I saw an animated reconstruction of Nottingham Castle recently, showing the Castle’s size and stature when first constructed. It was magnificent – breath-taking, with thriving communities inside and out of its vast walls. The commentary talked about the Castle’s status as a national symbol of influence and power, enhanced by Nottingham’s location in the centre of the country. After the Civil War, it was taken apart brick by brick from the inside out; dismantling the building meant dismantling the understanding that the city and its people were important, dismantling their power. You dismantle a people’s castle from within and you destroy their hope.
This is not to say that we are not a hopeful people. Time and time again we have responded to being taken apart brick by brick. Our salt-glazed pottery: destroyed. Our skills in carving alabaster: banned. Our stockings and lace: unpicked. Our bicycles, our mines, our electronics, you name it, it’s been dismantled in one way or another brick by brick, link by link, seam by seam, circuit after circuit.
This is all a bit gloomy and doesn’t seem to have much to do with libraries. But let’s go now to a room in that magnificent Castle, where a scribe is dipping a quill in ink and putting it to parchment. There’s the sound of the nib scratching across the page as the letters loop and curl. Look at the slight tremor of the quill feather. Because feathers also fan the history and culture of our City. Let’s consider goose feathers returning year after year, a peacock feather bright as Byron’s waistcoat, a feather plucked from a phoenix wing in flame, or those famous feathers in the fletching of an arrow, vanes tight as windmill sails. Feathers have strutted, glowed or hurtled through the air in Nottingham for a long time, offering us a bird’s eye view of the City where we are all ducks.
And what do we see, if we take that bird’s eye view, above space and time? Florence Boot improving the literacy of the country, setting up a nationwide library service in her husband Jesse’s chemists and giving women a respectable place to meet and talk outside the home, so that reading and books were both central and a freedom in their lives. Perhaps we see Nottingham Women’s Library, giving women a safe space to share the lives of others in books, a place to share their lived experiences and nurture their sense of themselves. We see people in public libraries, and libraries for worker education, and university libraries; I could go on about the proven parallel of books and egalitarianism in Nottingham. We know about the centrality of libraries and the freedoms they give us to learn and live. Although, of course, the New Central Library is a beautiful and brand-new feather in our cap.
It’s difficult to talk about hope, and feathers, without American poet Emily Dickinson, who in poem 314 describes hope as ‘the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul’. The poem tells us hope lives and flies and ‘never stops – at all.’ And we could all do with a bit of hope at the moment. Now perhaps, more than ever. We don’t know what degree of hopelessness people might be carrying with them. Depression and anxiety, for instance, are indiscriminate in their effects, so that people are dismantling themselves from the inside out, frightened of not being or doing things right, feeling that people like them are neither allowed to talk nor deserve to be listened to, that they can’t cope and no one cares. If we sit, thinking about our lives, let alone foodbanks, or refugees, or viruses, or the health of the planet, even if we’re people with a balanced serotonin, we might feel hopeless on occasions.
I’m not saying reading a book in the New Central Library can change every social problem by itself, although reading is proven to be the best way to improve someone’s chances of success. To change anything at all, you need hope. Words in a book can fly into our lives, perch there and bring us hope that never leaves ‘at all’. I love libraries for lots of reasons, but most of all for the books inside which reassured my younger self there might be someone a bit like me, or someone not like me who might know what I should do next, or was dangerous, or sad, and showed me how to understand that too, or suggested that I might be better off at a midnight feast at a boarding school.
I flew through library book after library book and the words I found there, the worlds they summoned, gave me hope. The friends from those books have travelled through my life with me; some of those friends are in my poem ‘Orlando’, which perches on a leaf on the New Central Library’s walls. We might have a way to go, Nottingham. But I know the New Central Library is a place to build ourselves brick by brick from the inside out, magnificent and in the centre of our lives. Imagine the better world we can build, with all those words of hope.
Becky Cullen Is a poet and lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, managing their new WRAP (Writing, Reading and Pleasure) programme of book clubs, writing workshops and events for students. Her pamphlet ‘Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings’ was a winner of the Poetry Business International Poetry Book and Pamphlet competition. She is a member of Beeston and Nottingham City libraries.