An unexpected trip to the Memory Library

Published by Tony Quinlan on

A slightly frustrating day yesterday turned out to have its upside.

Having journeyed to meet with clients, it turns out their PA hadn’t put the appointment in their diaries. So one person was in Denmark, the other in France while I stood at the front gate, resigned to spending two hours travelling back the way I’d just come.

A quick check with the taxi driver back to the station, however, revealed that Sutton – my teenage stomping ground – was nearer than I’d thought, so I decided to pop back there to revisit old haunts. I wasn’t optimistic about how it had changed (“Oh, we call it Slutton these days…” from the driver) but decided to go all the same.

Walking down the High Street, there were some expected changes: my first bank, the NatWest by the station was of course now a pub called The Old Bank. (I could have done without the adjective.) Safeways, of course, is Morrisons. And there are more gaming/gambling venues than there were.


Sometime in the 90s, Allders of Sutton had left its two buildings and moved into the new St Nicholas Centre further on down. The main building (shown here) had been a confusion of levels and staircases.

My first paid job had been as a lift attendant here on Saturdays back in the 80s. The lift had been small and automatic, but someone still thought it worth having a young man stand and press buttons for people. It didn’t last long and I was soon transferred to the Radio and TV department on the top floor where I spent every Saturday for a few years happily carrying TVs, hifis and the new-fangled video recorders (Betamax, VHS and Philips’ V2000 formats) down to people’s cars, tuning televisions before delivery so that customers could just turn it on and magic! all three channels were there. (The increase to 4 made little difference.)

And I was the first port of call for repairs – I’d brought my screwdrivers and soldering iron in and demonstrated a degree of proficiency with electrical equipment which meant that before sending anything back to the workshop, I’d take the back off, check for loose wires and obvious problems. (Made much easier by the fact that many suppliers included circuit diagrams in the product manuals.)

Radio and TV was on the top floor on the corner of the building shown here. Directly below us on the ground were the Perfumes department – war paint and hairsprayed glamour girls waging their own chemical warfare on unsuspecting pedestrians. Saturday staff – particularly male ones – were beneath their notice, for which, in retrospect, I’m very grateful. They were well-coiffed sharks patrolling the spaces between their glaring white sales stalls.

Waterstones is a much better alternative.

There were inevitabilities further down the High Street – the arcade with the brilliant record shop that would decamp to the actual High Street every Christmas for the sale has long been demolished, along with the extensive market stalls that did everything from cheap German pressings of current albums to leather flying jackets. My black double-breasted shirt and grey fake suede winklepickers came from there. (This was the early Eighties – colour was anathema to most teenagers, but we learnt to see the world in shades of grey.)

Times Square, the shopping precinct built in the early 80s before being relaunched as Times 2, is back to being Times Square again. It doesn’t feel like it’s taken off yet – and has given up trying. At this point, I didn’t feel much like feeding my pessimism any further and headed back up the High Street.

Before heading back to the station, however, I decided to stop off at the Central Library. In the 80s, it was the biggest public library in Europe (or so the rumour went). Finding the stairs from the underpass bricked off and unable to see how to get in at first lowered my spirits somewhat.

Once in, however, I was relieved to discover that it still sprawled across five levels (between Allders and the library, Sutton seems to have an aversion to numbering floors, but an attraction for mezzanine levels). The ground floor had a corner of chess tables laid out for casual players to stop by, complete with chess clocks. Two older gentlemen were engrossed and it’s been too long since I played with any degree of seriousness so I decided not to offer any challenge.

At the top of the building, the study cubicles were fully occupied – as they were when my father matched my Allders wages to ensure I spent Saturdays studying for my A-levels. The collection is substantially smaller than it was – in the mid-Eighties it was good enough that I was the only person on my degree course to have the out-of-print textbook by one of our lecturers on electrical networks. The solid islands of non-fiction that made up the central space below the cubicles are now sparser and mostly fiction, but it’s encouraging that the essence of a great learning space is still there.

I’ve never come across a better local government-funded library than Sutton. While the collection and content were important, the real benefit was always in the physical space – somewhere to sit and study in quiet, out of the home and out of school. As the focus on libraries returns at the moment, it’s worth bearing in mind that content without the learning environment is available via the Internet in bedrooms – it’s the space that makes all the difference.