Books: A 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.
Saturday 04 October 1997
The launch of Waterstone's spanking new flagship (on five floors, with 350,000 volumes and two cafes) stirred many smug thoughts about how bookselling - and Glasgow - have changed. The stacks beckoned with their come-hither classifications such as "Nudes" or "Drink" until "Walking and Climbing" reminded you of a sterner local tradition.
Then, like Jacob Marley's clanking ghost, a spectre from the city's past arose in the shape of Lord Provost Pat Lally, decked out in his chains of office. Now suspended from the Labour group for his alleged part in Glasgow's votes-for-jaunts scandal, the uncrushable Lally prompts some colourful comparisons in the West of Scotland. Admirers speak of Houdini; detractors mention Dracula.
So what has Britain's most granitic municipal capo got to do with upmarket book retailing? The answer turns on the shifting boundary between the public and private realms. From the late 1980s, Lally and his crew made Glasgow seductive to incomers at the cost (so critics say) of downgrading local services. And what Waterstone's de luxe emporium brings to mind is nothing so much as some postwar Fabian planner's dream of the perfect public library.
For what the welfare state once gave, we now turn to benevolent businesses. Not very coincidentally, the Audit Commission has just confirmed in a new report that actual libraries have seen sharp falls in book issues, staff numbers and opening hours. Year after year of vicious cuts - imposed by all parties - have plunged the sector into a cycle of decline. Yet when councils do decide to fund them adequately, the results - with sleek modern complexes on prime sites in urban centres such as Croydon and Birmingham - can match the grandest chain stores for style and service.
But the broad picture reveals a slow descent into shabbiness and marginality. Retail culture gleams and smiles; its ugly tax-funded sister peels and scowls. History shows that state provision decays into a slummy backwater when people who have a choice forsake it for a slicker private space. In many areas, libraries have all but reached that stage. For proof of what happens after that, spend some time in any US public hospital (although not even Glasgow Labour Party would wish that fate on their worst enemies).
Life & Style blogs
Google Maps Pacman: company offers chance to play arcade classic on streets around the world
Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
The Clove Club: The restaurant where you will pre-pay for your food
Facebook virtual reality optical illusion less impressive than originally thought
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 3 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 4 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
- 5 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...
£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...
Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...