I WAS 14, 15. It was autumn and it was growing dark in Felling-on-Tyne. My jeans were scuffed with grass and mud. My hands and forehead were grimy. I'd been footballing since teatime, dreaming that our bumpy patch of grass was Wembley, that I scored the winning goal for Newcastle in the Cup.
Now we couldn't see the ball any more, so the game came to an end, we said our farewells, and went our separate ways. I crossed the narrow street and stepped into a small square building, a single room lined with books, our branch library, my other familiar field of dreams.
Our library. It was a little, unspectacular place next to Wiffen's shop and The Jubilee, a place that the football thumped against when our passes went wrong. It had a small stock, a fraction of what was held in the central library over the hill in Gateshead. But to get to that place I'd need a special journey, a bus fare, and I couldn't go anyway on a dark autumn evening with mud on my face and knees. And there was no need. The small stock had long been a treasure trove. I plundered and read, and as I read I'd begun to gaze into the future, and to see books bearing my name on these shelves.
I probably paused at the wackier section of Religion and Philosophy and reminded myself of how to perfect astral travelling, or stared at pictures of the victims of spontaneous human combustion. Maybe I read a few lines of Stevie Smith. Perhaps I read the details of Newcastle's real FA Cup triumphs to fortify my dreams. I moved to the fiction shelves.
H. I remember seeing the name, Hemingway, in bold letters on the spine, and the title, The First 49. I remember tipping the book backwards and drawing it towards me. A book of short stories. I took it to the table by the window. The familiar streets glittered outside. Familar figures strolled by. The lights in The Jubilee shone and the shadows of early drinkers moved across its frosted panes. I opened the book at random.
Page 310. A little story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. "It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the tree made against the electric light..." An old man drinks brandy, two waiters talk, the lights burn and are then switched off, they all go home. Just four pages long. It seemed nothing. Something that could easily be overlooked when seen against the fat event-and character-filled novels surrounding it.
But I burned with excitement. Something in me recognised a masterpiece. For the first time I didn't just know that I wanted to be a writer. I now began to know what kind of writer. I'd found my first mentor.
It's not an unusual tale, of course. It's repeated wherever there are books and readers, and it's at its most potent when it concerns the young. What matters in this version is that it takes place in a little, familiar, accessible branch library. In fact, in this version: no branch library, no tale at all.
The tale goes on, of course. I used the central library more often. I became a voracious book-buyer. The passionate blend of discovery and recognition when I encountered new writers was re-peated many times. As with all tales, though, it continues to be in-formed and energised by its start. In a clean, well-lighted place I read A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and my life changed for ever.
Branch libraries are easy to overlook. They're little, local, unspectacular places. Their stock is restricted, their resources are small. All across the country, they're being closed, or are threatened with closure. We're told that resources need to be concentrated in bigger libraries with more up-to-date facilities, places where as much as possible is on offer.
Young readers don't always need as much as possible. They need libraries that they can grow up with, that are accessible, that are just around the corner. It's in such familiar places that early reading is at its most passionate. As in Hemingway's little story, a paradox: apparently small resources, massive lifelong effect.
My own branch library still exists. Maybe as I write this a 14-year-old strolls in to plunder the treasure chest. Maybe they take down one of my books and dream of seeing their own name on the cover. They grow up, they write a book, a fourteen-year old strolls in, takes down this book...
The tale is passed from generation to generation in a little library in a little town. As we close our branch libraries, we're in danger of breaking the thread of our tale.
David Almond was recently awarded the Carnegie Medal, the Library Association's prize for children's authors, for his novel Skellig.