Dreich is the Scots word for the interminably grey, dark Scottish winter, with its cold mists, haar frosts and drear dankness that seeps into the bones. The freezing rain turns to icy sleet, and the wind blasting the Mound cuts slashes through Edinburgh like a hail of nails. Bodies run bent and hobbled, seeking shelter from winter’s fury. The living are transformed into block Lowry-esque figures silhouetted against the glow of street lamps. This is the sullen, hostile bleakness that the Arctic wind drapes over Edinburgh’s pewter-grey, deserted streets.
The old and homeless do not live long in this cold. On nights like this, they huddle in the warmth of the stairwell of the Edinburgh Public Library. Even the stern custodians don't have the heart to expel them into the death of winter. But at 8.30 p.m. the public must leave the Edinburgh Public Library, and by 9.30, the staff must be gone too. Lights are switched off, one by one, floor by floor and the darkness descends deep. Yet in the bowels of the Edinburgh Public Library, the dust of thousands of ancient books trapped in the blackness continues to fall in showers finer than the powdered snow eddying and drifting through city streets.
On a cold cruel night such as this I was working late in the bowels of the Central Public Library. I was eager to get home, but I was starting to brace myself for the icy blast that would rip at me on the walk back to my tiny bedsit in Stockbridge.
It was the winter of 1969. With mixed feelings, I had taken the library job in early November, after spending the most beautiful and memorable time of my young life as a gardener on a private estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Over the summer I luxuriated in a place full of trees, flowers, animals and insects. I would work stripped to the waist, scything the long sensual grass or digging in the rich fecund soil. My body was toned, taut and tanned and I felt wonderfully close to nature.
Autumn had passed in full majestic colour, but as the cold winds rustled the fallen leaves and frosts began to harden and sugar the earth I realized that my idyll was coming to an end. Alas no more would I be able to scythe a clearing and lie naked, sunbathing while dreaming of making love with a girl I had yet to meet. I would miss the scented air filled with the flower pollens that rose up in clouds on hot summer days, and I would miss the breezes that bore this fertility aloft. The only thing I wouldn't miss were the midges that bit and made me itch like crazy on warm summer afternoons.
I needed a job, so before the first wintry snarl of wind and frost, I answered the advert for temporary Library Assistants in the Edinburgh Evening News. I accepted the job with wages of £5 per week. It wasn’t great pay even in 1969. But it would cover my meager expenses of rent and food with a little left over to spend on my motorcycle project—a 1959 A10 650cc BSA that I had been rebuilding over the previous year. My dad gave it to me in boxes of pieces, hoping that I would never actually put it together. Despite his warnings of the dangers of motorcycles, I was obsessed and persisted when many would have given up. I knew that once the bike was finished, it would take me off on wild, freewheeling adventures to England, Europe and beyond.
Fantasies of alluring French mademoiselles, dark eyed Italian ladies or brown-skinned Spanish gypsy senoritas sustained me while I was rebuilding the engine. Rumours of topless beaches and nudist islands in France propelled the paint job, while tales of liberated sex and drugs in Sweden and Denmark kept the project alive when knuckles and patience got skinned. I saw myself roaring down some open road with a gorgeous semi-clad beauty on the pillion…
Until then, I was confined to sorting and cataloguing, stamping and filing in the musk of dead men’s writings in Edinburgh’s Central Public Library. The Library, gifted to the City by the Scottish-American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, is a huge Edwardian building with a grand imposing entrance on George IV Bridge.
The Cowgate is a corruption of ‘Sou’gate’ or South Gate - the southern entrance to the medieval walled city. Once the haunt of Lords and Kings, by the late 1960’s it had become a filthy, menacing and forgotten space, filled with derelict and neglected buildings. Among the depressing decay lurked the night shelters and hostels for its sad and frightening denizens - alcoholics, the mentally ill, the homeless, tramps, down and outs, criminals and worn out prostitutes.
The former glories of another age, such as Tailors Hall lay as weed- strewn, boarded up hulks, while the old Magdalene Church, filled with Medieval Guild emblems, was now visited only by tourists who came to see the knife marks on the execution table. That dismal, black and bloody bench where criminals and dissenters were drawn and quartered after being hung from the gallows in the Grassmarket. The weak winter Scottish sun never, ever touched the Cowgate’s cobbled streets. To look up from them was to see black, soot-encrusted tenements and the ugly rear ends of the university, law courts and the library closing in to exclude the pewter sky. The foundations of this building lie 200 feet down in the ancient rock of the Cowgate. Floor after floor descends down to the medieval streets— dark, grime-filled, skeletal spaces which were once Edinburgh’s original crowded streets.
Near the Edinburgh Public Library lay the haunted Greyfriars Kirkyard where three centuries before, hundreds of Covenanters were imprisoned and murdered. Arrayed around the stark bleak Presbyterian Kirk are the ghoulish and macabre tombs of Edinburgh’s rich, pompous, vain and famous, even yet in death vying for attention. The basement of Edinburgh's huge Central Public Library lies at the same level as the dust-filled coffins and tombs of this ancient Kirkyard. Here was a sense that the ooze and stoor of thousands of years of human suffering and cruelty had gathered and congealed.
It was clear in my mind from the first days in the library job that I wasn’t staying long. As much as I treasure books, I didn’t see myself spending my life with them. The dry overheated dusty book halls were claustrophobic. I rejoiced at the end of a shift when I could breathe fresh air once more.
There were a few young people like myself working as temporary assistants here, some working a gap year before going on to further education, and some training for a career in library science. On rare occasions, I was able to have some fun and laughs with some of the younger staff, but laughter and noise were not welcome in the hallowed halls of Central Lending.
The majority of the staff were older spinster ladies, hair in buns, dressed in tweed skirts, cardigans, high-necked blouses and sensible brown lace up shoes. Kindly, friendly yet reserved, they were helpful to me. But I discerned a certain disapproval and prudishness in them and a feeling that they were just waiting out their time before retirement to their tidy house in the suburbs with cats and flower- arranging classes for diversion.
Mr. Graham, the Head Librarian whom I had met at the job interview, struck me as a stiff and authoritarian man. It would become abundantly clear that he had a general contempt for young people - and for me in particular with my long hair and ‘bumfreezer’ leather jacket. Mr Graham was of the old school of disciplinarians. Punctuality, reliability, dedication and devotion to books was his credo. He ran the library with a style that would have made a German S.S. General proud.
He issued commands such as - “Pockets! Young man, take your hands out of your pockets!” — and “Take this book to Lending now –Jump To It!” that must never be challenged, only obeyed. He stood at the door of the library every morning, with his pocket watch in hand, checking the arrival times of his staff. His silver hair immaculately slicked down, his hawkish eyes peering out through gold rimmed spectacles, his perfectly creased and tailored dark suit, polished shoes, stiff white shirt and darktie. The picture of efficiency, authority and precision.
I had a big problem with time- keeping and would invariably arrive late, after a long night tinkering with my motorbike. The black oiliness under my fingernails gave testament to my hobby. After a couple of years messing about with oily engines, the grime would not wash off. One morning Mr. Graham pointed out the state of my hands, as if I were on parade in the army:
“You must wash your hands more often, and clean under your nails. We don’t want oily fingerprints all over our nice new books, do we? You’ll never get a girl friend with such filthy hands.”
We were so different Mr. Graham and I. With my long shoulder-length hair swinging around my shoulders and my flared trousers and denim jacket, I was a 19-year-old dreamer with a head full of sexual fantasies. I got turned on reading Catcher in the Rye and heavier stuff like Madame Bovary, Germinal and macabre stuff like Rosemary’s Baby. But best of all I liked reading D.H Lawrence and John Steinbeck.
To Mr. Graham I was a regressive and errant employee who needed to be brought to heel, and it was with smug delight that he repeatedly caught me trying to slip in late, unnoticed behind some members of the public. Mr. Graham instituted a penalty system on me, deducting five shillings for every quarter of an hour I was late and giving me extra late shift duties. This only built my resentment and increasing dislike of the older man.
My first library duties were working in Central Fiction, tidying books, stacking shelves, filling out membership forms, filing tickets, stamping dates on books, taking fines. The atmosphere was dry, reserved and humourless. The visiting public was much more interesting than the library staff.My favourite characters were the short-sighted old ladies who fought each other over a large-print Agatha Christie book. I once had to separate two old dears who were hitting each other with umbrellas and handbags.
"It's mine!" cried one. "No, I saw it first!" yelled the other.
The book was in imminent danger of being pulled apart. When I had rescued it I noticed that the last page of the mystery novel had been torn out ‘in revenge’ by one of the old ladies. If one couldn’t have it, the other wasn’t going to find out Who Dunnit! Another memorable character was the lecherous drunk who wanted to read Ulysses and discovered it was kept in an ‘Annexe’ with lots of other lewd and libidinous novels.
“An Annexe!” he bellowed to the prim librarian. “You keep one of the finest pieces of literature in an Annexe. What’s that about?”
Her blushes and embarrassment as she tried to explain and justify the contents and rationale of the Annexe were hilarious. “We…e..e…ll,” she stuttered. “Some of our readers might be offended if they accidentally opened certain books on certain pages… and then there are the children and young people to think about.”
She looked to me for support, as I was just about to explode with mirth. I knew what she was talking about. The books fell open by themselves at ‘the naughty bits’ and the relevant pages were all dog- eared and grubby. “So, what else have you got down there?” the drunk leaned over the counter craning his neck to get a look at the small hoard of censored books kept out of public sight.
"I can see Catcher in the Rye and is that Sons and Lovers and Old Lady Chat. But I don’t see anything by the Marquis De Sade….haven’t you got Justine?”
“Emmm no, but if you would like to borrow any of these books,” she lowered her voice, “May I see your reader's card?”
“Ah, bugger, didn’t bring it with me, maybe next time. I’ll tell you a joke instead:
A man walks into a library and asks in a very loud voice, ‘Can I have some fish and chips.’ The librarian replies,’ Sir, this is a LIBRARY. You must speak quietly here.’ OK, says the man. Then lowering his voice to a whisper he asks, ‘Can I please have some fish and chips?’"
We all laughed. The joke broke the ice. It’s why people stay in Scotland – for the humour.
The drunk man shrugged his shoulders. “I’d better be going before last orders. Thanks anyway. I know where I can get a bit of the raunchy stuff now – eh lad?” He winked at me, smiled and stumbled out of the door and out into the dour Calvin-encrusted streets of Edinburgh.
The library attracted such wonderful characters and eccentrics. There was the old man who lived in the Salvation Army hostel and came into the library every single day. He told me that he was reading his way through the fiction library - every single volume of it from A to Z. After five years of daily reading he had reached the letter E.
I wondered if this old man would ever make it to L let alone Z. He was quiet, a gentle person, educated and refined. I often wondered what personal events had brought him to this strange task. He didn’t appear to be alcoholic but I now wonder if he was using the reading as an addiction transfer. A means of escaping the call of the chemical addiction or maybe a way to forget, by immersing himself in the imaginings of writers, he could temporarily forget some dreadful reality, some terrible trauma in his past? He was to me the ‘Bookworm,’ burrowing his way through the library. He may have been the only person alive to have read some of the books there.
Week after week many shelves in the library would not need tidying. Many of the books were never asked for and the dust collected on their edges. Romances, ‘who dunnits’ and horror stories were ever in demand. But Bookworm was the only person who read systematically and relentlessly, without discrimination or pre-judgement. I admired him and imagined that he was a professor of literature who had had a breakdown and was repairing himself by this means.
There were other members of the public who loitered in the toilets - they now call them ‘gay’ but I knew them as ‘queers’ and ‘poofs,’ and in that era they were despised and persecuted. Derelicts and tramps wandered in and out trying to get free heat before the attendant would usher them back out into the freezing Edinburgh night. These men and women bundled in ragged clothing, hunched, carrying bags full of rags and scavengings from rubbish bins. They stank of urine and alcohol and would ask in whinging voices ‘Can you spare a shilling for a cup of tea, son?’
My first few days at the library I gave generously, then I realized the only tea they drank was in whisky or from a bottle of cheap red wine which they would share in the basement toilet of the library. Then there were all the attractive young schoolgirls who came in the afternoons bringing with them the fresh smells of youth and flowers. Their laughter, giggles and smiles always made me blush, embarrassed by the arousal their shapely bodies created and the exciting imaginings running through my mind. I think they fancied me, but like me they were shy and inexperienced. Still, I could imagine kissing and caressing a true, loving virginal girl friend, maybe in that secret clearing among the rosebay willow herb, or on a deserted beach on a Mediterranean island.
It was on my third day in the library, that I first learned about the strange phenomenon of ‘book dust.’ I must have been exposed to it the very moment I entered the library, but with the confusion and strangeness of a new job I hadn’t really noticed it. It was when I was tidying the bookshelves that I became fully aware of it, sticking to my hands and clothes.
"Once you have made sure that the books are in proper decimal order, put one hand behind the books, pull them forward and then with your knuckles tap them back until they are nicely lined up with the front edge of the shelf,” said Miss Paterson, demonstrating this tidying obsession.
“Carry on putting away any returned books, ordering and tidying all the way through the library from A to Z," continued the ever-prim librarian.
"That should keep you busy for an hour or so.’ She added with a self-satisfied smirk."
I had reached H when I noticed my hands had become covered in some kind of very fine, slightly greasy substance, a slightly slippery dirty cream-coloured dust. Not as greasy as motorbike grease, with which I felt very comfortable, but this made me uneasy.It reminded me of the greasy dust that clings to cookers, but much finer, more penetrating and adhesive. It clung to my fingers and palms, it got up under my nails and mixed with the bike grease. It stuck to my shirt and corduroy trousers. The dust was so fine that it filled my pores and made my skin feel like smooth porcelain.
When I put my hands to my nose, they smelled of rotten meat - the foul smell of putrescence, just like that clawing stink that was released when, as a gardener, I had stepped on a long dead rabbit in the long grass at the estate. I'll never forget the maggots wriggling under my boot and the sick queasy feeling the stench brought on. I had to sit down for a moment to fight off the nausea. When I had finished tidying the book shelves I asked the librarian what this sickening powdery stuff was.
“Don’t you clean around here? I’ve got this greasy dust all over me. What is it?”
“Oh, that is book dust, young man.” Miss Paterson replied in a matter- of-fact tone. “It’s everywhere in the library. No matter how much we dust and clean, it keeps coming. "It fills up the corners in the bookcases, forms a fine film over the books. It’s in the air, between the cracks on the floor, it gets into your clothes, into your hair, and we must be breathing it in all day long. But don’t worry, my young man. It’s harmless, unless, of course, you are allergic to dust. There have been several people who had to give up working here on account of their dust allergies. One or two got it quite badly and I believe that it may have caused the death of one of my former colleagues.”
“Death?!!! How was that?’ A shiver ran down my spine. Suddenly the library seemed more interesting.
“Well Hamish McKay, he worked here for 25 years, then one day it seems that he opened an old book and began sneezing. He didn’t stop sneezing. He became quite ill, started to come out in big red welts and oozing sores. He was scratching and itching like a dog with fleas. They took him into the Royal Infirmary and pumped him full of drugs, changed all his blood, but none of it was any good.Old Hamish got more and more swollen up until he couldn’t breathe and he died a horrible choking, agonising death, poor chap.”
The librarian related the story, relishing all the details and as if to taunt me, mimicked the choking death by putting her hands to her throat, sticking out her tongue and rolling her eyes. My mind was racing, contemplating the horrible death of a librarian and the weird idea that a book could kill someone. Intriguing and fascinating, but was it really true?
“I hope that you’re not winding me up Miss Paterson. You’ve got me quite worried. I’d better watch out for that book he opened. Do you remember the title?”
“No, my young man, it’s a long time ago…I think it was some kind of medical book.
The queerest thing of all was that there didn’t seem to be any disturbance to the books in the shelves where he said he had been working. After he died I looked everywhere for the book but couldn’t find it.”
“You really are winding me up now,” I laughed.
Miss Paterson smiled weakly, raised her eyebrows and looked straight at me and said, “Now would I make up something like that? But I haven’t heard of anyone else having such a severe reaction to book dust.
"Strange," she continued. "Old Hamish worked down in the bowels of this building in Accession and you would have thought he would have been immune to book dust after 25 years.”
“What is ‘Ascension?”
“Accession, dear boy, is where books are acceded.”
“Acceded?" I stammered.
“You’ll see soon enough,’ said Miss Paterson. “All temporary staff are required do a stint down there, to cover when permanent staff go on holiday. Accession is in the basement of the library. It's where all new books are catalogued and prepared for lending, and where all the sole remaining copies of the library books are kept. The place is stacked floor to ceiling with unusual books, some rare, some odd, some beautiful, some astonishly strange. And yes, before you ask, it’s filled with book dust.”
I scratched my hand, an annoying itch. I reminded myself that I must wear gloves when using fiberglass. I had been making a seat base for the bike the night before. On my seventh week at the library I was told that I would be required to work in Accession. Two of the three ladies who worked there were taking holidays. I would report on the coming Monday at 3.00 p.m. for the late shift. I felt an irrational creeping dread about the prospect, partly due to the seeds of concern that Miss Paterson had planted in me, and partly because some of the young temps had told me how awful it was down in the basement - stuffy, boring, depressing and dusty.
The front of the Edinburgh Public Library appears solid and robust like any normal building, but behind these normal public areas is found a strange disconcerting space. Here lies a world of annexed books, withdrawn stock and administrative and service functions. This rear section of the building was specially built to support the weight of millions of books, all stacked in heavy wooden shelves. The Edwardian designers had devised a massive steel frame with floors of cast iron grids to support the stupendous load, of row upon row... tier upon tier... shelf upon shelf of books.
Each floor was a grid form, a criss-cross of pierced metal, a suspended latticework that allowed views upwards and downwards. Down and down, level after level into the darkness to finally end at Accession. A strange kaleidoscope of black grid work and bookshelves, staggered and aligned - a ‘cage of books’ - where books are imprisoned, held in suspension, with their potent and dangerous content of knowledge, ideas and power.Between the shelves bare lightbulbs swing, casting long eerie shadows through the stillness. All sounds become muffled, dampened and deadened by the acoustic absorption of the mass of paper stored in this huge vault.
Footsteps make no sound, and uttered words are swallowed in the darkness. It is so still I once imagined I could hear the books reciting their contents, a low babbling drone. There are no echoes, no reverberations, just whispers from disembodied voices, and in the distance the dull thud of a closing door. Everywhere glinting and sparkling in the still air, illuminated by the shafts of electric light, hang drifting clouds of book dust, falling down imperceptibly from level to level to settle finally in Accession. Every surface is coated with the fine talc; like a woman’s face powder - fine oily stickiness that clings to the hair, the clothes and clogs the nostrils, the lungs and the bloodstream. It has a smell, a slightly sweet pungency. The stench of decay and miasma.
Here, on my first night working in Accession, strange thoughts obsessed me. What exactly is book dust? Is it the bits of book paper rubbed off by fingers or something more complex? Is it the decay and the rot of the paper in the damp Edinburgh air; the defoliation of the paper, its gradual crumbling? Or is it the spores of some fungus feeding upon the pages?
Could it be the excrement of minute living creatures, the crumbs from the dust book mites and bookworm’s meal of words? What is a bookworm? Has anyone ever seen one outside of a school? Or is there something demonic at work, hell bent on the destruction of human knowledge, information and beauty by insidious means?
Out of curiosity, I look up book dust in the encyclopedia but there is no such entry. When I look under ‘Dust’ another world is revealed to me – a terrifying micro-underworld dominated by Pyroglyphidae—a nightmarish fat bloated body with tentacles and legs. Fortunately, these spidery horrors are minute. Three of them would fit on a pin head. They feed on skin fragments and sheddings and other biological effluvia.
The average human sheds 1/5-ounce of skin fragments per week; one ounce every five weeks; over ten ounces a year. When I multiplied this by the number of people working and visiting the library my imagination could see the huge feast awaiting these invisible predators. And since the dust mite excrement has been accumulating here for all these centuries, I wondered if there were bits of medieval murderers or hanged men in the furthest corners of Accession; powdery vestiges of their gruesome lives.
Some people can develop toxic allergic reactions to the powdery excrement of these creatures which becomes airborne at the slightest disturbance. There were cases of people dying from an anaphylactic shock reaction to dust mites excrement. Did this happen to poor old Hamish McKay?I now knew something about the composition of book dust but I also wondered if there had been a mutation, a specialized creature which now lived only on the paper that books are made from? The hundreds of people coming and going from the library every day and handling the books, would leave a feast of dead skin for the invisible harvesters.
My further reading led to discovering The Itch Mite Sarcoptes scabiei a relative of the spider 1/3 mm long which lives in the skin. Its burrowing hooks and talons cause intense itching and blisters. I shivered with repulsion at the illustration. Certainly this parasite would inhabit some of the books returned to the library. The thought made me scratch my arm. The itching seemed to move.
Reluctantly, and late for work as usual, I reported to the Accession department on Monday at 3.15pm. The single elderly librarian pointed to the clock and said “You are 15 minutes late, young man. I have made a note. I hope you will be punctual in future. I am Miss McDougal and this is the Accession department. What is your name by the way?”
My name is Alasdair Gordon, Miss.”
Very well, Alasdair. I’ll show you the work we do here in Accession. Firstly, Accession is where all the new books acquired by the library service are labeled, covered, catalogued, coded and distributed to the various branch libraries and central departments.
Secondly, it is also a huge store of books which have been withdrawn from circulation from lending departments and libraries, and which are rare, valuable, or last copies.
“Your job is to make out a catalogue card for each new book you see in those trolleys,” said Miss McDougal pointing to a large three-bay wooden bookcase on wheels.
“Give each book an allocated number and ticket then assign it to its destination department or branch library. Those other trolleys have the withdrawn stock. With them we look through the catalogue”- she pointed to a wall of oak drawers labeled alphabetically by author and title - “to see if it is a last copy.
If it isn’t, it goes in that bin for disposal. If it is, a last copy it is placed in the shelves for posterity.”
“So it’s a bit like the birthplace and the graveyard for books,” I joked.
"Yes, I suppose you could say that, or perhaps the graveyard of young men’s big ideas,’ Miss McDougal laughed strangely at her own black humour.
In Accession the book dust lay thickly on the infinite array of books and shelves that filled the huge space at the bottom of the gigantic building. Shelf after shelf of old, long neglected books in leather jackets or worn cardboard covers. Here and there a petrified finger mark or hand print showed that long ago the dust had been disturbed by a book's removal and replacement.
The thickness of the dust was testament to how seldom these books were ever requested. Das Kapital...Mein Kamph...Norton Dominator Maintenance Manual...Austin 7 Year Book...Good Housekeeping 1951... How To Survive a Nuclear Attack...The Best of Scottish Cookery...The Beano Annual 1965. A kaleidoscope of the best and worst in human experience and knowledge cascading down to the lowest.
Here rested books and ideas that had changed the world, propelled revolutions or sent armies to war. Here the ideas of heroes and villains; the theories of Einstein set beside those of Adolph Hitler, the poetry of Shakespeare beside the doggerel of Scotland’s - and the world's - worst poet: William Topaz McGonagle. The geology of James Hutton, the philosophy of David Hume, the genetics of Mendel, the voyages of Captain Cook, Lord Franklin and Charles Darwin’s Journal from the Beagle; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations all languishing in this limbo, waiting to be requested by some impassioned student of history. Or... were these tomes only waiting to be devoured by time and decay? Their ideas superseded by modernity?
Would their contents ever be fashionable or respected again? Or were they kept merely because they were the last of the line, the last of a dynasty?Whatever the past usefulness of these books, they now served as the food supply for an invisible host of munching creatures that cared squat for ideas or ideals. The cold, bleak Scottish cycle of sleet, freezing rain and Arctic winds repeated itself over the next few days. I struggled more than ever to get out of my rented room and to my job at the Edinburgh Library.
The Head Librarian warned me that if I continued with lateness I would be disciplined. For every quarter of an hour that I was late I would lose a half hour's pay. That week I suffered the loss of a whole hour’s pay.
Day by day my dread of Accession increased. The place was eerie and spooky, especially at night when Miss McDougal went home and I was left all alone for four and a half hours. This solitary confinement was probably my punishment for continually being late and for leaving some oily finger-marks on a new book. The itching had traveled to my back and sides, and I was making myself quite raw with scratching. Maybe I’ve picked up a flea or developed an allergy, I thought to myself. I'd better see the doctor about this, it’s driving me mad.
Irresistibly, in those long strange hours, my thoughts kept turning to book dust, its ingredients and the creatures which created it. I took to placing it under the desk lamp and looking at it through the magnifying lens. On close inspection I could see that it contained a small quantity of black particles amongst the white and cream. Were these the remains of printed words- pieces of text, or parts of leather bindings?
If I had a microscope would I find flecks of cardboard, strands of string or goldleaf from page edges and embossed titles? Did book dust have any narcotic properties? Would it inspire a novel if it were sniffed like cocaine? I amused myself with thoughts of dissolving it in alcohol and imbibing it. Like Byron, Shelly and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with opium. Would it inspire poetry, a travel saga, a crime novel, a work of science, history or a horror story?
I thought that if I listened attentively, I would hear the book mites munching and digesting the great works of men and women. Those little creatures mindlessly prospering and procreating on the words of genius and fools. Munching oblivious to content - through learned texts, poems, cant, dogma, humour and prose. It seemed as if this huge library was filtering down high lofty ideas - to reduce in this book-retort the fractional distillates of words and concepts. The filter, sieving, straining and slowly resolving what should live and endure; what should die and what should be embalmed and entombed; what should turn to dust.
My late nights in Accession were giving me nightmares. In one, I was in a strangely distorted library and a tall man in a black coat handed me a small package of white powder. Snort that,” he said. “It will make you feel good.” I did what he told me; he seemed to have some power over me. I sniffed the powder up into my nostril, but it wasn’t powder - it was a mass of wriggling squirming worms. . .parasitic worms that began eating me alive.
I vowed to stop reading those books about insects and parasites. Sometimes in those long boring hours in the deadened quiet of the library basement it was easy to slip into a trance or doze off. One night a strange noise made me start and my heart quicken. Get a grip I told myself. What are you afraid of? I heard a rustle. Was someone there, in the darkness among the bookshelves? Was some down-and-out soul taking refuge from the cold - or was it the custodian? "Who’s there?”
I heard a scuttling sound. Was it a rat? I reassured myself that I was imagining things and went on with my cataloguing until again, like some poor soul out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale, I was again compulsively drawn to the books on parasites. I took down one and began to read.
Parasites make up the majority of the Earth's species...Every living thing has at least one parasite, and many, including humans, have far more. ... Often the parasites themselves have parasites, and some of those parasites have parasites of their own…
Some are capable of taking over the cerebral functions of their hosts. Others completely shut down the hosts' immune systems. Scientists now believe that parasites may have been the dominant force in the evolution of life.
Pages later, I met Sacculina carcini. What she could do made my blood chill...Through a microscope, the tiny crustacean looks like a teardrop equipped with fluttering legs and a pair of dark eyespots. The female larva is the first to colonize its host, the crab. ..She crawls along the crab's arm until she comes to a joint where the hard exoskeleton bends at a soft chink. Here small hairs sprout out of the crab's arm, each anchored in its own hole.
She jabs a long hollow dagger through one of the holes, and through it squirts a blob made up of a few cells. The injection, which takes only a few seconds, triggers a premature molting that crustaceans and insects go through in order to grow. Reading this makes me gasp in the stifling silence, as if microscopic eyes are peering over my shoulder. ...the larvae plunges into the depth of the crab. In time it settles in the crab's underside and grows, forming a bulge in its shell and sprouting a set of rootlike tendrils which spread throughout the crab's body, even wrapping around its eyestalks.
..these fine tendrils draw in nutrients dissolved in the crab's blood, yet what is remarkable is that this gross invasion into the crab's body fails to trigger any immune response in the crab. So it continues to wander through the surf, eating clams and mussels.
Eventually, the text explained, the crab is changed by the parasite into a new sort of creature, one that exists to serve the parasite. The crab can no longer do the things that would get in the way of Sacculina's growth. It stops molting and growing, which would funnel away energy from the parasite. Crabs often escape from predators by severing a claw and regrowing it later on. But crabs carrying Sacculina cannot grow a new claw, nor can they mate and reproduce. And while other crabs mate and produce new generations, these crustaceans have been spayed by the parasite and simply go on eating and eating.
Sacculina is only one of many such parasites which transform their hosts into seemingly different creatures...and even alter its behavior.We are collections of cells that work together, kept harmonized by chemical signals. If a parasite can control those signals then it can control us. Therein lies the horror.”
The idea that a parasite could take control of another creature, becoming its puppet master, fascinated and appalled me. If a human were infected, how would he know? Would he be aware of losing control or doing strange things? Just what could the parasite make him do?
One evening in Accession I woke startled from a momentary doze. A wave of panic swept over me. I felt something in my ear. Wriggling and burrowing. I ran to the toilet to look in the mirror. A trickle of blood dribbled from my ear. I screamed and hammered on my head to dislodge whatever had crawled in there. Whatever it was could go straight through my ear and into my brain - like Sacculina. I needed help. I rushed out of the library and ran up George the IV Bridge past the Greyfriars Bobby statue, knocking some American tourists over in my frantic rush.I tore up Forrest Road and onto Middle Meadow Walk until I saw the Royal Infirmary and the entrance to the Accident and Emergency Department. I barged in and demanded immediate attention.
A startled young doctor with thick spidery mascara examined me, poking in my ears. With an icy smile, and a toss of her head, she said that she couldn't see anything. I demanded an X-ray. I waited for ages, getting more and more frightened and angry. Finally, I was taken into the radiography room and they took pictures of my head. About an hour later the tarantula-eyed doctor came and showed me the x-rays.
"There's nothing in your ear or head that shouldn’t be," she said with a sniff.
But I could feel it taking control, wrapping its tentacles around my brain.
"You're just imagining things," she huffed." But I'll admit you for observation and give you an injection of antibiotics...just in case."
I remember the cold needle going into my arm and sinking into an icy drowsiness. I realised she had drugged me. I began arguing with her and feeling furious but after that I don't remember much. Some time after my treatment ended I got another job in another library; not as grand or imposing as the Edinburgh Central Library, but one just as important. I’ve been here for four years and the library has come on by leaps and bounds. Two years ago the library won an award - 'The Changes Lives Award' from the Chartered Institute of Librarians. Many of the readers here are voracious fans of action books, fantasy and horror but we also have a video and CD library.
When I started work here we opened at first, two hours a day, four days a week but the library is now open five hours a day, seven days a week. It aims to provide something for everyone - relaxation, support for lifelong learning and recreation. It caters for those with learning disabilities and those unwilling or unable to come in person. Reading groups, visits by storytellers and creative writing sessions provide pleasure and opportunities for achievement for all.
The library users group is a mechanism to make things happen, and jobs as library assistants offer opportunities for worthwhile occupation. I was an obvious choice to become a library assistant. Staircars is a small drab town in central Scotland. Its plain grey solid houses sit hard onto the road with no nice floral gardens or soft high summery grasses to sythe. Near the town is the 16 foot-high perimeter fence trimmed with razor wire surrounding the hard concrete of the State Hospital. It is the ugliest assemblage of constructions I have ever seen. I am lucky because I will never have to look at it again.
Arriving at the State Hospital you get an instant feeling for the calibre of psychiatric patients behind these walls. Everyone connected with Staircars stresses it is not a prison, although it is easy to see why the public perception is otherwise. Most people only hear of this institution when a judge sends someone here after a horrific crime. Like the woman who murdered her mother and father because - she explained - they refused to let her have a baby with herself, that is, mate with herself.
She thought that you could get the white stuff to make babies at the Tesco Supermarket. Her parents said no. This made her very angry, because she really wanted to be a mother. So she stabbed her parents to bits. The town of Staircars has no library, but the hospital has a large and beautifully equipped facility to rival any university, and I now spend as much time as they will allow working and reading in this library.
I have written all of this, my story, from the Staircars State Hospital library. Our library has a wonderful collection of books on psychosis, one of my favourite being The Identification and Diagnosis of Delusional Psychosis.
Delusional parasitosis was first described by the French dermatologist George Thibierge in 1894. Before 1946, the condition was known by a variety of names, including acarophobia, dermatophobia and parasitophobia. Patients are convinced they are infected by parasitic creatures which only they can see. When doctors do not confirm the presence of parasites the patient can become violent and may have to be restrained. Doctors have been murdered by their patients. Prospects of recovery are good if the condition is correctly diagnosed as a psychotic condition and not a dermatological one and with modern drug and psychological techniques most patients can recover.
They expect that eventually I will make a recovery of sorts. But I’ll never be released. Not after what I did. At my trial they said I strangled my doctor at a follow-up visit one morning, and stuffed her mouth with some kind of white sticky dust, then rampaged through the Edinburgh Library stabbing the Head librarian and a policemen before I was overpowered. But what none of them understand - the doctor, the police, the judge - they simply don't understand - it wasn't me.