Thursday, April 28, 2011

Smells of Happiness

One Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1968 my mother walked me down Grove Road and onto the Ballygall/Finglas Road to collect my library tickets from Dublin Corporation’s mobile library.

The procedure of book borrowing was explained to me and three green library tickets, little stiffened cardboard pockets which bore my name, address and borrower number in beautiful handwriting were handed to me. I longed to work behind the little counter in the mobile library. To be surrounded by books all day, to breathe in their gorgeous smell. To any bibliophile that smell is heavenly – it means peace and contentment. Rows and rows of unopened books packed onto shelves and exuding that aroma. OhMiGod! I fell in love that day and have been happily enslaved in that love ever since.
The sense of anticipation that that smell produces in me has never lessened. As a child that smell meant that soon I would have unread books again. Three books! Together! I almost always read each book from cover to cover the day I borrowed them. Then I could start again, re-read them – eking them out a chapter or two at a time, trying to ration them until the mobile library returned.

I shared a bedroom with my three younger sisters, at that time none of them were readers, preferring to play and chat and laugh at bed-time, decibel level rising until Dad came to the bedroom door and asked mock gruffly ‘Who’s doing all that talkin’?’. Back to mousey whispering and giggling until one by one they dropped off to sleep. I had to be the last one to sleep. It was my job. I was the eldest you see. I would have read in bed but I didn’t have a torch and the light from the Sacred Heart Lamp wasn’t bright enough to read by. Believe me – I tried. And so I’d fall asleep thinking about books, transposing myself, my friends and my sisters into the worlds described in the of Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton among others - all worlds a galaxy away from my suburban Irish childhood.

Between the ages of seven and thirteen I read every single book in the Junior section of that mobile library – a lot of them twice or three times. Then - oh joy! - a permanent library was built on the Ballymun Road, a fifteen minute walk from my home. It took some years for the smell of newness to wear off both building and books and for the library to attain its correct bookish smell. My parents weren’t readers and as I didn’t go to college I had little to guide my reading.

I love a good old murder mystery so Agatha Christie was one of the first adult authors I read, then I went on to historical novels like those of Jean Plaidy, then to thriller or blockbusters novels by Leon Uris, Forsyth and Ludlum. I don’t remember there being any ‘chick-lit’ type books about then – I think Jilly Cooper or alternatively Mills and Boons books were the nearest thing to what is now called women’s commercial fiction!

Eventually I widened the scope of my reading - there’s only so much Hercule Poirot a body can take - and I started to read to learn something – but still read fiction. I loved Solzhenitsyn, Carson Mc Cullers, Anita Brookner, JG Farrell, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. I ‘discovered’ Hardy and Dickens. Anything set in India during the Raj or in Europe around either the First or Second World Wars fascinated me.

When I started working any spare cash I had was spent on books. No clothes or make-up for me! I could now afford to surround myself with my own books which I kept in a faux mahogany bookcase I bought in Arnotts of Henry Street. And from that day to this all my lovely books are waiting for me when I came home every evening. Waiting for me to open their covers, to sniff them with contentment and seep gently into their pages; letting them come to life, whipping me off to some other world where people like and unlike me have great loves or losses, great happiness and great sadnesses.

At this stage I have several other bookcases and I therefore have my special smell on tap! I like to think that my booky smell and, of course, the special smell of tiny new babies as my life’s aromas. The smells of my happiness.

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