Boyd Tonkin: A bookish battle won, but not a war
The week in books
Friday 18 November 2011
Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Morpurgo at the Institut Français in London – part of its French Passions series, in which British authors and other artistic figures talk about their favourite cross-Channel counterparts. Morpurgo discussed the Provençal writer Jean Giono, whose stances in support of both global peace and conservation resonated with the creator of War Horse and (literally) a hundred other much-loved stories. In answer to an audience question, the genial guru made an impromptu defence of reading as the cornerstone of any civilisation worth the name. In the course of it, he said that "To close a library is a crime".
At last, and within the limits of administrative law, we now have an endorsement of that view. At the High Court on Wednesday, Judge McKenna ruled in favour of the campaigners who have argued that Gloucestershire council's plans to remove funding from 10 libraries, and Somerset's from 11, were unlawful. Not only did the judge reverse the decision to shut these branches and award the campaigners costs; he denied the authorities leave to appeal. This is a triumph for pro-library protestors around the country. It fixes a precedent for the related Brent appeal, soon to be adjudicated after a further hearing last week.
Crucial to the judgment is the opinion that both councils failed to mount a "thorough information-gathering exercise" and then "properly analyse... the data". Judge McKenna noted that the authorities had ignored their statutory duties to provide an equal service to all.
Daniel Carey of Public Interest Lawyers, who pursued the judicial review, notes that the "Big Society" cannot "justify disenfranchising vulnerable individuals from the services on which they rely". Objections to similarly slapdash and haphazard closure plans have underpinned protests in many other areas. In Brent especially, the council should be worried.
As well as wielding the weapons now handed to them in court, campaigners need to address the spiral of decline. Run-down and underfunded branches deter users. This fall in custom then becomes the justification – or rather pretext – for closure. Gloucestershire itself provides a case in point.
Pro-cuts councillors there claim that "People have more access to books and they are much cheaper to buy". They then point to a dip in usage: between 10 and 20 per cent across branches. Yet the county's library service suffered 30 per cent cuts last year, and the book budget a whopping 40 per cent. You find this process replicated across the land. Loans and visits sometimes drop - although not everywhere, and certainly not for children - but generally less than by the level of cuts imposed. And in those areas where local-authority investment holds up – from Hillingdon to Blackpool – so does popularity.
Champions of the local library should note another potential pothole in their path. The High Court rulings that in this case have saved, and in others might save, services depend on judicial review. And the political or policy-making dimensions of this procedure have just come under attack from the latest appointee to the Supreme Court: Jonathan Sumption QC.
In a lecture at Lincoln's Inn, Sumption – who will wield enormous influence on the country's highest bench – scorns judges' bids to oversee or reverse ministerial decisions. He argues that "parliamentary scrutiny is... perfectly adequate for the purpose of protecting the public interest". These remarks seem wide of the mark when it comes to library disputes. They turn on attempts to make councils shoulder the responsibilities laid down by Parliament instead of defying them.
All the same, campaigners in favour of public provision should take note. One of our loudest courtroom voices will soon belong to a legal and cultural conservative who in 1979 co-wrote a book with Sir Keith Joseph: Equality (they didn't much approve of it).
That he chose to inaugurate his tenure with a salvo against judicial review may be a signal of intent. In the meantime, court tussles over council axes will move slowly from battleground to battleground. Sumption's chief literary sideline consists of his highly-regarded three-volume history of The Hundred Years War. Let's hope that's not a portent.
Small but perfect peace-offering
Already a finalist for the TS Eliot Prize, Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees has reached the shortlist for the Costa poetry award. The Poet Laureate first has to win this heat before the Book of the Year knock-out stage – but she would prove a popular winner. However, poets have taken the overall Costa award for two years on the trot (Christopher Reid, then Jo Shapcott), which may impede her chances. Whatever happens, Duffy fans can both enjoy for themselves and give to all their friends her new seasonal poem, The Christmas Truce (Picador), lovely words perfectly matched by David Roberts's illustrations. Stocking-fillers rarely have such substance.
A novel at the cutting edge
Wolf Hall ended on a doom-laden cliffhanger. Thomas Cromwell scanned the itinerary that would send Henry VIII to the home of the Seymour family, and the birthplace of daughter Jane. Agog or aghast, readers of Hilary Mantel's Man Booker-winning bestseller wondered how long they would have to wait for the sequel. Not as long as they feared. Bring up the Bodies, the follow-up novel in which Mantel turns to the downfall of Anne Boleyn, will be published by Fourth Estate in May 2012. Quite a few hundreds of thousands of people will wait for it around the world with more excitement than for any contest in the Olympic Games. Yet, if BBC television keeps up its record of neglecting literary events, the book will have to make do with five minutes of scrappy shouting at the end of a Review Show. James Runcie's Culture Show profile of Mantel in September was very welcome – but literature sometimes needs a sense of occasion, and BBC bigwigs fail to provide it. They should do so; otherwise – off with their heads.
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