Crofton Park Library
From Small Acorns to Big Oaks Grow

Its seven o’clock in Crofton Park Library and a dozen adults are seated amongst five rows of chairs designed for dwarfs, which have been located in a section of the library whose boundaries are marked out by several sets of shelves. The clocks went forward a few days ago, spring is in the air, and a greyish light comes through the big windows characteristic of Carnegie libraries. Normally the library would be closed at this time, but the cracks in the library’s walls tell us the library has had a good innings, in fact in 2006 it celebrated its centenary year. In honour of this occasion Lewisham Libraries have arranged for Lindsey Davis, one time Crofton Park library user and now international best-selling novelist, to talk about her career, about the help the library gave her in establishing herself as an author and to read extracts from her books.

Prior to Davis’ appearance in front of her small audience both Davis and I are ushered into a back room reeking of bleach and tuna sandwiches where I get the chance to put some questions to the author. Since the late eighties Davis has been making her name writing novels about a private detective called Falco whose adventures are set in and around the ancient Roman Empire. The extent of Davis’ success, which has seen her books translated into languages such as Spanish and Japanese means she feels comfortable calling the Roman novel genre hers. Over the last twenty years Davis has produced nineteen novels on the life and times of Falco, taking him across the Roman Empire from Syria to Britain.

These days, with the proceeds from her sales, Davis has been able to build herself a nice little nest in Greenwich, but it hasn’t always been like that. In the late eighties a week before she received a pay cheque for her first published novel, she was huddled up in bed in a maisonette, listening to rain coming through the roof she couldn’t afford to repair, seeping through the ceiling and dripping into buckets she had arranged on the floor.

Davis was born and bred in Birmingham, and it was the value that her parents placed on regular trips to the library that fired off her love for fiction. It was when her teacher told her that she could be a writer that Davis developed the desire to be a novelist. Davis studied English at Oxford University but rather than going on to become a full-time novelist she opted for the civil service believing it to be a good place for a career minded woman. This didn’t stop her pursuing her ambitions as a writer and during her time at the civil service she wrote a romantic novel which was short listed for a historical novel prize. This was enough to convince Davis that it was worth quitting the civil service, which had regaled her with just one promotion in her ten plus years there, and concentrate on her passion.

Crucial to Davis’ success in becoming an author was the nearby Crofton Park Library, a small community library built at the beginning of the twentieth century with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American philanthropist. The library is just a stone’s throw from Davis’s old maisonette and Davis, who couldn’t afford the bus fares to go elsewhere, seriously doubts she would have become an author if not for the proximity of what she calls ‘my library’. She explained that the library was always quiet and she tended to slink in and out, reluctant to tell staff that she was researching for a book in case her ambition was never realised. Davis remarked that despite its small size Crofton Park had a rich vein of material on archaeology, geography and ancient Rome, enough for her to furnish her first four novels. Without the library’s resource Davis believes she would never have had the chance to try out the Roman novel.

I asked Davis what she felt about the condition of public libraries in the UK today. Davis acknowledged that they were still thriving, and whilst recognising that they were moving towards more community centre activities, hoped they would never loose sight of books. I asked her if she felt the internet might one day render books useless. Davis thought not and felt that the internet could never replace peoples desire to go into a library open a book and experience the wonder of what might lie on the pages. Davis added that the success of her first novel, which had a small print run of two to three thousand, and which received no publicity, was wholly down to local librarians encouraging library users to give it a go. I asked Davis what it felt like to be back in the library where it all started. She told me it felt wonderful. She also told me that she didn’t know anyone in Lewisham anymore and that she didn’t know who might turn up.

They say from small acorns to big oaks grow. Such a metaphor is fitting for Crofton Park Library. Wander inside and you will see it is small quiet and ageing. It’s the kind of place you could imagine a local budget cutting bureaucrat licking his lips at. And yet this little library, where seemingly not much happens, was just enough to make the difference between an internationally selling novelist who has touched lives all over the planet and who has reinvigorated the historical novel; and a woman who in her forties who would have, in the words of Davis, otherwise been resigned to living in a tent at the bottom of her father’s garden. It’s quite possible that there are more tales out there illustrating the importance this little library has played in peoples’ lives.

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From Small Acorns to Big Oaks Grow