own books, I've always written about families, and I think my very, very first book Accidents in the Home, actually had a family tree at the beginning of it. As a reader I love books with the family tree in them.

Asher Craig:

Do you? So, again, the last three, four years I have been looking at my own ancestry, okay, because my children keep saying to me, “Listen Mum, you have actually done so much in your life, you need to write this down. People need to understand the history; what's happened in Bristol, what's happened in our life.” You know, my parents died at an early age, so my children didn't grow up with their maternal grandparents. But I have all this information in here and I want to pass it on, and actually a couple of days ago, I was talking to my middle daughter, Khadija, and she says, “Mum, do you know something, I mean, we've got snippets, but I don't think we've really sat down and you’ve really told us everything there is about Granddad and Grandma, and who we are and our history.” And in doing my ancestry, I mean, you do get obsessed, once you start you somehow can't stop. And for me, it was a revelation because it has revealed that on my father's side, where I thought was a very small family, has actually turned out to be a flippin’ village [laughs] you know going back, and I also, my great-great-great-grandfather is a white Irishman [laughs], called David Craig.

Tessa Hadley:

So that’s where Craig comes from.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, that's where Craig, that's kind of where Craig comes from. But then going back, it's just been fascinating.

Ben Holden:

The most important sort of cornerstones or repositories for accessing those kinds of stories and preserving those stories are where we are today and these libraries and the archival service they offer local communities and preserving those stories so that we can all do it but also, they're not forgotten.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, exactly. And libraries are fundamentally really, really important. And yes, in the last couple of years have been quite testing for us here in the city, but I'm glad we've kind of come through it and we're looking positively at how we can make libraries a real kind of hub, particularly in those areas of the city where the footfall or the use of libraries has actually gone down for the use of books, you know, kind of repository for books. Because somewhere like here, Redland, local councillors and obviously Friends of Library groups - very vocal group...

Ben Holden:

They, by the way, planted a beautiful herb garden, I noticed on the way in as well - hats off to them too.

Asher Craig:

Oh, I'll have a look at that. Two years ago, there was the whole thing about the £30 million hole that we had. I'm going to go politics now because I, I think it's important that people understand the journey.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, do talk us through it because I mean, it's heartening that Bristol hasn't closed a library.

Asher Craig:

And we're not going to, because I think there's this kind of view, “Oh, it's gonna happen and you've only saved them up until a certain point”. I got elected in 2016 and I understand that back in 2015 the libraries had gone through a big consultation. I think they closed the library, what was the old library in Eastville, and that became a kind of community run library, and they were just tinkering around the edges. But when our administration arrived, you know, we thought everything was rosy in the garden, and then, you know, Marvin calls a meeting and says, “Hey, there's a huge financial hole in the budget.” Promises that were made around savings had just been kicked into the long grass by the previous administration and we were faced with this 30 million hole, and we had to find some way of saving it, and I think we did the sums and if we just wanted to make one cut, it would have meant getting rid of 1000 members of staff - that is the equivalent to how big a hole it was.

And so obviously, we had to look right across the whole organization. We put the shutters down; staff couldn't spend any money because we really needed to get to the bottom of what was happening and what we were going to do to steady the ship. It took nearly two years. The first two years of our administration was spent trying to kind of manage the huge deficit that we had. And I have to say we've come out the other end and we always said that what we've got to do is try and protect the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged, but we do acknowledge that whatever we do, it's going to be painful for everybody in the city, but what we want to do is lessen the pain for those who are going to be impacted the worst. So yes, we made some really difficult decisions. One of them, we were looking at the libraries - and I had responsibility for libraries - I was looking at the numbers, the footfall, you know, we have all of this information. And we were really looking at how we could kind of restructure the libraries; I talked to other counterparts in different cities. So listening to them, I was trying to come up with a model that would work, so maybe having a series of like super libraries, and then you know, that kind of hub and spoke model but, you know, less is more kind of thing. I had no idea that it would unleash the beast [laughs]. And, you know, I talk about Bristol as being global, local, and vocal [laughs], vocal being the key word there, and obviously it just kind of unleashed this barrage.

Ben Holden:

The idea that you might close some of these libraries?

Asher Craig:

Yeah, of course. And I do get it, particularly from those who had a voice because it was interesting that those who have a voice, who have the social capital to be able to kind of make the noise, come to the council, etc. But when you go to St Paul’s, when you go to Hartcliffe, where there was hardly any footfall, you can see it for yourselves. So it was trying to look at a kind of different model, but then at the same time thinking, “Well, if we do take out libraries from those particular communities, then it will be gone forever”.

So the one thing I will say is we do listen, you know. I'm somebody who listens. I'm poacher turned gamekeeper, so I come from the community, I get it. I'm Bristolian so I understand how much people care about libraries. It just got to a stage where we've got to find a solution but we also have to try and bring our libraries up to date because in some areas, the library, or the building known as the library, is the only escape for all communities; there's no community centres, there are no sports centres, there’s nothing.

And Marvin put the funding back in and he said, “Okay, let's halt it but we also have to look fundamentally at a new strategy for the library service.” So we're looking at still sustaining the 27 libraries as they are, and the libraries being at the heart of that, and each library will be different. So there will be a whole set of services that will continue to be delivered. We had a series of conversations last year with the community and as a result of that, again, thank you to the Mayor, he found another £110,000 pounds. So each Friends of Library group, we've allocated £1,000 to those groups, do with it what you will; then we have £3,000 that they can kind of bid into to develop programmes, ideas, projects, etc.

Do you think that we want to make cuts? We want to invest, you know, but the budgets have been squeezed - we've lost 70% of the overall income of grants that used to come to the local authority over 10 years. So we've got less money, but the demand is ridiculously more.

Ben Holden:

To commend you, it’s great for Bristol that you haven't cut or closed any of those libraries. The trick, of course, is to ensure that you can maximize them.

Asher Craig:

Most definitely.

Ben Holden:

As you're saying, for the communities and, you know, it's so short sighted. We've travelled up and down the land going to different libraries and meeting librarians and authors and the word that often comes up is “short sighted” in terms of the closures because it's myopic, in terms of the holistic benefits, but also the returns for communities and for councils and jurisdictions or authorities for what is often seen as low hanging fruit and it’s absolutely nuts to regard it in that way. So I'm very pleased that you haven't closed them now you can invest in them.

Asher Craig:

No, we haven’t closed them and not only will we invest in what we have, but obviously, there are, there's a lot of new kind of developments happening. So there is also opportunities, you know, that some Friends of groups and councillors have come to me and said, “Ooh, Asher, do you know something, we want a new library, you could actually potentially close this one, but build a brand new one”, which is, you know, again, to try and increase the footfall.

So having the library in an area where, you know, people go to the supermarket or go to the GP surgery; “Ooh, I can nip into the library”. If you're just sitting standalone in the middle of nowhere, then obviously the footfall is going to remain where it is. So in some regards, some may be replaced because we don't own every single library; some of them we do lease; the majority we do own, but there is scope for us to also purposely design in new library spaces in some of the new developments that are happening over in Hartcliffe for example, Hengrove, Lockleaze will get a brand new library so the one that they have there, that will move into kind of the new development. So, yeah.

Ben Holden:

It’s important that, you know, this was built in 1880 and of course, these buildings need to be fit for purpose for 2020 usage in terms of access, etc. At the same time, you know, this is such a striking building, as Tessa was describing at the top of the conversation, and such a beacon, you know, listening to both what it meant to you growing up, here we are, again, you've come back, and there's a real power to it, this building.

Tessa Hadley:

And knowing when you do come in as a child or a young person that you are coming to a place that's been used by your community for a hundred, getting on for a hundred and fifty years, has enormous significance. Space is not just a utility; space is history and meaning and if you come to this place where others have used it before you and maybe your grandmother says, “Oh, I used to go there” or your mother says “I used that”…

Ben Holden:

Yes, and I have to say in your novel, you know, the buildings and in your other novels, you know, like The Past, the house in The Past, that's such a big hub for that story; but in Late in the Day, you know the studio but also just listening to you describing that room as Christine waits, you know, your usage of the architecture physically and how it informs psychologically on your characters is always such a joy in your writing.

Tessa Hadley:

Space is a metaphor; you don't have to work at that, it just is. The spaces that we inhabit are full of our story and what we're doing with them and what we feel about them.

Asher Craig:

It’s history. You know, this building is history, it's full of history, it evokes a lot of really good memories for me, and everyone, and Tess, and everyone else who uses it, so I get it [Laughs]. I definitely get it.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, we know, we can hear that coming through loud and clear. Well, as this is a podcast about libraries and bookshops, I always like to ask my guests, without wishing to pry, how you choose to organise, and obviously you quite enjoyed the cataloguing when you were kids, but how do you - and Tessa you even were cataloguing, literally a mini librarian at home, playing librarian.

Tessa Hadley:

Literally, mini librarian - letting my brother borrow books, but making sure he looked after them well.

Ben Holden:

And books have obviously become your life's work, so this begs the question how you choose to organise your reading life.

Tessa Hadley:

I mean, one of the weird things that happens when you're a writer is that people send you an incredible amount of books for free and almost to the point of, “What am I going to do with all these?!” and having to get rid of them. Luckily, we have, I live in London now, and at Kilburn station, there's a library exchange where you can just take books down, and I'm doing it all the time, taking the books that I don't want to keep down, somebody else has them. I love that, that's a lovely model of free exchange. But on the books I do love and want to keep and have, in many cases lived with now for forty and fifty years, I think I do it by nationality, by cultural coherence, so I've got a sort of Russian shelf, and an African shelf and a couple of Irish shelves. That's odd, isn't it?

Ben Holden:

Interesting, it’s like a cartography.

Tessa Hadley:

It is, and it's not, you know, consistent and I obviously haven't got a British shelf because that's all the rest, so in other places it will be “These writers” and it's kind of “These writers that I think that way about; these writers I'm very close to their work, they’re in a special place”.

And then, actually, we have this cottage in Somerset, and it's “Oh, those writers that I quite like but I don't care about”, they go down to Somerset - actually I probably shouldn't say that out loud because then I’ll have friends coming to stay in Somerset thinking “There's my book on the shelf of the books she doesn't care for so much”. It's not a system I've really worked out. It's been arrived at in an impromptu way over the years.

Ben Holden:

Do you read, because we're talking about the tactileness, do you read e-books?

Tessa Hadley:

I don't, I mean I have on occasion but really, I don't like them. I'm perfectly happy with them existing, they’re another way of reading and young kids are so electronic, but actually, the truth is about the market is that it's simply plateaued and nobody now thinks that physical books are going to be replaced by e-books, not in Britain, it’s not going to happen.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, having been mooted as the second coming or the new vanguard.

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Exactly, absolutely, that didn't happen, because the book is a perfect technology: portable, physically attractive, incredibly good to read. Whereas an electronic book, you don't, for instance, know how far away…you do know how far through the book you are by a horrible little line, but it's not the same as feeling the pages in your hands, sticking something in there, turning a corner down. I’ve no doubt that there's some horrible electronic thing called ‘turn the corner down’, but that’s not as good [laughs]. So everything about a physical book works to a reading experience with perfection, so much better than scrolls, this invention of the codex, that is the kind of book we read, is a genius in itself. And it's here to stay and I love them. I’m fine with e-books, but myself I very rarely read them, don't like them.

Ben Holden:

Agreed. Well, you're preaching to the choir. Asher?

Asher Craig:

Okay, so for a child who was obsessed [laughs] with the systems of library books, that is just not how it works in my house. So I've got quite a large house and in my back room, I actually, when I bought the house, there was already a ready-made beautiful bookcase already built in, you know, glass windows, open.

Tessa Hadley:

Oh, lovely.

Asher Craig:

So when I arrived, I stuck all of my books in there, but out of sight out of mind, because my children keep saying to me, “Mum, you need to do something with these books. You're never going to read them again, or you need to donate them or you need to…” and they're right, I do need to, because in my living room, those are the books that I actually read. So I have another bookshelf, but I actually do it in order of size of the book [laughs].

Tessa Hadley:

Perfectly valid way!

Asher Craig:

I just like the largest book first, and yeah, I just make it go down to the smallest, tiny, little inspirational pamphlets and then somebody gives me a book and then I shove it in I think “Oh, right this is the size of the book” and that is how…

 

Ben Holden:

Well, if you do, you know, read them in one sitting as you're saying then that makes total sense. Thank you for letting me pry in that way. And if it's alright, we might go and browse as we're doing this trip down memory lane if you don't mind, and you could choose a book, Tessa, from the shelves of Redmond Library and see if Anne of Green Gables is still there.

Tessa Hadley:

I've got a feeling she'll have been banished but I'm hoping to be proved wrong.

Ben Holden:

Let's go and see if she is – maybe not the exact same copy, but you never know.

Asher Craig:

Well, you never know.

Ben Holden:

And then yeah, we can see, I don't know if you'll still be on the system, but I'm sure they'll loan you a book.

Tessa Hadley:

But I’m trying to remember who - I just got it – who wrote it, I was thinking, because we need to…its L M Montgomery. I think I'm right, that just flooded back into my mind. I wouldn't have known I knew it, but I think that's right.

Ben Holden:

Sounds right. Well, let's go see. Thank you.

Asher Craig:

Thank you very much.

Tessa Hadley:

Thank you, Ben.

 

 

 

 

~ Tessa Hadley is invited to browse the shelves of Redland Library and select a book of her choice ~

 

Asher Craig:

The librarian did say that somebody had taken out Anne of Green Gables recently so they have one copy then.

Tessa Hadley:

Right, good. Good.

Ben Holden:

Well, that's good to know. Is there anything else Tessa that you wanted to browse? The famous line from this one was on my mind re-reading your work; “The past is a foreign country.”

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, great line, isn't it? Even though much quoted, but it remains so resonant.

Ben Holden:

The Go-Between.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, wonderful. I'd love to re-read that sometime soon. I do still love a library. Without a library, you can't go around the shelves, having a look at what things are like.

That's a very underrated, that’s an absolutely super book.

Ben Holden:

Oh really? Early One Morning by Virginia Bailey. Now you're browsing for me which wasn't really the idea. I'll take that recommendation, thank you. Well, I'm sorry they don’t have Anne of Green Gables.

Tessa Hadley:

I know. I feel a bit…it would have just been lovely to find it.

Ben Holden:

But they could order it in principle, so it would still be possible

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, yes. And they had an Anne of Green Gables party, which I think is almost better than finding the book itself. [Laughter]

 

[END]

 

Thanks for listening to Ex libris. If you've made it this far, chances are you've enjoyed some of this episode, featuring superb Tessa Hadley. So please, rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your brain food. That way you'll help us champion libraries. You can win signed copies of not one, but three of Tessa's novels, including the brilliant Late in the Day, via social media. Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @thatbenholden. To see those handsome photos of Redland Library yesteryear that we were admiring and discover loads more about this show, please visit our website: exlibrispodcast.com. Ex libris is produced by Chris Sharp and myself. Its music is composed and performed by Adam Pleath.

Ex libris is brought to you in association with the Lightbulb Trust which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

Until the next time, see you at the library!

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