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Willesden Green Library

Paterson Joseph

The Library at Willesden Green © Tim Soar for AHMM

I hadn’t much of a hope at school. It was both implied and obvious to me from my first day with Miss Derbyshire. Prospects for my academic success had not improved by the time I left primary school, despite the wonderful Claudette Bird who saw my struggles and tried to help where she could.

I didn’t fit in to the all-boys hell-hole that was the late, unlamented Cardinal Hinsley Roman Catholic Secondary School in Harlesden, Northwest London. Black kids weren’t treated very well anywhere in the school system in the UK unless you happened to get very lucky or were exceptionally ‘bright’, as they put it in those days. Those of us who were ‘dull’ were quickly categorised as ‘educationally subnormal’. Look it up. It’s a thing.

The neon sign of the exterior of the Library at Willesden Green © Tim Soar for AHMM

So, getting out of school after attending the calling of the register in the morning was a no-brainer solution to my malaise, bunk off. As my poem suggests, it was a genius idea to me once the concept had been revealed to me. But, what to do with my time? Initially, I thought it would be grand to just walk about. I loved walking. After a couple of weeks that became very boring and so I’d try walking and reading. It must have looked strange to folks to see this little, black boy reading as he walked the streets of Willesden, Cricklewood and the newly marbled (faux) halls of Brent Cross. Nobody asked why I wasn’t in school. Not even school asked that of my parents. No phone calls, two letters (intercepted by me – signature forged) and no other query as to the absence of a pupil aged just thirteen and a half. Nothing for two years and I left at the age of fifteen. With very little to show for my decade in the state school system. Tragic. Or at least it would have been, if not for the Willesden Green Library.

Outside the Library at Willesden Green © Tim Soar for AHMM

I didn’t know how much I needed that space until I walked in one afternoon, taking a chance on not being questioned. I looked as if I was researching for a school project, no doubt. I often hid in the reading rooms on the upper floor or the reference section on the ground floor and to the side. It was quiet there. Musty and safe. An air of studiousness was over the whole building, pupils and retirees pored over books on geography, accountancy and history, mostly. Not my areas of interest, yet.

Inside the Library at Willesden Green © Tim Soar for AHMM

I favoured novels. Schlocky at first and then randomly classic. C S Lewis, Harold Robbins (yes, that Harold Robbins), Agatha Christie, Mills and Boon (romance nonsense but fun for a teen), thrillers, a gangster novel once (hate that genre) and Oscar Wilde – anything to wile away the seven hours before I could go home again. But thank goodness Willesden Green Library was there. Where else would I have gone?

How would I have avoided the police stopping and searching my school satchel for … nothing usually … how else would I have learned that despite what I had been told, what had been implied of me by my first ’teacher’, Miss Derbyshire and my first nemesis, Sister Clare, I had a brain that could function quite well? And a penchant for literature that would lead me to Shakespeare, theatre and into my own writing career. I cannot thank the library system in the UK enough for saving me from the academic coffin so many people would have shut me up in.

The exterior of Library at Willesden Green © Tim Soar for AHMM

Books were my salvation, as much as a lifebuoy would be to a drowning child. I will always defend our brilliant library system and fight to keep as many open, for those of us who simply can’t afford to buy endless books.

Paterson Joseph as Brutus in the RSC production of Julius Caesar/ Photo by Kwame Lestrade © RSC

POEM ON THE WILLESDEN GREEN LIBRARY BY PATERSON JOSEPH

Here I am, again.
The Bunker-Off.
Started, by simply hearing the word. The Idea.
The Very Idea!
Don’t go.

Genius.
Hated senior school.
Too small.
Too Black.
Where was the, albeit, all white, Primary School Village?
Was this the real world?

Want no part of it, then.

So, I hid.
In the safest
Most comforting place
I knew:
Willesden Green Library. Specifically?
The Reference section.

Just old men and drunkards, Sleeping.
Pretending to read the Newspapers.

I hid,
Undisturbed,
From the age of
About
Thirteen.
And a half?
Till I left school at Fifteen.
The numbers of wasted School days.
In the library.

But,
I was in love by then, You see.
With words.
Words,
Words.

I can never get enough of words. I love you,
Willesden Green Library.

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