Boyd Tonkin: Closing libraries? Now that's crazy
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 10 February 2012
This week, the parliamentary culture committee has heard evidence into the closure of public libraries. More than 130 bodies have made their submissions. Most sound keen to defend both all library buildings, and the trained staff who run them. But not quite every party has sung in harmony. The most discordant enemy within has been the councils' own umbrella body, the Local Government Association. In a fit of Orwellian Newspeak, the LGA blithely maintains that "closure of a library does not automatically mean a decrease in access to library services". Yes, and (if you remember Nineteen Eighty-Four), war is peace; freedom is slavery; and ignorance is strength.
Last Saturday, at the library that nourished my childhood reading, I had another chance to learn what these closures really mean. A 200-strong contingent of campaigners marked National Libraries Day with a march to Friern Barnet Library. Week after delighted, excited week, I used to plunder this small but graceful branch in north London - built in 1934, with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation - for my maximum quota of loans.
Barnet council wishes to shut it, and has as a concession offered the Save Friern Barnet Library Group the upper floors of a handsome but unsuitable building in the middle of the local park as the base for a volunteer-run venue. In response, the Group has drawn up a tightly-costed rescue plan that makes provision for the library, the last public building left in Friern Barnet, to host a range of community services. Of course, there's nothing unique about the threat to this branch, or the fight to keep it open. Dozens of other campaigns will echo every note. It just happens to be where my life as a reader began.
Inside the library, I listened to an invigorating talk by local writer Shereen Pandit, who came to London from apartheid South Africa in 1986 and devoured the free cultural riches of the capital. Later, I heard a little more about today's dedicated users of the branch. They include, for example, a refugee from Rwanda who is a single father of four. Via the library, he can access the Latin texts that he loved in Rwanda, but lost when his house was burned down during the civil war. Again, every library campaign will have such extraordinary, uplifting stories to recount.
My trip back to this pocket-sized power-station of the imagination also brought a surprise. Maybe because my usual walk home from the library took me in the other direction, I had half-forgotten just how close it stands to the gates of the stupendous edifice now known as "Princess Park Manor". Opened in 1851 as the Second Middlesex County Pauper Asylum, boasting the longest corridor in Europe under its fine Italianate dome, this was the dreaded Colney Hatch – a blood-freezing byword for the miseries of mental illness for generations of north Londoners.
The Versailles of asylums, Colney Hatch, which at its peak housed 2700 inmates, became Friern Mental Hospital in 1937. Under the policy of "care in the community", its long, strange, tragic history ended with closure as a medical facility in 1993. Now the 300-odd converted apartments of "Princess Park Manor" offer, the developers say, "a luxurious living link with the glories of Victorian England". A four-bedroomed penthouse will cost you £1,250,000.
What relation can the compact, welcoming space of the library have to the overweening grandeur of the former asylum? Colney Hatch, you might argue, dates from a time of excessive faith in institutions to warehouse, control and (in theory) heal users. Its splendour bespeaks a brutal, misplaced confidence in the coercive public realm. Branch libraries tells a much gentler story about the bond between the state and the citizen: one in which the public authority empowers, enlightens and liberates, a friendly neighbour not a terrifying ogre.
Thanks in part to the legacy of places such as Colney Hatch, the strong-arm state has lost all credibility. Yet we have tumbled from undue deference towards institutions into equally unthinking disdain for them. This extreme individualism leaves millions hungry for connection, for community, in places that set us free rather than lock us up. No public space does that better than a library. I'm tempted to say that only a madman would close one.
The naked truth from Syria
"The world's blindness encouraged the regime's attempt to eliminate the peaceful revolution in Syria." So writes the Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa in an impassioned open letter to fellow-writers appealing for support against the Assad regime's repression. "I know that writing stands helpless and naked in front of the Russian guns, tanks and missiles," he says, "but I have no wish for your silence to be an accomplice of the killings as well." Khalifa's novel In Praise of Hatred (shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction) concerns the 1980s revolt against Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez. Banned, inevitably, in Syria, it will appear in an English edition this August.
Amazon's Luxembourg mystery
Who wrote The Woman in Black? Your answer may well indicate on which side you stand of fiction's digital divide. I assume that, still, most readers will think first of Susan Hill's much-loved scary novel which, after its long years as a stage smash, opens as a film today. But there is no copyright in titles. Kindle bestseller Kerry Wilkinson, recently the number one author on Amazon's electronic publishing platform, also entitled one of his detective novels featuring DS Jessica Daniel The Woman in Black. Amazon remains vague about exact details. So we learn merely that (at prices that can drop below £1) the Lancashire writer has sold "hundreds of thousands of copies in the Kindle Store". But then the online titan prefers to remain vague about quite a lot. The most significant word in the Amazon missive that informs me of Wilkinson's success comes at the start: "Luxembourg". For there, in the ever-helpful, low-tax Grand Duchy, Amazon EU S.a.r.l (parent company for the UK business) has its secluded home.
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