No friend as loyal as a book ... and Babs would know
A 200-year-old library is an oasis of calm in our world of multi-platform stress, writes Andrea Kuhn .
It has been compared to a film set from Doctor Who – but not just because of its charming 1960s interior. To visit the Plymouth Proprietary Library is to enter a lost world.
There is no buzz of fluorescent lights, no clack of computers, no ring of mobile phones. There is just the traffic rumbling along North Hill to Mutley Plain.
The rooms have remained the same since the library and its collection of books took refuge here after being rescued from the blitzed debris of their original city-centre home in Cornwall Street.
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Time has stood still. Even the air seems stiller here. Visitors will probably find one of the librarians sitting at the wooden counter, neatly entering the details of a book to be borrowed into a ledger. Someone may be tucked in corner reading a newspaper, or a couple of students discussing a book they have discovered, perhaps the sound of a kettle boiling in the background.
In our multi-sensory, multi-platform world of stress-inducing information overload, PPL – as it is known to its friends – is an oasis of calm.
It's here that Plymouth author, Babs Horton, often seeks refuge and inspiration for her books.
Babs has written four novels to date and her most recent, Recipe for Cherubs, was partly inspired by an 18th century Italian cookery book that she discovered among the 20,000 volumes here.
"I think you almost tune in to the past when you come here," she says. "There's a funny feeling about these rooms.
"Life is so frenetic now, there is a lot more going on now for everyone. But I think it's got to the stage where we are a bit afraid of silence. How often do people just sit and do nothing? It means people have no time to reflect but I think boredom can be a good seed for inspiration."
PPL was founded in 1810 as a members' library and although many books were lost in the 1941 bombing, it still contains an extraordinary collection and offers a wonderfully rich snapshot of our social history. Wikipedia can never compete with this.
Upstairs in one of the main reading rooms, book-lined walls are all neatly labelled by subject; Dorothy Hartley's Food of England offers a recipe for jugged hare and describes how a housewife must be "of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, watchful, diligent and witty". No such reticence from Jacques Cousteau's Underwater Treasury; Men and Sharks.
There are beautiful leather-bound books with intricate colour plates; the complete works of Lewis Carroll and an exquisitely printed copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, which was donated by Sir William and Lady Munday in 1901.
Many of the older books were originally donated by the great and the good of Plymouth, with a cross-section of tastes reflecting the nature of a city whose residents have explored distant shores.
Part of Babs' childhood was spent in Luton where there was little available entertainment for children, and she says libraries were her "life-blood".
"I was either up a tree or reading," she says. Even at a young age she was an enthusiastic reader, disappearing each week with such armfuls of books that the librarian would quiz her on her return to see if she had really read them.
It was about 10 years ago, after having too frequently walked past the library, which still has its name stencilled onto its sash windows, that she decided to investigate: "It's wonderful. I can imagine how many people have sat here – the ideas they have had. You never know what you are going to find. Other people's histories are here."
The library is in the process of cataloguing all their books, but relying on volunteers means it is not always a speedy process. As Chloe Adams, one of the librarians, admits, it is so easy to be distracted on discovering a hidden gem.
"I think this is a wonderful place," she says. "The library has something here for everybody. I think everyone in this city could find a book [for them], almost by magic."
Yet while the library is steeped in history, they are only too aware of keeping pace with some aspects of modern life. They get a regular supply of new publications which are chosen by members, and they take a few newspapers and periodicals.
There are also regular talks around a variety of literary themes as well as a thriving writers' group, with several members who have published work. But as with all charities, money is always a struggle – despite regular coffee mornings and book sales to boost funds gained from the £50 annual membership fee.
Upstairs in the attic, the dust gathers on everything from leather binders of the London Mercury newspaper to books on General Smuts and the Boer War.
Babs rarely comes in this room as the damp makes her wheezy, so she makes the most of it digging around amongst the stacks of books bowing the shelves, delighting at each surprising find. She leaves clutching a copy of Prostitute/Destitute Women In Darkest London by Mrs Cecil Chesterton, perhaps with the seed of new inspiration.
Holy Mackerel – Babs Horton's fictionalised memoirs – will be published on Kindle in the next few weeks.