SILENCE, PLEASE

It's Saturday morning at Kentish Town Library in London. A Falstaffian figure of a man, russet-bearded, trampishly chic, is ensconced in one of the floor-skimming armchairs, concentrating fiercely on Roget's Thesaurus. He's doing a crossword. "Undergrowth... 'Bracken' or 'thicket'. Yes, but that doesn't fit that one, which is 'sprained'... That's a film one - can't find that." Someone suggests an answer. "'Emma Peel'? Where can I find out 'Emma Peel'? Is it a current series?"

The library is the place people come to find answers. Big answers, little answers. ("What's the chicken doing, mum?" "He's looking at a house.") They consult leaflets or medical encyclopedias, gaze at the small ads, read the papers, or drift around, just browsing. One businesslike woman, clutching a handful of CDs, has set herself on a course of musical education: "I'm working through the classics. I'm on B, for Bach."

Lunchtime, and an elderly lady has stopped at a revolving stand of paperback crime novels. She has no time for some of the library's recent innovations, such as the section heading "Goo", promising "A Good Read". "It's not very nice, is it? It's bloody patronising," she says with a girlish chuckle, waving her walking-stick for emphasis. "If I'm pushed for time, I go to crime paperbacks. But every time I look at a woman's one, now, I find the detective is female. Now I don't mind that, I'm all in favour - but does she have to be a lesbian?"

In the children's section, three sisters are studying. Elizabeth, eight, is looking up information about the pyramids. "We're doing a project on Tutankhamun, and the face that he had on his grave. Not the face he had on." Six-year-old Rachel is "looking up the body, what's inside it, so when I'm older I can say to Mum and Dad, 'I already know, so you don't have to take me to school.'" She pauses. "I like the library, it's full of knowledge."

The afternoon wears somewhat sleepily on. People are idly leafing through newspapers. A woman, snug in a furry hat, sleeps, her head nodding forward into a splayed copy of an appreciation of John Gielgud. As darkness falls, the children's section starts emptying; soon all that remains is a pink- and-blue toy triceratops lying abandoned on the floor.

Folded up in armchair and a beige mac is Philip Toms, a newspaper vendor with bird-like blue eyes. He's been here, reading, for hours. "This is a crime thing. It's about a wealthy family, and the elder son went off the rails and ended up murdering the whole family. It's based on the true facts." He has his own theory about crime. "I think there's no deterrent at all, except for chaining 'em to the wall. It's the lifestyle. This is the Nineties: it's dog eat dog. That's why I come into public libraries."

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