A stunning pandemic hot take from me here: life has changed quite a lot in the past 18 months, and certain aspects of pre-Covid life now feel like memories from another world. As I say: massively incisive stuff – feel free to use it yourself in social situations, although I would appreciate a namecheck where possible.
But even as the new normality creeps back in, and I start to mentally and physically prepare myself for various non-distanced mass gatherings – watching Bicep in Victoria Park, or the East Wiltshire apple-bobbing finals (“Ten Villages, One Bucket!”) – there are more disarming blasts from the past to contend with: slices of life you’d forgotten existed at all. And one such slice dropped into my inbox this week in the form of a reminder from my local library: a “Pre-Overdue Notice” that there are five books I need to return by, delightfully, 23:59 on the 21 August.
My plans for this Saturday night are pretty vague as it stands: perhaps a stand-up gig, perhaps a friend’s party, perhaps just a quiet night in with the new series of Ladhood and a bit of solo bobbing practice. None of these itineraries are going to be greatly enhanced by a mad dash to the library on the stroke of midnight, so as much of an adrenaline rush as the latter might be, I’d be best served to get my business done in working hours before then. Which brings me to the more urgent issues of (a) can I find these damn books? and (b) is the mental time travel involved going to hurt me more than the late fines?
Even in the lost age of innocence when I’m pretty sure these books were borrowed – if I had to put a month on it, I’d say January 2020, you know, when there was something happening on the other side of the world and you could read about it on page seven – I’m aware that borrowing books from the library would have seemed a delightfully/bafflingly archaic pastime to some.
The trip was an outing with my then 11-month old daughter, still in that heart-swelling, world-shrinking stage of Parenthood Phase One where the agenda broadly boils down to Any Outing Will Do, and every aspect of one’s high street becomes encyclopaedically familiar as you patrol it at one-fifth your usual speed. All while trying to (depending on time of day) valiantly stave off/urgently induce a nap.
Suddenly patronising our local library became less of a hypothetical That’s The Wholesome Sort Of Thing People Used To Do and more of a There Could Be Half An Hour In That Actually, and so, 20-odd minutes later (the forecast time-units proving optimistic as ever) we walked out of there with four books for her and one for me. I can’t remember when we were told to bring them back by, but surely it wasn’t the distant land of August 2021.
The book for me (Ian McEwan’s Saturday: a lazy attempt to, if not broaden my palette, then at least broaden my McEwan palette) remains unread. The four books for my daughter, on the other hand, dominated the bedtimes of lockdown one, that simultaneously stressful and surreal period where the weather was nice, the novelty was keeping us afloat, and as young parents (self-employed and therefore spared the all-day Zoom hell) we were grateful for all the extra time to revel in our girl, as walking and talking started to appear on the horizon.
I have nothing but fond memories (with only the slightest whiff of Stockholm) of Petr Horacek’s Who Is Sleeping?, Jane Clarke and Georgie Birkett’s How to Tuck in Your Sleeping Lion (any patterns emerging here?), and my favourite of the bunch, Stephen Barker’s Who’s up in the Air?…Is it the Little Bear? (Spoiler alert: it is, but it’s not just him). The Hey Duggee Tooth Brushing Badge book I still carry a little resentment towards, if only because the pursuit of said badge continues to bore or actively appal my daughter most days even now.
We were lucky enough to spend those spring months outside the city, at my parents’ house near Swindon, where I suspect the books still reside. I am staring down, at the very least, a few days’ late fines. But the main response to receiving this email has been a mixture of surprise that the library’s data – them merely having the will and infrastructure to chase me down – has survived the past year, and a intense nostalgia for that period of our daughter’s first interactive books. The time before her literary world started to consist, over the course of the next two lockdowns, of Peppa Pig-related materials ordered off the internet.
There’s almost an indignation as I think of anyone else getting their grubby mitts on How to Tuck in Your Sleeping Lion, after the Unprecedented Times we shared with it. They can’t! They simply can’t. The lending and returning of books from libraries was the foundation of my childhood: but this is different. Everything is different now. I will pay what needs to be paid, but those books are not going back.