Alan Bennett speaks of vital role libraries played in his career

�Alan Bennett told an audience in Primrose Hill that his childhood home did not have any children’s books and he developed a love of reading after visiting a library when he was six.

The Camden Town playwright and author gave an enthralling account of his relationship with libraries over the years – peppering it with witty anecdotes.

DIY manuals

In his broad Yorkshire tones, the 77-year-old told an audience at the Primrose Hill lecture series at St Mary’s Church how his father, a butcher, and his mother were both readers but their house lacked any children’s books.

“There were DIY manuals,” he said. “My mother and father were both readers but they tended to like books about escape, and escape from Leeds, particularly.

“My father used to dream about starting a smallholding and he used to read books about that.”

As a boy, Mr Bennett and his brother read comics. He would flick through the pictures and ask his brother to explain the text.

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“Then one day, in my mind, suddenly it began to make sense and I realised I could read. I was so happy,” Mr Bennett said.

He described how he felt “shut out” of libraries until he visited the children’s library in Armley, Leeds, when he was six and it opened his eyes to the joys of reading. “I think that’s important to remember today, when the libraries are under threat,” he said.

For a lot of children who don’t have computers at home, the only way they can keep up with their classmates is by using computers in the library, he said.

“I see these children as myself when I was six years old,” Mr Bennett added.

His relationship with libraries blossomed in his teens and, as a sixth former at Leeds Modern School – a state school in Headingley – he worked at Leeds City Reference Library. It was full of sixth formers who were also studying for scholarships to Oxbridge.

“I found some of the pleasure in going to the library that, had I been less studious, I could have found in a pub,” Mr Bennett said.

He went on to read medieval history at Oxford University, gaining a first.

Of the boys he studied with in the reference library, nine went on to become judges. He said: “Libraries are facilities which have no honours boards, they take no credit for what their readers go on to do. I feel as much debt to that library as I do to my school.”

He told the audience to stand up and be counted over libraries which had been earmarked for closure.

“I’m not a campaigner but it’s something I feel passionate about. Everybody should support the campaign to save our library and other libraries,” he said.