Chronicles of Halden, I

Alarms and Excursions

Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2004  -

Chapter 8:
Handsome projects

Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004

Winston was still listening spellbound to the insinuating tones of Rupert Todd. The Deputy Librarian had told him of his scheme to convert the University's halls of residence, already - at least those for men - called colleges, into entirely independent, royally chartered corporate bodies on the model of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, so that the title of Fellow of St Cuthbert's College, or of St Sweyne's would carry the same cachet (Todd put a heavy stress on the first syllable) as that of Fellow of Magdalen or All Souls, and that a Fellowship at Nightingale Hall should be equal in scholarly estimation with one at Newnham or Girton - "to.say nothing of Lady Margaret Hall, chwheee-hee-heee-hee-hee-hee-heeee ... _shkhheeee-hee-hee-hee-heeee hee-hee-hee!"

Winston had not been quite sure why nothing should be said of the eldest daughter of the Earl of Swardale, but he took his cue from the Deputy Librarian's meaningful pause and tittered dutifully. He was duly rewarded by a renewed and increasingly enthusiastic spate of confidential rhetoric. Rupert Todd turned once more to matters bibliographical and began to expound his project for the reform of the library catalogue.

In essence the scheme was of breathtaking simplicity and revealed the genius of its progenitor. The existing card catalogue was to be dismantled and sorted into separate sequences according to the century in which the books it described had been printed. Fifty girls would be employed during one summer vacation, using one of the large lecture rooms, to retype the cards in new, modern, simplified style, omitting such pettifogging details as publisher and pagination. The newly typed cards for more recent centuries would be checked by graduate wives taken on for this special task, while older, more important material would be passed to bibliographers and bibliophiles who would add details of watermarks, printing history binding and bookplates. The revised cards would then be returned to the fifty girls for typing up. After this the whole catalogue would be microfilmed and then printed out on the left-hand columns of three-column pages which would then be bound up into volumes. Each volume would, of course, be bound in the style appropriate to the century to which it belonged. Entries for further additions to the library would then be typed onto special slips and pasted into the appropriate places in the blank columns, thus creating a bibliographical instrument of true aesthetic beauty, a bibliophile treasure in its own right.

Winston's brother Adolphus, who worked as a cataloguer in Halden Public Library, might have objected that such an arrangement would, by arbitrary divisions separating different impressions of the same book into different catalogues according to their dates of issue, prove more of a hindrance than a help to the ordinary reader as opposed to the bibliophile. Winston would not have been interested in his brother's whining quibbles. With one exception Adolphus was the member of his family whom he most despised. Adolphus' opinion counted for nothing beside that of Rupert Todd. Adolphus with that shabby little ALA he seemed to think gave him the status of a scholar would not even have understood the jargon which Rupert Todd so expertly manipulated. Winston glowed, then suddenly winced as if a blast of cold air had forced its way beneath a loose filling in a sensitive tooth.

The Deputy University Librarian noticed nothing. His flow of words continued unabated, then Winston, to his horror, saw Todd's nose rise and flare and his shoulders begin to squirm as he writhed a reply to Lulu's greeting. Winston said a silent prayer, and was saved: Lulu continued on her way and Todd did not seem to connect her in any way with Winston. In fact Todd rarely connected anything or anyone with anyone but himself. He was the centre of his universe. Other people were important only inasmuch as he could use them for the furtherance of his own interests or could bask in their admiration. He naturally assumed that the charming girl, who had smiled and waved as she passed, was one of the innumerable females smitten by his charm. He preened himself and continued his speech.

"Of course," he said, referring to his catalogue reforms, "none of this can take place under the present regime, but when the present Librarian retires, then I am sure that his successor will be more forward-looking and progressive ... " (here he assumed the air of one who knows a great secret but is obliged not to tell even his closest friends, and added in his most insinuatingly confiding tones) " ... whoever he may be." Once again his frame shook in spasms of voiceless but far from silent sniggering.

Winston gladly joined in. A nod was as good as a wink. Todd was obviously an even more valuable acquaintance than he had at first supposed. What a shake-up there would be in the University very, very soon - and he, Winston Greatbatch, would be on hand to report it. He was still laughing when Todd, his nose raised like that of a stallion flaring for danger or for a mare, gave a great neigh of pleasure.

"Mnnnnnngh! Here comes the Chaplain of my college," he cried and Winston, looking round for some academic cleric, was astonished to see Todd fall upon the neck of Canon Tollgate, till he remembered that the Rector of St Sweyne's was also Chaplain to St Sweyne's College, which stood in the eastern part of his parish.

Already the librarian was deep in conversation with Canon Tollgate. Winston hesitated for a moment then concluded that he had been dismissed from Todd's attention. Out of sight, out of mind, he moved slowly away, then quickened his pace as he saw, waiting at a nearby bus-stop, his cousin Colin. It was too late to get any further information into the evening paper, but a call to Fleet Street was still possible.


Minnie Hodges had slipped away from her friend's side as soon as he had entered into colloquy with Rupert Todd but she could not get out of her mind the sickening spectacle of the Deputy Librarian's thrusting nose a bare half-inch from Tollgate's face. She decided to have a quick cup of tea before starting for home, to clear the taste from her mouth, and, of course, to avoid the crush of schoolchildren on the bus. She chose a quiet little teashop in a side street, collected her tea from the counter, and sat down in a gloomy corner. Two women, the only other occupants of the cafe', looked at her from the shadows and muttered together. The smaller seemed to want to approach Minnie but the other was holding her back.

"If," thought Minnie, "they come over and start asking me about the rape at the schools, I shall positively and absolutely scream the place down."

The smaller woman approached. Minnie noted first her bright green dress, then the contrasting, almost clashing, red hair.

"It's Mrs Hodges, isn't it?" said Tinkerbell O'Reilly, for it was she.

Miss O'Reilly sat down and murmured a few words of explanation, indicating her companion who hovered nervously in the background as if afraid to come near.

Suddenly the lank-haired, granny-bespectacled girl at the counter seemed to prick up her ears and come to life. Her fingers darted to the controls of a radio which was crackling and buzzing scarcely more audibly than the bluebottle which hovered around the sandwiches and cakes, and at her touch the minor-keyed misery of Solomon Gomorrah filled the room. Covered by this deliberately disharmonious despair the nervous woman joined Minnie and Tinkerbell, while Swardale's very own protest balladeer sang:

That's the way-ay - the cookie cru-umbles
That's the way-ay - the dice are thrown,
Will you draw - the ace of spay-ades
Pull the lu-uck - from thuh wishbone?

One mounts - the wheel of Fortune,
The other falls - below the rim,
The one enjoys - Fortune's favour
Till the whe-eel - rolls over him!

That's the way-ay - the cookie cru-umbles,
That's the way-ay - the dice are thrown
Will you draw-aw - the Queen of hear-arts,
Will you choke on - thuh wishbone?

Fortune smi-iles - upon her favourite,
and for him - all seems well,
She turns her ba-ack -upon ano-other,
Let's him fall - straight down to HELL!

That's the way-ay - the cookie cru-umbles,
That's the way-ay - thuh dice may fall,
We are o-on - thuh wheel of Fortune,
And her whi-him - it rules us all!"

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Chapter 9: Interminable deliberations

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