Boyd Tonkin: Public-spirited squatters in my first library open a new chapter of action

The Week In Books
  • @indyvoices

We all enjoy novels with a surprise sting in their tail, when an apparently decisive ending gives way to a startling final twist. Well, as with fiction, so with library campaigns. Earlier this year, I wrote rather mournfully about the closure of Friern Barnet library in north London: the beautiful little branch which I visited week-by-week as a child, and which did so much to make me a devoted reader. This was, sadly, an everyday story of protestors' courage and councillors' contempt, and one replicated around Britain from Angus to the Isle of Wight. The Public Libraries News site calculates that 130 libraries were either closed by local authorities or transferred to volunteers in 2011-2012, with a further 40 since the beginning of this fiscal year.

Well, thanks to very direct action in the form of an occupation, Friern Barnet library may now open for business again. Eight activists – "squatters", if you prefer – entered the building through an open window and now plan to operate it as "community librarians". The council, which had treated the cogent but polite arguments of local users with brusque scorn, quickly agreed to negotiate with the occupiers, although all it offered was the same unsuitable building in a nearby park that campaigners had rejected before. There's a delicious irony to this occupation in that local Conservative MP Mike Freer led the parliamentary process that has, from this month, criminalised squatting in residential properties. The library remains a public building. So Barnet can't call the cops. They will, however, start eviction proceedings.

Just contemplate the poignancy of this suburban scene. Activists have committed (at least) trespass so that they may work for nothing in order to provide a cherished amenity the elected council has snatched away. They may have perpetrated an illegal deed. And so may Barnet Council, with dozens of others, if the withdrawal of branches means that the authority no longer offers a "comprehensive service" under the 1964 act.

That lumbering old dog called "Big Society" has woken up and given its custodians a nasty nip. We saw from the booing of austerity-crazed politicians at the Paralympics that a good-natured culture of voluntary action need not be one in which the altruistic toilers shut up and accept the decisions of elites. Volunteers are not servile drudges. And, through the Olympic summer, library supporters have done their utmost to keep forsaken branches open while never for a second condoning the suicidal policies that put them at risk.

In the case of Kensal Rise in Brent, the local campaigners have now raised in pledges more then the £70,000 required to run the closed branch as a community resource for a year. All Souls College in Oxford, which owns the freehold and must soon decide on the future of the site, would be mad not to hand them the keys. I don't know if the phrase "no brainer" often crosses the lips of fellows at All Souls, but it should.

The autumn political season may boost the momentum for rescue and reform. This week, Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood secured a Commons debate on branch shutdowns; Gloucestershire libraries have suffered deeper wounds than most. And Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson suggests in an open letter to Maria Miller, the incoming culture secretary, that library spending should be ring-fenced from cuts. If she has any political savvy, Miller must grasp that the political shading of pro-library activism varies from place to place. Pretty often, it attracts voters who might not think of themselves as the Coalition's sworn enemies. If this unknown quantity wishes to make a mark, she might choose to wield her statutory powers to review some closures. There are, she will know, few readers who would enjoy a story entitled "The Clone of Hunt".

Norway 1890: a paradise for (male) pedants?

Watching Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic – in Brian Friel's nifty new version – it struck me that, whatever the drawbacks to bourgeois life in Norway, c.1890, they did rate serious (male) writers. Regal Hedda (the riveting Sheridan Smith) has married a scholar of medieval home life, Tesman. As for her lost love, the bohemian author Ejlert Løvborg, everyone treats him as a wastrel superstar, half-Kurt Cobain and half-Russell Brand. And what has he written? A cultural history of Europe that set the town ablaze. Those were the days…

No trifles, but plenty of Booker zest

A well-known anecdote has Winston Churchill pushing away a sweet course with the remark that "This pudding has no theme". Must literary prize shortlists, like desserts, aim for a ruling motif, or should the buffet approach prevail? For Sir Peter Stothard, chair of the Man Booker jury this year, the "pure power of prose" has propelled their six picks into the final round. I'm pleased to savour the original tastes from small, bold houses (Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists; Deborah Levy's Swimming Home; Alison Moore's The Lighthouse) and three more restlessly intelligent efforts (as well as Tan's) to find a fresh tone and shape for the novel of historical change: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, but also Will Self's Umbrella and Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis. The textures may clash at times, but it all bursts with flavour – a far cry from last year's incoherent trifle.