/ 6 April 2023

The cathedral of my heart, Yeoville library

Libraries are enlightening settings, sanctuaries from the noise and problems of the world outside. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

There was one time I got close to finding God. 

While clapping to a song I barely knew, flanked by my grandparents who had insisted I accompany them to a Christmas service, I convinced myself that the hand moving the slides on the overhead projector was the open palm of God. I must have been about six years old.

I never attended church in earnest. I went to catechism a handful of times, but that was just a chance for me to draw using someone else’s colouring pencils and to spend some extra time with my friends. I went to their confirmations, which left me feeling hollow, like an Easter egg.

Even then, church seemed to me to be less about God and more about the people. And, despite my chronic shyness, it was the people I was truly interested in. As a child, I found my people somewhere else.

Yeoville library in the 1990s was pretty much like any other you’d find in Johannesburg today: startlingly quiet, ascetic in its layout, its motley assortment of books held by a building so clearly designed by someone whose idea of beauty was limited by apartheid. 

My mother started working as a librarian in the 1980s, when violence spilled into the city in waves. 

She worked at a number of libraries, including the stately Johannesburg Public Library, which was erected in the 1930s on the most westerly section of market square — a site town planners deemed “the last open space in the centre of the city”. 

In his book on the library, RF Kennedy — the librarian, not the former United States attorney general — wrote that Johannesburg had a reputation for having a brash materialism.

The library my mother spent most of her working years stood far less confidently, nestled in a suburb that made you feel like you were walking on lava: Yeoville. And because I was her little shadow, Yeoville library became as much my realm as it was hers.

My memories of the library, and of Yeoville itself, are fleeting and, for that reason, not always trustworthy. Then there is the fact that when you’re a child, and you haven’t found your feet yet, life doesn’t quite have a recognisable rhythm to it. Life just comes at you, right at your eyeline. 

Considering this, and that I only lived in Yeoville when I was a baby, the suburb probably occupies a too-big artery in my heart. Those memories that I can grab on to, however, are distinctive.

There was Matilda, my first big-girl book, which I gobbled up in a day, cross-legged on a tautly upholstered pleather armchair in the back room of the library. 

When I finally came up for air, I felt like I had been baptised. It was in the Yeoville swimming pool that I first dunked my head fully under water, a big deal for a girl who at one point would take a shower only if she had goggles on.

I had my first encounter with death at the Yeoville library, when a man was shot running up the road. I don’t know if he died or not. I had heard from someone — probably my mother — that whoever drew the gun thought it was justified because the man he shot at had stolen from him. 

When I try to resurrect this memory, I see the shot man’s silhouette through the library’s frosted glass window, staggering until he finally falls. It probably didn’t happen that way. I was glad I was inside the library that day and not walking to the Checkers to buy a cheese pie.

I rarely strayed from my mother’s gravitational pull, but there were other adults around.

For a period, my mum worked alongside two sisters. I don’t think they were twins, but their gaits and gestures were so closely matched that they may as well have been. 

What I remember most about them were their hands, which were a translucent pink. They were obsessed with washing them, as if they had committed a Shakespearean crime. I was in awe of how they were able to hold their mugs of hot tea.

The pair also used to tear apart books with their bare hands. The books were their link to the people they served, so they destroyed as many as they could. 

My mother didn’t bother with all that.

The Yeoville library that I knew was closed some years ago, its books relocated to a newer facility on Raleigh Street. I hear the old building was abandoned, hollowed out. 

English journalist and author Caitlin Moran once wrote about her local library — a small red-brick structure in Pinfold Grove, Wolverhampton, which could just as easily be found hidden in one of Joburg’s suburbs — amid budget cuts and a spate of closures.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead,” Moran wrote in 2012.

“A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

My mum endured the kick in the teeth of budget cuts in her day, when she questioned how the city’s libraries could possibly survive. Most of them have held on, although some only just.