Philip Hensher: Days of the Library Stinker are numbered

There's always been a gruesome whiffer in every library

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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.

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