This is the end of the journey.
I have arrived at the most famous library ever lost, and the edge of the land. The library of Alexandria was so close to the port, that when the Egyptians fought the Roman fleet in a sea-battle in 48CE, the library caught fire and most of it’s staggering holdings of seven hundred thousand scrolls were destroyed. Nothing remains, not even a good sense of where precisely it stood. It stands mostly in fable, which is not to be located.
Now there’s a second library of Alexandria, built in 2000 by the sea shore. I pay for a tour, since it’s the only way to gain access to the library interior. The Egyptians are so fond of their security measures that I may not take so much as a bag into the paved area that leads toward the library door. I cannot hope to bring my camera close to the library, nor inside, let alone use it. I look carefully at the rusting barriers stamped Biblioteca Alexandrina and I notice that they are not original. When this new library was opened, sixteen years ago, it was not blockaded. Photographs show it accessible from all sides, but now the side facing the sea has green corrugated metal sheeting all around it and the walkways are all closed off, save for the one entry that has the inevitable body scanner and guards checking for bags.
Later, I sit on a piece of rubble facing the Mediterranean. It is sunset and I am in a black mood. Not even the sea can cheer me up, though it tries to – flinging spray over rock defences and twinkling in the late sun. What is it that makes me miserable? I don’t like this pretence of rebuilding the great library of Alexandria. I prefer to arrive at a frank erasure than a fake. Better to leave the library unbuilt, as the economics to sustain it are no longer in place in Alexandria.
Rather than feel sad about the library here, I should be rejoicing at my good fortune to have lived in the right time and place as to have enjoyed extreme privilege in the way of books. I was born at the right time to exploit a moment in British culture when suddenly it became possible for working-class parents to allow their children to apply to universities, because it was free. There was a short window that I slipped through before the universities were forced into rapid expansion, partly due to the numbers who could apply, and had to reduce that they could offer to a student. Soon after that, study stopped being free of charge. Now it’s punitively costly to study in the UK, and also very meagre fare.
I am pretty certain about this because I only really left university courses six years ago. I went from being a student straight into teaching: I had a front-row seat on the decline. My children might never afford to go to a university. I also was born at a time when public libraries in the UK were relatively well-funded, and so, of course, I took for granted that the library was a living room. I could read any book on its shelves any day I pleased. My local library is usually shut, so my children are unable to walk into it every day after school as I did.
I sit on the rocky shore watching men fishing, with the arid plains behind me. I am at the edge of a building site, flanked by the thunderous and dusty dual carriageway that cuts the sea off from the city. I am not alone here. A couple sit on a sea defence sharing an evening picnic, their heads close together. A huddle of six school girls share their yogurts with the stray cats. Groups of teenagers clamber and posture on the rubble. Many selfies are being taken. Hidden in a bag beside me is my Bolex. I don’t know what to do. I cannot film the new library and nobody can tell me where the ancient library was in Alexandria, just that it was near the port. Should I to go to the port and film the sea? I feel like that is the only solution, though it’s very weak. Only I am far from it and it’ll soon be dark. I can’t walk get back through the traffic… I am hampered by an overwhelming sense of futility. I decide to film the sea from where I am rather than hazard the traffic and the police. I am close enough. It’s time I went home.