Boyd Tonkin: Throw the book at the library-haters

The week in books

Friday 23 September 2011 00:00

Talk to activists about library closures, and even those most upset by the cuts will often accept that local authorities have to make tough choices in taxing times. Sometimes they merely question the direction of the axe, as the year-on-year squeeze enforced by Whitehall leaves councils no option but to reduce expenditure.

However, what if another explanation applied: that some benighted councils actually dislike libraries, distrust their users, and in particular loathe those uppity campaigners who dare to question their decisions? After all, they can and do dismiss these trouble-makers as "middle-class" (however blatantly misleading that is, especially in city centres), as if that amounted to any sort of argument. They may also claim that people can now buy all the books they want cheaply from Asda or Tesco; that everyone reads on computers or Kindles; that paper books mean nothing to fully-wired youngsters.

Since Brent in north-west London has long served as a vanguard in the library wars, let's consider its own patterns of expenditure. Other fights matter just as much, of course, from Angus to the Isle of Wight, but every broad front needs a symbolic salient or two. So forgive this metropolitan bias. Brent – where Labour rules, holding 40 seats out of 59 – still plans to close six branch libraries out of 12. In their place - as so often now - it promises a super-library in a new civic centre, sited near Wembley Stadium. Judgment has been reserved in a High Court action for judicial review (the first in the country) brought on behalf of the Brent SOS Libraries campaign. Mr Justice Ouseley should deliver his verdict early next month.

Meanwhile, the ranks of starry supporters who have lined up to raise funds for the rescue continues to swell. After Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, Joanna Trollope and Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson will appear on 28 September (see

They represent merely a glittery tip of the iceberg of concern. Given the "middle class" slurs flung by rattled town-hall jobsworths at library campaigners, note that a Brent petition in support of the threatened branches attracted signatures from the entire staff of Asda, while in two local betting shops, 200 signed. The Brent battle has now even echoed across the Channel, with a recent – excellent - feature in Le Monde that describes branch libraries as being as dear to the hearts of the British "que les increvables Fish and Chips".

But Brent, where a consultation revealed 82 per cent of respondents in favour of keeping all libraries open, would rather spurn those unsinkable literary fish-and-chips and dine elsewhere. Salaries for just 19 officers cost it an annual £2.5m, with £205,000 alone for the chief executive. It emerged last week that the authority has written off £17.3m. in bad debts. Meanwhile, it was reported earlier this year that Brent spent £1.2m (more than the saving over two years on library closures) on consultancy fees in a month. The council disputed the breakdown of this sum and admitted only to £300,000 as true "consultancy". So that's alright then: £300,000 for consultancy in a single month.

The Brent council leader is Ann John OBE. She acts as an associate for an organisation called Frontline Consulting, which supplies "training, advice and support for local authorities" and – in the dispiriting prose of such agencies – "offers help to councils to promote democracy, improve governance, strengthen community cohesion, support transitions and enhance communications". Its website makes much of praise for her work in Brent on "community cohesion".

Frontline also aims to advise councillors "where there is weak governance or issues around compliance with the ethical framework". Now, in the case of libraries, remember that the issue is not vaguely "ethical" but concretely legal. If they implement closures, do councils breach their obligations to provide "a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons" under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act?

The Brent judicial review will have to determine that, but its role as a national precedent may now be pre-empted by another imminent case. A review pursued on behalf of campaigners against closures in Gloucestershire and Somerset will be heard on 27 September and – unlike in Brent – may well be decided immediately. By next Wednesday or Thursday, the town-hall library-haters could have their comeuppance. Here's hoping.

Tips from the magical mediator

When Anthea Bell hands you a tip, take it. Last week I had the privilege of interviewing the great translator at the Independent Woodstock Literary Festival – in front of an audience that included her brother Martin (the BBC journalist-turned-campaigning MP now sports a cream-ish suit). Just now she's especially keen on one of the novels shortlisted for the German Book Prize. It's In Zeiten des abnehmenden Licht (In Times of Fading Light) by Eugen Ruge, which she dubs an East German equivalent of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Her version will be a treasure, and a treat. The Prize is awarded on 10 October. In snaring such a fine interpreter, Ruge has already won big.

E-books: pin-money for the rich?

It is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that the loudest cheerleaders for cheap or "free" digital culture draw safe salaries from public or corporate bodies. Many academics, publishers, scientists and other champions of a stampede into low-cost online reading seem to feel affronted by the survival of the freelance professional writer. How dare these dinosaurs still hope to pay the family bills by the keyboard alone? Who do such throwbacks think they are, asking for a livelihood from the marketplace? Now, one of the biggest e-book bestsellers of the past year – at rock-bottom prices – has carried the title Confessions of a GP. (When I checked, it cost £1.99 for Kindle.) It's a delightful work, no doubt, and I grasp the case that cheap e-book success can widen the market for a print edition. All the same, e-publishers may well learn the wrong lesson about where to look for their next bargain-basement hit. Shall we see a rush to sign up other confessions from professions in which the average salary easily exceeds £100,000?

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