Saturday morning, and myself and Frankie (aged 3-and-a-half) are engaged in a fractious tug-of-war centred on a battered looking Dora the Explorer DVD.
'Right then, if we can just put this one in the bag..'
'No daddy, no!'
'But Frankie, this one was due back last week remember- and I'm sure by now it must be another little boy or girl's turn..'
'No- it's not another boy's Dora daddy- it's my Dora!'
In displaying an over-proprietorial attitude towards materials belonging collectively to the city's ratepayers Frankie is displaying an unfortunate genetic trait stretching back at least two generations. During the mid-1970s my mother, a convent school graduate and a scrupulously law-abiding citizen in every other respect, would despatch me down to Fenham library laden with a Fenwick's carrier bag bursting at the seams with scandalously overdue hardbacks. My mission would be to sneak unseen through the imposing Victorian glass- panelled doors and haul the bag overhead onto the polished wooden counter under the unsuspecting nose of the stern lady librarian with the half-moon spectacles. By the time this formidable suburban functionary had unloaded my guilty cargo and added the week's fins to the family's ever-accruing total, I would have made use of a fortuitous blend of under-average height and precociously nimble quick-footedness to make good my escape homewards, where a reward- that week's Beano, perhaps- awaited in recognition of my OliverTwistesque exploits.
A decade later, in a bizarre quirk of fate, my mother became a City library assistant- and found herself one fateful morning in the central library's archive cupboard, face to face with a shoebox containing the records (and this was in the days before computers, remember) of all unpaid fines for the Western branches dating back to 1969. Fighting back waves of Catholic guilt my mother set about rifling through the box and emerged blinking into the harsh institutional light moments later with the evidence of our family's chequered history of booklending-related transgression stuffed clumsily up the cavernous sleeves of her blouse. Somehow the telltale bottle-green cardboard chits of shame remained lodged there through a morning of shelving, sorting and issuing of books, until lunchtime when they were ripped up into tiny pieces and flushed (four times, just to be sure) down the ladies' staff loos.
My mother went on to become one of the City Libraries most respected servants, and as the ninetees dawned I followed in what was becoming a family tradition of shelving Barbara Taylor Bradford blockbusters for a living; returning from the modern-language graduate's obligatory TEFL stint in Spain to take on the role of peripatetic lending counter guy with the City. It was an idyllic time; the close acquaintance with the written word meant I read more voraciously than ever, while the concerted routine of having to report five times weekly to a branch library saw to it that for the first time I was able to exert some element of control over my haphazard lending habits. During the early months of my stay works by a smorgasbord of authors- Amis jnr, Sartre, Kundera- were not only devoured with ruthless efficiency but returned (albeit not necessarily to the same branch they had been borrowed from) full weeks in advance of the date on the stamp.
The irony, of course, was that as an employee of the City Libraries I enjoyed immunity from the levying of fines. Perhaps as a result I relaxed too much- and in retrospect the return in mid September to Benwell branch of a moth-eaten copy of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days liberated from West Jesmond sometime in June looks like the first portent of a growing complacency. Sure enough my departure from Newcastle in 19993 to pursue an ill-starred career in secondary school teaching heralded a return to the bad old ways: never since have I returned a library book on time.
Fast forward to today then, and as I sit in the convivial surroundings of Manchester's Cornerhouse cafe scribbling these notes I reach into the bag to pull out Exhibit 'A': a paperbck edition of 'That Which Was', the 2004 novel by acclaimed Northern Irish wordsmith Glenn Patterson. I took it out of Manchester Central Library on a lunchtime whime in what must have been late March, given that the all-too-visible datestamp on the inner front cover reads '24 April 2007'. Sometime around that date I must have considered doing the honourable thing and taking it back- I even remember taking it to work one day, only to discover it buried three days later at the bottom of the bag among the week's build-up of bus tickets and Greggs-the- Bakers wrappers. It stayed there for another month or so, by which stage the prospect of a hefty fine (and the attendant wrath of modern-day Manchester's equivalent of the stern lady librarian in the half-moon spectacles) had rendered me almost physically incapable of approaching any lending counter anywhere in the city. I think they call it denial.
Today, however, I had finally steeled myself to face up to the consequences of my inaction- but the Dora-based tug-of-war with Frankie had been enough to distract me from the only course consistent with honour, and so Patterson's searching exploration of the difference between memory and history ('funny, taut, authentic...' Time Out) managed to evade my grasp and stay clinging, limpet-like, to the coffee table surface. The wise money had it staying there (save the odd excursion to the Cornerhouse bar to act as inspiration for blog-posts) for a good while yet.
I don't know. Perhaps I'll just have to wait until Frankie is old enough to be sent sprinting into Levenshulme library with Patterson's paperback stuffed up his jumper. Four more years should do the trick- by which time, with any luck, I may even have read the damned thing. 'Crisp storytelling, vivid characterisation... no Irish writer does better dialogue-The Guardian'. it says here. Hell, that's got to be worth £650 in fines worth of anyone's money, don't you think?