I never imagined that I would end up working in a library. I always thought they were very boring places, however, with the onset of winter in Scotland the warmth and shelter of a job in the library now seemed very attractive. A Scottish winter can be a long cruel affair. It begins as autumn coolness gives way to the first silvery frosts and freezing winter rains lash horizontally, driven by a north or eastern wind. Then there is no respite from the cold and creeping dampness. Working outdoors becomes at first unpleasant and then insufferable. It is in the grey months from November to March when days are short, the sun is a rare visitor and cold mists, haar frosts, dank dampness clings and seeps into the bones. Dreich is the Scots word that epitomizes the dreariness of Scottish winter – interminably grey, dark and chilling.
The freezing rain turns to icy sleet and the wind blasting the Mound cuts like a hail of nails. Caught in this tirade of nature, it is easy to believe that a thousand sword cuts would hurt less. Hurrying bodies run bent and huddled, seeking shelter from the winter’s eastern wilderness. The living are transformed into black Lowry-esque figures silhouetted against the glow of street lamps. This is the sullen, hostile bleakness that a north-eastern Arctic wind creates in Edinburgh’s pewter-grey, deserted streets. Fleetingly a lamp of cheer shows from an old pub and high up in a tenement window an orange glow emanates from a warm room and then is extinguished.
The old and homeless do not live long in this cold, they huddle in the warmth of the library stairwell and even the stern custodians do not have the heart to expel them into the death of winter. Yet at 8.30pm the public must leave the library and by 9.30pm the staff must be gone. One by one, light by light, floor by floor the lights are switched off and darkness descends. In the blackness the dust of books continues to fall in showers finer than the fine powdered snow that is eddying and drifting in the streets of the City. The black and grey buildings of Edinburgh are now in the grip of a blizzard - obliterating them in a swarm of frantic whiteness.
On this cold cruel night I was working late in the bowels of the Central Public Library. While eager to get home 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. I had taken the library job in early November 1969. My feelings about the job were mixed after I had spent the most beautiful and memorable time of my young life as a gardener on a private estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. For months I had luxuriated in a place full of trees, flowers, animals and insects. I would work stripped to the waist, scything the long grass or digging in the rich 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 loss of this rich beauty would haunt and pain me ever after but I wouldn't miss the midges that bit and made me itch like crazy on warm summer afternoons.
That was past and the cool Autumn winds and early frosts presaged the winter. By mid October I knew that I had to find another job. I saw the advert for temporary Library Assistants in the local Edinburgh Evening News; The idea of being indoors in a warm building was very appealing so I applied, went for an interview and accepted the offer of the job with the wage of ￡5 per week. It wasn’t very great pay even in 1969, but it would suffice to cover my meager expenses of rent and food and give me a little left over to spend on my motorcycle project. The project was a 1959, A10 650cc BSA that I had been rebuilding over the last year. My dad had given it to me in boxes hoping that I would never put it together. Despite his warnings of the dangers of motorcycles I was obsessed and persisted when many would have given up. Once the bike was finished my dream was that it would take me off on wild, freewheeling adventures to England, Europe and beyond. Thoughts of meetings with alluring French mademoiselles, dark-eyed Italian ladies or brown-skinned Spanish gypsy senoritas sustained me in rebuilding the engine. Rumours of topless beaches and nudist islands in France propelled the paint job while the tales of liberated sex and drugs in Sweden and Denmark kept the project alive when money ran out and knuckles and patience became skinned. I could often fantasize and see 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 millionaire Scottish American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, is a huge Edwardian building with a grand imposing entrance on George IV Bridge. I would enter the library by crossing a small bridge leading to the arched doorway, but the entrance is in reality high above ground level. The foundations of this building lie two hundred feet down in the ancient rock of the Cowgate. Floor after floor descends down to the medieval streets - these dark grime filled skeletal spaces, which were once Edinburgh’s original crowded streets.
The Cowgate was 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 was 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, beast-like 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 only visited 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.
On the Cowgate’s cobbled streets, the weak winter Scottish sun would never, never touch and to look up from its depth was to see only black - soot encrusted tenements and the ugly rear ends of the university, law courts and the library closing in to exclude the pewter sky. Nearby lay Greyfriars Kirkyard where three hundred years ago, 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 the huge Edinburgh Central Public Library lies at the same level as the dust filled coffins and tombs of this ancient Greyfriars Kirkyard. Here was a sense that the ooze and stoor of thousands of years of human suffering and cruelty had gathered and congealed; just as a lazy housewife sweeps the dust into a hidden corner for some later owner to discover with disgust. I suddenly recalled one afternoon on the estate, opening a bin kept for pig swill and being confronted by a teeming squirming mass of fat creamy maggots, gluttonising on the putrid, stinking slime. I shivered with disgust at the memory.
I was clear in my mind from the first days in the library job that I wasn’t staying long. I just wanted to earn some money over the winter, then I would to go travelling through the summer and then return to study at the Art College. I wanted to be a landscape architect….working in the garden had inspired me and opened up in me a real love for plants and the land. This love of the natural world combined with my design talents promised much and I looked forward to working hard in that career. As much as I love books, I didn’t see myself spending my life with them. The dry overheated dusty book halls could become very claustrophobic and I was often rejoicing when the end of a shift arrived and I could breathe fresh air once more. The down side of a library was that you didn’t really get much time to read, much of the work was laborious and boring.
There were a few young people like myself working as temporary assistants; filling in a year after school before going on to further education. There were several others who were training for a career in librarian-ship. I was able, on rare occasions, 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 and being caught having a ‘book fight’ would mean instant dismissal.The majority of the staff were older people, spinster ladies, hair in buns, dressed in tweed skirts, cardigans, high-necked blouses and sensible brown lace up shoes. Kindly, friendly but reserved; they were helpful to me, yet I could discern a certain distance, disapproval and prudishness in them and a feeling that they just were waiting out their time before they could retire to their tidy house in the suburbs with cats and flower arranging classes for diversion.
I had met the Head Librarian at the job interview and he struck me then as a stiff and authoritarian man. It would become abundantly clear that Mr Graham the Head Librarian had a general contempt for young people and for me in particular with my long hair and ‘bum-freezer’ leather jacket. Mr Graham was of the old school of disciplinarians, where punctuality, reliability, dedication and devotion to books was his credo. He ran the library with a style that would have made a German SS General proud. He issued commands such as - “Pockets! Young man, take your hands out of your pockets! 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 dark tie; the picture of efficiency, authority and precision.
I had a big problem with time keeping and would invariably arrive late. I would often stay up late into the night tinkering with my motorbike, the black oiliness under my fingernails in the morning giving testament. After a couple of years messing about with oily engines the grime would not wash off. Mr Graham pointed out the state of my hands one morning, 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.” I didn’t know whether this was a serious comment or meant in fun. I could never tell with Mr. Graham.
We were so different he and I. With my long shoulder-length hair swinging around my shoulders and wearing flared trousers and denim jacket I was a nineteen-year-old dreamer, my 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. Strangely although surrounded by books all the time, there was not much time to read. When the ladies were off having a tea break I would have a quick squint at the ‘Annexe’ where the interesting books were kept and re-read a favourite passage or two before they returned. Time was nothing to me; the library was only a boring job to be endured until better things appeared. To Mr. Graham I was a regressive and errant employee who needed to be brought to heel, and it was with smug delight that Mr. Graham repeatedly caught me trying to slip in late, unnoticed behind some members of the public. He 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 up in me resentment and increasing dislike of the older man.
My first duties were in Central Fiction, tidying books, stacking shelves, filling out membership forms, filing tickets, stamping dates on books, taking fines. The atmosphere was dry, his colleagues polite, quiet, reserved and humourless. The visiting public was much more interesting. My favourites were the old short-sighted ladies who fought each other over a large print Agatha Christie story. 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 back page 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, “You keep one of the finest pieces of literature in an Annexe. What’s that about?” The blushes and embarrassment of the prim librarian as she tried to explain and justify the contents and rationale of the Annexe was 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 turned to me for support, but 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 I see? 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, “I would like to see your reader’s card?”
“Ah, bugger, didn’t bring it with me, maybe next time. I’ll tell you a good joke instead:A man walks into a library and asks in a loud voice.. ‘Can I have some fish and chips’. The librarian replies, ‘This is a library sir.’ ‘OK, replies the man, then lowering his voice to a whisper he asks, ‘Can I 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 seemed to attract characters and eccentrics. There was the old man who lived in the Salvation Army hostel and came into the library every day. He told me that he was reading his way through the fiction library and had after five years of daily reading had reached 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 and 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 in the library. 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 this old man 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 also wandered in and out trying to get free heat before the attendant would usher them back out into the freezing Edinburgh night. 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 whingeing 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 and students who would come into the library 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 that 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. Well I could dream.
I first learned about the strange phenomenon of ‘book dust’ on my third day in the library. 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 the librarian Miss Paterson as she demonstrated this tidying obsession.
"Carry on putting away any returned books, ordering and tidying all the way through the library from A to Z. That should keep you busy for an hour or so.” She added with a smirk of self-satisfaction.
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 everything feel like smooth porcelain. On my hands and in my nostrils it smelled of bad meat, and brought back to me the foul smell of putrescence I would never forget, released when I had stepped on a long dead rabbit in the long grass at the estate. I remembered the maggots wriggling under my boot and the sick queasy feeling the stench brought on. I had to sit down for a moment to regain my composure and fight off the nausea.
When I had finished tidying the shelves I asked the librarian what this stuff was. ‘Don’t you clean around here? I’ve got this sort of greasy dust all over me. What is it?’
“Oh, that’s book dust”, Miss Paterson replied, disinterestedly, “it’s everywhere in the library; bits of paper, I suppose, that rub off the books. 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 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 allergy. 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. “Tell me more!” All of a sudden the library began to get interesting.
“Well, it was Hamish McKay, he worked her for 25 years, then one day it seems that he opened an old book and began sneezing. It didn’t stop; he became quite ill, started to come out in big red wheels, and 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. He 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 the details and mimicking 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 can kill someone? This was intriguing and fascinating? But was it really true?
“I hope that you’re not winding me up, you’ve got me quite worried, I’d better watch out for that book he opened. Do you remember the title?”
“No, it’s a long time ago…I think it was some kind of medical book. But the queerest thing 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 every where for the book but couldn’t find it.”
‘I think you really are winding me up now.’ I laughed
Miss Paterson smiled weakly, raised her eyebrows and looked straight at me and said,
“No, it’s all true. Would I make up something like that? But you know that case was unique. I haven’t heard of anyone else having such a severe reaction to book dust, and of course old Hamish worked down in the bowels of this building - in Accession and you would have thought he would have been immune after 25 years.”
“What is ‘Ascension’?”
“Accession, dear boy, where books are acceded.”
“I’m no wiser.”
“You’ll be wise soon enough,” replied Miss Paterson, “all temporary staff have to do a stint down there, to cover when permanent staff go on holiday. Accession is way down in the basement of this building. It’s where all the new books are catalogued and prepared for lending, but equally important it is where all the sole remaining copies of the library books are kept. The place is stacked floor to ceiling with all kinds of unusual books, some rare, some odd, some beautiful, some creepy and weird. And yes, before you ask it’s full of book dust.”
I scratched my hand, an annoying itch. I reminded myself that I must wear gloves when using fibreglass. I had been making a seat base for the bike the night before.
It was on the seventh week at the library that 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 3.00pm for the late shift. I felt an irrational creeping dread about the prospect, partly due to the seeds that Miss Paterson had planted in me and partly that 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 library appears solid and robust like any normal building, with its solid floors and ceilings but behind these normal public areas is found a strange disconcerting space. Here a world of annexed book stores, withdrawn stock and administrative and service functions. This rear section of the building was unusual because it had been built to support the huge loading 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 huge load, like a huge bookshelf. Row upon row; tier upon tier shelf upon shelf.
Each floor was a grid form, a criss-cross of pierced metal, a suspended latticework that allowed views upwards and downwards. 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 single bare light bulbs swung, casting long eerie shadows through the stillness. All sounds became muffled, dampened and deadened by the acoustic absorption of the mass of paper stored in this huge vault. Footsteps make no sound, and the voice seemed stolen when words were uttered. It could be so still that I once imagined I could hear the books reciting their contents, a low babbling drone. There were 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, hung drifting clouds of book dust, falling down imperceptibly from level to level to settle finally in Accession. Every surface 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 had a smell, a slightly sweet pungency. The stench of decay and miasma. Again the recollection of that day in the long grass came, when I stepped on a long dead rabbit and the putrescence and clinging clawing stench that would not leave me no matter how much I washed my boots.
Strange thoughts came to me. What exactly was book dust? Was it the bits of book paper rubbed off by fingers or was it something more complex? Could it be the decay and the rot of the paper in the damp Edinburgh air; the defoliation of the paper, its gradual crumbling? Or was it the spores of some fungus which lived upon the paper between the leaves of pages? Could it be the excrement of minute living creatures, the crumbs from the dust book mites and bookworm’s meal of words? What was a bookworm? Had anyone ever seen one outside of a school? Or was there something demonic at work, hell bent on the destruction by insidious means of human knowledge, information and beauty?
Out of curiosity, I looked up the encyclopedia for book dust but there was no entry. When I looked under ‘Dust’ another world was revealed to me – an underworld of activity which had been going on since time out of mind. In the dust inside buildings a strange and alien microcosm was unveiled. I met Pyroglyphidae. It was like something out of a nightmare; a big fat bloated body with tentacles and legs protruding; a really ugly microscopic horror. Fortunately for me these strange creatures are small microscopic spiders which live in large quantities among the dust and debris in buildings. Three of them would fit on a pin head. They are scavengers feeding on skin fragments and sheddings and other biological materials.
I could see that the composition of dust, that combination of living, organic and dead materials, varies from place to place, building to building. The building itself will contribute to the content of the dust. Even after many, many years the composition of the dust may contain traces of the previous occupants. I wondered if there were bits of medieval murderers or hanged men in the furthest corners of Accession - tiny vestigial fragments of their gruesome lives. The average person sheds 1/5-ounce of skin fragments per week, in 5 weeks one ounce would gather, and over 10 ounces would accumulate each 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.
These tiny skin eating creatures like a warm damp environment and the human body constantly gives off moisture which keeps their habitat suitably damp. I realised that the library provided ideal places for them to live, being warm, damp and filled with organic human and paper dust. I discovered that some people can develop allergic reactions to the tiny invisible excrement of these creatures. Their microscopic shit can be toxic and become airborne at the slightest disturbance. Cases had been known of people dying with anaphylactic shock reaction from dust mites excrement. Was this the cause of the death of that former employee in Accession?
I now knew something about the composition of book dust but I also wondered if there could be a mutation, a specialized creature which had adapted and now lived on the paper that books are made from? It occurred to me that there were hundreds of people coming and going from the library every day and every book would have been touched and handled leaving huge volumes of dead skin and food for the invisible harvesters.
My further reading led to discovering The Itch Mite (Sarcoptes scabiei) or Scabies. This relative of the spider is only a third of a millimetre long and lives in and on the skin. The burrowing activities of the parasites cause intense itching and the original blister like lesions may be made much worse by scratching. There was a drawing with a close up and I could see how incredibly well it is adapted to adhering to skin, with hooks and tallons.....I shivered with repulsion. It was almost certain that this parasite would be present on some of the books returned to the library. The thought immediately made me need to scratch. I scratched my arm - the itching seemed to move.
Reluctantly, and late as usual, I reported to the Accession department on Monday at 3.15pm. The single elderly librarian who was there, first 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. My name is Miss McDougal and this is the Accession department. What is your name by the way?” she inquired as an afterthought.
“My name is Alasdair Gordon, Miss.”
“Very well, Alasdair, I’ll show you around and show you the work we do here. This department is called Accession. Firstly, it 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 will be to make out a catalogue card for each new book in those trolleys.”
Miss McDougal pointed to a large 3 bay wooden bookcase on wheels.
“Then, give it an allocated number and a ticket and 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 all labeled alphabetically by author and title ….and see if it is a last copy. If it isn’t a last copy it goes in that bin for disposal and 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 just simply it may be the graveyard of young men’s big ideas.” Miss McDougal laughed dryly at her own black humour.
In Accession the book dust lay thickly on the seeming infinite array of books and shelves that filled the huge space at the bottom of the huge building. Shelf after shelf of old, long neglected books in leather jackets or in worn cardboard shells. The dust was testament to how seldom any 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.
The dust showed here and there where a disturbance had been made; where a book had been removed and replaced. A petrified finger mark or hand print showed where some human had made contact. Here rested the books and ideas that had changed the world, propelled revolutions or sent armies to war. Here the ideas of heroes and evil villains; the theories of Einstein set beside those of Adolph Hitler, the poetry of Shakespeare beside the doggerel of William McGonagal, Scotland’s worst poet. The geology of James Hutton, the philosophy of David Hume, the genetics of Mendel, the voyages of Captain Cook, and Lord Franklin; Charles Darwin’s 'Journal from the Beagle' and 'Origin of the Species', Adam Smith’s 'Wealth of Nations'… all waiting, languishing in this limbo, waiting to be requested, taken out by some student of history. Or were they only waiting to be devoured by time and decay - their ideas superseded by modernity. Would they ever be fashionable again or were they just kept because they were the last of the line, the last of a dynasty? Whatever their past usefulness they were now the food supply for an invisible host of creatures that cared nothing for ideas or ideals.
The cold, bleak Scottish weather cycle of sleet, freezing rain and arctic winds repeated itself over the next few days and I struggled more than usual to get out of my rented room and get to work. The Head Librarian grew impatient with me and 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 hours pay. I was serially late and suffered the loss of a whole hour’s pay that week.
‘You must learn that cleanliness is next to godliness, and that punctuality is also a prime virtue.’
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 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 in places 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 among 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 cardboard pieces, stands of string or gold from page edges and embossed titles? I wondered if book dust had any narcotic properties, would it inspire a novel if it were sniffed like cocaine? If it could produce an allergic reaction what kind of powerful chemicals did it contain? I amused myself with ideas of dissolving it in alcohol, and imbibing it, as Byron, Shelly and Conan Doyle did with opium. Would it give inspiration for poetry, a travel story, a crime novel, a work of science or history or a horror story?
I imagined that if I listened carefully I could 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 and 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 of dust mites was, 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.
One night I awoke from a nightmare - 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 suddenly realized that it wasn’t powder - it was a mass of wriggling squirming worms…parasitic worms that began to eat me alive. I told myself that I needed 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?” Then I heard a rustle. Was someone there in the darkness among the bookshelves? Was it a down-and-out taking refuge from the cold or was it the custodian?
‘Who’s there?’ I heard a scuttle of something moving. Was it a creature? A rat?
There was no reply. I was just imagining things I told myself, so I went on with my cataloguing. The itching had moved round to my back and torso and was really annoying.
A few days later, against my own advice, I came across a recent book on parasites and began to read about parasitology and the true horror that every living thing has at least one parasite inside or out and humans have many more. Parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. Some like malaria are devastating, but others are subtle, tenacious and clever such as the crab parasite 'Sacculina carcini” that takes mind control of its victim. Eventually, the crab is changed by the parasite into a new sort of creature, one that exists only to serve the parasite. Sacculina is only one of many such parasites which exert extraordinary control over their hosts, transforming them into seemingly different creatures. They can change a host's looks or scent to appeal to a predator to ensure their reproduction. They can even alter its host's behavior such as a cat parasite can apparently do to humans; encouraging them to collect cats and look after large cat colonys. If an organism like a parasite can control us, therein lies the peculiar and precise horror of parasites. The idea that a parasite could take control of another creature, becoming its puppet master both fascinated and appalled me. If it happened to a human how would you know if you had been infected? Would you be aware of losing control or doing strange things? What would the parasite make you do? I put the book back in the shelves and scratched my leg. That itching is driving me mad!
I would sometimes doze off in the quiet of Accession. My head would slump and I would nod off. One evening I woke up with a start from a momentary doze. I suddenly panicked in alarm. I felt sure that there was something in my ear. I could feel it wriggling and burrowing. Terrified, I ran to the toilet to look in the mirror to see if I could see anything. There was a little trickle of blood dribbling from my ear. I was scared and poked and hammered on my head to try and dislodge whatever had got into my ear. Was it a larvae oif a parasite? It could go through my ear and into my brain like 'Sacculina'... I began to panic at the thought of a parasite burrowing into my brain but, try as hard as I could, I couldn't get it out. I needed to get help. The hospital was nearby so 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 reached the Royal Infirmary and the entrance to the Accident and Emergency Department. I barged in and demanded immediate attention.
A young doctor examined me. She said that she couldn't see anything but would take an x-ray. I waited for ages, getting more and more frightened and angry. Eventually I was taken into the radiography room and they took pictures of my head. About an hour later the doctor came and showed me the x-rays. She assured me there was nothing in my ear or head that shouldn’t be, but I could feel it taking control; wrapping its tentacles around my brain; taking me over. She said that I was imagining things but she would admit me for observation and any necessary treatment. She said that she would give me an injection of antibiotics just in case. I remember the needle going into my arm and a drowsiness coming over me. I realised she had drugged me. I began arguing with her and getting really angry but after that I don't remember much.
After my treatment I got a new job in a library; not the big grand library of Edinburgh but one just as important. I’ve been here for four years and the library has come on leaps and bounds. Two years ago the library won '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.
Carstairs is a small drab town in central Scotland. Its plain solid houses sit hard onto the road with no gardens and an absence of any bright colours. Near the town is the intimidating 16ft perimeter fence, razor wire and concrete of the State Hospital. It was the most ugly assemblage of constructions I have ever seen and I sometimes think that I am now lucky because I will not have to look at it ever again. Arriving at the State Hospital you get an instant feeling for the calibre of psychiatric patients behind the intimidating walls. Everyone connected with Carstairs stresses it is not a prison, although it is easy to see why the public perception is otherwise. Most people only hear of it when a judge sends someone there after a horrific crime and most know it as the prison for the criminally insane. The town of Carstairs 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.
You may have guessed that I am writing this from the library in Carstairs State Hospital. As well as a large fiction section the library here has a wonderful collection of books on psychology and psychosis and if you look up ‘Parasitosis’ in the book “The Identification and Diagnosis of Delusional Psychosis” this is what you find.
“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. They said at my trial that I killed the doctor then I rampaged through the library killing the head librarian and a policemen before I was overpowered. But they don't understand - it wasn't me, it was that thing....this thing in his head.