Between leaving school and going to university, I worked for six months at the County Library in Carlisle. One of the duties was to go out on the travelling library van, which once a fortnight toured round some of the most isolated places in the country: the lonely villages and isolated farmhouses towards the Scottish border, where I encountered some unusual people. Aside from such standard library fare as the woman who used a kipper’s backbone as a bookmark, and the man who kept a book on archaeology out on loan for over a year because he found it was exactly the right size to prop up a broken leg on his table, there were customers who would rely on us not only to bring the books, but to select suitable reading material from our shelves for their tastes. The procedure of one woman was invariable. “I want 5 murders, 3 romances and a western”, she would say, and leave us to choose them for her. She would then cast her eye over our selection, discarding a few because “they didn’t look very good“, or because she thought she might have read them before. (other customers had their own systems for dealing with the latter problem; such as making a pencil mark on a certain page once they’d read one of our books). In cold weather she would bring us a mug of tea each, though since she invariably stirred in large quantities of sugar, I could never drink mine.
She wasn’t the only customer who let us choose her books, and some of the choices we made must have caused some surprise. Harold the van driver once persuaded a lady at a remote farm to take home James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. “Is it a good book?” she asked. “It’s a very famous book”, said Harold. “I want something I can read in bed”, she said. “It’s probably best if you read this in bed”, Harold told her. I never found out what she made of it, since I don’t recall we ever saw her again.
Harold explained to me the perils of engaging these people in conversation. They probably never saw anyone except us and the postman for weeks at a time, and they were often desperate for a talk, but we had a tight schedule to keep, and if we let them stay on the van for too long, we’d never get round in time. Harold’s policy was to agree with everything they said. “You can’t have a proper conversation with someone who always agrees with you”, he said. I witnessed this technique in action at a farmhouse up near Kershopefoot border; the home of an artist who appeared to be a Nazi. He clambered onto the van in his paint-stained overalls. “Things are bad!” he told us, “There’s Jews in high places bleeding this country white!” “You’re right there!” said Harold. The man soon went away. But I’m afraid I forgot Harold’s advice on one occasion, when once an old farm labourer got on the van and told us, without any provocation, that all farm land should be nationalised. “You’ll be a socialist then”, I dutifully said. Oh no, he always voted Conservative. I couldn’t retrain myself from asking why, and he told me this long story about how, when he was a boy on the Earl of Lonsdale’s estate back before the First World War, he once opened a gate for the Earl’s carriage to come through, and there sitting beside the Earl was the Kaiser, who had come to spend Christmas up at the castle. The Earl had given him half-a-sovereign and said, “You look a promising young chap. If you ever want a job, come up to the hall and see me“. But then he’d gone off to the trenches, and it was only in the 1920s that he’d met the Earl at a county show and the earl had said to him, “I recognise you! You’re the lad who opened the gate for me back before the war! Why didn’t you come up to the hall and take the job I offered you?” And ever since then he’d voted Conservative. Politics was still a bit feudal up on the Border. I’ve often reflected that my vote could be cancelled out by someone like that.