Monthly Archives: December 2011

Campsie (Dog Psychology)

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.


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Filed under South Western Sydney

Picton Library (Ghost in the Photocopy Machine)

The Picton library has a solid, functional appearance, the opposite to the vacant lot beside it with its overgrown grass and forbidding wire fence. I like vacant lots, especially in places where you don’t expect to see them. The Sydney I explored as a teenager had plenty of vacant city lots, from stalled developments that went bust in the 80s. I liked to look down at the pools of stagnant water far below, and spot the ferns growing in the cracks.

But Picton isn’t a suburb of Sydney, it is past the south west extremities of the suburbs surrounding Campbelltown, buffered by farmland, and very much a country town. I came here to teach a series of zine workshops at the local high school. After the first one of these I went to explore the town. I went to the op shops, ate crackers in the old graveyard, and found the library.

Before I entered I sat outside, drinking a fizzy lemon drink and surveying the library exterior. The window was decorated with the words “National Year of Reading 2012” in a commanding script, and smaller, more whimsical lettering with words describing the reading experience: laugh, cry, discover. I wondered what kind of things this year of reading would inspire. My hope is short stories on food packaging, for the kind of compulsive reader who finds themselves reading the back of the cereal box while eating breakfast.

Inside the library I immediately fell under the scrutiny of the librarian at the front desk, she was the stern kind who makes me nervous. I tried a “hello” and escaped to the back of the library. The library building is a long, thin rectangle, with tall bookshelves to hide among. I passed the computer room and the video game area, both of which were busy with kids, until I was at the very back of the library. Up here were two desks and a view out onto the vacant lot next door. If this were my local library, this is where I’d choose to sit, far away from the eye of the librarians and with a window to look out of.

Also at the back of the library was the local history section. Wanting to get to the bottom of the town’s hauntedness, a status I discovered coincidentally at Woollahra Library (and this library is called the Wollondilly Library – further coincidence?), I went to look for Picton books. On top of a pile was one that seemed to tell me all I needed to know:

Local history expert Liz Vincent has written a number of books about Picton. I read the cardboard insert first:

I was ready for signs of paranormal activity as I looked through the book. It was a collection of ghost stories organised by location. The library had a good few pages devoted to ghostly happenings, and I decided I’d photocopy these pages to refer to later. Approaching the photocopier I wondered if I had any change, but with no need, as there was the exact amount I needed to copy the pages already loaded onto the machine. The ghost must have been feeling obliging that day.

As well as doors opening and shutting, phantoms appearing outside the doors at book launches in the library, and weird noises, the most interesting story was about the first librarian, Mr Keith McKinnon, who had a habit of pushing the books to the back of the shelf. After he passed on, the new librarians conformed to the more usual practice of pushing the books to the front. Often they would come to work and find the books pushed to the back again. It seemed reasonable that the ghost of Mr McKinnon was still at work in the library.

I read a little of the introduction, which made the interesting point that the author didn’t believe Picton to be necessarily more haunted than other places, but perhaps it was a place where people are more sensitised to paranormal activity. When I’d sat in the graveyard with my packet of crackers earlier that afternoon, I thought of the story I’d read in Haunted and Mysterious Australia, about the police officer  encountering ghouls in this graveyard and having to go back to the station and quickly consume about four cups of coffee to settle his nerves. As I’d walked around the small, old graveyard I thought I could hear someone following me. A number of times I stopped, and the sounds stopped too. Were they footsteps or was it just the jumble of things in my bag rustling as I walked?

I put the book back on the shelf and browsed around the non fiction section. The books were all pushed to the front of the shelves but I liked imagining the ghost of Mr McKinnon, a tall, thin man, emerging from the photocopier coin machine at night to start to put things in the order he preferred. I stared at the letters and numbers stuck on the windows, trying to decode them before realising they were random and decorative, before settling on one of the lounge chairs at the centre of the library.

When I’d arrived at the library there were people sitting in the lounge area reading the newspapers, but it was approaching closing time and the only activity now came from the kids in the computer room. As I read the paper I listened to the librarians talking as they reshelved books. Despite the quietness of the library, they all moved with great urgency. The woman who had been sitting at the front desk when I came in was of a particularly anxious disposition. Everything she said was in a tone of voice that indicated something was not right. In the small world of Picton Library there seemed to be many problems.

I had bigger problems to worry about however, as I had turned to a feature in the Sydney Morning Herald about possible causes for the end of the world. In addition to the expected ones, meteors and so on, were a number of new and distressing methods of obliterations such as “vacuum decay”, “strangelets” and “geomagnetic reversal”. While it was distressing to think of the world suddenly ceasing to exist by one of these methods, there was little I could do about any of them. I have no power over strangelets.

While I was reading about this a librarian passed me with pizzas and a box of Kirks lemonade cans, and put them on the table behind me. The kids who had been using the computers gathered around and started to eat the pizza while she explained the holiday program where after every five books they read they get a stamp, and the more stamps that they get they can redeem them for prizes, such as JB Hi Fi vouchers and something called a “cyberdisc”. When she finished explaining I heard the crack of a soft drink can being opened, and a kid saying “I hate reading”. The librarian was unfazed and told him that magazines counted as well as books. Other kids were more enthusiastic about it, bragging about how they were going to get the most prizes out of everyone.

This made me think back to the MS Read-a-thon, which I was never allowed to take part in (it still exists, I have discovered). Most of my friends at primary school took part in it and I was jealous. I read a huge amount as a child and would have done well in the Read-a-thon. The problem seemed to be that it involved adults sponsoring you a certain amount per book, with the proceeds then donated to the charity. Anything that required extra expenditure, or was through school but linked to an organisation, was discouraged in my house. I was allowed to take lots of extra art classes, however, so there’s no reason to feel sorry for me.

Perhaps now the emphasis of reading schemes has shifted from raising money for charity to bribing children to read, a depressing thought. The kids assembled for a photograph and, at the count of three, said “free stuff!”, and the photo was taken. Maybe it wouldn’t really matter if the world ended…

It was approaching closing time at the library, and I had one last look around. On top of the magazine rack were poultry magazines. I’d noticed that the most notable feature in Tahmoor, the nearby town where I was staying, was the chicken and duck processing plant. The area has a history of poultry farming.

I didn’t have enough time to find out about the frisky bantams, unfortunately. It was almost 5pm, and I was headed towards the bus stop, past the after hours return chute with a horological pattern.

The bus drove everyone back to their house individually. I got to see the neat houses where the old ladies lived and the Estonian Village where a rather aristocratic elderly man was dropped off. In the 50s people migrated from Estonia to come and farm chickens, and the village, a maze of little brick houses, was built. I imagined tidy lounge rooms with big padded lounge chairs. Beside each lounge chair would be a coffee table with copies of Australian Poultry stacked on top of the lace tablecloth.


Filed under Fringes of Sydney

Woollahra Library, Double Bay

This is not a stately home where I’ve climbed the fence to snoop in the garden and take photos, this is Woollahra library. One wouldn’t expect the local library of posh Double Bay to be a 70s brick block of a building. It’s in a 19th century building which was once a private residence called St Brigid’s, situated above the Blackburn Gardens and the Redleaf pool, looking out over the harbour.

The Redleaf Pool is a place that is quite familiar to me, as I often come here to go swimming. It is another world in the Eastern suburbs, a wealthy, easy world, which is very removed from my everyday life. But anyone, no matter whether they are an impoverished artist or a sweet sweeper or a princess can swim in the pool and lounge in the gardens.

Whenever I visit the pool I walk down through the library. The internal stairs on the side of the building lead down to the gardens, and lead to the entrance to both the main library and the little downstairs children’s library.

The library had been renovated since last I was there, which I noticed with suspicion. I couldn’t remember what it was like beforehand, though, and after a few moments I realised that apart from the chairs and tables it was still the same, with old wooden bookshelves and the row of coveted windowside seats at the back of the building.

The big windows look out into the treetops, over the gardens, and through to the harbour and yachts bobbing gently with the tide. It is probably the most inspiring, and definitely the most peaceful, view from a public library in Sydney. Years before I first came here I remember one of my zine correspondents telling me about this library, and how, when he was visiting Sydney, he’d spend all day at one of these windowside seats, looking out over the harbour. I filed his description away in my memory but not the location. Years later, coming to Redleaf pool for the first time and venturing into the library, his description came back to me; I had found this magical place he had described to me.

The long desks that used to line the windows have been replaced by lounge chairs, sets of two facing onto small white tables. There was still one long desk, at which a couple of girls worked on maths problems and a woman sat with a pile of books about shares and superannuation, taking notes in a Moleskine exercise book with a brown paper cover.

The lounge chairs were mostly taken up by people with laptops, but there was one space free, which was across from another empty chair. On the table, though, was a pile of books and a laptop, and beside it a backpack, so someone obviously had claimed that space. On the top of the pile of books was a book called “Randomness”, and on the bottom of the pile was a notebook bulging with papers. I tried to imagine what kind of person would appear to take their seat across from me. Everyone who passed by was a momentary candidate, however many of those who passed by were librarians, on errands to and from the shelves.

The library is a series of interconnected rooms, which can lead to some confusion in the innermost rooms. Just keep moving, however, and you will get your bearings again. Among the pamphlets in racks near the entrance is a map with colour coded areas that correspond to the different collections. Fiction is divided up into two categories, “Stories” and “Large Print”. I was sitting near the Stories section, looking in towards the Cooking, Health, Art and Music books, which took up three rooms of the library. On my way to sit down I’d gathered a few books, and, once the person who had claimed the other side of the table showed no signs of appearing, I settled down to read them.

First I investigated the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook. When I was a child I was curious about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which we had a copy of at home. My unsophisticated reading of it at the time was that those who were left handed were more creative, and thus I ardently wished that I was left handed, rather than right handed like most of the population. I had the same kind of crisis when I found out my blood type was O positive, the most common. Had I actually read the text rather than focussing on this diagram

I would have know that my conclusions were incorrect. Most left handed people have the same brain configuration as right handed people, with the verbal functions in the practical left hemisphere.

This book, being a workbook, had different exercises for the reader to complete, and blank pages to draw on. At the back of the book was a special clear plastic viewfinder, a rectangle with a frame printed on it, which was to help you with composition. I flipped through the book and the most appealing exercise was drawing a horse upside down. I thought about doing it – on my own paper, of course, the workbook blank pages were untouched and I wasn’t going to be the first to defile them – but I was distracted by the man who appeared and sat down across from me, finally claiming his laptop and books. He gave me a suspicious look and opened up his computer. It was an old computer with a loud fan that kicked in almost immediately. They’re like old cars, those old notebooks, loud and clunky. But his computer is his business. I looked back at the upside down horse and imagined myself becoming impatient with my drawing after a minute.

The next book I investigated was The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd, which I knew to be a oft-cited classic, but have never read. It was first published in 1960s and critiques the architectural styles, and town planning, in Australia. In particular it focuses on what Boyd, an architect, called “Featurism”, which is “subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features”. I thought immediately of those big, brick houses that have been popular since the 80s, which have huge white columns out the front. The columns are the feature and they distract from the ugly big box house behind it. I looked up the sections of the book that were about Sydney. Boyd divides Sydney suburbs into three zones: Villawood Zone (west), Tom Ugly Zone (south – after Tom Ugly’s bridge, which leads into the Sutherland shire) and the “North Shore Executive Zone”. If he thought Sydney was ugly in 1960, he would find it hideous now, with its Meriton apartment buildings clogging the train lines – is there a reason why they need to be so ugly?

Here in Double Bay I felt shielded from ugliness. It was very comfortable sitting at the window, I could stay there all day long. People often do, I gather, as they seemed very established in their positions. This was the first time I’d come to the library when there had been space free to sit at the windows. Looking out you can almost forget you are in the library, and pretend it is your own exclusive home. While these days I have no particular fantasies about being ridiculously wealthy, when I was younger I had plenty of them. My family were always so worried about money that my ideal adult life became something from a 1970s home decorating book. When I grew up, I decided, I would live in a harbourside mansion with my Afghan Hounds, wear long flowing gowns, drink martinis, and receive gentlemen callers when I was in the mood for company.

As I was browsing the books I noticed the maths girls getting up and leaving all their equipment behind, including their MacBook Air, a very portable object for anyone who felt like stealing it. There were no “do not leave valuables” signs in this library, so I guessed that theft wasn’t much of a problem. I decided to leave my things at the table and go on my own search. If the expensive laptop was safe my Spirax notebook would be also, unless anyone was particularly interested in my notes on Sydney libraries.

I went to find the section that had books about Sydney. I was trying to find out about sea caves, particularly around Avalon, which I hadn’t had much luck searching for online. Whenever I can’t find information online at first I feel cranky, but then I feel pleased that not everything is on the internet. There are still secrets in the world – for now.

I saw on my map that the Travel section was over the other side of the library. At first I couldn’t find the 900s, and then I realised that they were in a compactus!

I checked that no one was inside and I turned the wheels to open up the shelf I was after. I felt nervous doing it, as if someone would come and tell me off, but perhaps it was because of the novelty of the experience. Inside the compactus I felt very (deceptively?) safe and enclosed as I browsed books about Sydney. I have never read a travel guide to my own city and it was a strange experience opening up a Lonely Planet and reading about the places that are everyday to me. The most interesting parts of Sydney, the suburbs, don’t get that much of a mention, and I didn’t find the answers about the sea caves. What I most want to know is if they actually exist and if so, can you explore them? I might have to visit Avalon library and find out.

When I returned to my books I noticed that the Maths girls were packing up and so I moved to take their place. The man with the loud laptop kept giving me odd looks, which I were probably warranted. I wasn’t settled like the usual library user, I kept getting up and returning with books about widely different topics, which I would glance through, then write a few things in a notebook, then look out the window, then scrutinise the room and people in it.

The desk looked out over the tennis court of the big house next door. The net was saggy and the long “monkey tails” from the Norfolk Island pine had fallen across the grass, although the court still seemed impossibly tidy, like you could run over it with a vacuum cleaner. I looked back down at my books. On the way back from the compactus I’d examined the Folio section. Woollahra Library has a large collection of art books, and a lot of these were in the Folio section. They were huge tomes, some which looked too big to even get off the shelf without significant effort. There were lots of monographs and also coffee table books of a weight that would probably collapse a flimsy IKEA table.  As well as art books there were cookbooks many times longer than the Bible that must have every recipe known to man in them. The book I picked out for further investigation was tall but not very thick, a book about Faberge eggs. Each page had a photograph of a particular egg on it, much large than the actual egg was in real life.

I’d never paid much attention to Faberge eggs before, but here, confronted with images of the Rabbit Egg (with gold rabbit inside), the Hoof Egg (with cloven feet),  the Cuckoo egg and the Steel Military egg, I realised they were actually quite ingenious, though fantastically ugly.  Each egg was loaded up with strange and unnecessary adornments. Despite their preciousness, they make me think of Franklin Mint reproductions, the kind that used to, and may still be, advertised in the television guide.

Behind the desk was the magazine section, which had a steady amount of visitors. I heard a hissing kind of giggle from someone in this section, and I turned slightly to observe them. It was a man in a Beatles shirt and a Weird Al Yankovic cap, who was accompanied by two stylish women with dark curly hair. Despite his casual appearance – he was also wearing baggy jeans – the women were wearing a lot of jewellery, expensive dresses, and heels. From their ages I decided that one was his wife, and one his daughter. They were looking at the fiction section, ignoring his laughter over the magazine, which was a copy of Wired with Muppets on the front.

I’d noticed quite a few very well dressed people already, and it made me ponder how people dress when they visit the library. Of course no one puts on a particular library outfit, but seeing women in pearls, little black dresses and ugly but expensive shoes browsing the shelves made me realise that usually the library is not usually a very fashionable place. Before I started Biblioburbia, I rarely noticed other people in the library, unless they were directly irritating me by being loud or obstructive. It is a place where people go about their own business, and to notice anyone else’s business too much is an invasion of privacy. This is why the man across from me had been glaring at me, I think, because I was doing too much looking around at other people. At least I wasn’t doing so from behind a book, like others I have encountered.

I could hear the jangling of the girl’s bracelets as she exclaimed to her dad that there were actually some quite good books in this library. I could tell this was the first time they’d come here, and were looking around. She looked to be about twenty, and it seemed impossibly nice to me that they could be on a family trip to check out the library. They moved off to the music and movies section in the next room.

While I’d been sitting at the desk, the woman beside me continued to work her way seriously through the pile of books about superannuation. Her grey dress matched the library decor, so much so that she seemed to be made from the same stuff. Further along the window others worked on laptops. One girl had a tattoo of a gemstone on her chest, as big as a fist, with trails of stars leading out from it, following the curve of her collarbones. She typed into her tiny laptop, which had a cover with a Mark Ryden picture on it. I liked to think she was writing a short story. She didn’t seem to be on the internet like everyone else, her screen stayed fixed on the document she was working on.

The last book I had on my pile was Haunted and Mysterious Australia, by “Tim the Yowie Man”. Should I know who he is? I’d picked up this book when I was looking for a book that might mention sea caves. I scanned down the index looking for an interesting chapter, and decided on “Australia’s Most Haunted Town”.

Now I started this blog with the support of the CAL Western Sydney Writers’ Fellowship, and part of this fellowship is to teach some workshops. In a few days I was to go and do my first in the series of workshops at a school right on the furthest edges of the south west, Picton High School. I’d never been to Picton before and knew little about it, although this was about to change:

Of all the towns in Australia, I was to travel to the most haunted, a place of sudden drops in temperature, beanie-clad phantoms, ghost trains and graveyard apparitions. In particular the Redbank Range Tunnel, a disused rail tunnel, is the site of a lot of paranormal activity. Ghosts are also prevalent in people’s homes: “the young girl’s mother told me that ever since she was a toddler her daughter had seen all their dead relatives sitting around the house” is a common Picton story. In two days time, I would be on my way to this very town.

The library had taught me all I needed to know for now. I closed the book and gathered up my things, to go for a purifying swim in the harbour. I like swimming in the harbour, rather than the ocean. For one thing, the pool has a shark-proof cage around it, so I feel very safe. I have no particular fear of sharks, and my chances of being taken by one are very slim, however once you start thinking about them it is hard to confidently swim out into the ocean.

Redleaf pool was built in 1940, and opened in 1941, although it was used as a swimming spot for decades before that time. It makes me think of an earlier era, around 1910 or so, when people went “bathing” rather than “swimming”. I shivered my way into the water. Today there were few people swimming, the water was a bit cold and the tide was high. The storms of the previous week had eroded the sand so after only a few steps I could no longer touch the bottom. This pleased me greatly. I thought of all the things that must be hiding on the bottom of Sydney harbour as I swum my way to the edge of the pool, to peer out through the bars of the cage.


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