Monthly Archives: July 2011

Bits and Pieces

While fiddling around in the kitchen, half cleaning up, half listening to music, my phone bleeped and I thought “Aha! Message for me!” It was not an invitation to a picnic, however, it was this rather ominous message. But there is one problem with it. Can you see what it is? Which library is this from? I guess I’ll have to call the number. “Hi Library…” Just think, as I write this, as I go about my business today, fines are accruing… I have a stonehenge of library books in the hall, all from different libraries, one of them must be the culprit.

I scribbled this note when I was in Customs House Library, overhearing the librarian explaining the stack to a groovy chap in a 70s shirt. As hard as I listened, I didn’t catch what books he was after, but he was an irregular library user with an urgent request. I felt that the librarian was on the side of the unfashionable books, as am I.



Filed under Bits and Pieces

Rockdale and Sans Souci (Eggs)

Sitting on a square grey pouffe in between racks of Chinese DVDs, I looked out over the people working at the desks at Rockdale library. A man doing serious religious study with books such as “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, a man reading an Arabic newspaper, a tall man wearing an ugly jumper with a coin pouch clipped to his belt getting up to look at the science magazines, and an old man getting a computer lesson at the “Seniors PC” – he was being taught how to use the “bold” function in Word by a young female librarian, the only woman, besides me. Most of the men had glasses, and one man reading a newspaper even had a magnifying glass as well, which he held up to the text and squinted through.

I had been too nervous to sit down at any of the desks. They were small and square, with four chairs around them, although it would be a tight squeeze to fit four people at them. To take any space would be to cut into the space of one of the men, and I didn’t feel ready to do that. Instead I put my things on the pouffe and went to look at the magazines alongside the money pouch man. As he reached for Scientific American I picked up the latest issue of Rolling Stone with Lady Gaga on the front and the promise of 7 days with Lady Gaga inside.

It has been a long time since I read a Rolling Stone, but upon opening it, I felt a familiar feeling, approaching deja vu but a little more knowing. As a teenager I was an ardent, obsessive music fan, and coveted music magazines. Last year I found in an op shop a particular Rolling Stone from the 1990s with Courtney Love on the cover that I must have read with particular scrutiny, as much of the content, even some of the phrases in the articles, were instantly familiar to me as soon as I opened the magazine.

Rolling Stone still looks the same on the inside, and still has the same long format stories and full page portraits of stars. I opened the magazine up at random and was confronted by a large photo of Kevin Smith in bed, clutching a porno novel to his chest with one hand, and tissues in the other. Who on earth would want themselves photographed like that? I flipped onwards until I found the Gaga article and settled it on my knees. Behind the men a parade of mums with strollers was now going to and from the kids’ area at the back of the library: a section with a space themed mural around its entrance, and a noisy, chirruping atmosphere inside as kids ran wild in bookland. I put my head down and started to read.

For someone who hasn’t tried to know anything about Lady Gaga, I know an awful lot about her. I don’t resent this knowledge, although the way it has come to me, as if in the air around me, makes me wonder if that is the essence of fame: people can’t help but know about you. On a plane a few years ago I realised I had never actually heard a Lady Gaga song and so I listened to the album that was available on the inflight entertainment console. It was the kind of slick pop that slithers into your ears but, for me, is like eating fairy floss. The interesting thing is her style.

The Lady Gaga article has surprisingly few photographs – usually a staple of any LG article. The main image was a full page portrait of her in a field of yellow flowers. I look deeply into it, at her face, before reading the article. It started with how she was watching Rocky films, which she describes to the writer as she sits with a unicorn toy with a light up horn, which she calls the Gagacorn. She lights up the horn for emphasis during the interview. My favourite part of the interview was a mention of her getting home and ordering an egg sandwich from a deli. The things I find most interesting about celebrities is the thought of them doing everyday stuff. Not the kind of “celebrities without makeup” stuff that’s in New Weekly, but the kinds of things that all of us do because we are humans, like eat sandwiches at home. I skim read the rest of the article, closed the magazine and pondered Lady Gaga and her egg sandwich.

I put the magazine back on the plinth reserved for it with a label and got up to explore the shelves. On the new books stand was “The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions”, the long subtitle to which started with “Veganize it!”. As a once vegan, I often go the other way now and de-veganise recipes, and every time I enjoy saying de-veganise, as my fingers close around an egg, for example. I am not, however, thinking it with malice. I, like Lady Gaga, just have a bit of an obsession with eggs.

As I passed a woman who had her arms full of books, she lost hold of them and half the pile fell to the floor. They were trade paperbacks, popular fiction. She wobbled with the rest of the pile as she stooped to pick them up and I swooped down like a fairy, saying “I can help you”, and picked them up again. This small action left me feeling very pleased with myself. Yes, I thought, I am the kind of nice person who picks things up for people who drop things.

Rockdale library is housed in the town hall, and is the central library, rather than a branch library. It’s the first such library that I’ve visited in this project so far, and the first that’s in an building built before the 1960s. Correspondingly it has a different shape and feeling to it, with many nooks rather than being to an open plan. Most of the general collection is shelved in a section of parallel bookcases, just high enough for me to poke my head up over the top to look out over the rest of the library.

I browsed over the non fiction section with no particular plan. The first book that I choose to look at was the SMH Good Suburbs Guide. After visiting Rockdale I planned to go to Sans Souci, an enticingly named suburb that I’ve never been to before. Not wanting a Panania-type surprise (where I felt scared of the chicken shop louts) I decided to do some research first. I looked it up in the index but was dismayed to find that most of the St George and Sutherland Shire section had been removed. I cursed library vandals – was this paying me back for stealing a poster of Charlie Sheen from a Smash Hits back in the late 1980s?

How dangerous could a place with the name Sans Souci be? I continued to browse the shelves, finding a huge section of sheet music. At a party a little while ago, I was telling people about my library project when someone told me that public libraries used to have a particular focus for their collections. In this way, Australia-wide, there would be a library that had a large collection of books on a particular subject. The woman who told me about this said she’d asked her local library what their speciality was, only to be told that libraries didn’t do this any more. Librarians, is this all true?

Rockdale library’s speciality must have been sheet music, and books about music in general. Are you looking for the sheet music to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? Here is where you will find it.

I looked through the music biographies for a while, becoming obsessed with finding baby pictures of the various performers. There are particular types of books that will have such photos: the very serious kind of thick, hardback biography, that brings the performers whole life into focus (even as a child, they had latent genius), or the kind of cheap, unauthorised biography that has used every possible available photo they can, even if it relates little to what the subject would eventually become. For example, who is this?

I will send a prize to anyone who guesses correctly: a certificate and a zine. Hit the comments and good luck!

I wouldn’t normally look at a biography of Bette Midler, but I enjoyed her yearbook picture from when she was a little girl. She looks the same! Later that day, however, I asked Simon who it was, and he couldn’t guess. By coincidence, as I was leafing through the Mx newspaper on my way home I found a link between Lady Gaga and Bette Midler. Via twitter, Bette Midler had send Lady Gage a message: “Dear @ladygaga – I’ve been doing singing mermaid in a wheelchair since 1980 – You can keep the meat dress and the firecracker tits – mermaid’s mine.” Never comfortable with the world I now live in, I feel voyeuristic when I read the tweets of celebrities, but I did check on Bette’s twitter to see if there were any further developments – she now suggests that she and LG “drink this over at the Emmys in September”. Dressed as mermaids and in wheelchairs, I hope.

This library report has become quite sidetracked. It’s inevitable, I suppose, when writing about a place that is full of so much information. It’s the nature of browsing, whether you do it in a library or in a store, or online. You find yourself looking at a biography of Bette Midler/examining culinary blowtorches/watching Youtube videos of capybaras, and at this point you have a moment where you wake up, as if from a spell, and think about how you got there. Then you either retreat or go in deeper.

I take a few books back to one of the tables with me. I’m brave enough now to put my things down on a desk at which a man reading law books is studying. He had just stretched out his long legs under the table when I claimed the opposite end of it. I felt bad as he retracted them, but wasn’t my research as important? On the top of his pile was a book about “Torts”. The mere word makes me realise just how much there is to being a lawyer that I will never know. I have asked friends studying law what Torts is a number of times, something about common law and people sueing one another? Law students never seem to enjoy studying Torts, anyway.

In my pile of books was: “Why People Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer, which was not as exciting as I expected it to be, being a sober discussion of scepticism, drawing on philosophy and psychology; “Whatever Happened to… The Ultimate Pop and Rock ‘Where are they now?'”, which had information such as “The Pogues are still chart contenders, entering the UK Top 40 as recently as December 1997”; and “Rock and Roll Babylon”, which, like the Hollywood Babylon books, had news clippings from celebrities behaving badly, long before the days of Twitter. This photo of the destruction wreaked by Rod Stewart and friends on an international flight was particularly interesting to me, for some reason:

People used to have such a wild time on planes. If you tried that nowadays, you’d probably be Tasered after the first smear of jam.

The Tort man’s foot was encroaching on my territory under the table. It was a big foot in a worn brown leather sandal, the toes poking out the end. It was hard not to stare at it from behind “Rock and Roll Babylon”. As he read, he shook his foot, perhaps with every particularly exciting tort. I knew that soon, his foot would make contact with my leg and I wasn’t eager for that to happen. I got up and put my books back on the shelves, sliding them back in the gaps from which I’d taken them, and made a final round of the library.

One of the rooms had walls painted pink and a sheet music themed painting on the wall, this was the CD room. It had a kind of parlour feel to it, cosy, the pink walls like the inside of a shell. From here I could peek out into the rest of the library, at the desks of studying men, the kids being wheeled up and back from their space at the end of the library, the librarians reshelving. All of this was a well ordered world, and I was observing it. I felt almost invisible, until the Torts guy looked up and saw me peeking, my face half hidden by CD racks. Embarrassed I ducked down and out of sight.

Rockdale library is part of the town hall, and as you walk out there is a table of books for sale and then big honour rolls, gold names on wooden panels, on the opposite wall. There’s a lounge area and posters for the Rockdale Opera company, as well as framed, sepia toned photographs of previous Rockdale citizens doing good and creative works.

Outside I passed the big blue book return box, wondering how many people enclose AV material in padded postal bags, as suggested. I would, having a big stack of them in my kitchen near the plastic bags, but would “people”? The box, I decided showed great trust in the people of Rockdale. Other libraries either don’t have them or they have the kind where you have to scan the book’s barcode for the flap to open.

Before making my way to Sans Souci I sat on a bench in the square, eating a salad roll from the bakery that I could now see, from across the road, was called Le Meilleur Gout Bakery. I had no idea it had such a fancy name, though I believe it means something like “Best Taste”. My library visits seem to involve salad rolls, although eating them in public is always a bit embarrassing. I remember as a teenager reading a magazine article that seriously listed all the best and worst Date Foods. That is, food to eat on a date. Spaghetti, for example, was not a good date food, too hard to eat and too messy. Salad rolls would not be a good date food. You are snowed with flakes of crust from the roll, the bottom of the paper bag the roll is in gets soggy and, if you don’t roll it up, can break altogether and drip its mixture of margarine, soy sauce and lettuce juice all over your lap, and you have to bite into it inelegantly. Luckily I was not on a date, and the elderly of Rockdale paid my eating performance no mind. The two women beside me were busy discussing meat trays.

One of my work colleagues, the inestimable Ray, described to Simon and I the opening scene of a movie he’d seen many decades ago, and had not been able to find since. It opened with a voiceover: “Sans Souci – place without care”, and then cuts to a shot of a well, with a man’s voice issuing from it, “Hellooooo!” Simon made it his personal mission to discover this movie for Ray, and did indeed find it, the 1950 film This Side of the Law.

It was with Ray’s voice imitating the voiceover in my head that I boarded the bus to Dolls Point, on my way to Sans Souci. I’d looked it up on a map and saw that it, like other mysterious (to me) suburbs such as Ramsgate and Brighton-le-Sands, it lay on the edge of Botany Bay, close to the Sutherland Shire in the south. My attraction to the place was the name, imagining a time in which people peppered their conversation with French phrases in order to sound more sophisticated, and even called their suburbs things like Sans Souci. It was obviously named in a time free of economic rationalism; any new Sydney suburb now wouldn’t have such a relaxed, frivolous name. In case you are wondering, according to Google “The Ponds” is Sydney’s Newest Suburb. I’d click that link only if you’re feeling strong enough to cope with scenes of nauseating “Australian” wholesomeness. The Ponds to me is a name which suggests a murder scene, but I’m not the kind of person wanted in The Ponds.

The bus looped past Rockdale Plaza, through Kogarah, then on down Rocky Point Road, past the pebblecrete Darrel Lea factory, the address of which I have read on numerous blocks of Rocky Road over the years  (a coincidence, apparently). Travelling without a map or smartphone, the dangerous and exciting way to travel, I got off the bus when I saw signs for Sans Souci on shop awnings, and soon came by Russell St, where the library was located. On the corner of this street, just past the petrol station, was a perplexing building with the name in silvery letters. I got up close and tried to work out what it was. A brick fortress with no giveaway details, I downgraded my guess as to what it was from luxury chocolatier to brothel.

Actually, it is sells, or makes, “fashion jewellery”, I find out now.

I walked down the wide, flat road, past lawn after manicured lawn. The residents of Sans Souci obviously had spent all Sunday gardening, and now, on Monday their gardens were pristine. The few gardens that had grass of over 4 centimetres long I regarded with censure: what had these lazy people been doing all weekend? There were lawns, gardens and neat brick houses, but few people. In the ten minute walk the only sign of life was the enraged voice of a mum from inside a house: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I imagined scenes of great household devastation behind the brick walls. My favourite house was a fibro with stickers stuck on the front window. The backs of the stickers were adhered to the glass of course, so I could see only the white shapes of all the different sea creatures in the undersea sticker world. I would have taken a photo of it but I thought how I would feel if I had kids and some weirdo was photographing the outside of my house. Things would be Avec Souci!

As I was about to cross the road to the library, a small building on the corner of Russell and John streets, I looked down to the unencouraging sign on the road beneath me:

What kind of godless place was I about to enter?

Stepping into Sans Souci library was like stepping back in time. I could successfully imagine I was in the mid 20th century as I entered, a combination of the suburb itself, which displayed the kind of peaceful suburbia that was the dream of the 1950s, the building, and a general mood. It’s a small library, where one librarian worked quietly behind the desk, and a  man sat in the lounge area, reading the Sydney Morning Herald with his legs crossed and the paper spread out in front of him. He read the paper so thoroughly over the hour or so I was at the library that I wondered if he had read every word, even the Tenders and Death Notices.

I looked around for a place to sit down. I’d brought some editing work with me, although I’d been too distracted in Rockdale library to settle into it. Like many teenagers, I couldn’t do my work because Lady Gaga was too distracting. I had trouble selecting a place to sit, because all the tables, old blue laminate ones, were grimy with fingerprints and food smears. Now I’m no hygiene freak, and am far from uptight where grime is concern, but these tables needed a good going over with some Spray and Wipe. I selected what I thought was a not too grimy spot and looked around for the suggestion box which is always on the counter in a library. I wrote a note:

Pictured here with smears and some matter which seemed rather like a grimy feather.

My next problem was how to deliver the note. I didn’t want to put it in while the librarian was working at the desk, not wanting to be observed and have my note read the second I left the library, or even (horrors) before. I ripped the page out of my notepad and folded it in half, waiting for a suitable time to deposit it in the box. As I waited, a woman came in with a trolley full of books to return. She was obviously returning books for her whole family, as there was a cookbook, novels, a book called “Neo Noir” about film, and other incongruous titles. She had so many books that, once processing them, the librarian loaded them into a trolley and wheeled it over to the shelves to put them back. I took advantage of the moment and popped my suggestion into the box with a sly, shoplifting kind of feeling. I imagined them reading it and taking action, and felt the self righteousness of the citizen who speaks up (anonymously). At my university library when I was a student there was be a pinboard with people’s suggestion cards in the foyer, to which the librarians would reply. I enjoyed reading them, the more petty the better, though I felt like writing the replies could have been a fun job, if you weren’t the type, like me, to take it personally.

Although, according to a sign on the wall, Sans Souci library is on Facebook, it does not have free wireless, like the other libraries I’ve been to. In fact you had to pay even to use one of their internet PCs, two of which were sitting idling next to the photocopier. Most of the people who came in seemed interested in the more classic functions of the library, the books. People were regularly coming in to borrow and return, many of them mums with their kids in strollers. I look up to see a drool-faced baby stared at me from his stroller, which has mini boxing gloves hanging off the side. Why would you hope your child would be a boxer? His sister was sitting up on the bench and getting a stamp from the librarian. “Do you want a monkey on your hand as well? he asks another kid nearby, thus answering my question as to what the stamp was of.

The kids went on their way with their stamps and Strawberry Shortcake DVDs, and the librarian man continued to work, his own hands now stamped with monkeys, as he’d done a test stamp to show the girl what the picture was. I worked a little before going to look at the books, picking up a copy of “Lost for Words” by Hugh Lunn, which had sayings from the 1940s – 1960s in it. This is the language of Sans Souci, I thought. I took it back to the grimy table and made a list of my favourites:

WHS (Wandering Hands Society)

Sex Wreck

Passion Pet



You stupid galoot

Cripey Crows!
Double Bunger (eating at home and the turning up at someone else’s house for dinner)

Crazy Tea Set: “this was perhaps the limit of zaniness in 1950s suburbia”

I’m so hungry I could eat a horse and chase the rider.

She had me on toast.

A lot of the expressions I recognised, although I saw the author’s point, that they were declining in use, as we live in a world where housewives no longer work hard to perfect the “blowaway sponge” – the lightest possible sponge cake.  I try to imagine myself as a 50s housewife, trying to make this sponge but all I could imagine was a scene of great disaster, with me employing many of the expressions from the swearwords section, all of which are mild compared to the arsenal of dirty words we have to choose from today.

For an almanac of those, I reckoned I could have asked the shady looking individual who had just entered the library. A skinny teenage boy in a tracksuit and cap, he had the kind of sharp, ratty expression that made him seem instantly suspicious. Imagine having that face and being anything but a troublemaker, I thought. He asked the librarian if he could book two computers for 1:50pm. It was for him and his friend, who was currently at the chicken shop (not chicken shop tough guys again! I didn’t realise it was such a problem). “Does it have Youtube?” he asked, to which the librarian said he supposed so.

The boy went over and sat at one of the computers, and I wondered what he was so eager to look up. I couldn’t guess, but I had my suspicions it wasn’t going to be kittens. Soon his friend came in, sat beside him, and they started looking things up. They weren’t noisy, but they weren’t quiet, either. I could sense their purpose and excitement from their whisperings. I waited for a few minutes before going to reshelve my book, and in the process look over their shoulders. I couldn’t quite tell what it was from the images, but when I stepped closer I saw that the boy who’d come in second was watching something called “Angel of Mine by Monica with lyrics”- nothing too awful there. But the boy in the cap who’d made the booking was watching “2 Greyhounds Suffer Fatal Injuries at Florida Racetrack”.

I had not suspected he was an animal cruelty fan, and the discovery was quite shocking. He then went on to watch “Greyhound disaster” and jab his friend in the ribs every time a particularly interesting part popped up. His friend didn’t seem that interested, to his credit. I left them watching videos and packed up my things, leaving to step out into the sunny afternoon. I held the door open for an old lady wearing a stylish pale pink pantsuit, and tried not to think about the Youtube boy. He was the kind who would torture kittens, I was sure.

I bought a can of Diet Coke and continued walking down Russell St, drinking it through a straw. I was curious to see if there was a beach at Sans Souci, as the tall Norfolk pines at the end of the street suggested. I walked down past more houses, then apartments, a park, and then, finally, the beach. It was a flat bay beach, but a beach nonetheless. It had been a while since I’d stepped out onto sand. I walked over it and sat down on the harder sand nearer the waterline. Across the bay I could see planes coming in to land at the airport, so small-looking from this distance away that it was hard to believe they were full of people.

I wasn’t the only person on the beach, a woman was standing by the water’s edge while her sons frolicked, nude, in the water. Now they were only about 5 and 7 but it was a surprise to see nude kids on a winter’s day. I guess some kids just like being nude, hell, what do I know about kids? (Less than most.) When one of them started weeing in the water, however, I looked away and didn’t look back.

Apart from this, did I feel sans souci? Yes, in fact I did. Bodies of water are soothing like that. I’d been depressed, a combination of the cold weather and one of my regular existential crises, but here, looking out over the flat water of the bay to the far-off city skyline, I felt pretty normal, content to be there, with little girls collecting shells and a teenage girl going past on red and white rollerskates, clinging to the walkway railing for balance. In a few years I could tell she would be a cool, tough, Rollerderby girl, already I could see the inchoate signs of it, but for now she was too young to have a fixed identity. All she was concentrating on was staying upright, and moving forward.


Filed under South Sydney, The Suburbs

Gods, Mongrels, Demons and Cotton Buds

When I was browsing the shelves at Dulwich Hill branch library last week, I noticed something wedged into a book as a bookmark. I have found plenty of interesting things in books over the years, though more often at the op shop than in the library. If you google “things found in library books” all sorts of things come up. But I didn’t find $50, or a completely flattened Cadbury Creme Egg, or a love letter, instead I found this:

What kind of person uses a cotton bud as a bookmark? It was stuck in there, as well – not that I touched it – when I opened the book it remained firmly in position. The idea of anyone, no matter how sexy or interesting, ear-cleaning is repulsive, let alone the faceless (but not earless) library partron…


Filed under Books, Notes in Books

Padstow and Panania (potplants)

Upon stepping into the Padstow library, eager to read the announcements on the community noticeboard that faced the entrance, I was accosted by a woman. She had a newspaper folded under her arm, and was on her way to the toilet cubicle that lay to the right of the entrance. Throughout our conversation she went as if to go into the cubicle, but then would come back with another question.

She was interested in my clothes, my stockings in particular.

“Grass green stockings! They’re a real grass green. Have you been rolling in the grass?” she asked.

I looked down. I would have called my stockings sickly olive, rather than grass, but she marvelled over their colour so much I thought it wise to agree.

“No, but they are grassy.”

“Where did you get them from?”
“An op shop, ” I said, wondering if this answer would disappoint her.

“Were they new?” she asked.

“They were still in the packet, but they were from the 80s judging by the packet design.”

“Oh yes, I understand. They look great with those shoes,” she said, indicating my black Mary Janes, “Where are they from?”


“I’m a Melbourne girl – though I’ve lived here for 30 years. Where in Melbourne?”

“Collingwood.” I wondered how specific this was going to get.

She started to sing what I imagine must be the theme song of the Collingwood Magpies before breaking off to say “actually, I’m from Carlton”.

She goes on to review my outfit from the feet up.

“I don’t like the skirt.”

“It’s a dress,” I said, “so there’s more of it to hate.”

“It would be better with a black skirt – or shorts – and a black turtleneck, The sunglasses are good too, where are they from?”

“Japan,” I said, feeling awful, like one of those people whose trendy outfits get dissected in magazines. I was a cliche just like them, with my mixture of things from op shops, things from boutiques (though it was just the shoes, I never buy clothes new) and something I bought in another country.

“Yes,” she said, “I saw you straight away, if you wear all black with the grass green stockings, it will be a great outfit. A real grass green,” she continued to wonder, as she finally went into the bathroom with her newspaper.

I turned to enter the library to the stares of the people using the computers nearby. Having never been to Padstow library before, I hadn’t realised that my conversation would have been loud and distracting to anyone inside the small library, just metres away.

Suitably embarrassed, I quickly sat at one of the study tables and got out my books and my computer, ready to do some work.

I had been to Padstow once before, out of curiousity, seeing it on the front of a bus on a day when I was out op shopping. In search of the library I’d gone over to the side of the station where the op shops are (or were, one had gone, leaving only the little old Red Cross store, which was empty apart from the voices of the women in the back room, talking about nursing homes) thinking the library was there. Actually, it was on the other side of the station, in a park, beside a little Early Childhood centre, many of which must have been built in the 1950s – 1970s, in the same drive towards civic architecture which produced many of Sydney’s branch libraries.

The Padstow library is a pale brick building, with big mirrored windows that reflect the street. From the inside, though, you can look out at the cars and people going past through these windows, as you sit at one of the study desks.

Sitting in front of me was a boy with geometrical designs on his hoodie, studying maths, and in front of him, a girl studying Chinese history. She was established at her table, a constellation of useful objects – books, pencils, water bottle, hairbands, stationery – surrounded her. I had work to do also, but any work I did was interspersed with close study of the library and its atmosphere.

Padstow library has a lot of indoor plants, which makes the library feel comfortable, like a living room. The plants are in pots on top of the shelves, among the announcements for things like the Seniors screening of Sweeney Todd. At the end of some of the shelves of books were collages promoting Fantasy books, with reading mermaids and flying books.

I watched a girl with a long long plait browse the fiction shelves, a copy of The Arrival under her arm. Another woman was looking at the New Age section, pulling out a book called “Mythology of the Incas” and staring at the cover for a long time, before selecting a book about women’s empowerment by Louise Hay. Louise Hay, queen of affirmations, comes up in our house sometimes, as I recall particular parts of her most well known book, You Can Heal Your Life, where she talks to herself in the mirror every day with loving affirmations, and, if she does get angry, takes it out on a pillow. I think Miranda July has read some Louise Hay books, they weirdly remind me of each other although one is a self help guru and the other is an artist.

Outside the library, two teenage girls were walking past. They were wearing matching outfits: cut off shorts and singlets, with big collared shirts over it all. One girl had a packet of Twisties in her hand, and a half eaten Twistie in the other. I wondered where they must be going, but they were just wandering, as a few minutes later they walked back across, stopping to preen in the mirrored surface of the library’s window, unable to see me staring out at them from behind it.

It was school holidays and kids were everywhere. On the train, as I travelled along the East Hills line (the train line of Sydney I’ve had least experience with), I watched two kids clinging to a wire fence that separated the train tracks from a playground. I had wanted them to wave, and was ready to wave back, but they were caught up in their own private world, the fence the boundary to some game. Then I felt afraid of school holidays, and wondered whether this would impact on the libraries and their peacefulness.

No, it turns out. Apart from the two teenagers in front of me, there was one other girl, studying at the opposite end of the library. She looked as if she were suffering, every few seconds lifting her head from her page and sighing, casting looks of despair out to the rest of the room. A number of times I caught her eye and quickly looked away, in case I was afflicted with her lassitude. It had been a while since I’d seen such pure boredom, although some of my students come close sometimes. Occasionally one of mine will even fall asleep though, which I guess is the apex of boredom.

By contrast, I was very busy. I typed away at my computer, working for a while before packing up and going to inspect the shelves. Like many public libraries, the books had stickers on their spines to show their genre. I particularly liked the Mills and Boon section. This library also had a vast Large Print section, revealing, perhaps, the demographic who borrow most.

The shelves that lined the walls were illuminated by lights, above which were the subject you could find on that particular shelf. The Animals section was larger than I thought it would be, although having looked in one of Sydney airport’s bookshop a few weeks earlier, I had been surprised by the size of its animal section – there are a lot of books written about animals. The only books I have read about animals are Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg (about the genius African Grey parrot) and Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson. If I ever want to look into the topic further however, there are plenty more. The most common animal books seem to be about dogs, cats, lions and monkeys. Perhaps there is an opening for me to write a book about the bond between me and the rabbit here.

I tore my eyes away from Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods and went to set up a position at the other end of the library, near the bored girl. Here, rather than the small, windowside individual study tables, were large tables that could seat a number of people. There were also red baskets, with the sign “Customer Baskets, for your convenience”, which made me think of the supermarket. This library did have a number of things on sale, including library bags and bookmarks, but the baskets were for books. No one who I saw enter picked up one of these baskets.

From this position I could see the screen of the man who was sitting at one of the computers. He was going through the practise driver knowledge test that you have to do prior to getting your learner driver’s license. Having done one of these myself not so long ago (I have done this test a number of times, and passed it every time, got a learners license, then failed to learn to drive). This man didn’t look like someone who needed to learn to drive. He was a tanned, stocky man in his forties, with a thick neck and tribal tattoos on his arms, but maybe people look at me and think I look like I know how to drive too – what does a driver look like?

I watched him for a while: the clunky graphics of this test, the kind that makes you feel stupid because the buttons you have to click on are so large, was easy to read from across the room. The whole time I’d been in the library, a woman had been bustling around, straightening the shelves and putting back books. For an hour she had done nothing but this, although the library was already in impeccable order. The room resounded with the clop – clop sound of books being rearranged on shelves from her manic shelf-straightening.

The other staff were in the rooms behind the counter, access to which was through a doorway with a KEEP READING sticker on the lintel. Painted on the glass panel above this were the words Fuel Your Mind (fuelling, freeing, the library is a busy place for the mind).

I looked down at the book of Japanese cookery open on the table in front of me. Having been in Japan and eaten all sorts of delicious and curious things, I was eager to try to cook some of these things on my own. This book was big and heavy with large colour photos of each dish. In general I prefer cookbooks without photographs, so what you are cooking remains somewhat a mystery, but these are harder to find. I chose one recipe that seemed appealing and thought about transcribing it, until I read:

This sticky rice dish, sekihan, is cooked for special occasions and takes 8 hours to prepare.

Eight hours! As I marvelled over this, the man on the computer got a call on his phone. His ringtone was a wild, funky explosion of music and he took his time in answering.

“I’m in the library practising my test… I’m kicking bum… What happened over the road with the coppers?”

I listened avidly, but there was no clue in his next comment as to what the coppers had been doing.

I’d been wondering how he was going on his driving test – it was good to know he was kicking bum. He’d been working his way through it slowly, reading every word on the screen carefully. I decided that I would stay in the library until he finished it, before I moved on.

It was 1:50pm, the time that seems to come in every library (although the actual time is different in different libraries) when the men come to the library. “Man Time”, I call it. Old men, in caps and bright cable knit jumpers. Young men, wanting computer access. Men who know the librarians personally and are after books about coin collecting.

I stopped gawking at everyone in the library and concentrated on the book I’d picked out from the shelf, “365 Everyday Games and Pastimes” by Martin and Simon Toseland. I like looking through such books, although in actual fact I hate playing games. Word games are the worst, compounded by the fact that, because I’m a writer, people expect me to enjoy them. This is not an unreasonable assumption, but my trouble with them is that they make my mind freeze up, like sometimes when I have to spell words aloud. Added to my lack of competitiveness – oh, so you want to win this game of snakes and ladders? go right ahead – I’m a sourpuss when it comes games time.

I don’t want to be like this, somewhere in my fantasies is the image of a smoky night in the 1930s, where a version of myself and my fantastic friends drink brandy, smoke, and play party games to our hearts content. In the book I read about the word game called “Buried Names”. In this game, you bury a name of a famous person in a sentence. The example given was:

One DAy I was watching a VIDeo when I was BECKoned into the kitchen by my mum, who asked if I wanted a cheese or HAM sandwich.

You read this sentence out and people have to guess whose name is buried in the sentence. On paper, I found this interesting, but it would drive me crazy if I were to be asked to play this, especially if liquor was involved. All I ever want to do when drinking is talk on and on, and listen to records.

Another book I investigated was a collection of quotes about books. I looked in the index to see what kind of quotes there were about libraries.

As I scanned over these topics a girl came through the door, smiling in my direction. She wasn’t after me, though, she was on her way to her friend, the painfully bored girl sitting behind me. I could feel the relief as they greeted each other, and the sound of books being shut and being packed into her bag was a sound of great happiness, even for me. I hate seeing people bored.

They headed out the door together, off into the sunny, cold afternoon. It was a particularly nice winter’s day, and the sunny view outside tugged at me, as the peace of the library tugged at me to stay. How was he going with his driver’s test?

He was still clicking through the screens, in the portion of the test where your comprehension of roadsigns is tested. This is the easiest part of the test, in my opinion. How can you mistake a big red sign with STOP on it? The man was having no trouble answering these questions, and I knew it would be time for me to leave soon.

One of the books I had picked out was a tiny copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I’d read this book before, but I was intrigued by its pocket size – it was the full book, shrunk down so it could fit in the palm of my hand. This book had been much read, its pages weathered and stained.  On the front page was a stamp which gave the details of when the book was acquired. Some library books have this stamp, and I always pay it attention. I am the kind of person who takes time reading all the extra information in a book – the acknowledgements, the bio, the pages of quotes, the copyright information, in addition to the text itself, so it is natural I would enjoy knowing when the library acquired their books. This led me to another thought – you can’t fully enjoy a library unless you are the kind of person who appreciates details.

Perhaps my favourite detail in Padstow library, apart from the plants, was sign instructing patrons to look after the library books. I’d never seen such an explicit plea to be careful, and keep the books away from water, food, coffee – all the things that muck them up.

The man at the computer leaned back and stretched his arms forward, releasing the tension in his shoulders now that he had passed his test. I could see the green text on the screen announcing his success. He sat forward again, and clicked on the screen to do another practise test. No way was I sitting through that again! I left the library, pausing to take a photo of myself in the reflective windows the teenage girls had used as a mirror.

Note the grass green stockings.

I had ten minutes to wait for a train, so went on a quick search for a jam tart. Every project I do has some kind of signature food; for this project, it’s jam tarts. I am surprised, though, by the number of bakeries that don’t make them. The Padstow Bakehouse didn’t, although it did have a pleasingly faded sign and window display. Outside the bank next door, a little boy stood holding two shiny silver fake guns, pointed at the door as if about to hold it up. I looked around for someone to laugh about this with, but no one else had noticed.

When planning which library to visit, I had decided on Padstow by a kind of automatic process, where the name just floated into my consciousness. Padstow is part of the Bankstown library family, which also includes Panania. I’d never been to Panania, and thought today would be a good day to do so. It is a few stops further on, from Padstow. What would I find there?

The rat-tail thugs outside the chicken shop made me nervous as I walked past them up towards Panania library. I didn’t know anything about Panania, and felt a sudden spark of worry that it was a “dangerous” place. Although I am wary of stereotypes and judgements of places based on their socio economic profile, the thing about Panania was that I didn’t know anything at all about it. For the people on the streets around me it was home, the centre of their universe. This is one of the things I like about exploring different places. I am an outsider in the centre of others’ universes.

The universe of Panania is one of multiple bread and fruit shops, old ladies sitting talking on park benches, council rangers with dogs on leads, the Panania Treasure Mart and its 50% off sale, and kids running wild in their front gardens, which, fenceless, overlap with the footpath. Further down the street, an old man in a tartan cap pushed a creaky petrol mower over the grass on the nature strip. He paused as I passed by, and I went to smile at him but he averted his eyes.

At one of Panania’s bakeries I found my jam tarts and strolled up to the Salvos, eating them. I have a strong op shop radar, which enables me to find them even in places I have never been to before. It was very busy in the Salvos. As I looked through the bric a brac a girl near me asked her mum if she could have the metal coin bank patterned with a $20 note she held in her hands, since her sister had one. “No,” her mum said. The girl wasn’t disappointed. “Oh well, I’m getting a book and a wig!”

Some women were standing near the counter, gossiping about a couple who’d married during a siege somewhere in the world. “He’s a good man but…” one trailed off, “not bright,” said her friend, stepping in to help.

I thought of this poor, not bright chap as I bought my Dolly Parton record from the grumpy woman behind the counter. She didn’t offer me a bag and I spend the rest of the day walking around with Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits under my arm, feeling self conscious.

After op shopping, I went back to the library. Panania library must have been built around the time as Padstow, and in fact both of the other libraries I have been to so far – all the buildings date from around the 1960s. I peeked through the windows, and saw no one inside. Perhaps the library was closed?

When I approached the doors, though, they opened, and I stepped inside. There were people there once I looked, they appeared slowly from their bookish camouflage. Overall, though, the library had a feeling of desertion. Perhaps it was the sunny afternoon, or the lure of hanging out in front of the chicken shop, or buying wigs, but I felt sad that so few people were in Panania’s library.

It was a big library, well stocked with books, and different study areas:

Exam Style

Grandma’s House

The Desk – note baskets, potplants, high windows…

Despite the lack of patrons the staff were busy, and when I looked into the back room I saw a librarian seriously considering a construction paper cutout of a chicken. I settled down in one of the study areas with a couple of books: The True History of the Hula Hoop by Judith Lanigan (though I dislike fiction books with non-fiction titles) and Making Things Move: DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists and Artists by Dustyn Roberts. I like thinking about inventors, hobbyists and artists tinkering with DIY mechanisms!

I browsed these books for a while, watching a woman waiting at the counter, wallet in hand, trying to get the attention of the librarians in the back room. It took a surprisingly long time for such a quiet library. When someone did come out, they said “You have to stand by the gold rope! Otherwise we can’t see you.” There were two gold posts, a rope strung between them, mid way along the counter, near the fishtank where a black, bobble-eyed fish busily swam back and forth.

I could see the trees swaying in the wind through the inevitable strip of high windows, and felt a yearning to be outside. Two libraries in one day and the details start to become overwhelming. I flicked through the grubby books in the Book Sale area, before stepping out past the Nurse Schwarzel Memorial Fountain and the desert island reading mural, and headed towards the station.

“Izit Saint Patrick’s Day?” asked one of the chicken shop thugs as I walked past.

It’s best to make some acknowledgement to this kind of thing, rather than ignore it. It shows you are not afraid.

I looked at the pimply boy  in the track suit and shook my head. “Nah,” I said, as if he had no hope of ever knowing the secrets I knew, and continued on my way.


Filed under South Western Sydney, Sydney Public Libraries, The Suburbs

Life of a Library Book

Library book at risk of being consumed among the piles of stuff...

When I borrowed Utopian Man by Lisa Lang from Stanmore Library, I was pleased by the book’s newness. I fancied that I was the first one to borrow it (once I would have been able to tell by the due date stamp – alas, barcodes have erased such pleasures), so crisp it appeared.

One of the things I like best about library books is imagining where they have been. Sometimes there are clues, in stains, creases and left-behind bookmarks, but never anything that gives much of a sense of whose hands they have been in before yours. These books have inhabited rooms and gone on journeys. This particular book, however, looked as if it had yet to be read. It was on the display rack among other Australian prize-winning novels, and I like to think I will be the first in a long series of readers.

To start the book on its life of multiple readers, I took Utopian Man on a journey to Japan. Is it wrong to take library books out of the country? It feels a bit naughty, but also thrilling. This book was going to be my holiday novel, although I rarely read much when I’m travelling, focussing instead on writing in my journal and over-studying of the relevant guidebook and maps. I can never seem to look at the maps enough.

The journey Utopian Man took began on a plane, where it was read with some distractions: the conversation of the men sitting behind me, who in an hour or so covered every possible man-topic. I was so entranced by their thoroughness that I wrote the topics down on a pink post-it note:



wrecking yard

beer (Fourex)


the club

vague business talk


business meeting


a model

Scotty “I don’t rate his ability” and “I don’t think he’s hard enough”

This post-it I will leave in the back of Utopian Man, among the plentiful blank pages at the end of the book (it was not until my own book was printed I found out why this occurs. It’s not for notes, or to make the book appear longer, it is because books are printed in sections of a particular number of pages. Unless your book has the right amount of pages to be a multiple of this number, there will be blank pages left), to amuse or bemuse those who borrow it after me.

Just before I left Sydney and before I started reading the book, I received a letter from one of my zine friends. In her letter she recommended a book that she thought I would particularly enjoy… Utopian Man by Lisa Lang! The coincidence was satisfying.

Utopian Man is a novel by Melbourne writer Lisa Lang, based on the life of E.W Cole, who owned Coles Book Arcade, the vast bookstore that was one of the main attractions of late nineteenth, and early twentieth century Melbourne. You may know his Cole’s Funny Picture Books, eccentric volumes of verse and pictures that remain quite unlike any other books before or since. Cole was a passionate man about his beliefs and his obsessions, the main one of which was his Book Arcade being a pleasurable and edifying place for the people of Melbourne. Therefore the arcade was full of amusements, as well as the multitude of books that people could sit and read without being asked to buy (making it rather like a vast library), there was a fernery, monkeys, a tin chicken that laid tin eggs with treats inside them, a Chinese tea salon, a band, and regular celebrations. Cole was a master of gimmicks and publicity, famous for his unorthodox newspaper articles and advertisements which promoted the Arcade and his ideas of racial equality, temperance, and morality.

When I first came across a Cole’s Funny Picture book as a teenager, I thought it was all a wacky fiction: surely this book arcade could never have existed. But exist it did, in middle of Melbourne city, with a giant rainbow painted above the sign. The building, sadly, was demolished in the 1930s, after the closure of the arcade in 1929.

It must be difficult to inhabit the thoughts of a person such as Edward Cole, especially with enough confidence to write in his voice for the length of a novel. Yet, while the conversation about the cars and men droned on behind me, I found that it worked: I was inside Cole’s head, and seeing things through his eyes.

I kept reading throughout my journey, waiting in the Gold Coast airport, as an announcement came over the intercom that all flights to and from Sydney were cancelled for the rest of the day – we’d escaped just in time! – and kept reading as the plane flew up away from Australia, and over Guam, as I saw on the Flight Path screen, where the too large cartoon plane flies over the map.

While I was in Japan Utopian Man remained by my bedside, but the shift between the humid Kyoto streets with wooden houses and tiny old ladies tending small gardens presided over by swollen-bellied tanukis and the book-world of Mr Cole was too great, and I read little while I was away. The book became buried under a pile of shopping bags, flyers, receipts from convenience stores, and crumpled maps with attractions like “Toto Superspace” circled in pink pen.

It was only when I got home that I finished reading Utopian Man, having taken it with me to Japan and safely back. I read it lying on the living room floor, in front of the op shop heater with only one setting still working, on a picnic blanket (to hide the dreadful carpet), eating Lindt balls and listening to the Pastels. If you ever hear me complaining, remind me: this is not a bad life!

I was now swept up in the story and couldn’t stop reading until it was finished. A smudge from a finger that held a Lindt ball just a little too long appeared on page 101, which I tried my best to wipe off, before thinking about how other people will see it and be repulsed/wonder at who read the book before. Although I was enjoying the book, sometimes I had trouble going along with the poetic descriptions, a common problem for me these days. Sensual writing can send my hackles up, particularly if it doesn’t make sense. The one sentence in Utopian Man that made me put the book down momentarily was this:  Beneath him the sheets are twisted and damp, they smell of salt marsh and hot buttered pastry. How, please tell me, can sheets smell like hot buttered pastry unless you’ve stowed your breakfast in there?
I took the book back to my own bed to finish it – the sheets smelling of Earth’s Choice laundry liquid and dust. Apart from the sometimes over sensual description, my objection to which is mostly due to my personal stylistic preferences, it is a good novel and worthy of its success. It excited my imagination: once I had finished it, I was curious to know more about Cole and his arcade. The only picture I’d seen of it was the shot of the interior printed in the Cole’s Funny Picture books, so the next day I went to the internet for images. Although I didn’t make a thorough search, I was disappointed, and sought out a book from the university library: “Cole of the Book Arcade”, by Cole Turnley (Edward Cole’s grandson), from 1974. This ragged old hardback was retrieved from the metal caskets of Macquarie University library’s automatic retrieval system (more on this in a future post) and now sits on my desk, open at a page which pictures the Cole Family in the Fernery. I will now subject this book to the indignities of the scanner, and show you the place where many good people of Melbourne visited to eat lunch in the late nineteenth century.

A great improvement on a food court. If your city has a fernery, get thee to it for a picnic immediately! You will feel very Victorian: sandwiches and tea is the best choice of food. This photo shows the Cole family, as you may be able to read underneath – Cole is the chap with the big white beard. Having read a book that inhabited his thoughts, it was strange to see photographs of him, and stranger still to think how I had been inside an imagined, yet very convincing, version of his thoughts.

Tomorrow, I will return Utopian Man by Lisa Lang to the Marrickville Library system, with post it notes in the back and one small chocolate fingerprint, it having travelled thousands of miles away from its place on the library shelf, only to return, for someone else to pick it out and take it away again.


Filed under Books