The English Library at Taora Park

Pride of place - it attacks us sometimes. In keeping with her well-washed veranda and gleaming floors I will tidy the office, just in case we get another overlooker: "Oh, Mrs Mann, you've got three bedrooms!" A certain incumbent pride of possession goes with it and although nothing is said I note my Petal's faint glow. Teresa's stone has been turned into a door stopper for it is unlikely that I shall ever see her again, being almost perfect in shape it makes an ideal sunflower. Sylvia's stone is too small for door duty and too large for desk duty so it rests in the waste basket, an unlikely Mrs Tiggiwinkle holding down wasted paper. Mimi, with a clean tray and fresh water, is calmly well-behaved recognising the prospect of a treat.

"About this day of culture?" Lizzie suggests: "Shall I tie the umbrella to your wrist, my precious?"

"You lost it the last time, my good woman! I gave it to you while I paid the curatoro."

"I gave it back to you, my good man!"

"Oh no, you did not! You waved it at a taxi."

"So it got left inside."

"That umbrella was the last remaining symbol of my years of local government service! It was an actual Knirps."

"Harold's got a Knirps. He says they do their discussion groups up there. So, are we actually going on this day of culture?"

"Long way to go to borrow a book."

"So let's go for the ride!"

As a child I was told off for entering Beeston library with mud-caked shoes. The library was at the top of Foster Avenue which was then a building site. The librarian's screechy voice in a place devoted to quiet was an anomaly. Not sure of my ground I looked up anomaly in the small reference section. Mr Roberts the headmaster of Senior Boys at Beeston Fields Higher Council School nodded approvingly. As a junior I was not familiar with the man though I recognised his daughter, a tall stately girl with a smiling face, who also nodded vigorously. With his academic presence in a public library approving my search for knowledge, pride shone like a lamp and I gave the lady librarian a haughty look.

In Los Cristianos we had seen the Swedish library with Margit Roth and were not sure what to expect from an English library in foreign parts. Claudia never exposed her knowledge of the place apart from saying "Thank God we've still got libraries," and pulling off something from her internet on the history of English libraries. And Harold once said the library was sometimes noisy with the school just across the road.

"We've still got libraries." Yes Claudia, dear, we've still got libraries! Back home we have homeless people, driven out by banks particularly the widely hated Beast of Barclays foreclosing on loans and mortgages, and with redundancies and hordes of people out of work, swarms of beggars as openly mendicant as the worst in Calcutta: and these few salient examples are augmented by hosts of tribulations lurking beneath and are, collectively, trials of stoic virtue leading to Man's truest knowledge of himself!


One of the few good things about Britain's environmental wasteland is the British Library Service, the ready availability of which is all too often accepted at face value. The full extent of its worth may best be described by saying that one could enter almost any public library with a mind wholly uncorrupted by knowledge and emerge several years later with a worthwhile academic degree - such is the breadth and depth of material available. The only prerequisites are an ability to read, a library ticket, and the sense to keep a reverent hush within the precincts.

Obviously for those who prefer to keep the clarity of their ignorance intact, a library is just another public building with books in - a sort of Victorian conceit intended to educate the masses before TV came on the scene and did away with reading!

The first Libraries Act goes back to 1850 and applied to England alone. Subsequent Acts in 1853 extended the service to Ireland and Scotland. For the provision of libraries, local authorities were expected not to expend more than one penny in the pound and all libraries were to be open to the public free of charge.

The history of libraries is quite fascinating; the most ancient is ascribed to the Eygptian king Osmandyas at Memphis whose archives contained exact calculations for the solar year recorded around 4000 BC as 365.240 days Pisistratus founded a library among the ancient Greeks at Athens, but then Xerxes with his Persian hordes confiscated the library and carried it away. Presumably it was all Greek to the Persians for they returned it to Athens!

But the most celebrated library of antiquity was the Alexandrian, not only for its mathematic and philosophic works and the scripts of playwrights but also technical manuals for architects and engineers; the science of load-bearing structures, the vectoring of co-planar forces and formulae for the hydraulic mean depth of drains which ensured the correct gradient for taking the solids away with the water - for too steep a gradient would allow the water to rush away leaving the solids behind: remarkably, town-planning people in the fourth century BC had the expertise to avoid the annoyance of blocked drains.

A passage in the Politics of Aristotle reflects a warning about rational town planning with straight streets intersecting each other, insisting that the essential heart of every city should preserve the haphazard arrangement of earlier days to make it more difficult for invaders to fight their way in.

So here in the fourth century BC engineers and architects have broken into print; even Archimedes whose great contemporary fame rested chiefly in his weapons of war - and not in pure mathematics as is commonly supposed - published his results for the benefit of Greek engineers everywhere --

"Time for a Potem, Petalmost!"

"How come you know all this stuff, my man?"

"My early days in the building trade."

"You get all this stuff in the building trade?"

Books I intended to throw out and somehow, on the very edge of hesitation, decided to keep, like Clarke Hall and Morrison on Children, and Street on Torts and Structures in History. Needing to keep has no practical value only pride of possession.

Lizzie's chocolate magdalenas and tea as I like it, thin and dark, almost China tea. Half an hour then back to the fourth century BC.

-- It is interesting to note the rise in demand for technical books so early in mankind's history. At that time the status of the engineer was rising in proportion to the demand for stone- and bolt- throwing catapults in a developing age of mobile warfare. Even more interesting is these ancient engineers' concept of potential and kinetic energy which, when brought into meaningful relation, produced catapults of great range and accuracy. It is the use of the cube root which constitutes the remarkable feature of engineering skills in the fourth century BC --

"And what do you know about cube roots, sweet man?"

"I'm quoting from reference material. Actually, I wouldn't know a cube root if one fell on my foot!"

"I could dice them onto square roots and use them as stock cubes."

"Sweet of you to join me in ignorance; just because I look like an idiot it doesn't mean that I'm not!"

-- There is still in existence a cube root extractor designed by some unknown Greek engineer of the third or possibly fourth century BC, a simple right-angle tool of bronze with parallel slide bar which, when properly aligned, will yield approximately correct results for design of a stone-throwing catapult. Quite clearly then, these ancient engineers were probing into a domain where world knowledge had not yet penetrated. The reason we know about this fascinating minutia is simply because of ancient libraries, the texts of which are still preserved and available.

We cannot say how readily such book rolls were available to interested readers: quite likely circulation was restricted to those with proper introductions and letters of recommendation as was the case with libraries in Britain prior to 1850, except of course people like Dr Samuel Johnson who, in 1773, walked straight into the Advocates Library in Edinburgh purely on the strength of his great literary reputation. Boswell records the incident of Dr Johnson "...rolling about in this old magazine of antiquities attended by a group of admirers. Somebody spoke about how a man can write at one time and not at another. 'Nay' said Dr Johnson, 'a man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it.'"

Back home in the present time one walks straight into the library on the strength of one's library ticket. Redbridge Central Library once got me a copy of William Russell Flint's More Than Shadows. This book is out of print and not readily available. But Flint is a painter whose work I admire and I wanted this book of his very badly. Within a week Redbridge located a copy in a little branch library in Wiltshire and I had the thing in my hands on extended loan eight days later.

From Los Cristianos it's a hell of a long drive just to borrow a book! But off we go to the English Library prepared for disappointment and the need for polite acclaim. Back home there are two and a half million unemployed. By the end of 1992 three million unemployed is predicted. But I can't spare time to think of the growing number of homeless people. The banks are closing in on defaulters. No mercy can be expected.

Lizzie brings me up to date with; "I bet they haven't got John McEnroe's Guide to Centre Court Etiquette."

"I bet they don't have Grinling Gibbons's My early days in the Plywood Industry."

"They certainly won't have Erin Pizzey's Open Plan Diet Book."

With such juvenile madness we entertain ourselves en route. If we are to be disappointed we may as well see the funny side.

"How about Saddam Hussein's Winter Knits for Desert Warfare?"

Finding the damn place is a bother. We circulate, stop and ask, proceed, stop again. Charity evaporates. I assemble enough negative feelings to ruin the day in advance.

"Well, it's not shown on the map. You know, NASA confirms the Big Bang theory. This cosmic background satellite has reported back from the edge of the universe detecting wispy cloud stuff, fifteen billion years old."

"Not to worry, my man. We'll find this library if it takes us beyond the known universe!"

We happen by chance on the Yeoward School and ask again. And there it is! Right behind the school, daft as a brush!

A small gate set in a white rendered wall opens into the garden. There are trees and a pathway leading to the low verandahed building. With its white walls and tall narrow casement windows it looks British Colonial Clubhouse style. One anticipates a cricket pitch and croquet lawn. The hipped pantile roof carries two Victorian-style finial ventilators on the central ridge. It is not a bit what we expected to see.

"Well, what did we expect to see?" We hesitate, blinded by our new-found treasure. "Well... not this: something more like a locale with dog-eared paper backs and carnival posters. Good holiday reading for Mums and Dads and something for the kiddiwinks. Nothing to overtax the brain.."

"They may not let us in. You're not wearing a tie!."

"Like Asterix we shall enter boldly. Follow me.."

Needless anxieties are swept away. We are kindly received by Mrs Lena Greenaway in her small office off the main hall. There are carefully prepared questions to ask and she is willing to give us time.

The library is financed by subscription and sale of unneeded and duplicated books. Subscription is 2750 pesetas per year for residents. Visitors pay 2000 pesetas deposit and 500 pesetas per month for temporary membership. Deposit is refunded when borrowed books are returned. Visitors may take up to four books on their temporary membership, two hardbacks and two paperbacks.

Residents may take up to seven books for a three week period.

On average fifty-five new books are purchased every month. The book choosing committee must approve by sixty per cent of votes the choice of new titles. The most popular titles are fiction and biography.

One new book may be borrowed for one week only. A double subscription of 3250 pesetas will allow two new books to be taken out for one week.

All stock is protected by polythene sheet to preserve covers and the shelves are regularly fumigated against insect pests which devour paper. The library has its own classification and index system which may readily be transferred to computer.

Opening hours are: Monday 1500 to 1730 hours, Wednesdays 1000 to 1200 hours, Fridays 1600 to 1800 hours.

Supported in its early days by gifts and bequests, the library is now entirely self-supporting. It is run on a purely voluntary basis. The management committee meet for business on a quarterly basis.

Days between open days are for general maintenance, cleaning and sorting when as many as twenty people attend for work. Duplicated books are put to one side for sale. The accounts of this non-profit-making establishment are balanced at the end of each financial year.

We are impressed by the informality and easy style of the place. It is friendly rather than officially welcoming. Our home-based Redbridge Central has a reliquary for penance payments: "Please place your fines in this box" and a notice: "Fines for overdue books will be levied at the rate of ..."

"Oh, but we don't fine people," says Mrs Greenaway. "We find that people are quite good in this respect. And we don,t quibble if someone from the far side of the island can,t get their books returned on time."

We are invited to look round the library. A massive table in the central hall carrying a selection of magazines first catches our attention; the range of interest is surprisingly wide. The walls support shelves rising to eaves height and are crowded with books old and new. A step ladder is provided for the upper levels. We are looking at the reference section: an up to date set of Encyclopaedia Britannica brings a covetous gleam to my eye, Lizzie finds a book on 'Lists' in which is a list of the ten most famous non-murder cases, the trial of Socrates, Thomas More, and the notorious 'Monkey' case - on the theory of evolution and whether it should be taught in schools - a fascinating piece of American legal history.

There is a special feel about old books which modern copies of old texts do not have: they bring one close to the margin of past events. A book on 'Modern Poets' published in the early days of the century is, by today's examples of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, far from modern, but the hand-written dedication on the flyleaf by a person who thought it made an admirable present for a younger relative has, for anyone with imagination and a sense of history, an immediate contact with the period. These crowded shelves host a treasury of learning. Spruce new volumes rank with older ones, those purchased alongside those donated: from A for Astronomy down to Z for Zoroastrian Calendar which was used in pre-Moslem days and is still employed by the sect in Iran and India.

The overall view of this reference section is oceanic, a vast area for exploration, a delight for the enquiring mind.

The once open verandah is now enclosed and houses the fiction section. It is arranged in alphabetical order of authors, and colour-coded Red for crime, Blue for normal fiction, Green for westerns, Yellow for non-fiction, Purple for science-fiction, White for classics. Twice, in 1971 and 1985, the library has been extended to cope with its growing number of books. It now houses approximately 37000 volumes.

Obviously, this institution has not grown to its present size overnight. The notion of a lending library germinated in 1890 when a relative of the former American Consul in Tenerife moved to Oratavo with her English husband and started lending their large collection of books to friends and visitors. Two years later the first radio signals were sent a distance of 1320 feet by Sir William Preece. Thereafter progress was rapid with Guglielmo Marconi sending a message one mile in 1895 and 3000 miles in 1901.

By the end of 1901 the notion of a properly instituted library had taken root; the number of volumes at the Orotava Library - as it was then named - amounted to over 2000 and were temporarily housed in a room at the Parsonage of the English Church. The first general meeting of British residents interested in forming a library had taken place on November 1st 1900 - the year which saw the relief of Kimberly and Ladysmith, and Mafeking so resolutely defended by Colonel Baden-Powell the founder of the Boy Scout movement.

One imagines the perseverance and firm character of Queen Victoria's subjects abroad who in 1900 with just over £100 in donations and subscriptions established an English library for the few British people then resident: such people as the Rev. A.W. Humphries; Colonel O.P. Wethered; Mrs Boreham; and others began an enterprise which has continued to run on purely voluntary lines ever since.

In 1904 the Orotava Library was transferred to its present site at Taora Park, Puerto de la Cruz, Colonel Wethered contributing £500 towards the cost of the site and the library building.

During the First World War a total of 421 books were presented by the library as gifts to the Armed Forces. The number of yearly subscribers dropped to a mere seventeen. Isolated from world events by four years of hostilities the library survived by gifts of money and books from the small body of residents remaining in Tenerife.

The Civil War in Spain again brought a reduction of visitors, followed shortly afterwards by the Second World War and a dwindling number of residents.

Throughout these difficult times the Spanish Authorities continued to offer hospitality. In March 1942 a Disposition from the Spanish Civil Governor required that the English Library come within the purview of the University of La Laguna; this was a formal instrument only which recognised the library's status without interfering in any way with its function.

In December 1964 the new Law on Associations required recognition and compliance. This, in effect, was the final act of establishment for the English Library.

Sustained wholly by voluntary work in the true sense of public spirit, its establishment at the turn of the century means that in a few short years this library and its 37000 books will celebrate its centenary.

We came to find out with minds as open as perfect ignorance allows; prepared for disappointment, prepared to comment with warm but false enthusiasm, prepared to celebrate a wasted journey in a local tavern worrying about what we could decently write.

We departed profoundly impressed; fascinated by the history, delighted with the wealth of provision and sense of service. For here at this English Library stands excellence and order too often absent from other current affairs.

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Text & paintings © Alan Mann 2006 - 2012