Radio; TINNISWOOD ABOUT... LIBRARIES Radio 4

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If you were looking for a good argument against a publicly funded library service, you wouldn't have to go much further than self-confessed "public library freak" Peter Tinniswood. One of the more arresting encounters yesterday in Tinniswood About... (a new series in which the author of I Didn't Know You Cared, Tales from a Long Room and Winston "reflects on personal pleasures") was with a computerised reading-machine for the blind at Manchester Central Library, giving a Stephen Hawking-esque rendition of a sample of the Tinniswood prose at its most smouldering. Not all of it was clearly audible, but there was enough there about deep scarlet blooms murmuring to themselves and young women burying their silky mouths in the flowers to make you realise the terrible risks of putting too much D H Lawrence in the way of impressionable young minds. Think how much the world would have been spared if Tinniswood had been kept out of libraries as an adolescent.

More immediately, though, the whole programme showed some of the risks of the roving-writer format. A life spent behind a word-processor or a typewriter doesn't necessarily equip you for an interviewing role - a proposition demonstrated earlier this week in Colin Dexter's Oxford (Radio 4, Tuesday), in which the creator of Inspector Morse wandered around his home town enjoying cheerful but rather rambling conversations with some of the inhabitants.

That programme came out all right in the end, though, because Dexter had some quirks of his own to throw in - his personal interest in a local diabetics' centre, an interest in Oxford's social divisions - which meant that you did get something a long way removed from any of the usual university- dominated pictures of the place.

Peter Tinniswood has a few minor oddities - he makes horrified noises whenever anybody mentions computers. But stripped of the earthy mannerisms of his literary style, he emerged here as a surprisingly timid character, a bearded, pipe-smoking chameleon who's apt to take on the colours of whoever he's talking to at the moment. The result was that, while Tinniswood About... Libraries started out by asking some pertinent questions about the role of libraries in the contemporary world, it didn't get much in the way of pertinent answers.

When, for instance, Tinniswood asked the formidable-sounding head of Manchester libraries whether television was diminishing the public appetite for books, she told him that librarians have to "go with it" - offering the example of Withenshaw, where the local library's video section had now seen off all the commercial opposition. Tinniswood duly accepted this as evidence of the robust good health of the library system; but surely it's precisely the opposite. When publicly funded institutions start competing with private enterprise to offer an essentially similar service, it suggests that they have lost sight of their priorities: whatever happened to education and self-improvement? Whatever happened to books?

This was not, by and large, a programme to make you feel optimistic about libraries, or about the prospect of another three programmes to come. In fact, here's how depressing it was: it made you wish that Peter Tinniswood had stayed at home to produce another series of Uncle Mort's North Country. Then again, maybe that's going too far.

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