Boyd Tonkin: Overdue: a shot of the public spirit
The week in books
Friday 03 June 2011
With mass protests, high-spirited campaigns and now some painstaking legal challenges under way to rescue the 500-odd libraries menaced by the council axe, our national battle of the books remains the most striking current proof of a genuine "big society" at work. But, to misquote Edmund Burke, big societies grow from little platoons in individual places. And the struggle to save libraries has – for me – just taken a distinctly personal turn. Recently, 400-odd users of Friern Barnet library in north London convened for a silent "read-in" to protest against Barnet council's plan to shut the site. The council – like so many others – dangles the carrot of a shiny super-library elsewhere to appease citizens robbed of their neighbourhood branch.
So far, so commonplace. Scores of suburbs, towns, cities and villages around Britain have the same story to tell. And, with every threat to a branch, some people will experience the theft of their past – and of a part of themselves. Forgive the indulgence, but that moment has arrived for me. Until the age of 11, I used to visit Friern Barnet library on Saturday mornings. As, year by year, I checked out my quota of books, I can recall the height of the shiny polished counter mysteriously diminishing. It started forbiddingly high, and then somehow sank as my perspective rose. The branch (opened in 1934, I now learn) stood a short walk away from my home, and from my first two schools. I hardly need to add that its shelves began my literary education.
Reading about the closure plan, a stray memory hurtled across the decades and landed with a flash. As well as huge quantities of fiction, I used at one time to devour books about cricket. I'm standing in the sunlight next to a window by the sports shelves. In my hands is some sort of coaching manual by the Essex and England player, and later commentator, Trevor Bailey (who died in February). The introduction thanks a friend for his "invaluable help". Why thank someone for help you didn't need? I wonder. Then I decide that "invaluable" must, despite the misleading prefix, mean "very valuable", and not the opposite. Tricky things, words. Multiply a thousand times – for me, for you, for millions. Now that ladder of language will be smashed.
At present, the blackmailing bid of officialdom to campaigners runs like this: if you love them so much, take these pointless buildings off our hands, and manage them yourselves. But we are only just beginning to understand the true cost of the "volunteer" route to salvation. Across the river in south London, Lewisham council closed New Cross branch library a day earlier than announced to dodge protests. The local "People's Library Committee" firmly intends to reopen the building. It has found that, other overheads aside, this would mean finding £30,000 in annual rent for the site. Defenders of the library cull routinely sneer at the service's "middle-class" constituency. If one measure could turn that vague slur into the truth, then the insistence on wholly volunteer-run branches in high-cost locations might do so.
In my childhood, Friern Barnet library offered just one example of the cherished public space. From parks to clinics, we took them all cheerfully for granted. No longer. In addition to the financial squeeze that government policy dictates, the idea of public provision now has to face an ideological attrition that – across all media – erodes it in a thousand ways, overt and covert.
In a few days' time, a London branch of the W hotel chain opens in Leicester Square. It will boast its own library, for which well-known authors have selected favourite books. The PR pitch tells me that "Unlike most rooms for books, The (W)riters' Library isn't dusty, or hushed or boring. There is no dull person peering over shoulders or stopping people reading something they shouldn't. Instead, it is a stylish sanctuary...". So, public bad, private good: the same message slung at us constantly by the forces of big money and their various cultural lickspittles. At Friern Barnet branch, and many others, I enjoyed my own stylish sanctuary. I want kids in the future to share it. By the way, and since the hotel would like you to know, "A stay at W London - Leicester Square starts from £335 per double room per night".
One star-studded day in the park
Sebastian Faulks, Tim Lott, Philip Hensher, Mark Gatiss, Natalie Haynes, Amy Jenkins, Daljit Nagra, Maggie Gee, Robert Webb, Monique Roffey (right), Mihir Bose, Alex Bellos... A fortnight at Hay? No, just one writer-packed day of events under canvas in the park - Queen's Park, London NW6. If, that is, you attend (as you should if you can) the first-ever Queen's Park Book Festival, which takes place on Saturday 11 June. There will also be a full programme of children's activities, including a show with CBeebies presenter Pui Fan Lee. The local Kilburn Library – uncut and thriving – will be much involved. More details at: www.qpark.org.uk/bookfestival A bridge of words in Istanbul
Last weekend I heard Jonathan Ross singing Turkish songs beside the Bosphorus in Istanbul. No, this wasn't a nightmare occasioned by late-night exposure to floppy-haired chat-show hosts. The melodious Dr Ross in question teaches translation at the Bosphorus University. With some exquisite bilingual duets, he helped to wind up a poetry recital, and so close a symposium on the translation and publishing of Turkish literature abroad. TEDA, the agency which co-organised the event, has over the past six years shepherded some 800 works from Turkish into other tongues. However well-meant, such discussions can often bog down in the prosaic detail of the global book trade. Here, on an enviably-sited campus, with its lush woodlands running down to the shore and the towers of the Rumeli Hisari – the "Fortress of Europe" built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 – next door, we could tune in to the spirit of the place, and remind ourselves of why it matters to build bridges between words, and worlds.
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