Sunday, 11 December 2011

Illuminating Libraries

My latest radio play ‘The Lamp’ goes out on BBC Radio Four on 14th December, and has special status as ‘Play Of The Week’ which means that it will also be available as a podcast from Friday 16th for seven days.

It was recorded on location at Perthshire’s charming Library of Innerpeffray at the beginning of November, and I’m only now shuffling the paperwork around, deciding what to keep, what to discard, where to file it. But it’s interesting to look over the lengthy process of proposal and development in the scraps of paper, the notebooks, the handwritten and successive typed manuscripts, with Director Eilidh McCreadie’s helpful notes, which finally led to the official script sent out to all involved by the BBC.

I’ve been enchanted with Innerpeffray for a long time, Scotland’s first public lending library set on a bend of the river Earn. Founded in 1680, it epitomises Scotland’s Enlightenment, and a belief in the power of books to civilise and democratise, to illuminate the spirit, after a period of terrible violence. It proved ‘the urge for education amongst the lowliest of country folk’ and is more recently a magnet for literary tourists rather than a lending library. I’d wanted to write something set there for a long time, though I hadn’t thought of it being a radio play.

It chimed though, with a visit to Kenya in early 2009. I’d been intending to go the previous year but was prevented by the post-election violence which ravaged the country, leaving over 1,000 dead and thousands displaced. I was going there to visit friend and PEN colleague Philo Ikonya, who had stood in that election. Several things became apparent as I visited various towns and villages with her and talked to people. They included a burning desire for peace, political freedom, and tolerance; and a hunger for books and reading which by and large remained un-met. We visited Kisumu, in the west of Kenya, and ‘Obama’s’ nearby village Kogelo, at the time of his inauguration. We had hoped to sell the book which Philo had written for children about Obama’s Kenyan origins. We spent the inauguration day surrounded by children, and often adults, devouring the pages of the book. But in truth it was unthinkable for any of these ‘country folk’ to buy a copy, or even get access to one to borrow, a situation reflected all over sub-Saharan Africa where books are so precious they might be wrapped in plastic and kept on a shelf rather than read.

And so, the parallels began to form in my mind. Along with them came the character of a young enthusiastic Kenyan librarian from the Kisumu area, who is exploring British libraries on a study visit with Book Aid International, and becomes enchanted himself by Innerpeffray. This enchantment, coupled with his fear of the forthcoming election in 2012 at home, fuel a reluctance to leave. When he sees a woman – Elspeth, a widow from a nearby farm – crossing the river to the library at a ford used by the library’s past borrowers, he is reminded of journeys on foot at home, and begins to entice her into books herself. But he is dealing with an antiquarian book collection kept largely behind glass, and so hangs the story…

It was a great joy and privilege to record on location – hearing the gasp from the actors as they walked into the high-ceilinged room lined with leather bound books that I had tried to conjure with words. And as ever, it’s a fantastic learning experience as a writer to hear how the actors interpret your words – the nuance provided by a question mark; the trip-up of unnatural speech; the finding of humour or pathos where you had not seen it yourself.

The play has happened to coincide with a time of great concern for access to libraries here, and so another contemporary chime was set up. Meanwhile in Kenya, efforts are being made to broaden access to books through the mobile libraries (including bicycle and camel-driven) of the Kenya National Libraries Service. Especially in the conflict-ridden Rift Valley, some libraries are being cultivated as places which can provide a civilised and tolerant meeting place for people on opposing sides in the 2008 troubles.

Three wonderful books in their turn helped me with this project – Arthur Herman’s ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’; ‘First Light’, a gorgeous limited edition history of Innerpeffray by George Chamier; and Alberto Manguel’s ‘The Library of Night’. I’ll leave the last word with him:

‘As repositories of history or sources for the future, as guides or manuals for difficult times, as symbols of authority past and present, the books in a library stand for more than their collective contents…’

Linda Cracknell

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