The Blaze of Glory
Dicky O had
difficulty getting an entry card to the National Library. He had no
after his name, or letter of introduction. But he saw it as his last
make something of his writing, having tried everything else with no
His application had not been even acknowledged. All summer he waited
post and, just as he was becoming resigned to dogging on alone, an
letter arrived offering him a place to pursue his classification of
inscriptions (his stated reason).
: a story
He presented himself at the reading room and found a seat where he could observe the workings of this vast assembly line for learning. He saw that everything revolved around the catalogues. Readers made a beeline for them, thumbed through the cards, scribbled something, handed it in at the desk, sat down and the books arrived. He studied the system, even mastering the staff Rota for tea and cigarette breaks.
The index of author names drew him to his own. He was amazed to find it in file 48, not only his name but also the titles of his three published chapbooks. Seeing the World in the Dark, Firefly Press (1942), Flamengo, Rare Books (1943), and The Naphtha Tree: Petrol and Me, Private Editions (1949).
Dicky O requested copies and in less than an hour the library assistant brought him three dust encrusted slim volumes. He fondled them remembering their creation: burning the midnight oil, raging for expression with an ardor oblivious to the outside world. Then the pride of publication. Bur his joy fell to earth. The pages were uncut. It brought back the deadly silence after the books came out, not a word from anyone. And now the one record of their public life confirmed the worst. Nobody had troubled to read them.
Dicky O wished he was as dead as his writings. But since they hadn’t an existence in the minds of others, his suicide wouldn’t mean anything. It couldn’t be put down to literary despair, just another failure in life taking the easy way out. He wandered the streets all the night saying to himself what is to be done. The cul-de-sacs of the city echoed the same counsel. Nothing.
Next morning, he returned to the library to study readers rather than books. They were the incarnation of his neglect. Over several weeks he came to know what most of them were poring over. He became an unobtrusive expert in reading upside down (and even backwards) the titles of the books they tabled. Soon he was familiar with the preoccupation of, say, that one-armed gentleman with a glass eye, or the rather fey old girl with a flaxen shawl. Their respective delving was into Nelson’s Captain Thomas Hardy’s relations with Lady Hamilton, and the deaths of Biddy Early’s four husbands. This did nothing for his own case, until he concentrated his interest on an erudite scholar whose investigation into unheralded twentieth-century writers was informed by a relentless determination. The scope and depth of his researches lacked any purpose he could decipher. It seemed to him like a random plunge into the unknown.
Dicky O’s snooping became personal. He followed the erudite’s every move. He didn’t seem to have any other life. Even the way he dressed accommodated to his reading. A short-sleeved jacket to facilitate turning pages, gloves to keep his hands clean. He had no friends amongst the readers and lodged in rooms with service where the lights went out exactly at midnight.
One evening as the library closed, they exchanged nods and Dicky O was emboldened to talk to him. The erudite divulged that the object of his excavations was to compile a compendium of neglected writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His probing into the dark corners of the shelves had already filled a quarto of over five hundred sheets.
‘Do you know Dicky O?’ Dicky asked, and rolled off the titles of his chapbooks. The erudite expressed an interest. So, he wrote them down, spelling out the name in block capitals. For the next few days Dicky was once again walking on air. He avoided the library to give the erudite a chance to read his work. On their next encounter, the erudite asked for the name again. ‘I lost the slip of paper’, he explained.
Dicky O returned a few days later and the erudite waved to him. ‘I’ve consecrated four pages to your man. I’m indebted to you.’ Renewed joy took hold of him. He was not going to be merely a dead letter in a library. He would have an afterlife, inscribed in a magisterial tome, and live forever, or as long as books exist. He was carried away by the prospect of surviving hundreds, even thousands of years like the ancient Greek savants. His chapbooks would certainly outlive those printed on poorer quality parchment, for he had spent the last of his heritage to pay for prestigious folio, guaranteed to last even a flooding. It wasn’t inconceivable as civilisation declines that his chapbooks would end up amongst the few written records extant. Why not? Most books are printed on cheap paper. His joy knew no bounds.
They spoke from time to time and the book’s completions was reassured (‘Just a few more touches’). However, one day his erudite did not turn up, and Dicky O called at his lodging house to be told the professor had moved to the countryside near Sligo. The landlady confided that on the way to the printers the manuscript had been stolen in a mugging and in disgust he finally decided to retire from scholarly work.
Dicky O paid him a visit. But there was no way the erudite could be encouraged to start again. As the possibility of living on in the minds of men receded, Dicky O was consumed with a terrible rage at the inevitable extinction of his life’s work. The rage gripped him with such a force that it could only be appeased by strangling Professor Maturin, and burying him under the boards of his private library …. He perished the thought.
Now his last hope was dead, Dicky O had nothing to live for, except scouring antique shops on the outside-chance that one of his chapbooks could have found a home. He moved on to second-hand book fairs, waste paper depots, and ended up haunting the town dump, where he imagined himself disintegrate like desiccated parchment to be scattered by the wind until not a trace remains (phantoms don’t have phantoms).
Wishful thinking is a failure of the imagination, he knew. Dicky O extracted himself from a pile of wastepaper, and dusted himself down. Returning to the library, he ordered up his chapbooks. They arrived slowly as they were stored in the stacks. He cut the pages and read them though, savouring every word. His mind was made up. He returned next day fully prepared, at closing-time, sneaking down the stairs to the basement, he found his masterworks on a trolly waiting to be filed. Kissing each one, as though they were his children, Dicky O lit a match and poured a canaster of petrol on them. They burnt bright…
In the smouldering ruins of the National Library a body was found. It hasn’t been identified.
Augustus Young June 2021