This week 'Living in a Bilingual World' is inspired by Rachel Cooke's impassioned feature in The Observer a few days ago. Please, read her article first in order to understand my column better.
The year was 1983. The season was autumn, the beginning of it at any rate. Although, if true be told, we don't have a proper autumn in Cuba, except for the dry yellow leaves one crushes on the ground walking here and there. As the song by Carlos Varela goes: 'Here leaves fall down, too'. That September, though, the air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to school everyday. I had just started year 7 at a local secondary school (ESBU as we called it in those days) and my younger self was confused as to the changes taking place in my life. The summer before had been difficult to say the least. My mother and father were having terrible marital problems and as a consequence I had failed my first exam ever. This was a situation that would recur in my new educational establishment a couple of years hence. I sought refuge in Crusoe's island to which I arrived on Jules Vernes' submarine. I became familiar with the sounds and letters of the English language for the first time. I wanted to escape, somewhere, anywhere. And I was not even a teenager yet.
In order to get to my secondary school, I had to walk a set of blocks down a busy avenue full of cars and smog. I was in the afternoon session so therefore had the morning to do Physical Education (PE) and Work Education (Educación Laboral). My initial impression when I arrived at the school the first day was that it was not as bad as people made it out to be. I had been told that I was going to the worst secondary school in Havana. I was hoping they would be wrong, but in the end they turned out to be right. After the first few weeks of the new academic year the flimsy coat of paint that had been sprayed across its front was peeling off, revealing centuries-old layers of decay and neglect. The windows had been smashed again. Maybe on year 8's floor? Or was it year 9's? Who cared? Nobody did. Nobody does, still.
From the outset I stood out, but not in a positive light, at least to my classmates. My teachers adored me, I was their little pet, studious and labourious, I always handed in my assignments on time and never wasted class time talking or being silly. All I was missing was the glasses to represent the perfect geek. It goes without saying that I was picked on quickly by the school bullies (although I gave as good as I got) and that my days in school transformed themselves into battlegrounds for survival. If Darwin wanted further proof of his theory of the species, I was the living example of it. And I hated it.
One day after my Work Education morning session the teacher in charge of our class summoned me to her department. She said that there were going to be a group of students who would be selected to join the library scheme. This was a programme whereby all pupils had to take part in library-related activities, whether it be maintenance of the books, administration or registration. I jumped at the idea without any second thoughts.
Some weeks later I made my way up the stairs of the old school building. As I went up the dimly lit stairs (the lift was for only for school staff) the smell of urine hit me in the nostrils and almost knocked me out. It was a habit of year 7 and year 8 students from the afternoon session to pee in the corners of the stairs when exiting the building at the end of the day. At this time of the year the shadows grew longer and the days shorter and with the poor lighting the school had it was nigh impossible to capture the culprits. But we all knew who they were.
On the first floor of the building I reported for my first day at the school library. It was a quaint little room that looked more like a detention cubicle than a place where reading was encouraged. Several slogans hung from the walls and there were publicity flyers for competitions that were never run. The librarian was polite and humorous. I still think after all these years that she was surprised to see that the, by now, famous 'Philosopher' and 'Inglesito (Little Englishman)', my two nicknames at the time, was a black boy with short hair and vivacious eyes. She did crack a couple of politically incorrect jokes which I refuse to reproduce here out of respect for my readers and fellow bloggers. But that has always been the nature of racial relations in Cuba, it's like the uncle who cracks unfunny jokes about the groom at the wedding party but we are too embarrassed or polite to deal with him.
I was told there and then what my responsibilities would be, above all, the librarian said, I was there to learn how a library functioned as this was my part of the school curriculum, albeit not subject to a final examination. I don't need to add that I was over the moon about the opportunity to work in such a creative enviroment; I plunged into the role headfirst. Some of the activies in which I engaged at the time were: book-mending, cataloguing, labelling and filing. My favourite one was book-mending. Averse to blood from a young age I knew that medical school would never be my calling, however there was definitely a magical effect on me whenever I mended a book and brought it back to life. To this day that remains one of my strongest passions and my children can aver to that. Woe betide if either of them ever leaves a book face down with its pages spread-eagled on the floor.
I spent a whole year - academic year, that is - at the library and in between repairing novels by Dumas and filing non-fiction books I would steal a moment or two to read Agatha Christie or Edgar Allan Poe. The skills I acquired in that autumn served me well for the coming winter in '84 when I suddenly found myself at my mum's work instead of being in the countryside with the rest of the school during our work experience. My mum worked then (and still does) at a copyright agency and I was tasked with cabinet-filing. I managed to do it so well that I had extra time to devote myself to one of my passions: reading.
1992. Autumn. Fourth year in university. I had been part of the Carolyn Duval's Improvisation Theatre Workshops (long story behind the name, by the way, maybe in another post) since winter that year and my face was recognisable in certain quarters. Like at the post-graduate teachers' library. This was a room situated at the far end of the Foreign Languages Faculty at the Varona Pedagogic Institute (re-baptised Pedagogic University some time after). Though still an undergraduate student I managed to book myself on a couple of post-graduate courses by the writer Dick Cluster and the drama tutor Wallace Bullock. In the meantime I still attended rehearsals with Danielle Fauteaux, our very own theatre director. In between my involvement in amateur theatre and my role as teaching assistant (alumno ayudante) I managed to sneak into the 'Americans library' (as it used to be called, regardless of the fact that there were Canadians and Brits in there, too) and borrow the books that were officially censored. It was also the beginning of my life-long literary affair with Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, a fling that has lasted well over seventeen years now. Her 'Handmaid's Tale' was haunting and having read it straight after Orwell's '1984' I admit to having had nightmares at the time. My own society was sinking in the miasma of political rhetoric and the veil over my eyes (already pierced) was peeling off once and for all. It was the time also when I discovered Dean Moriarty's thirst for living life to the full in Jack Kerouac's immortal novel 'On the Road'.
Fourteen years after I had climbed up the dirty and dimly-lit stairs of my old school building to start my library stint and continue my life-long love affair with reading and five years after I had become a regular presence at the 'American's library', I found myself in a similar institution in London. My son, a few months old was with me and my wife. The air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to work everyday. We were there as part of a Parents and Toddlers group, although some of the children were as young as our own offspring. In the UK there is a scheme whereby you can register your child at your local library the minute they are born. It is free and reaps good results in the long-term as I can attest.
Since there are no public libraries in Havana, only the school ones and the main one, Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), I was surprised to see so many in my borough when I arrived in London. It was a real delight to place an order for a book that I had already read years before but whose companionship I sought again, like 'The Idiot' by Dostoyevsky. I attended poetry readings and new releases by children's authors. I also began to perform in public libraries. My story-telling act caught the attention of a few librarians and as a result a group of musicians, a visual artist and me started doing the rounds in some libraries in the British capital.
And yet, this blissful experience is coming to an end, or at least having a makeover, and a very bad one indeed the way I see it. As Rachel Cooke's article points out more and more libraries are closing in the UK per year. As it is usually the case, when culture is left to the technocrats, bureaucrats and Philistines, it suffers. A couple of years ago I signed an online petition to bring dance to the fore and give it the high profile it deserves. Last year I found myself seated next to Sir Ian Mc Kellen at the Young Vic, in south London, with plenty other artists, arts organisations, companies and independent practitioners, passing a 'vote of no confidence' in Arts Council England for its mishandling and mismanagement of its funding scheme. I do not usually put my head above the parapet but sometimes causes call for one to abandon the comfortable fence which one is blithely straddling and jump off it and kick up a fuss, shout, scream and demand. Especially when a building to encourage creativity, imagination and thinking is closed and a new one opens in a shopping centre ('mall' as they call it across the pond).
It is ironic that the word 'library' is a false cognate term in Spanish (read here for more info on the subject of 'cognate' and false cognate' words) as my native tongue comes from the dead Italic lexicon. Although it does stem from Latin 'librārius', the Spanish equivalent is 'biblioteca', not 'librería', the latter translates as 'bookshop'. And as more and more libraries disappear, the selling aspect of a shop is all that remains in lieu de the old 'chest for books', as the government makes space for more retail outlets. The air again has acquired a crisp, metallic smell, but I am not lapping it up anymore.
Note: This post was amended on Thursday 2nd April, 2009. Instead of 'book-binding' which I have never done, it should have read 'book-mending' an activity in which I still engage. I have also included John Harris' article in today's Guardian on the same subject. Thanks.