Talking in the Library

Robin Ince's Bibliomaniac Tour Diary

Like the rebellious rake I am, I was talking in the library.

I was even swearing in the library at one point.

Not only did the librarians fail to shush me, they encouraged me. 

The first Bibliomaniac dates were two talks at Sheffield’s Central Library, a favourite destination of mine. Like Huddersfield’s central library, it is a vast collection of books and periodicals deliciously topped by an art gallery. 

Arriving at Sheffield, someone was struggling with their bag that had become pinned under other suitcases. I wandered over and offered a hand and when we were waiting to disembark, she asked me about the “pretty badge” on my overcoat. I explained it was by the Australian artist who beautifully captures nature, in particular nature when it is part of our domestic environment, sometimes reflected in hallway mirrors or the windows of a sitting room. My brief friend tells me she is off to Grimsby for a new job. We get off the trains with those smiles of two strangers who, in a world that can seem brutal, had a convivial conversation about beauty. 

Sheffield Central Library. Pic by Chemical Engineer CC

I drop my bags off at the library and take the short walk to Juno Books, a newish independent bookshop, small but bright and colourful and filled with dazzling novels and books of progress, hope and diversity.

I talk too much and recommend that everyone must read Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me and Lauren John Joseph’s At Certain Points We Touch. In turn, I am told I must read Clare Keegan’s latest and I realise it is already on a pile of “I really must get around to reading this” novels by my bedside. I depart with a short book by Tove Jannson, Fair Play, and I also finally find out how to pronounce her first name. I also take away a comic strip version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. 

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Back at the library, I walk by the stairwell quotation from Einstein, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

The Graves Gallery which has had to fight to exist, and survived another threat of loss of funding, feels more vital than ever. In the first room is the work of Keith Piper. An artist who has remained unknown to me  until now but, as so often with these things, I meet his work again a week later when I go to The Horror Show at Somerset House (highly recommended).

Once we are aware, we see these things everywhere.

The Seven Rages of Man looks at the development and societal view of the Afro Caribbean community – from slavery to the role playing and separate yokes of a society’s projections and presumptions.

Once through the landscapes, there is a new section focusing on women artists from the Graves collection – Divided Self I by Jacqueline Morreau, Stonehenge by Gertrude Hermes, End of Daylight by Mary Potter – I could stay staring for so much longer, but my first talk starts in three minutes. There is a lovely mixture of ages in and I am pleased to meet the mayor. It is a non-political role, but she is using her year to highlight the importance of reading, the importance of knowledge being accessible to everyone, the warm embrace of the library chairs, however hard they may be, their location makes them far more than utilitarian. We are hear to fund Mary Grover’s Steel City Readers and ensure it can be available for all. It is based on 65 interviews with Sheffield readers, covering 1925 to 1955. I am please to say that they have reached their target.

I talk about the importance of books as weapons of empathy and mention Lewis Hancox’s Welcome to St Hell, a comic book memoir of growing up as a trans man in a smallish town.

A day later, Cosmic Shambles receives an email from a trans man who was in the audience.

“I just wanted to thank Robin for speaking about trans people in Sheffield tonight. As a trans person it’s always a dicey moment but he was so positive and presented things in such a digestible and understanding way. I genuinely feel like he changed people’s minds tonight and if it allows 1 parent to take a step closer to accepting their trans kid that’s truly amazing.”

He tells me he has been waiting for access to testosterone for two and half years now. For those who believe that teenagers who in anyway seem not to adhere to the stereotypes of the sexes are immediately told they trans and rushed through some hasty reassignment , I think there are many trans people who might like to know where this fast track is in the UK.

Correspondence like this more than makes up for the vast amount of abuse we received at Cosmic Shambles when I dared to question Ricky Gervais’s trans material (that was some weekend).

A second session follows and then I am hurried away as I will miss my train and I am off to Geneva tomorrow.

I see the wet platforms of Sheffield, Tamworth, Nuneaton and Milton Keynes, but make it home by midnight.

Let’s fight for the right to read.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Prof Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest books are The Importance of Being Interested and Bibliomaniac.

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