Monday, 8 December 2014

Be careful what you wish for, and: Mrs Angry goes to a library 'consultation'

 Storytime in Golders Green Library - picture credit Museum of London

Before Mrs Angry was Mrs Angry, and in between her time with MI5, a short but interesting career in burlesque, and a few years in the Carmelite convent in Tyburn , she was, you may be surprised to hear, employed by the London Borough of Barnet, working in Golders Green Library, and the union convenor for Barnet Libraries: placed there in a covert plot to undermine the establishment, and bring about the revolt of the proletariat - or at least a few bolshie librarians. 

And they were bolshie, too: successfully striking twice, and warding off a nefarious plot by the then Tory council to close down libraries. Yes, there will be a theme of deja vu running through the course of this post. Try and keep up.

Tories in Barnet are awfully fond of closing things down, of course, and always have been, since the days when Margaret Thatcher was the MP for Finchley, and her having a tendency to shut down entire industries, mining, steel, manufacturing: anything that moved and had a trade union, in short.

But what began as an anti social activity on a modest scale, in homage to the former PM and her manic attacks on public services, the neo Thatcherites still clinging on (only just) to control of Barnet Council have revealed a manic bloodlust for the sport of closing public amenities, public buildings,  running amok like Jack the Ripper, slashing mindlessly at the body of our local public services.

In the old days, there would often be proposals to shut down certain branch libraries. Top of the list drawn up by senior library management - in those days, when libraries were respected even by Tory authorities, there was a Borough Librarian - was Hampstead Garden Suburb. This was purely on pragmatic grounds, due to the cost of subsidising what was, even then, an indulgence: a sop to the hugely affluent and influential residents of one of the most wealthy residential areas in the country. The 'library' was no more than a few bookshelves in a tiny former shop, and totally impractical, leeching funds from other libraries in much more deserving areas: but we all knew that the Conservative council would never allow it to close.

And they never have allowed it to close. When included a couple of years ago in the nominal list of targets for closure, it was never going to happen: the residents' association was outraged, and a marvellous rescue package agreed in which the council would subsidise the little library in a shop, at the expense of other libraries in less advantaged areas. 

Despite all pleas from the local community, in far greater need of a public library, Friern Barnet branch, in a ward with two Labour councillors and one maverick Tory was refused any subsidy; closed down, the shelves stripped, and the building put up for sale. The library was then taken over by Occupy activists, who worked with local campaigners to reopen the building, fill it with books, and defy the council's actions. 

In the end the worldwide publicity this hugely popular occupation attracted forced the Tories into a humiliating retreat, and the agreement that the People's Library, the library that would not close, should become Friern Barnet Community Library, subsidised by the council, like Garden Suburb, but this apparently happy outcome was compromised by one crucial flaw: FBCL would not be part of the borough's public library system.

For some campaigners - and some councillors, of both parties - this was not seen as a problem. They had saved the library, a beautiful Carnegie building, and a group of residents would see that the venture continued on a voluntary basis. Success: or so they thought.

But for many others, the agreement that excluded the return of the library to the borough service was not only regrettable, it put the other libraries at risk. Because we knew exactly how shameless the Barnet Tories have been, under the 'leadership' of 'Tricky Dicky' Richard Cornelius, and how likely they were to try to turn what had been a galling defeat into political profit. 

For some Tories, the motive of profit is accompanied by something else: something even more shameless, and repellant. That is to say, the desire for revenge. A library, in Broken Barnet, is a symbol of resistance: a rallying point for the community, a place where people think. Shut it down. Shut them all down.

The campaigners, bloggers and residents who created a surge of rebellion to the ignominious policies of the previous Tory administration, especially in regard to the parking fiasco, and the library story, became something the Tories had never really encountered before: an effective opposition. And those two political blunders, in two areas that were always guaranteed to attack the Tories' own electoral base, lost many of the most prominent councillors their seats, and very nearly lost them control of the council.

Due to their innate stupidity, our Conservative members have failed to learn the lessons of the last few years, and like all bullies, imagine that the way to retain authority is to carry on in the same way, rather than try to reach a consensus with the residents they purport to represent. 

Hence the latest outsourcing proposals, and in this case the truly apocalyptic scale of plans lined up to besiege the remnants of our library service, knock it all down, and grind it into the dust. 

Where there is resistance, as with all such assaults, they will be likely to back off: where there is capitulation, they will walk over you.

The so called 'consultation' process for the library proposals reveals another of their tactics in the war against culture: divide and conquer. Play residents off against each other. Those who have the loudest voices, and the greater political influence: they will be rewarded for their protest, at the expense of the less advantaged, and less articulate communities. Survival of the fittest, and sod the rest: it's the Tory way. 

Mrs Angry thought she would choose to attend one of these nonsultation events, and the one she would choose would be Golders Green library, where she used to work. 

Arriving as the doors opened, there was an astonishing sight: a queue, outside, in the chilly rain, of about twenty young mothers with babies in buggies - not something that ever happened, in Mrs Angry's time, before she left to be a mother herself, with babies in buggies. There was evidently a 'baby rhyme time' session in the children's library, the first of two that day, due to enormous demand. 

Walking into the library, an eighty year old building with a mosaic floored entrance hall, brass railed, polished stone staircase, oak doors and shelving, time seemed to have stood still.

Was it really twenty years or so, since leaving? Hard to believe, in some ways, because the first two faces that she saw were the two elderly sisters who used always to be the first on the doorstep, every morning, when the doors were unlocked, all that time ago: unmarried women who lived together in a house across the road and came every morning to read the papers. We recognised each other, and were all mutually amazed at the passage of time, and yet the stillness of time, and here we were, together again. Did they know the library was at risk of closing? They did not. Mrs Angry wondered how they would cope, should that awful day come.

Ben, the consultant who has been running these events was waiting, with only a few chairs ready, in a corner of the library. Only a few chairs ready because he knew that the timing of the consultation had been carefully arranged - by the commissioning team senior officers, apparently - so as to exclude as many  library users as possible from attending: barely advertised, and fixed in a weekday morning, when working people cannot attend, an action heavily criticised by the users who came.

Despite the deliberately obscure time of the session, throughout the three hour time slot, the chairs were filled constantly by a sequence of library users, shyly but determinedly resolved to make their voice count in the consultation for this awful set of proposals.

Mrs Angry decided to stay for the three hours, not because she wanted to, but because it was clear that otherwise the discussion was not going to be anything other than a talking shop whose outcome was, like the online survey, directed by a carefully steered debate.

Significantly although the table before us had copies of the three bad options that our council thinks we should choose between: death of our library service not by a thousand cuts, but by three equally terrible weapons. 

No one was going to say, you do not need to die at all, except Mrs Angry, who pointed out that the residents of Broken Barnet did not have to choose death for their library service: choose life, she said, and reject all three options: please. 

We sat in the corner of the library, wedged rather awkwardly in the teenage fiction section, watched over on our side, Mrs Angry happily observed, by books by the brilliant writer, and esteemed library campaigner, Alan Gibbons.

And rather aptly, in view of the circumstances, a local resident persuaded by Mrs Angry to join the discussion, spotted a book by former Tory favourite, Jeffrey Archer:

Be Careful What You Wish For ...

The consultant, his back against a wall of vampire romances, introduced himself. 

Who do you work for, asked Mrs Angry? 

His company was called 'Shared Intelligence'. Oh. Sounds promising, doesn't it? How much are we paying you for this consultation? With a grimace he muttered something about £20K. And did the other users sitting there realise £200, 000 was being spent on this excuse for 'consultation', and how many libraries would that keep open, did they think?

Oh, and where is the rest of the £200K set aside for the nonsultation going anyway? 

He thought it was to be spent on the survey: printing costs etc. That would be the printed copies that had not been available, weeks after the consultation had begun, and were now being kept behind the desk, where unless you knew they were available, you were obviously not going to ask for them. Only after absolutely insisting were any copies brought to the table, and it was Mrs Angry who kept offering them to those attending (with a warning about the loaded questions), rather than the consultant.

Two of the attendees were young mothers from the local Charedi community, who emphasised how vital the library was to their family life. One of the mums described the proposals as 'devastating'. She could not drive, and depended on the resources in their local community, and the library was a central part of this. Mrs Angry remembered the importance to such families, many with several young children, and the queues that would form on Fridays,  to have plenty of reading material for them over shabbat, and one very bright and cheeky little boy called Zvi-Dov, who was found to have 116 library books hidden under his bed, by his embarrassed mother, who had to bring them back in a shopping trolley ...

Mrs Angry also remembered the elderly residents who would call in every day, the library being part of their daily routine, a welcome sanctuary, where staff would build relationships with them, over the years, and be privileged, in some cases, to hear their life stories, and become honoured trustees of their confidences. 

Yes, in some cases, these older residents, in Golders Green, were former refugees, and in some cases, survivors of the Holocaust. Over a period of time you would get to know these people, and their backgrounds, and maybe be trusted to hear their testimonies. Some of them would need your help to find books to read, that they needed to read, because it helped, in some small way to come to terms with the path of their lives and experiences that they could not discuss with their own families. 

Mrs Angry has written about this before, but it has to be repeated as it tells its own story: the necessity of communication, and bridges between generations, and different communities, and the value of reading, and literature, and bearing witness, and telling your story, and enabling those who come after you to learn the lessons of history.

For Barnet Tories, of course, history began in the year zero, when Margaret Thatcher came to power as PM, and ends when she was disposed of. Since then, we find ourselves living in Broken Barnet, under the flag of Capitaville, where history is of no value: nothing more than the collection of faded photographs, and a few family items left to a local museum. Museums are dangerous places, like libraries: their contents remind us of our common past, and sense of identity. Shut them down, sell off the collection: charge people £8.50 a go to look at those old photographs, online: heritage is only valuable in monetary terms, after all.

This disregard for culture, or history or heritage extends to our built heritage. The museum is shut, and put up for sale. What next? The libraries, of course.

How fitting that the idea of a public library, promoted by Victorian philanthropy, funded by successful capitalists, salving their social conscience by good works, and investment in access to the education of the working classes, should be destroyed so enthusiastically by their heirs in the Tory party, both nationally, and locally. 

What happened to the idea of enabling social mobility, and aspiration? 

When did such paternalistic Toryism become replaced by the mutant brand we see in power now, wielding policies that widen the gulf between rich and poor, making education and healthcare the privilege of those with means, rather than a right for all? 

Access to information, and the liberating power of reading: the means to self improvement, self expression, to empowerment of the individual: what was once the gift of the Tory do gooder is now an affront to those who took his place in government: a form of intellectual terrorism, a covert activity that threatens the status quo. Remove books from prisoners, then, (or try to, anyway). Stop as many young people from disdvantaged backgrounds from being able to afford to go to university. And shut down the public library system. Close the buildings, and sell them off to local property developers for more non affordable housing. 

Rather than admit that this is their real agenda, Barnet's nonsultation pretends that many of the branch libraries will merely be 'shrunk' in size, so as to free up the rest of the buildings for rental to commercial tenants. Reduced by an average of a staggering 93%. No, that is not a typo: let's say it again, 93%. The size of Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, the library in a shop.

Except that of course this is a load of balls. This option is thrown in as a distraction, and a frightener. The worst excesses of the three bad options are meant to make whatever final outcome emerges, with its 'compromises' favouring Tory ward branches, seem like a blessing. And the truth is that any branches considered surplus to requirement will simply be flogged off as lucrative developments. There are no doubt companies that already have their eyes on certain buildings, including the one in Church End that has already been marked for sale thanks to a previous deal with the shy and retiring Pears Group who have planning permission to develop Gateway House.

The fact that the consultation document reveals there is no costing for the potential rental of library buildings reduced in size, nor any mention of the substantial capital investment that would be needed to convert the libraries to extra use, (and therefore make a complete mockery of the alleged motive for the cuts, of finding necessary savings) says it all. In a borough where an abundance of empty office space is begging for tenants, there is no business case to support this preposterous suggestion, and there never was intended to be.

Golders Green is one of those branches that are supposed to shrink in size. The consultant tried to give a vague idea to the users sitting around the table, of what that would be. He said it would kind of be like that section over there, between that bit, and that bit. The group looked bewildered. 

What is the current floor space, asked Mrs Angry? Erm .... around 5,000 square feet. And do remind us of the size of the new 'library'? 540 square feet. So, said one of the men in the group, you are saying ... it will be a tenth of the current space.


A tenth.

Golders Green is not a large library. A space that is one tenth of the area now used is simply impossible: an insult to the idea of a library. Room for a couple of shelves and a handful of books: no space for students, or pcs, or children's activities. No baby rhyme time. No library, in short.

But this is as likely to happen as the building of Robert Rams' invisible library in North Finchley. It is pie in the sky, a total fantasy. The library will either continue as it is, or be sold for development. And it will not be sold, or closed, or shrunk - because the Tory councillors in Golders Green will not dare allow that. 

Some debate took place in the nonsultation over why these proposals were made in the first place. Mrs Angry took it upon herself to explain that the cut being presented as an unavoidable saving was in fact a relatively small amount, although the fact that it represented 60% of the library budget demonstrated what good value for money our services already provided.

Some further explanation ensued as to how much money the Tory council wasted on such things as - sorry, Ben - consultants: millions and millions of pounds each year, oh, and you might like to ask your local councillor, Dean Cohen, why he spent so much money on the pavements and roads of Tory wards, including £1.1 million in Golders Green, just before the election, and £500,000 on Princes Park Avenue, in the last two years, while some Labour wards like Colindale last year got not one single penny. £1.1 million pounds - almost half the savings the Tories say necessitate the closure of library services.

Someone asked where Cllr Cohen was, and then one of the young mums said, with an interesting glint in her eye, that she knew Dean Cohen, and his wife, and would be Having A Word With Him. 

In the background, baby rhyme time continued in the children's library, and library staff dealt with the continual stream of visitors, helping with enquiries, using the pcs. 

None of the Tory councillors had the guts to show up, but Sarah Sackman, who is Labour's parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, spent the morning talking to residents outside, and then came in to sit through some of the discussion. Just look around you, she said: there was no better evidence of why the library was so vital, and irreplaceable.
When Mrs Angry worked there, the staff structure comprised a librarian in charge, a deputy, a reference librarian, a children's librarian, library assistants and a branch administrator. It was a struggle even then to keep up with the demands of users: heaven knows how they manage now.

Typical remarks from attendees ranged from 'absurd' in regard to the 'open library option, 'absolutely ridiculous' in general, and 'I don't understand what motivates these people ...', 'the heart is being ripped out of council services', 'outrageous proposals' ...

After a while, a woman who had been sitting opposite the consultant, and glaring rather furiously at him, said she was rather inclined to agree with the views of that woman, Mrs Angry, who wrote about this sort of thing.

Mrs Angry sat up. Aha, she declared ... that is ... me!

Is it really? asked the woman. She laughed.

Is it really? asked the consultant, turning a funny colour ...

After this dramatic revelation, outing Mrs Angry in the manner of the denouement of a murderess in a sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a satisfying change was noticeable in the nonsultant's attitude of complacency, as he realised he was in for a very long and uncomfortable morning. Throughout the session, he nervously kept checking twitter, to see, he confessed, what was being said about him. Mrs Angry assured him she would do no such thing. But would write all about it in the blog instead. So here you are, Mr Lee.

The option for 'open libraries' caused the most ridicule and protest: when asked, the consultant appeared to know little about it, other than to say, rather feebly, that it worked well elsewhere. Where, demanded Mrs Angry? He didn't know: probably, was it - Ipswich, or ... Abroad. (Same thing, arguably, to be fair).

Scandinavia, suggested Mrs Angry, trying to be helpful, and nodding encouragingly, but at the same time trying to conjure up vague intimations of Nordic Noir, and menace in the shadows of an emptied out library, devoid of books, people, meaning or hope.

The Swedish model, remember? No, he thought it might be Danish. Less exciting, of course. Though probably safer, thought Mrs Angry, as the bookshelves were less likely to have come from Ikea, and fall over. Not safer than a fully staffed library with human beings interacting with each other, of course, rather than a dystopian vision of a self service library, and a holographic librarian, however. 

The safeguarding aspects, issues of equality of access for the disabled: have these really been taken into consideration? The residents at the consultation laughed, but were incredulous that this was a serious proposal, pointing to the risks involved, and again, the necessity for capital investment for implementation, uncosted. And again, this is because these nightmare scenarios will never happen, and are meant only to scare us all into acceptance of the eventual, slightly less awful decision.

What was truly touching about the reaction of the users who came to this discussion was this: they were none of them the sort of people who made a habit of this sort of thing. Ordinary residents, reserved by nature: when they approached the table, quite a few of them did that quintessentially British thing, hovering vaguely, then moving off pretending to be looking for something else, then plucking up the courage to join in. Quiet people, shy: but determined to speak out, because they desperately care about their library service, and are truly distressed to think it may be taken away from them.

One man said he had lost his job a little while ago, and that it was comforting to have somewhere to go, near to home, on the days when he had nothing to do. The staff were all good people. 

Another man, serious, carefully weighed his words before speaking. He had, he said slowly, got a lot of general knowledge from using the library. He trailed off, clearly unable to express what would be a personal loss on such a scale, or understand the reasoning behind it. Who could?

One quietly spoken older woman said apologetically that she was not very articulate - she was - but clearly she felt very strongly about what was being proposed. She did not have a computer, she said, or a mobile phone. This was, as she put it, an intimate library. She wanted to say how kind the library staff were, in helping her learn to use the pc, so patient, never a raised eyebrow: that's rare - in the world we live in, she said, why would we lose that?

This woman was not the only one to praise the staff, for their help and kindness, and professionalism, and to try to explain the intangible, inexpressible sense of sanctuary, welcome and belonging that you find in a library. It is a place of refuge, a place of safety, as well as a place with access to the world of books, and information.

The selective note taking of the nonsultant throughout the nonsultation consisted of, well not taking many notes, as far as Mrs Angry could see, seated at his right hand side, so as to keep her beady eye on him. He was quite keen when a woman turned up who worked for Wandsworth library service which had been taken over by a 'mutual' company, apparently seen as a lesser evil by staff who had been previously treated by the council in a pretty shabby fashion, reportedly having to pay back sick pay, for example. Mrs Angry pointed out that when the same 'mutual' company took over Greenwich libraries, they put new staff on zero hours contracts. 

Has anyone, in all these events, expressed any support for the proposals, Mrs Angry asked the consultant. He thought very carefully, and then remembered there had been one elderly man with wild hair, who said he had grown up on a remote sheep farm, and thought everyone should stand on their own two feet. (Or four feet, presumably, if you are a sheep).

It will be interesting, won't it, readers, to see how the outcome of these events, from a few scribbles in a notebook, are transformed into a report to council?

When the session was nearing the end of the three hour time slot, a woman in a beautiful blue velvet coat slipped into one of the spare seats. She smiled very sweetly, and listened patiently to what they group had to say: and then she took out a piece of paper, on which she had written a speech. 

And what a speech it was. 

Her name was Esther Waldron, and you can find a copy of what she said on the Independent Catholic News website. No further comment needs to be made, as Esther says it all: only to add that, for some reason, the consultant listened to what she had to say - and wrote nothing down.
A Defence of Barnet Libraries

One of the books I’m borrowing from Golders Green Library is ‘A Century of Wisdom - Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer’.

Alice’s surname means ‘Heart of Summer’. Alice spent two years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. She survived because of the beauty of her piano playing; she was a concert pianist who played in concerts in the concentration camp.

In the book, Alice quotes Heinrich Heine who foresaw the evils of Nazi Germany. Heine said of the early days of Nazism: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people."

To translate this to the modern day: if Barnet Council decimates its library service and severs access to books, it will, in the end, also decimate the spirit of its people.

And not just any people, but its weakest members – by which I mean the most vulnerable; as Gandhi once said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

In average, in Barnet, 44 per cent of school children don’t speak English as a first language at home. And 18 per cent of the borough’s population are aged 60 and over. Reducing staffing levels in our libraries by 40 or 50 per cent will make it 40 or 50 per cent more difficult and intimidating for these people to navigate our libraries.

I’ve listened as staff of Golders Green library have patiently explained to elderly people how to create an email account, how to surf the internet. The time and care these librarians take with the people of our community is an example to us all.

In literary terms, the three options that Barnet Council is proposing for its future library service are ‘Hobsons Choice’.

I love and choose to live in Golders Green is for its religious diversity and tolerance. 

Directly opposite the library is a Greek cathedral. Nearby is a Buddhist community centre. The area is, of course, well known for its vibrant Jewish community. This is also a Christian parish - my Catholic church is five minutes’ walk away on Finchley Road.

Barnet Council would not restrict access to our places of worship – at least I hope it would not. The same principle applies to libraries.

When I was a child every book was like the Bible to me. Every book felt holy. I still feel that books are holy, and that libraries are sacred spaces. Libraries are cathedrals of the human imagination. 

When I walk into my local library, my spirit soars at the achievement of the writers around me, and my soul sings at the possibilities inside the pages of the books.

With its current options Barnet Council will restrict access to books, but also the ideas in them - the hopes and dreams of authors’ hearts that speak to the human spirit, and what it means to be human and alive. 

To sever libraries is to sever access to what the books inside them represent: the creative imagination, which the poet William Blake said was God. He called it ‘Jesus Christ the Imagination.’

In closing: the words ‘council’ and ‘councillors’ have their origins in Latin words meaning ‘a group of people meeting together;’ and also the verb ‘to call’.

Councils are literally called to bring people together.

Barnet Council, please use your powers to preserve our libraries because they are worth far more than any budget gap of £ 72 million.

Barnet libraries, like the people who live in the borough, including its most vulnerable members, are valuable beyond measure.


Anonymous said...

There is at the Heart of this a very important issue ! That if councillors get there way , we are on a very slippery & Dangerous path . How so .imagine a world (Let's call it Crapita) were there are no Books ! Some people would say Our councillors for instance Kindle, iPad , etc what need for Books ! Now imagine how easy it would be to Remove History with the click of a Button . No Holocaust ! No apartate . No genocide in Rowanda , Weapons of mass Destruction in Iraq ? But No ! This is Barnet , How could it !

Ross Bale said...

Councils are always trying to shut libraries. They seem to be regarded as an easy target. Local people always have to be aware.