As children growing up in the small Irish town of Newbridge in County Kildare, our highlight of the week was the visit to the library. The children’s section (which opened only on Saturday) was tucked under the stairs. We were allowed two books - one fiction and one non-fiction. I can still smell the wet raincoats as we crowded to reach for the well-thumbed Secret Sevens, Famous Fives and adventures of William. The two-book allowance would, of course, be read by Monday. Thus was born a sister/brotherhood of wheeling and dealing the unlawful swapping of books.
The best known gangsters must have cut their teeth in libraries like ours - who else but a knobbly-kneed Godfather with adenoids and patchy haircut could allocate book-swaps for a penny and have all the books back to the original borrowers before the following Saturday? I look out for his name whenever true-life Mafia stories turn up.
But I had a secret stash of books. My father was a health inspector. As such he was obliged to remove and burn library books from houses struck down with tuberculosis, polio and other contagious diseases, to prevent the spread of same. But my father, a scholarly book lover and sometime creative writer himself, could never bring himself to destroy books. So my brother Gabriel and I had the choice of all these disease-ridden books. Mighty. There’s nothing like the threat of a throat-gurgling death to make a book more exciting and fire the imagination.
My brother became more interested in the diseases rather than the books and went on to become a doctor. Me? My imagination is still on fire, and I still think fondly of those wet raincoats as I write for the child who never quite leaves that special part of our minds.