Shelf Life


The Old Library, Swansea


THOMASINA  But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors? How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS  By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

–       from Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Shelf Life review


Swansea public library closed its doors for the last time in November 2007. Entering its courtyard tonight, an umbrella-wielding chorus in carnival masques welcome us, strange songs juxtaposing complex arrangements and haunting flute accompaniment with mundane lyrics that give a job description for a librarian – ‘We make lists of everything you can think of… that’s what we do… categorise’ – before recommending that we are taken ‘down to the stacks.’ But librarians – and libraries – are far more than stacks of books, like those neatly arranged sculptures marking our path, and this collaboration between Volcano and Welsh National Opera is a deep exploration of the library, not only this library. A huge painting of Gladstone, who opened the library in 1887 and stories of the use of the building as mortuary during the three-day blitz on Swansea during the Second World War ensures a thread of site-specific resonance. It is a theatrical companion piece to Alberto Manguel’s critically acclaimed 2006 book The Library at Night, a title that would have perhaps been more evocative than the prosaic Shelf Life.

Like all good librarians – and he is certainly that (‘he lives in a fifteenth century presbytery near the Loire, where he spends a great deal of time among his books in the 30,000-volume library of his creation’) – Manguel loves lists. His collection of essays explores the library as:

Myth, Order, Space, Power, Shadow, Shape, Chance, Workshop, Mind, Island, Survival, Oblivion, Imagination, Identity, Home

In its own way, this is the project of Shelf Life too. We are, from the beginning, hailed as readers and invited to make our own individual journeys through the library and this promenade performance. Librarians are notorious, at least in the popular imagination, for their insistence on adherence to ‘the rules’; early rules of Swansea’s library included ‘no animals, no smoking, no spitting, no eating, no talking, no tracing pictures’ and ‘no striking matches’. Children under 14 were not allowed in unless they had special permission, and those who were caught selling or pawning a library book faced prosecution for larceny. Tonight’s ‘readers’ were actively encouraged to break all of these rules, at least in the script (signs elsewhere warn parents of aspects of the performance that might be unsuitable for children) and the performers themselves break perhaps the ultimate library taboo, getting naked. Discovering the inspiration for this act of bravery, one reacts with a scornful ‘D.H. Lawrence. Typical!’ before delving into her own delicious memory of an encounter inspired by Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Shelf Life is multi-faceted, sometimes bewilderingly so.

Volcano’s strength is in disruption. Shelf Life is an atmospheric piece; Peter Swaffer Reynolds’ sumptuous score is only enhanced by sensitive lighting and design. But just when you are being lulled into the kind of semi-oblivious bliss one experiences when lost utterly in a really good book, the cast conspire to strip you of this cosiness. The first time it happens is in the courtyard, where the choral singing – a spellbinding mix of Welsh chapel and those odd little songs evoking pre-industrial England that crop up in Shakespeare’s comedies – is cut short by a well-choreographed fight between a boy and a girl, as if a night out on Swansea’s infamous Wind Street has spilled over into the library. A similar thing happens later, when a heartfelt reading of Tony Curtis’ poem ‘Singleton’ is followed by an impassioned rant about ‘disease, dying and grief’.

Shelf Life is multi-faceted, sometimes bewilderingly so. The starting point of my own journey through the show was listening to a man on a ladder enthusing about the way books have been valued by the world’s great religions. There is something of the television historian in the way his words bring to life the peoples of the book, recounting Jewish and Islamic traditions of book burial. ‘Do books have souls?’ he muses, before ushering us toward two ‘literary doctors’ guarding the entrance to the Stacks. Here we are ad-libbed prescriptions for various ailments: a young man behind me claims impotence for which he is prescribed some Norman Mailer, twice a day; for back problems, the doctors recommend ‘a slim volume of poetry . . . Ted Hughes?’ For my own part I tell them I have left my job. ‘Kerouac then, certainly.’


The stacks have a ghostly quality. Row upon row of empty wooden shelves still retain that unique smell of old books, incense to a bibliophile. Later, we are told of how, after its grisly emergency use during the blitz, for years the books carried the faint whiff of burnt flesh. ‘People still borrowed them, though.’ There is something poignant about the conflation of books and the dead. In the dim red light of this dusty basement, one begins to feel the ghosts that reside here do not only belong to the literal dead, whose bodies once were stacked among these shelves, but also to all of those, remote in time and space, who once filled this room with many millions of words, ‘each syllable… chosen… in tenderness and terror.’

The deep connection between libraries and humanity, burial and death is also explored through frequent references to the Red Lady of Paviland, a red-ochre covered Paleolithic skeleton found locally, on the Gower peninsula, in 1823. The ochre is said to signify a ceremonial burial 29,000 years ago and the motif of the colour red – in the choir’s umbrella’s, the tablecloth in the reading room and the lighting here in the stacks – seems to symbolise the ritual send-off National Theatre Wales are providing for the library before it passes permanently into the hands of Swansea Metropolitan University.


‘I think of the world as a library – a library that contains everything… not only the past and the present, but also the future,’ muses one character, near the end. By now we have reached the reading room, centrepiece of this grand old library and focal point of the production. In ‘The Library as Shape’, Alberto Manguel insists on the relationship between librarian and architect: ‘I know the mixed feeling of expansion and containment, grandiosity and seclusion, that the combination of square and circle grants such spaces.’ It’s a perfect description of the high-domed room at Swansea; granted it isn’t the British Library or the Bibliotheque de France, but with its wrought-iron staircases and walkways and its burnished alcoves, it would not be too grand to call this space a temple to the art of reading.

‘We don’t read books in the same way sitting inside a circle or inside a square, in a room with a low ceiling or one with high rafters,’ contends Manguel. And the same could be said of plays. We don’t receive drama in the same way sitting in the stalls of a Victorian playhouse as we do in the open air or in a site-specific location like this one. Here in the reading room, the old building works its magic. The soundtrack to the final scenes is reminiscent of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album in its dark, haunting and malevolent beauty, and although at times the fragmentary nature of what was clearly originally improvised dialogue sometimes threatens to unravel, there is enough food for thought in the room itself to leave the audience quiescent.

It’s a perfect description of the high-domed room at Swansea; granted it isn’t the British Library or the Bibliotheque de France, but with its wrought-iron staircases and walkways and its burnished alcoves, it would not be too grand to call this space a temple to the art of reading.

At the centre of the room is a large circular table, spread with a feast of fruit and bread and cheese. We are invited to help ourselves to a grape; another rule broken. Around the edges are mounted boards, the kind found in museums, outlining the history of libraries and this library in particular. It is, according to one performer, ‘a wine cellar of information’ and by now the audience are ever so slightly drowsy from Volcano’s rich concoction of music, movement and words. Near the ceiling, onto which are projected images of hands flicking tentatively across pages, tracing lines of text, hang books on strings; on the empty shelves that line the walkway are strategically placed volumes from which we are encouraged to read. The Bible; A Little History of the World; Selected Poems of Philip Larkin.

When the production finishes, we realise we have been perfectly primed for the central message here. Shelf Life is an elegy for a library – ‘The death of a library is a mess, a degenerative disease’ – and a whole way of reading. Our generation stands on the cusp of perhaps the greatest reading revolution since the arrival of the printing press; digitization is seen as a threat to the printed word, if not to the pleasure of reading itself. But, we are told, ‘the new librarians of the digital age – the angels smile – are you.’ With this, we sense great privilege and equally great responsibility, but also that this is who the cast have been: these strange ghosts of librarians past are angels. And it seems appropriate to end this night at the library with a piece of found text, a poem scribbled on a piece of paper, hidden among the upper shelves of this wonderful old reading room:


The angels of the library

sit behind you,

hand on shoulder as you read.

The angels of the library

smile at your discoveries,

shudder at your persistent

clumsiness in the face of

such collected wisdom and beauty.


This essay first appeared under the title ‘The Library at Night’ in The Raconteur.