Campsie is a place of intense activity. Just walking down the main street you have to have your wits about you to successfully negotiate the crowd without collisions. Whenever I am there I wonder why Campsie, of all places, is so popular. Is it the plentiful $2 shops? The discount chemists? The Asian groceries? Whatever it is, Campsie is a popular place.
I hadn’t looked up the location of Campsie library, as Simon gave me directions. He’s an expert on Campsie, having been the postman there for the last four years. He tells me stories about the “Campsie Street People”, a mix of council garbage collectors, old Eastern European ladies who rescue dogs and cats, and people with preposterous, but real, names.
His directions were “it’s under the shopping centre”. I wondered about this subterranean library, picturing it as a grim basement. I had fought my way along Beamish Street and into the shopping centre, where I followed the signs.
I went down the travelator, past the sesame street ride-on and yet another bargain shop, and saw that I was in the carpark. Thinking I must have gone the wrong way, I went to retrace my steps when I noticed:
Whatever a grease arrestor is, I imagined I would suffer a terrible death if I went through that door, so I chose the library doorway instead. I nervously followed the corridor. I have always had a fear of the fire exits or service corridors of shopping centres, where you are surrounded by concrete and there are no windows. As I approached a door on the right, it swung open automatically, and through here was the foyer of the library.
I could see that there was another entrance to the library, one much more salubrious than the grease arrestor one. I went out the main entrance to make my entrance again.
Outside a man was setting up some milk crates with a display of pens on it, one of those charity operations where the charity that benefits is the person selling you the object. I had uncharacteristically come out without a pen that day, but had already bought a Kilometrico from the newsagent in the shopping centre. The pens in this display were too thick-barrelled for me anyway.
Simon is a regular visitor to Campsie library and I have read many of the books he’s brought home from here, but this was the first time I’d visited. As I would have expected the library is a very busy place, and has a great feeling of industry about it. It is a large space divided up into many different zones, my favourite being the newspaper reading area in the centre of the library. This was the library’s heart as far as I was concerned. At most libraries I have visited there has been one man reading the paper thoroughly, at Campsie library there were a dozen such men.
Almost all of them wore glasses, from years of newspaper reading perhaps. The next most popular accessory was a cap. I sat down and observed the man across from me, who was wearing a cap with the word CRANIUM on it, and looked to be reading a Chinese newspaper, however actually had his eyes shut and was dozing. Quite a few of the men seemed to slip in and out of sleep as they read the papers. My favourite man was a small, skinny Chinese guy with shoulder length hair, a moustache, big glasses with wire frames, a mustard coloured collared shirt tucked into black jeans. He seemed to know a fair few of the other people at his table, the woman knitting a lime green jumper and her friend who was also reading a newspaper.
At the table I was sitting was a pile of Chinese newspapers and an Indian magazine. Sometimes when I find a Chinese newspaper poked down the side of the seat of the train I look through it and try to guess what the stories are about from the pictures. Recently I had a strange experience on a Liverpool line train in which a group of tradesmen sat down near an old Chinese man who was reading a newspaper. One of the tradesmen was particularly hyperactive, and kept getting up and walking to the end of the carriage then coming to sit down again. He was a big Lebanese guy but had the energy and bearing of a hyperactive child, the hugest, most muscular six year old you could imagine. He sat down beside the old man and pretended to read the paper – which was in Chinese – along with him. This was funny for a while, but then the guy snatched the paper from the old man’s hands and continued to “read” it on his own. If the old man was upset, he didn’t show it, he just waited for the paper to be returned to him, which it was a minute or two later, when the guy got bored and stood up again to pace the carriage.
As I was sitting in the newspaper section Simon appeared in his postman guise, enthusiastic that I was at his library. He went to get a National Geographic magazine which had an article about Spirit Bears. It had a lot of full page photographs of the bear and its various antics, eating a salmon, swinging in the trees, peering up over a log. National Geographic magazines seem to belong to the 1980s to me, though it has been published since the 1880s. When I was a child there was a big box of National Geographics in the study, and I’d often look through them and find my favourite pictures. A feature on deep sea fish was a particular favourite. The places featured in the magazines seemed not only removed from me geographically, they seemed to belong to a whole other world. They still have this effect on me, something to do with the style of the photographs, which look too intensely real to actually be real.
Recently I read Tracks by Robyn Davidson. First published in 1980, it’s the story of the author’s travels across the desert with camels. If you haven’t read it, do, especially if you are interested in memoir, because it is one of those stories that lodge in your thoughts, where the author’s voice is strong and honest, and at the end of the book you miss them. Despite her reservations, she had agreed to have her experience documented by National Geographic. The photographer would fly in for a few days here and there throughout her journey. She writes of the deception of the photographs:
As we approached the car, he lifted his hand, and said in English, ‘No photograph,’ then in Pitjantjara, “It makes me feel sick.’ I laughed. Rick captured that one moment and then desisted. When we had that photo developed much later on, there was a woman smiling at an old Aboriginal man, whose hand was raised in a cheery salute. So much for the discerning eye of the camera. That one slide speaks volumes. Or rather lies volumes. Whenever I look at it now, it sums up all the images of the journey. Brilliant images, exciting, excellent, but little to do with reality.
It must be difficult to photograph people. The spirit bear, despite the possibility of it eating you, is an easier subject in some ways. It’s strange to think that now, out in wildernesses the world over, there are nature photographers lurking with cameras at the ready, waiting.
I’d brought my laptop to the library, hoping to catch up on some emails and other internet business, but this was a mistake. When Simon left I went up to the desk to ask about the wireless access. The librarian asked if I was a member of the library, and when I said no he suggested (in the way of “suggested donation”) that I join. I filled in a form and gave it to another librarian, who told me to wait for a few minutes while she prepared my card.
While I was waiting I sat in the magazine section. The magazines were housed in perspex boxes that reminded me of the containers for pick and mix lollies, as they seemed similarly ingenious to me. The most recent issue of the magazine was propped up on the front of the box, and you lifted it up the panel at the front to access the magazines inside. I didn’t look at the magazines though, I picked a few craft books off the shelves of new non-fiction books and sat down at one of the tables. The first book I’d picked up was called Creative Walls.
It seemed to be a book about how to put things on walls, and I’d picked it up to check if there were any secrets to it that I hadn’t figured out for myself. Basically, you either put something in a frame and put it on a wall, or you hang an object on a wall. Of course the way that you do this is where the art and skill of wall decorating comes into play. You can group things thematically or by colour, for example. The book was subtitled “how to display your collections”, and the book showed collections of animal skulls on walls, vintage sport team photographs on walls. My favourite wall decoration area has always been above my desk, as this is where I put important or inspiring or totemic objects. I forgot to read what the book had to say about blu-tack, but my guess is it wouldn’t be too complimentary. It would suggest instead a visit to the hardware shop with credit card to buy fancy adhesive systems.
The other book I’d chosen was about making vaguely steampunk objects from Epoxy clay. I don’t think I need to make any specific comments, all I will show you of it is this bathroom. The guy who made it spent three years making it out of Epoxy clay.
I put the books back on the shelf and went over to see what was happening with my library card. The woman was still filling in my details but had left her desk to do something else, so someone else took over…and then someone else took over…”I’ve met everyone!” I said when the original man came back and finally I had the slip of paper with the wireless password on it.
As with a number of other libraries, such as Turramurra, the wireless internet was slow and patchy, and unable to cope with gmail. I reloaded pages for a while before giving up. Things had turned for me in Campsie library. I’d started off feeling good but mid afternoon exhaustion was upon me and I’d just spent twenty minutes waiting for a password to non functioning wireless internet. This was perhaps the least exciting activity I’d engaged in for some time. I’m no technophobe, but digital technology has never functioned well for me. I feel for electric people.
I put my computer away and went to browse the non-fiction. I’d already wandered around the fiction section, again coming across 88 Lines for 44 Women and other familiar new releases. Above the shelves the new or popular books were on display, among them Finnegan’s Wake. In the pamphlet I’d been given when I signed up I noted the borrowing period was a standard 3 weeks. You would need to renew Finnegan’s Wake a number of times to get through it, if you got through it at all. Many years ago I set myself the task of reading Finnegan’s Wake. I ended up reading most of it out loud in order to concentrate on it, and also to understand more of it as it makes slightly more sense aloud. I was quite entranced by it but I had little idea what was going on most of the time. I inspected the library’s copy of Finnegan’s Wake. I liked imagining Campsie library patrons borrowing it. Who would they be? I looked around at the girl working through a pile of diabetic cookbooks and the guy sitting on the chair nearby, shiftily sending a text message, but then I realised: it was people like me who would borrow such a book. I couldn’t see that person in the library because I was that person. I inspected the pages, noting that the first half of the book had been far more thoroughly read than the second half. There is a lot you can tell about a book from the wear on the pages and the spine. It is particularly easy to tell if it has only been read a few chapters in. The read part of the book looks handled, and the rest is neat (or “tight” as I believe they say in secondhand book parlance).
In the non-fiction section I found myself looking at books like Psychic Empowerment for Everyone, and then, moving along the shelf a little, How to be a Dog Psychic and Psychic Pets. The week before I’d been waiting for the traffic lights to change when I looked over to the nearest car, which had an ad for Bowen Therapy for Pets on the exterior. I looked at the woman in the driver’s seat, thinking wow, she is a pet whisperer. I had never seen a real pet whisperer before. I too could become a pet whisperer if I read How to be a Dog Psychic. Instead I moved on to the next aisle, which had self help books. Crappy to Happy, books about death… self help makes me feel anxious. I’m sure there are good ones out there, but whenever I open one at random it is either telling me something that I already know – e.g. exercise is good for you – or seems to be written in cushioning, patronising tones. In the brief period where I worked in a bookshop I was surprised how many people came in asking for specific self help titles. When no one was in the store I’d go and look at these books myself and try to understand how they could be helpful. I am sure there is a book about my resistance to self help that might help me.
Everywhere I turned were books about self help, psychic powers or dogs. I decided I’d look at books about cars. I started learning to drive earlier this year, after a long time of not even thinking about driving, and a bit of time feeling miserable that I couldn’t do it and was getting too old to not know how to do it. Now I had finally attained the highlight of any 17 year old’s life, passing my driving test. Being the swot that I am, I wanted to see what kind of books there were about cars and driving. Surely I’d escaped self help and dogs here.
There were lots of books about motorbikes but this was the only one about driving. I think that as a driver I am most like the pug. My brow furrowed with concentration, innocuous to other drivers. In a few years I hope to be the poodle. I opened the book at the index but didn’t want to read about “the secrets of late merging revealed” or “what we can learn from ants, locusts and crickets”.
On the opposite shelf were books like Your Dog Interpreter, and it was at this point I decided I was not going to escape dogs or self improvement while I was in the non-fiction section of Campsie Library.
I went to check on the newspaper area. There were a few new readers, one man I noticed in particular, who was wearing flipdown sunglasses with the sunglass part flipped up, a Commonwealth bank cap, a black and white collared shirt with a bold pattern and a purple woollen vest. He was holding a plastic bag with many bulbs of garlic in it, and reading a newspaper. A number of people in the library could qualify for this blog.
It was then I noticed the Reference area at the back of the library, which was a separate room set aside for private study and for the reference and local studies collections. The mood in here was very serious, it would be a good place to study if you needed to. A row of desks was filled with people working, including, as there always is, the one person who keeps looking around, desperate for someone to distract them. He kept looking over to me as I examined the local history books. One thing I love about this section is the DIY style of some of the books.
Mr Oatley the Celebrated Watchmaker, for example, has a hand drawn and lettered cover and the text inside is typewritten. It is quite a beautiful object, carefully handmade. I particularly like the books that are bound with cloth tape. In many cases they don’t have the name on the spine so you have to pull them out to see what they are. Often they are on a topic of such specificity you can’t imagine how the writer even ended up there.
After a quick examination of the local history pamphlet area, in which someone seemed to have stuffed their unwanted mail, I left the reference section, smiled upon the newspaper readers one last time, and noticed the starkest Christmas tree I have seen in a public place this season on my way out.
Maybe they were yet to decorate it. Much more festive was the giant drum locked in a glass cabinet near the entrance.
I borrowed the National Geographic for further investigation of the spirit bears, then left the library and went out to join the crowd on Beamish Street.