Philip Hensher: Days of the Library Stinker are numbered

There's always been a gruesome whiffer in every library

Share
Related Topics

Stuart Penman, 27, is a keen user of his local library in Wigston, Leicestershire. Unfortunately, he also pongs. Librarians this week took the unusual step of banning Mr Penman from their premises after receiving numerous complaints from fellow users. For a year, they have been remarking to each other in loud voices how nice it is to take a bath, to change your clothes, and so on before advancing to more direct remarks. Nothing had any effect, and this week he was told that his presence was no longer welcome. Wigston Library, newly fragrant, welcomes back its more fastidious patrons.

Actually, I always thought the Library Stinker was not just an occupational hazard, but a permanent installation. There's always been a gruesome whiffer in every library; a bloke seated at a desk in the mysterious middle of a sea of empty chairs, however busy the library is. You put your books down at a place within the "cordon sanitaire", and within a few seconds, the reason for his isolation becomes pungently clear. Don't they teach them about it at library school?

We've got a hell of a lot cleaner over the past half century. Even I can remember a time when very few people took baths every day, and once a week was not unusual. The detachable cuffs and collars on shirts were changed every day, but the shirt itself would do quite well for another day, or even two. God, how everyone must have stunk. I had a friend at university, universally known as Jaffa, who was well known for his eccentric decision to have a bath twice a day; this, he considered, relieved him of the obligation of ever changing any of his clothes from one end of term to the next.

The triumph of the deodorant industry in persuading the public that the repulsive smell of their products was preferable to that of a clean, warm human body could only have happened in the 1970s, when the smells of warm human bodies, whether clean or not, were everywhere. And then there were those who misread the message, and believed that deodorant was a space-age alternative to taking a bath. Most of those got on the bus and went to the library for the day.

There was always a bloke in Sheffield City libraries, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who managed by his personal anti-hygienic methods to secure a whole bay in the reference library for himself. I don't remember the long-suffering library assistants refusing him entrance, giving him personal advice, or doing anything other than noisily opening a window.

And then a little later, at university, there were the last of the radicals, refusing to bathe or use "chemicals" – viz, soap – on their bodies. One of my acquaintances was so uninhibited that he would break wind whenever he felt like it; in the perfectly circular chamber of Oxford's Radcliffe Camera, the acoustic results could be contrived to reverberate for 15 seconds.

The librarians never seemed to mind. Actually, come to think of it, some of the librarians could be terrible offenders themselves. That was in the old days, before they lost interest in books and started promoting in-house cafes, internet engines, sandpits and whatever libraries are full of these days. And they seem to have forgotten about their historic obligation to serve the malodorous community.

But then, I can't remember the last time I was in a library and observed the distinctive atmosphere about a bookworm five days in either direction from a bath. Perhaps Mr Penman could be preserved as a mephitic curiosity and a survivor for future generations of retching library-users to marvel at. I notice the Leicestershire libraries' motto is "Knowledge. Discovery. Entertainment." And, I suppose, now, "Washing."

Farewell to dear Maggie, steely spirit of the North

Maggie Jones, the actress who died this week, gloriously embodied one of this country's most enduring archetypes. Blanche Hunt (above right, in 1975) was the epitome of the strong-minded Northern woman with a wit as dry as year-old parkin.

"You're remarkably chipper. Trod on a snail?" Blanche would greet some upstart. Her dissection of Postman Pat's relationship to reality, conducted for the benefit of the five-year old Simon Barlow, is cherished by aficionados: "And if he's not chucking elastic bands like confetti, he'll be rifling through your birthday cards for ready cash..."

Alan Bennett has said that the North often seems to be ruled by strong, independent women of a certain age. If Cheltenham belongs to retired colonels, and Brighton, immemorially, to kiss-me-quick gays, the territory from Chesterfield northwards is carved up by women as tough, clever and amusing as Blanche, putting you right in your place with a look and a comment. There will be iron-willed Blanches ruling the roost as long as there's Henderson's Relish on the dinner table. They don't rely, and never have, on anything so feeble as feminine wiles or the power to seduce, while taking it for granted that they could if they ever wanted to.

As she says to her own daughter: "Good looks are a curse. You and Ken should count yourselves very lucky." A bright light in a world of dimness.

A chic heroine, but a dubious role model

Harper's Bazaar asked some prominent people to nominate their "Heroine for the 21st Century". Sarah Brown, the wife of the Prime Minister, nominated Naomi Campbell. She cited her work for a charity Mrs Brown has set up, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. That may be one side of it, but the rest of Campbell's career and behaviour make you wonder that Brown couldn't find a woman more deserving of our esteem. Campbell's violent behaviour towards subordinates is well documented. She embodies pure celebrity and the power of the "look"; she has no remarkable talent I know of, beyond putting on clothes, and demonstrates that you don't need to have education to get rich in the modern world.

She has her place in that world, and she has done well out of the material that she has at her disposal. But seriously, have we come to this: that Naomi Campbell is the woman whom the wife of the Prime Minister admires more than any other, and so proposes her as a "heroine for the 21st century"? What a message it would have sent if Mrs Brown could have suggested an entrepreneur, a scientist, a scholar, an economist, a writer. Instead, we have someone held up for our admiration who, in June 2008, pleaded guilty to assaulting two police officers at Heathrow. Mrs Brown is – she must be – a serious and intelligent woman. She must be capable of making a serious and intelligent point, even through the medium of a magazine poll.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Should America pay ISIS ransom money to free hostages like Jim Foley?

Kim Sengupta
 

The Malky Mackay allegations raise the spectre of Britain's casual racism

Chris Maume
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home