When love flourished in M for medical textbooks
Two weeks ago, Rachel Cooke sparked a nationwide debate by standing up for libraries under threat of closure by penny-pinching bureaucrats. Now, we publish a personal account of how libraries have the power to change lives for the better. By Eva Ibbotson
Sunday July 9, 2006
I was eight years old when I came to Britain as a refugee - and was not particularly grateful. Mostly this was because after years and years of being a sheep coming to the manger, or a grazing cow, I had at last landed the part of the Virgin Mary in the nativity play at my convent school in Vienna.
And then ... Hitler.
We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile. On every floor were lonely and muddled professors, doctors and lawyers, mostly from German-speaking countries. I had no friends, no school yet, nowhere to play.
Then, one day, walking up the hill towards Hampstead to do some shopping for my grandmother, I came across a building with an open door. I went inside. The room was very quiet and full of books. At a desk sat a woman with fair hair and I waited for her to tell me to go away. But she only smiled at me. Then she said: 'Would you like to join the library?'
My English was still poor but I understood her. In particular, I understood the word 'join' which seemed to me to be a word of unsurpassed beauty. I told her that I had no money and she (her name was Miss Pole ) said: 'It is free.'
I joined the library. I did not only join it, I lived in it. I don't really remember when I began to read English as easily as German, but it did not take long. After a few weeks, I got to know the regulars - the tramp with holes in his shoes who came to keep warm and read the Racing News, the woman whose mother-in-law was driving her insane ... and my special friend, Herr Doktor Heller, who was a refugee like I was, only from Berlin, not from Vienna.
Dr Heller came very early in the morning and did not leave until the library closed. He came with a pile of medical books - The Diseases of the Knee, The Malfunctions of the Lymphatic system.The books were in English because this eminent specialist, who had been head of the department of obstetrics in Berlin's most famous maternity hospital, was not allowed to practise medicine in Great Britain without resitting every one of his medical exams in English.
He must have been in his thirties, not able to wander from one language to the other as I could, being a child. Sometimes, I heard him sigh - once I even saw him wipe his eyes as he thought of the hopelessness of his task - and then Miss Pole and I exchanged glances. She was very concerned for him, fetching down the German-English dictionary as soon as he came in. Sometimes, she shut up the library a little later so as to give him more time; he lived in a single, poky room which he could not afford to heat.
There were other crosses for him to bear. His wife, an Aryan, had stayed behind in Germany and decided not to join him. Yet he went on patiently, uncomplainingly, learning again, and in an alien tongue, what he had learnt and forgotten 15 years earlier.
Then, unexpectedly, I was offered a place at a Quaker boarding school in the country. I left London and so did my family. The library was closed and merged with a bigger one in a grander part of Hampstead. Then came the war. Miss Pole, who must have been younger than I had realised, joined the Wrens and the British government in its wisdom interned its 'enemy aliens'; those men and women who had come to them for shelter.
But for me, things went well. I left school, went to university and, in my last year, met and married a Burma veteran just discharged from the army. A year later, I was admitted to Queen Alice's Maternity Hospital for the birth of my baby. It was a stroke of luck - Queen Alice's was the most famous hospital in London with a formidable reputation.
The morning after my daughter's birth, there was a certain stirring in the ward, an air of expectation. The nurses stood up straighter, checked the bedclothes, patted the patients into tidiness. Matron rose from the chair behind her desk. And the procession entered. It was the specialist, the Great Man himself, come to do his morning round. No one will believe me when I describe what went on in those days when the specialist came into the ward. Spotless in his white coat, he was flanked by his registrar, his houseman and at least two students eager for his every word.
The great man moved slowly between the beds. I had determined not to speak to him - it would have been like addressing God - but when he came up to my bed, I couldn't help looking at him very hard, hoping and hoping that he would recognise me. And he did. For a moment, he seemed puzzled and then he smiled. 'My little friend from the library!' he said. And he turned to his retinue and said that I had helped him. That I had encouraged him and given him hope. I had done that!
But there's one more thing to tell. After I was discharged, I took my daughter to visit him and there, behind the teapot in his elegant drawing room, I found a woman who I knew. 'Reader, he'd married her!' He had done this most excellent thing and married Miss Pole.