Boyd Tonkin: Squatting public property helped to save my first library. Don't make it a crime

The Week in Books

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 08 February 2013 20:00
People power: Friern Barnet Library
People power: Friern Barnet Library

Today is National Libraries Day. As local authorities present an upbeat view of what the jargon now terms their "offer" to citizens, campaigners against shutdowns will highlight the harm done by cuts already made or those due to take effect. In Newcastle, where the city's Labour council - in a kamikaze strategy aimed at Whitehall-enforced austerity - plans to close 10 libraries (out of 18) and eliminate all arts spending, Tyneside writers such as Val McDermid and Ann Cleeves will "occupy" the threatened branches for an hour. I wish them well, and bring good news from the far-from-soft south. Thanks to a bold and shrewd fightback by the local community, Friern Barnet Library in north London - the lovely little branch where my reading life began in earnest - has been saved from closure.

I apologise for another return to the scene of so many childhood discoveries. But the Friern Barnet story stands as a telling microcosm of library activism. For the moment, its outcome looks far happier than I expected a year ago.

Despite a warmly supported campaign by users, and a tightly-costed rescue proposal, Barnet council locked up the branch last April. It seemed to want to knock down the elegant building and sell the land for flats - or maybe just another supermarket. The false promise of a new library in a nearby - but much less accessible - arts centre came to nothing. Then "squatters" linked to the Occupy movement entered the premises in early September. Since then, they have - responsibly and effectively - co-operated with campaigners to restock the library and keep it alive.

Meanwhile, the push to save the branch had succeeded in registering the building as a "community asset": harder to demolish. Although a judge granted an eviction order against the occupiers before Christmas, her verdict showed sympathy with them. In effect, she pressed the council to cut a deal. That it has now done.

On Tuesday, Barnet council handed the branch keys over to the trustees of Friern Barnet Community Library. They have a temporary licence to run the service while - in the first instance - a two-year lease is negotiated. The council, which snubbed and scorned the campaigners, has offered £25,000 towards the running-costs: not enough, but it still means that the branch may be able to employ a professional librarian again. This is not a perfect result. If the eviction order had been challenged on appeal, a legal right for community groups to take over vital services at risk of closure might (improbably) have emerged. Remember, too, that the occupiers could make a credible case because they simply had to defend a civil action. If new legislation that seeks to outlaw squatting in business as well as residential property had passed by now, they would have come before the judge as criminal suspects.

Still, as occupier Phoenix said to me, "We've saved the library for future generations. And we've done the best we could in very difficult circumstances." A success? Certainly. But it leaves many chapters yet to be written. In Friern Barnet, a well-run but potentially "illegal" occupation gave an extra cutting-edge to a strong pre-existing protest that had - frankly - drawn from a high-handed council little except delays and evasions. Not every community has the means or the will to stage such a coup.And, without all the hard slog of the previous campaign, the "squatters" would not have had the resources on hand to boost their cause. All the same, in the unlikely location of London N.11, a peaceable takeover seems to have turned the tide. I never thought I would find myself endorsing again that old mantra of every droning student-union bore: "direct action". But, guess what? It worked - without any damage or disruption, and in the best of causes. Which branch will be next?

Blame the other guys: Daunt does an Osborne

As in politics, so in business. The new guys trash the old regime and backdate all the blame. Waterstones has just posted dire results: £37.3m losses. So MD James Daunt (right) plays the Tory card, laying the lot at the door of the previous administration. True, ex-MD Dominic Myers was shackled to his zombie bosses at the HMV group. He couldn't do that much, or fast enough, during a short spell in charge. I still found him smart, well-meaning, full of good ideas. But Mr - "George Osborne" - Daunt doesn't go in for historic shades of grey.

Richard reconstructed, and revised

From mitochondrial DNA to the mechanics of the car-park dig, I can't get enough of the investigation that has located the skeleton of Richard III in Leicester. Yet the identification of his bones does not sway the scales of history one way or another. Still, the White Rose revisionists have come out in force, and Bloomsbury has already signed the first post-confirmation book on the king - by historian David Horspool. It's the right moment, surely, for a new annotated edition of Josephine Tey's classic from 1951: The Daughter of Time, in which a detective delves into Richard's life. Inspector Grant concludes that Tudor propaganda wrecked the king's good name and falsely fixed a double murder (the Princes in the Tower) on him. Tey's book famously shows how historical myths take root, and how tough they can be to dislodge. Forget Goveian platitudes. Tey should be set in every school.

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