Impact at the Library Conference
The head of the English department of a university I used to work at jumps up on the stage. ‘This is a huge conference! There are so many of you! All those tables! And look at you all! I tell you what, I’ve only been here an hour, and I’ve learned one thing. Librarians have really, really funky shoes.’
There is a scattering of enthusiastic applause at this. Everyone’s had a complimentary cocktail in the bar and they’re glad he’s buttering them up. We’re all dressed up a bit for the conference’s first night dinner and yes, our shoes are very funky indeed.
The head of the English department starts talking about his world-class university and how, with their wonderful Writing School and the MA in Childrens’ Writing they are ideally placed to be a stakeholder in this vibrant conference of children’s librarians, and how they are proud to be sponsors of this huge, marvelously diverse event.
‘Is anyone here from Norwich?’ he cries out. ‘Yes?’ And then: ‘Anyone in from Edinburgh..? Yeah..?’ There are a few cries and he nods, smiling. ‘Well, if you live there you know what it’s like to be a UNESCO City of Literature, and now we’re going to be one too! Thanks to the efforts of all my colleagues and myself, we are a going to be a World City of World Literature!’
Lots of clapping at this. I get out my notebook at the table. I might look like a mad person with a pen that lights up and my Elsa Lanchester notebook, but I want to write down some of the phrases he’s using. He’s got all the language and he knows how to use it.
‘Literature in this city is about the vibrancy of what’s happening now… and it’s very impactful… that very impact on people’s lives… literature and its diversity in this city of vibrant living… literature itself brings diverse vibrancy into people’s lives and there has been important research at our very vibrant university about that very thing…’
He describes all the wonderful trips he’s made to other universities in this country and abroad, talking about just these topics, spreading his impact. It’s amazing, he says, to feel connected to the world of literature like this, especially when you come from a city of world literature status. It’s bringing greatly added value to the world, and very impactful.
Then he explains that the plasma screen behind him has been scrolling through pictures of local writers – living and dead – with little blurbs about them. ‘And several of them are here tonight, at our wonderfully diverse conference, at your very tables. They are here to talk to you all over dinner about their writing and the impact that this diverse and vibrant city has had on their work.’
Then he reads out each writer’s name and pauses when they stand and wave their arms in the air and everyone claps a bit.
When it comes to my turn he says, ‘And my old office-mate, Paul Magrs.’
I stand up, blushing of course, and everyone claps.
I do not wave my arms. I swig my wine and narrow my eyes at him and sit down.
Then we all have to clap the particular woman in the English department who ‘does such great work on the outreach programme.’ When they all clap her I could scream. Back when I worked at that uni, between 2004 and 2011 every single staff meeting and public event used to feature a moment when the head of department (this one and his predecessor) would say: ‘Let’s all clap her for all the wonderful work she’s been doing on the outreach programme.’ I could never work out why she always needed thanking so much.
‘How long have we been running our children’s writing course and events?’ the head of the department calls out to her.
‘Ten years!’ she cries back. ‘Whew!’ and everyone claps.
Yes, I think. I know it’s ten years, but it was me whose idea it was and it was me who started it and taught it at the beginning.
Dreadful soup is delivered to the vegetarians while the clapping and the talking is going on. The woman next to me is a veggie. On her lanyard she has not only a printed name badge, but another card that says ‘Vegetable’ in large black letters. She holds it aloft, proudly, as the waitresses come round with their bowls of dreadful soup.
But when the terrines of pressed ham and peas come round I start wishing that I was a vegetable, too.
At least the head of the department has stopped talking. He has whipped them into a frenzy of diverse vibrancy and stepped down off the stage and gone to get his dinner.
There are two bottles of wine and most of the ladies round our table want white. Good. There’s only me and the nice woman with the vegetable tag who want red.
‘Do you get out much to things like this?’ I ask them.
‘No! Once a year! This is our trip out! This is our one chance to have fun and see other people doing the same kind of job…’
The woman next to her adds, ‘No one talks to you when you’re a school librarian. It’s only when you come to this conference and meet other ones…’
They’re a good talky bunch. We have almost two hours in each other’s company and we find that we’re all about the same age. We were all the last kids to do O levels. We all have interesting and clashing and noisy ideas about education and exams and reading and universities and courses and politics and we have a good old blether.
The woman from the outreach programme yomps past happily at one point and gives me a big grin. And – this isn’t like me at all – I scowl at her.
By the time dessert comes they’ve got two people reading and performing folk tales up on the stage. Tepid laughter follows a couple of corny gags. One of the writers cries out: ‘It’s meant to be funny, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t laugh – at least there’s still a point to our stories!’
Yes, I think. At least you have a point to your stories.
I text Jeremy and my lovely pals who are off having a curry in Rusholme. ‘I hate it here! I haven’t even got a name badge! Buy wine! Have it ready when I get home!’
And then I get up and shake the hands of all the good librarians who’ve talked to me this evening and distracted me from loathing my whole self and my useless career with their very interesting chat.
And so I hurry out of the ballroom, out through the bookshop, down a corridor, get a bit lost, find the lift and totter out into the Piccadilly night.