Pssst ... wanna buy a library?
Got a job lot, lovely quality, pre-war, only one previous owner, poor old lady, down on her luck, needs a few quid fast, no questions asked ... amazing business potential, planning permission guaranteed ( friends in the right places, know what I mean); no? What about a few allotments then, you know, dig for victory and all that ... well, dig deep in your pockets and you could find yourself with a prime development plot! You interested? Meet me round the back of the town hall, bring the readies - oh hold on - wannna buy a town hall? Or a school? No? What d'ya mean, piss off out of it, chum? Don't you know there's a war on? Sorry, I mean dontcha know we are living in 'challenging times', and 'facing a time of austerity' and 'difficult choices'? Got to make ends meet somehow ...
No, no, no, Mrs Angry: you have it all completely wrong. Stop there.
Last evening, in fact, I sat with head bowed, during the Cabinet meeting in Committee Room 2 of the Town Hall (at least that is what it was when I left) thinking about stabbing a biro in my leg, not just to try to stop myself falling asleep with boredom, but to punish myself for having had the awful suspicion that there was a plot afoot to sell off some of our borough's finest corporate owned buildings to the highest bidder.
Because, you see, as we learned from the dear Leader (at least that was what she was when I left) this is all a silly misunderstanding. Our libraries, we suddenly remembered, are wonderful - the jewel in the crown of the London Borough of Barnet. According to wee little Robert Rams, our libraries are so good they are almost as good as Starbucks, which is a Good thing, and not as bad as Blockbusters, which would be a Bad thing. No, I didn't understand, either. And now he wants us to go to Tesco's to pick up our library books. I suppose that is just as well, because when we do go to our local library we may shortly find that overnight it has been turned into a Tesco express, or a theme pub, maybe with a library theme, decorated with second hand, withdrawn library books ...
I have to declare an interest here. In another life I worked for Barnet Libraries, and indeed did time as the union convenor during a period when - oh dear - it was proposed, by a previous bunch of Tory nutters - that several should be shut, or hours drastically reduced. There was a public outcry, and all were saved. If there is one thing that is guaranteed to have the Tory heartland voters in Barnet out on the streets demonstrating, and calling for the head of their local councillor, it is a threat to a library, and our dear Cabinet members are aware of this, hence the need to make all the right sounds last night. After the recent catastrophic Allowancegate business, the last thing they need is a fright over potential library closures.
I've used libraries all my life, for the old fashioned reason of borrowing books, and I believe passionately in the public library system. That is not to say that libraries do not have to adapt to change, as society evolves. But when Rams trundles out the line 'better service for less money', you know the writing is on the wall, as this is is his lot's codeword and cover for the nasty word which cannot be uttered outright: CUTS. Last night they were very keen to persuade us that libraries were safe in their hands, that they only wanted to 'improve' them: but what will happen when there is the inevitable conflict between providing the service we expect, and a savagely shrunken Tory budget? I think you know the answer.
Little Mr Rams, the evening's Brian Coleman tribute act, became, well, not very scary, when he answered fellow blogger Vicki Morris' question about libraries. 'Typical union response' he piped up rudely, for no good reason, at one point, to the helpless amusement of attending bloggers, members of the public, and even a few councillors.
Talking of Brian: where was he? A council meeting without Mr Toad is like Hamlet without the prince, or maybe Toad in the Hole without a sausage (not even a chipolata). Perhaps he had another vitally important 'cart naming' ceremony to attend. Oh dear, Brian, remember to fill those expenses in straight away, before you forget!
Or was this a diplomatic absence? Does Coleman know something Lynne doesn't want to know about tomorrow's vote? Was the rat deserting the sinking ship? Or was he busy on the phone, ringing round his fellow councillors with heartfelt messages of goodwill and gentle words of persuasion?
Someone had seemingly already had a word with the councillors present at the Cabinet meeting. (Incidentally, the only sure fire way I have discovered of working out the difference between councillors and senior council officers at these meetings is that the latter ones are marginally better looking than our aesthetically challenged councillors, and wear better suits.) The Cabinet councillors present this evening looked er, rather uncomfortable, almost as if someone had been lurking in the car park when they arrived, and threatened them with a chinese burn if they spoke out of turn. Almost no one spoke at all, in fact, and there was no real discussion of any issues, only a demure and obedient rubber stamping of all recommendations, soviet style. A meeting scheduled to last til 10pm was polished off before 8pm. Very odd.
The only one trusted to behave, and keen to express himself, was suave deputy leader, Mr Andrew Harper, who has a mellifluous tone of voice, and likes to burble on in a smooth, seamless, hypnotic, everything is all perfectly reasonable sort of way. Bit like the dentist just before he gives you a painful injection, or Count Dracula, just as he bends down to sink his fangs in your neck. Look into my eyes, Mrs Angry: Oh, Mr Harper ...
Apart from a nice little reassuring chat about libraries, we had a bit of a lecture on waste and recycling from Councillor Tom Davey. Lynne Hillan looked on in motherly approval (ah) as he waffled on about how disappointed he was to find that recycling wasn't, as expected, best supported at 'higher achieving schools' ... (you know, those thick kids, you would think that they just chuck their coke tins over the hedge, wouldn't you?) This must have resonated with Councillor Helena Hart who pointed out rather waspishly that Stonegrove estate had the worst record for recycling (you remember, a council estate is one of those awful places where people with no aspiration live, according to the Tory councillor speaking at the last full meeting). No matter how they try, even the most straightforward discussion of almost any issue exposes the hopeless elitism and prejudice of this Tory council.
Early in the meeting, we had a question from a member of the public who wanted to know about the Local Development Framework, and ask how, exactly, it could support the Big Society idea of 'empowering local people'. Good question, to which he received a tedious answer bla bla bla read drearily by Hillan looking and sounding even more like Olive from On the Buses (ooh Arthur), and so devoid of meaning and interest that the poor man resorted to forming a supplementary question based around an allusion, wasted on the dim councillors, to the subject of the Great Stink. This was not, as you might imagine, a reference to Allowancegate, but to the Thames' sewage crisis of the mid nineteenth century, when our elected government was unable to meet due to the foul stench that was accumulating outside its office windows one particularly hot summer. Hmmm.
There is something rotten in the state of Broken Barnet too, and the smell of it is building up outside the windows of the Town Hall. The big clean up is three and a half years away, but maybe tonight might be when we start to look forward to a new beginning of some sort.
Here's hoping, anyway.
More later today.