Saturday 16 October 2010

A Book at Bedtime with Mrs Angry

Now then. Let's get one thing straight.

Mrs Angry is pleased to say that she is not familiar with the bedroom arrangements of Councillor Robert Ramsbottom.

Nor does she harbour any ambitions whatsoever to inspect them for herself.

So it is with the use of a certain amount of creative thinking, and a sense of unease, that she is now going to speculate on the contents of his bedside table.

Aha. Let's see. A GLA blackberry, well thumbed. A half drained mug of Ovaltine. A box of tissues (always useful). A signed photograph of Brian Coleman (turned to the wall). The complete works of Shakespeare, of course: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, yep, Ulysses, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a selection of Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein, all of the Booker short list for 2010, and the complete works of Maeve Binchy?

Maybe not.

Let's face it, there are very few signs that this councillor, or any other of the Tory group running this council, is interested in or cares about cultural matters, either literature, art, music, or any other medium of educational and creative activity. And that is why, of course it is that our libraries, as we are told, are now officially considered to be nothing more than a 'lifestyle choice', rather than places of learning, access to information, oh and a place where you find something to read, which might enrich your life, or change the way you think, or take you to unexpected places in the imaginative world of someone's literary creation.

In my distant past, I used to work in Golders Green Library. Our busiest time was on Friday afternoons, when families from the surrounding Jewish community would arrive to take out piles of books before the beginning of Shabbat. Yes, Mr Ramsbottom: books. And I mean piles of books, some readers using a shopping trolley to take their loans home, maybe six books for each family member. Reading is of course an activity which is permissable on Shabbat when all labour is forbidden, but reading is also highly valued in such families for its own sake. (I used to stamp the Chief Rabbi's books, and recall that as well as worthy tomes of the sort you might expect a man of his postion to read, he had a surprising but endearing fondness for spy novels ... )

Many of the older library users were once pre war refugees from Europe, or survivors of the Holocaust. Coming to the library for them was regular part of their routine, and they loved to chat with the staff. In fact, it was a privilege to get to know many of these people, and listen to their frequently deeply distressing life stories.

One elderly lady that I remember well was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. She told me that she felt that she could not speak about her experiences to her family, but found release in reading about the experience of others who had lived throught the same times, feeling a compulsion to read every book she could find, or that the staff could find for her, on the subject of the ghetto. Reading, for her, was a necessity, an instinct as vital and important as breathing, or eating. It was not some sort of hobby, and her visits to the library were emphatically not a trivial 'lifestyle choice'. She was using a resource which is essential to the life of any civilised society, where a library is a repository of knowledge, information, and intellectual debate.

She was also exercising her right to an activity which is usually one of the first victims of any repressive regime, the right to read freely and widely on any given subject. Book burning is one thing, but there are many ways to prevent people from having free access to self expression, free debate and information, aren't there?

In fact, it is true to say that in Barnet we have some of the most highly educated and well read citizens in any local authority borough. This is why why our libraries have always been held in such high regard by residents, and that is why the Tories will not be able to vandalise our library system without a huge and vitriolic backlash from residents.

Perhaps we should remember that not everyone in our community can afford to nip into Waterstones to buy a book whenever they want, as our affluent Tory councillors assume. If you devalue the importance of a strongly funded book stock, you deprive less advantaged residents, pensioners, the unemployed, single parents, students, and, perhaps most importantly, children from poorer backgrounds, of the ability to access both reading material for free. Not just in hard copy of course, you can borrow e books, dvds and all sorts of media from libraries these days: if you didn't know that, why not go and take a look?

Any parent will know that not everything required of school study and homework can be found on the internet: books and personal support in accessing information from staff trained to help do still matter, in so many different ways. But I fear that our council is not interested in this aspect of the library service.

I've had a library ticket since I was four years old and first learnt to read, motivated by the frustration I felt at peering at my brother's old Noddy annuals and being unable to guess the stories which connected the luridly coloured pictures. Since then reading has always a hugely important part of my life. Noddy turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, though, always having had a firm dislike for bumptious would be authority figures like Big Ears and PC Plod. (No offence, chaps).

As a child, I relied almost entirely on Saturday visits to the library for reading material as we had few books at home, although reading was strongly encouraged by our parents, who themselves always had their noses in a (library) book. In those days you were only allowed to borrow three books a week, and quite often I would have read mine by Sunday evening. This was a problem, as apart from a lack of things to read for the rest of the week, I secretly longed to have an overdue book, so that I would have to pay a fine and drop the coins into the alluring brass slot of the fine box fitted into the librarian's desk. But I read my way through every volume in the children's library, from Orlando the Marmalade Cat to Jane Eyre, via all the Narnia books, the Borrowers and Mary Poppins series, Dr Seuss, and hundreds of others, several shelf loads of classic myth and folktale collections from all over the world, and hundreds of others, and I can still remember almost everything I read.

If you instill a love of reading in a child, you give him or her a huge educational advantage: a steeping in the rhythms of writing, a large vocabulary, and a memory bank of cultural references. It's no coincidence that in the past, when social mobility was acheived by education and not by materialistic aspiration, two ways out of a life limited by class barriers were the eleven plus, which identified working class children with inate ability, (then unhindered by competition with middle class children tutored up to the eyeballs), and also the opportunities proffered by the wonders of a public library system, which offered a refuge and access to self education to the less advantaged.

Obviously, things change. Many children today, and their parents, spend more time texting and on facebook than reading, but there is still a gratifyingly large, literate hard core of people who do read widely and would use public libraries even more if libraries were more attractive and better resourced, if the libraries were supported and promoted by our council rather than only remembered when looking for ways to cut the budget. I'm not confident that this will ever happen in Barnet, though. Culture is not something that is of high priority with our philistine, shallow minded Tory councillors, is it?

And a Ramsbottom library, you see, is not a place of culture. It is a building, a corporate asset. It is an opportunity. It might be sold. It might become a branch of Starbucks with a few token, yellowing old Dan Brown's sitting on a shelf. It might be used for another council service. It might be rented out. If retained, it will be made to justify its existence with a multitude of new uses. Most importantly, under the cunning disguise of a review intended to improve the service, it will be deprived of funding.

There is, I notice from Another Blog, a survey posted on the council website in the name of Robert Ramsbottom. If you think this survey is going to make any difference to what happens to our libraries, you might want to have a go at it. I doubt that it will make any difference, as the political decision makers will have already made their minds up, in the time honoured way of lip service consultaion in this borough. And if you think that the options given for you to endorse in this survey will help to protect the service we all know and love here in Barnet, think again. This is, in my opinion, a PR exercise, and weighted heavily in the direction the Tories want you to follow, thus giving them, they will argue, a mandate for the changes they want to impose.

I say they want to impose: history has shown that meddling with libraries in this borough is, invariably, another form of political suicide. Of course our lemming like Tory administration has no fear of heading in the direction of the nearest high cliff, as recent events have shown, but the more experienced councillors amongst them might just remember the poisonous fall out from a previous attempt to take a hatchet to our libraries.

It is true to say that there are improvements which can and must be made to the library system in Barnet. Many of the libraries we now have are not necessarily in the best locations, for example. The problem is that I would guess the changes which ought to be made are not necessarily going to deliver the savings that this slash happy administration is demanding.

As technology and society evolves, public libraries must adapt and change. But for the right reasons, and in line with the demands of the communities they serve. Don't let the Tories in Barnet take the axe to your library, or dumb it down, and tell you it's what you want, under the cover of a 'review'. Voice your own opinions, write to your councillors, or whoever you think might listen, and tell them what you want. Yes, change is needed. But we want change for the better, which our Tory councillors keep telling us they can do for less money. Let's see whose version of 'better' is best, shall we?


Moaneybat said...

Ramsbottom and Coleman, reminds one of Guy Montag and Captain Beatty.

Mrs Angry said...

aha: Fahrenheit 451 ... spot on, Moaneybat!