Boyd Tonkin: A county fights the cuts in true Robin Hood spirit

The week in books

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:23

Today, you may have more pressing concerns on your mind than the social consciences of British writers. As millions start to shiver in the gales of austerity, proclamations by the great and good – let alone the not so great, or not so good – will hardly cut much ice. Yet books produced for private reading have public roles – in study and education, in the media, and in general as a tangible sign of a shared culture that binds individual and community.

Most obviously, literature takes on its British civic shape in libraries, and has done in increments over the 160 years since the Public Libraries Act of 1850. Some pioneering authorities before that had already begun to buy books and make them available – Warrington, for instance, in 1848. And, with leaden irony, Warrington last week announced that it would join the fast-growing list of councils determined to meet its budget targets by closing branch libraries and cutting services.

Over the coming years, with the demand to shed 28 per cent from all budgets by 2014, the sad trickle of cities and counties which have begun to dismantle their library service will swell into a melancholy flood. That much we have known for months if not years – even though 40 per cent of adults, and three-quarters of children, still regularly use libraries. Meanwhile, Public Lending Right – the precious proof in cash to authors that the nation acknowledges the social benefit they provide when their books are borrowed – survives, but as a lonely orphan. With the PLR office abolished, its operations will now transfer to – where? Ask Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, who has given no clear answers yet.

How should authors try to protect the civic dignity of books? More than 4,000 have signed up to a Society of Authors campaign to defend PLR: self-interest, yes (although for most the sums are trifling), but also a gesture of faith in the state's duty to preserve this contract between writer and reader. Elsewhere, the book trade as a whole has issued a warm but vague document in support of public libraries. It notes that they "can help people to re-engage with learning", that "Children's borrowing... has risen for the last five years", and that the library can prove vital in "improving young people's chances of success at school and adults' employability."

All true and good – but would it make more difference if well-known authors raised their head above the political parapet more boldly and more often? Of course, some do. From Antonia Fraser to Andrew Motion and Philip Pullman, several of our most-admired writers have long been fervent champions of books in the public realm. But when it comes to nitty-gritty questions of the services and resources that affect millions of readers and students, we sometimes hear – from the literary superstars, at least – the deafening sound of silence.

Our glitzier authors often have a paradoxical idea of commitment and responsibility. They seem to find it easier to issue grandiose statements on Iraq or Islamism than on the daily lives of their actual readers. Perhaps they find such things beneath them. I suspect that there might be a "Thatcher's Children" effect here. Some of the talents who shot to fame amid the free-floating individualism of the 1980s and 1990s sound noisily concerned with the state of the world but indifferent to their own backyard. In intellectual terms, they seem to inhabit a planet, but not a neighbourhood. So three loud cheers, then, for the writers of Nottinghamshire.

In common with others, the county council plans deep cuts to its library provision: 75 per cent off the books budget; shorter opening hours; 80 jobs to go. But - most unusually – the heirs to Lord Byron, DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe have risen up en masse to object. Led by the Nottingham publisher Ross Bradshaw (of the enterprising Five Leaves outfit), 100 writers with Nottinghamshire connections have come together to pay tribute to the libraries' achievements and call for their protection. From Julie Myerson to Nicola Monaghan, Jon McGregor to John Harvey, authors with a national – or international – reputation have stuck up for a local cause that benefits the many, not the few. Robin Hood rides again. This is rare and heartening. Other towns and shires, copy soon.

Honouring a martyr for truth

For the past five years English PEN has supported a "Writers in Translation" programme. It helps to bring into English a variety of first-class books that embody PEN's core missions of promoting rights and crossing boundaries. To mark the birthday, PEN has created a prize to honour a book chosen from among those selected for its aid. The award's first winner is Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya (right): a collection of dispatches (translated by Arch Tait) by the astonishingly brave Novaya Gazeta journalist, murdered in Moscow in 2006. PEN's Julian Evans praises her "superbly passionate writing", and recognises that "literature has its martyrs". She was one.

Showers of gold rain in Spain

Last week, Howard Jacobson collected £50,000 for winning the Man Booker Prize. By Spanish standards, that's mere small change. Among the nation's ample literary awards, often funded by private groups, none drowns its victor in gold more lavishly than the Premio Planeta for fiction. On Sunday, it went to Eduardo Mendoza, best known abroad for his terrific novel of booming Barcelona a century ago, City of Marvels. He won for Riña de Gatos ("catfight") Madrid, 1936. Set just before the outbreak of civil war, the novel sends an English art historian to Madrid in order to authenticate a disputed Velásquez. We will, I hope, see a translation appear before too many years pass. Mendoza picks up a cool €601,000 (£530,000), which makes this the second most lucrative writers' honour after the Nobel. Even the Planeta runner-up gets €150,000. In the past, questions have been raised about the prize's preference for authors published by imprints in the Planeta group. But the planet-sized dosh is authentic enough.

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