When I mapped out the libraries I’ve been to so far – for the mini zine I’m making for the zine pinata, for the Snapdragon zine fair – I decided it was time to visit a library in the north. Each of the compass points of Sydney has its own character. I know the north well, I grew up there and I work there, and have been up and down the North Shore train line thousands of times. At least six times I week currently, I pass through Wollstonecraft station. It’s a minor stop in between St Leonards and North Sydney. One of the curious things about the station is that the platform is curved, so as you approach it you can only see the end. The train line follows the shape of the land.
This part of Sydney is one where you notice topography, the steep and rocky land around the harbour. When Simon and I got off the train at Wollstonecraft, we followed the path down into Smoothey Park and towards the footbridge. Underneath the bridge was a creek, with tall tree ferns growing around it. I stopped to stare into the newly unfurling fronds of the ferns, marvelling that this gully was so close to the train line which I’d travelled along so many times.
This footbridge, for many, is a normal feature of their walk home from the station, but it seemed a bit magical to me, to be walking along a thin path through the treetops. Over the other side of the footbridge is the suburb of Greenwich. My only encounters with this suburb were visiting a friend who lived there back when I was still in high school, a girl who is the only person I have so far known to own a Great Dane. She loved this dog, but to outsiders the dog was a rather terrifying beast who would come up to the door barking and slavering, large as a pony.
It was late afternoon and the air tasted clear and sweet. The thick grey rainclouds on the horizon that had looked threatening stayed put, and the sunset was beginning. As we toiled up a steep street, we stopped at the strange sight of what looked to be a buried ship, turned to stone:
We were in the kind of place where fences have prows. At the top of the hill there was a vast, cottage garden with big vines of jasmine buds, and tiny yellow climbing roses trained over the fence, the kind of garden where every tree and bush has a particular character. I noticed a man among all the plants, crouched down, weeding. The garden rambled around the house, an old 20s bungalow, white with peeling paint. Turning the corner, we spied the sign for the library. A car was parked in front of it and a woman and her daughter, stood deliberating. Her daughter, in the kind of many layered uniform that suggested a school of prestige, was holding a dirty slice of apple. “Throw it in the gutter,” her mother was saying, “the rats will eat it”.
I’d decided to come here after talking about Biblioburbia to Tom, who suggested I visit Greenwich branch library as it is a curious shape: a hexagonal gazebo kind of structure, accessed by a bridge. This called up all sorts of strange imaginations, but in fact the reality was not too different from what I pictured.
In the late afternoon gloom, the interior of the library glowed golden. We walked across the bridge and stepped inside. There was harpsichord music playing softly, and the librarian was busy restocking the shelves. The library was small and very neat, and I felt as if I’d walked into large, warm cupboard. We greeted the librarian – as it was such a compact space it felt more like a shop, where one’s entrance and exit should be announced – and I went to look at the non fiction section. Parked in this area was a bar heater, leaking warmth, and I stood near it while I looked over the books. Each side of the hexagon housed a different section, a neat arrangement.
Greenwich library is small, so the Dewey numbers skip forward rapidly, in some cases advancing by the hundreds in one shelf. I have taken to looking at the books at the beginning of the section, as it is here where you find books about libraries. There were none, but there was The Rough Guide to Blogging. Something about the idea of using this guide amused me, so I picked it out to examine it. I turned to the page with tips for writing, wondering if I could learn anything.
My favourite piece of advice was: “Be brave, honest and sexy. Revealing embarrassing incidents and exposing insecurities, emotions and inappropriate reactions can endear you to your readership.” While there is something to this advice, I can’t help but imagine how it could fail when the reader of The Rough Guide to Blogging tried to follow this advice. While it’s true that this is a technique that people writing on the internet, or writing memoirs, use to connect with the reader, it does make me wonder at a world where honesty is not inherent. I have been thinking about this in relation to zines and the way people write in them, compared to the way people write in personal stories intended for the mass media. In the latter there is often a voice of contrived honesty, that uses tricks such as the one above to make the reader feel close to the writer. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think it’s good to consider what honesty in writing means, how it might be possible, and to think critically about it.
The harpsichord music stopped and was replaced by something more operatic, and between them was the soothing voice of what could only be a 2MBSfm presenter. Sometimes Simon and I listen to 2MBS at home, and my favourite part of the shows are the announcements. The presenters’ voices are so calm, sometimes to the point of being soporific. On weekend mornings the station favours rousing symphonies, the kind that make us groan when we’re blearily staggering around the kitchen, cleaning up while the kettle boils.
As the music continued, I realised that this was the first library I had visited that has had music playing, and it is actually an unusual thing. This library did have an air of difference, with its unusual shape, in among the trees, and walking across to it was like passing into a different kind of world, a hexagonal island of bookish calm.
I sat at the study table, which had the day’s newspaper laid neatly out down one side, the sections separated out, and looked at the other books I’d picked from the shelves. Simon handed me Real Wild Child – An Insider’s Tales from the Rage Couch by Narelle Gee. For my non-Australian readers, Rage is a late night music video program that had different bands and artists guest programming it every week. Rage was an integral part of my life as a teenager. I stayed up late to watch it, and when I couldn’t stay up any later I taped it and spent the weekend watching through the rest. Particular guest programmers stuck in my memory, such as Frank Black brushing his teeth with laundry detergent, TISM programming the ABC news and Four Corners themes, and the Reid brothers arguing whether Morrissey is “shite” or not. I would get sick of seeing particular videos that everyone seemed to program, particularly Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles”, for some reason. I figured this was the only Dead Kennedys video that Rage must have had, because they never played any other, and this wasn’t a constructed music video, it was from a live performance. I couldn’t really imagine the Dead Kennedy’s making a wacky video where the band members are set up in some kind of ironic sitauation (like Pavement in the video for “Cut Your Hair”, for example – I use this example as I have been hearing Pavement everywhere at the moment, like I’ve been placed back in 1996).
I could write thousands of words on Rage, but I will not do so here. 90s nostalgia is a vigorous thing at the moment. On the weekend Simon and I paused outside the Enmore Theatre to eat a gelato and listen to the Wonder Stuff, who were playing inside. I never expected to be listening to them in 2011, and even less to Jesus Jones, who were the headlining band. We didn’t stay to listen to them though, by that time we were already riding home singing “Right Here, Right Now” sardonically. Jesus Jones are a band I can’t imagine anyone loving.
Going through the book, I read through the list of guest programmers, which is also on the Rage site. I enjoyed picking out the ones that were most of-their-time: Gary Clail, Diesel, EMF (I had to google to remember their most famous song, “Unbelievable”, but then it came back into my head with great force). I am wary of engaging too much with 90s nostalgia, though I still like some of the music from that time. My engagement with music for the first half of the 90s was completely through listening to the radio and reading the NME and other music magazines, so even at the time I had felt removed from it. My teenage years were mostly spent thinking how things were happening elsewhere.
While I was reading the Rage book and musing about 90s-ness, the librarian continued to put things away. She was chipping away at a huge pile of DVDs, more than I could ever imagine having been borrowed. Apart from me and Simon, the library had only one other visitor, a woman returning books.
“What are you looking at?” I asked Simon, who was sitting beside me but facing in the opposite direction.
“Errr, Keith Richards,” he said, quickly closing the thick biography of Keith in which he was examining the photograph section and putting it back on the shelf. He then muttered something about the librarian’s fussing driving him crazy. Indeed the whole time we had been in the library, the clop-clop of books going back on the shelf kept up a regular rhythm. It was such a peaceful world in the library, I thought that if I worked there I’d want to sit with a cup of tea reading the whole time, although I suppose librarians aren’t allowed to do that. I expected any minute for the librarian to bring out a vacuum cleaner and get us to lift up our feet so she could vacuum underneath, so intent she was on making the DVDs neat.
Although it bothered Simon, I didn’t feel very worried about it, and as he went off to look at books in another section of the hexagon I opened The Moon: A Biography by David Whitehouse. In particular I read the part about the Great Moon Hoax, which came about through a series of articles published in the early 19th century in the New York Sun. The articles described the environment of the moon, the mountains, forests, crystal pyramids, lunar palm trees, horned bears, living pebbles and Vespertilio-homo, humans with retractable bat wings.While obviously entirely fictitious, I felt a wish to inhabit this peaceful moon-land, which was no doubt why the readership of the paper grew greatly after the publication of the series of articles. The book made the point that there is still much speculation about what’s on the moon, and there is a whole school of thought that believes the 1969 moon landing to be a hoax too. The next time I consider the moon, I will imagine it with crystals and man-bats rather than craters and dust.
It was now properly dark outside, and I decided it was time to head home. I put my books back on the shelf and went to examine the plaque near the desk, which told me that the library had been opened in 1964, by Marjorie Propsting, who gave her fabulous name to the library. A librarian, she was also the mayor of Lane Cove for many years. A portrait of Marjorie hung on the wall above the plaque, which gave the library even more of a home/parlour atmosphere, as if this was the portrait of the matriarch.
“Thank you!” Simon called out to the librarian, who was still tidying the DVDs, as we left. Outside it had turned cold and I jammed my hands in my pockets as we walked back across the footbridge, the space below us now a dark mystery, as we fixed our gaze on the bright train station just visible through the trees.