Comment: No, I'm not jealous of Roald Dahl
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 20 April 1999
Personally, I find two or three days a month on the road just enough to be a treat without becoming a chore. A few weeks ago, I was startling visitors at the Tate as I stood in front of Dali's Lobster-Telephone discussing with a primary school class ideas about stories and art and lobsters and telephones. Last week, a visit to Northern Ireland opened in spectacular fashion when, during my first session in Newcastle Library, County Down, a small girl in the front row was violently sick at my feet.
Such things happen on library tours. Literary events with an adult audience tend to be decorous, polite affairs, but I prefer talking to children. In the eight or so years that I have been doing it, I have seen a teacher falling fast asleep during my session, I have had to interrupt a child as he told one of his own stories which, after an innocent opening, became increasingly gruesome and violent. "You can ask me any questions you like," I told a small group of nine-year-olds at a special school. "Where d'you keep your wallet?" asked a boy at the back.
Normally, questions can range from the technical ("How d'you finish a story?") to the professional ("How much are you paid?") and personal ("Are you jealous of Roald Dahl?"), but on this latest tour, organised by the South-Eastern Education and Library Board, the emphasis was on the children's own writing.
The classes I met were to take part in a story competition with children from Westminster and, over the hour or so we spent together, had come to me with a variety of authorial problems: writer's block; fear of dialogue; and, of course, those tricky moments when you're writing about football, go to the loo, return and start writing about hockey. One boy confessed that, whatever he was writing about, his story became all gory and horrible. A serious little girl in specs brought a couple of recent plays that she had written, about the Titanic and the Hindenburg.
On occasions like this, it is difficult to believe that there are relatively sane and influential people who still believe that the libraries are of marginal importance.
In the recent past, Conservative ministers would moan about declining standards of literacy while year after year overseeing the running-down of the library service. In spite of the laudable emphasis placed on books and literacy by the new Labour government, the picture remains grim. In the past 10 years, 48 per cent of authorities have closed libraries and 74 per cent have reduced opening hours, while the purchasing fund for new books has dropped by 12 per cent. It was not so long ago that a spokesman for the Adam Smith Institute - a pin-striped twit whose experience of the subject was probably limited to dozing over a copy of The Spectator at the London Library - argued that the library service catered exclusively for the middle classes and should be duly privatised.
Since then, successful initiatives, most notably The National Year of Reading and this week's World Book Day, have been introduced, and some library authorities have become notably more dynamic and innovative than they used to be, but still the old prejudices persist. Only the other day, the bookseller Tim Waterstone was to be found pronouncing that, with the arrival of book superstores, the day of the library was over.
Maybe Waterstone should go on a tour himself, visit parts of the country where the idea that children have money for books and can visit a nice, air-conditioned bookshop with piped Vivaldi on the sound system is merely a bad joke, where even the dingiest, most ill-stocked Nissen hut on a high-rise estate provides children with a lifeline for the imagination. Perhaps he might consider why, in spite of the closures, reductions in hours and depleted stock of titles, 400,000 children's books are now borrowed from libraries every day, why annual loans have increased from 104.7 million in 1991 to 111.5 million last year.
Not all the statistics are encouraging. According to the Educational Publishers Association, Britain spends less on books in schools than any other advanced European country - pounds 18 per pupil compared to pounds 80 spent by Norway, pounds 43 by Italy and pounds 31 by Ireland. Libraries are still being closed. But, in spite of gloomy prognostications about the effects of computer games and television, the enthusiasm for stories is as great as ever. The problem, as usual, is not with children but adults.
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