Boyd Tonkin: The branch line to another life

The week in books

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 03 February 2012 01:00

'I hope I'm not incriminating my family," writes Zadie Smith, "by saying that in the mid-1980s it seemed as if the Smiths were trying to covertly move the entire contents of Willesden Green Library into their living room". The novelist and critic does admit that "when it came to fees, I was the worst offender. It was a happy day in our household when my mother spotted a sign pinned to a tree in the high road: WILLESDEN GREEN BOOK AMNESTY". For this daughter of a cash-strapped but avidly-reading family of "chronic library users", the branch meant not just refuge or encouragement but a scruffy sort of utopia: "a community of individuals, working to individual goals, in a public space". Recalling the "intense study period" there that kickstarted her stellar academic, and then literary, career, she notes that "local libraries are gateways – not only to other libraries, but to other lives".

You will find Zadie Smith's tribute to a Willesden education in The Library Book (Profile, £9.99), an anthology of celebratory essays published to mark National Libraries Day (tomorrow, 4 February). From Alan Bennett remembering Armley branch in Leeds, and Hardeep Singh Kohli claiming his Scottishness at a Glasgow library in the face of a prejudiced punk, to Stephen Fry cycling through Norfolk lanes in quest of liberation on the shelves in the guise of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, these two dozen pieces will remind you why every library is worth a stout defence. Lionel Shriver vows to sustain a haven that nurtured her in deeds as well as words: her estate will pass to the Belfast Library Board, since "for many penurious years, the little library on the Lisburn Road kept me reading wonderful books at a time that I couldn't afford to buy them". All proceeds from The Library Book will go to The Reading Agency to help with its vital work in supporting new or lapsed readers, and the libraries they need.

Smith's own contribution has a particular poignancy, beyond adding to the evidence supplied by the superlative family memoirs in her non-fiction collection Changing My Mind that, in due course, she will surely write one of the great British autobiographies. Willesden Green library, the busiest in the borough, was not itself one of the six branches (out of 12) shut down by Labour-controlled Brent council in the teeth of bitter local protests. However, its scheduled closure for redevelopment will keep the sacred space cherished by arguably the country's most gifted younger author out of action for 18-20 months – on top of the permanent library losses across Brent.

Many of the campaigners involved in tomorrow's events around the country will, rightly, focus on the negligence and contempt exhibited by Coalition politicians towards the welfare of the library service and its users. They deserve every brickbat. All the same, the myopic idiocy of these false economies cuts straight across party lines. In spite of ferocious competition, from Cumbria to Dorset, I would argue that no local authority has behaved with quite such pig-headed arrogance in pursuit of the destruction of much-loved branches as Labour Brent. Which makes it dismaying, if predictable, that the libraries initiative now launched by shadow arts minister Dan Jarvis contents itself with kneejerk Tory-bashing and fails to examine the mess on Labour's own municipal shelves.

No wonder so many public-spirited people run a mile from party politics when they see that participation will mean having to check in both mind and heart at the committee-room door. As a former special forces officer in Afghanistan, Major Jarvis must know a bit about the surprise push that, at the cost of high risk in the short term, delivers a strategic objective. If he really wishes to advance, I suggest that he turn his fire on deadbeats and backsliders in Labour-run town halls.

He might learn from the Brent Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who at a meeting in defence of the axed Preston branch library on Tuesday said that he "strongly disagreed" with the council policy, and confirmed that the library service "is precisely what Labour should not be cutting". A little more such independence on the Labour front bench might bring a rich return.

A visit from Syria's master-poet

Over the years the great, ground-breaking Syrian poet Adonis, born in 1930 as Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, has become the perennial Nearly Man of the Nobel prize – missing out again last year, even as the uprising thrust his nation into headlines. Adonis (right) is in London on a rare visit, with a series of events planned at the Mosaic Rooms in London SW7 ( An interview this evening with Khaled Mattawa will be followed tomorrow by a conversation with the Serpentine Gallery director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and, next week, debates on Islam, Sufism and Arabic literature, and a dialogue with Chinese poet Yang Lian. Catch him while you can.

Blackmail and bluster in Jaipur

Last week I wrote that, in their inability to back the writers who supposedly broke Indian law by reading from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in Jaipur, the literary festival organisers had "betrayed" their guests. That was an over-hasty word, given the appalling pressure (blackmail, more like) the festival faced from violent protestors, canting politicians and scared policemen. I withdraw it; William Dalrymple and his colleagues merit our full support. Yet the Jaipur débâcle still dismays. Writer and human-rights specialist Salil Tripathi tells me that "I think of the Behzti problem" - when the Birmingham Rep decided to "negotiate" with a Sikh organisation, so giving it "a standing it didn't quite deserve. By negotiating with these Muslim groups, the JLF took the same steps" and let them "speak for 'a community'. It is a learning moment for everyone." As for the alleged infraction, did it happen? Tripathi has consulted legal authorities in India. He affirms that "by reading out" from the book, "the four broke no law".

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