Sunday, 8 September 2013

A beautiful thing to see: the library that lived, one year on

Occupied and Opened: new book by Rosie Canning

It was with great pleasure that Mrs Angry returned to Friern Barnet Library - the Peoples' Library - on Thursday night, to celebrate the anniversary of the occupation which saved its life, and led to its re-opening as a community library, and to attend the launch of a book, 'Occupied and Opened',  written by Rosie Canning and telling the story of the saving of the library from the different perspectives of those involved.

Many of the contributors to the book had been invited to take part in the evening's celebrations, and to read extracts from their writing. Mrs Angry was dreading the prospect of her own recitation, in fact, being, as no one ever believes, really rather shy and hating anything that involves standing in front of an audience, and indeed, having been created entirely through the need for her alter ego to have someone to hide behind. Still: in the end there was no escape.

Rosie Canning, right

The library was packed with familiar faces as Mrs A arrived, and some new ones too. Occupier Phoenix introduced her to Richard Stein, the lawyer from Leigh Day, who represented occupiers and residents when the council tried to evict them. He has been involved in some immensely important public interest cases: the campaign to save Lewisham Hospital, the challenge to the Bedroom Tax, UKUncut's challenge to Goldman Sachs' tax deal with HMRC ... 

Lawyer Richard Stein

And fittingly, Richard Stein was the first speaker. Protest, he said, has of course always played an integral part in advancing the causes of ordinary people: people power has many elements. A very early example of public sector provision was the creation of public libraries - the response from some members of the establishment was that ordinary people would have 'too much knowledge'.  Thanks to the libraries -  such as Friern Barnet - provided by such bodies as the Carnegie Foundation, these buildings became central to the lives of their communities, somewhere not only to provide access to books and knowledge, but as places for old people, cold people, lonely people.

Mrs Angry thought back to the now legendary 'circle of friends' meeting - as reported here:

and here:

in the very spot where she was now sitting, when Barnet library officers reluctantly sat with squatters, residents and bloggers to discuss the issue of the library occupation. One senior officer, assistant Chief Executive Julie Walker, admitted that she did not have 'a complete handle' on the argument by fellow blogger Roger Tichborne that:

'Barnet Council simply did not understand the sort of people who use libraries, and their needs. A library is not just about books, it is a resource for residents, for example for the elderly who visit for warmth, and interaction ...'

Ms Taylor had stated that she thought a library was not the best place to keep warm.

Richard Stein thought that, even now,  the Tory council had not recovered from the shock of seeing the occupation and reclaiming of this library. Long may it last, he added.

Next up was Mike Gee, a resident with a great interest in and knowledge of local history, who has dedicated so much of his time to defending threatened buildings, and our local greenspaces. He was one of the first residents to encounter the occupiers, and work with them to preserve the library from the clutches of the council, which had closed the library in order to sell it to developers. 

Mike Gee

Soon after the occupiers had moved in, they were woken, in the middle of the night, by strange sounds on the roof. Shortly afterwards, water began pouring down into the building. Mike Gee was called to look at the cause: climbing up to inspect the problem, he claims he found evidence of what looked like deliberate sabotage: tiles carefully removed from the four corners of the roof, not in a manner that suggested vandalism, or any attempt to steal lead, but almost as if someone wanted to cause damage to the structure. Curious, is it not?

Time for Phoenix to speak. He explained that he has been squatting for more than twenty years now, since he was made homeless, aged 19. He has been involved in numerous ecological projects, and sees the occupation of empty buildings as a moral duty, an entirely justifiable action, direct action in the interest of communities. 


He reminded the audience of the origins of present day squatting, when members of the armed forces returned from fighting in the second world war, and found a chronic shortage of housing obliged them to take possession of vacant properties. These days it is estimated that 20-50 thousand people live in squats.

He clearly holds a great affection for the friends he made from the occupation of Friern Barnet Library: something which, as he observed, 'brought together such community: a beautiful thing to see ...' 

Mrs Angry thought back to the evening, a year ago, when she knocked on the gate at the back of the newly occupied library, and found Phoenix eyeing her warily over the fence ... see here:

Mrs Angry has a lot of respect for Phoenix, in fact: in world of moral compromise, and worse, he is an inspiring example of resistance, optimism, tolerance and good humour. Ok, yes: I'm trying to avoid referring to him again as Occupy's movement to Mary Poppins, which caused him some amusement. But he is a charismatic, energising force of nature, obstinately and perhaps naively loyal to his own ideals, and yet a shrewd strategist, and wily campaigner. 

He referred to the recent criminalisation of squatting, in residential buildings, a move proudly promoted by Tory MPs Mike Weatherley - and our own homegrown easycouncil guru Mike Freer, (whose name provoked a certain amount of jeering, in contrast to a large amount of cheering for new Labour candidate Sarah Sackman, the barrister who represented the library in the court case). 

Freer's rather surprising efforts on behalf of the anti-squatting legislation were driven by his anger over Libyan protesters who occupied the £11 million mansion owned by the Gaddafi family in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Some of Freer's local Conservative supporters live in similar splendour in the Suburb, of course, like Mr Chaim Zabludowicz, whose family's immense wealth is based on arms manufacture and trading. Such residents fear for the safety of their properties, when vacant,  and must be thankful for the efforts of their MP.

You might be forgiven for thinking such concern was grossly misplaced, and prefer to see your MP act on behalf of his less advantaged constituents. Still, this week, he did turn his attention to such issues: stating in a debate in parliament that he has found on visits to job centres that both claimants and front-line staff are 'enthusiastic' about universal credit ...

Both MPs like to present squatting and occupation as inherently anti-social, morally repugnant - although Weatherley was exposed this week in this Political Scrapbook story, as, at least temporarily, moderating his views somewhat when given the opportunity to visit community squats and see for himself the benefits of such arrangements. 

Mrs Angry would suggest that what is really morally repugnant are the socially divisive policies of this government, and those that support them, actions that are driving the most vulnerable members of our society to despair, while community activists like Phoenix and his fellow occupiers are by contrast virtuous, honourable, and entirely vindicated by outcomes like the reclaiming of the People's Library.


One of the other occupiers was Daniel, a Hungarian, from Budapest, a former stand up comedian who found that life in Budapest - Absurdistan, as he called it - stopped being quite so funny a few years ago, and ended up in London, with, after a sequence of unfortunate events, including an interesting period living with a group of depressed fellow Hungarians, nowhere to live. He started squatting. After being involved in the Stock Exchange protest, he took part in the St Paul's occupation, and then the library and, as he said, saw the things that he had given up on, coming back to life again.

Donnie Vortex, one of the other occupiers, could not be there, so his contribution was read by Arun, sadly Mrs Angry cannot remember much of it because she was too busy panicking, and reading through her own extract: did I really write this nonsense? Grr. Needs editing: too late. 

Mrs A

Apologised in advance for not being as funny as a Hungarian stand up comedian turned occupier. Said what a privilege it had been to chronicle the occupation, and to get to know all those involved. Also said how side splittingly funny it had been to sit in this very space, in the circle of friends, and watch senior officers of the London Borough of Barnet balancing on children's chairs, being taught by Phoenix to engage in fair and democratic debate, throught the intricate code of etiquette approved by the direct action movement...

Read a bit from here:
and wondered why Rosie wanted it in the book, and escaped from the stand as soon as possible. Not likely to follow Dickens in a grand tour of recitations, acting out the defeat of Cllr Rams with the same amount of pathos as the death of little Nell: tempting, though ...

Occupier Thor, who had lived at the library for five months, spoke at the end of the first part of the evening: he said that the re-opening of this library had been the most concrete achievement in ten years of squatting. It had created the most amazing debate, and, he added: the occupy movement had needed to become 'more beautiful': in the occupation of Friern Barnet Library, it did so.

More readings and speeches in part two: Rosie read an extract from her own contribution - A Hallowed Space, which resonated with Mrs Angry, speaking as it did of a childhood centred around the deep joy of reading, and the huge importance that a local public library played in supporting and inspiring that eternal source of pleasure, and education. 

Rosie talked of the library as a place of safety, a haven: an escape, with shelves full of secrets, and other realities, which set her free, and gave her hope. 

Other realities, mused Mrs Angry: this was indeed the experience of her own childhood, an imagination fed by voyages of discovery into new worlds, and endless possibilities, a rich and colourful alternative to the sterile, suburban, semi-detached emotions of home, and a fearful, punitive regime at school. 

That immersion in a never-ending stream of ideas, and complexities, and the subtleties of shade and light that comes from reading, feeds not only the imagination of a child, but endows a powerful gift: the gift of empathy, and the ability to see any situation from different perspectives. 

This is the key difference, perhaps, between those who are one side of the civil war in Barnet, and those on the other: a confrontation between a sociopathic Tory administration which understands nothing about the intrinsic value of culture, and cares even less - and is intent on ignoring the wishes of its own electorate, defiantly in conflict with an uprising of citizens determined to protect their community from the exploitation of commerical profit, and the ruthlessness of political ideology. 

No wonder they want to close the libraries: as Richard Stein reminded us earlier in the evening, too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The next speaker was Maryla Persak-Enefer, a local resident and architect who worked so hard to have the library building locally listed, which undoubtedly helped protect it from development. 


If it were not for such campaigners, there would be no community library, no building: as she suggested, there would most likely now be a branch of Tesco Express, accompanied by a number of flats on the village green. 

Maryla is Polish, and had viewed the threat to the library from the perspective of someone whose country, after the depradations of war, had witnessed the ejection of citizens from Warsaw, and the destruction of a city. Reconstruction could not bring back the irreplaceable, beautiful historic buildings, lost for ever. She quoted William Morris, who held:  

... these old buildings do not belong to us only; that they have belonged to our forefathers, and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us.

Reema Patel is a trainee barrister who has been involved in the library campaign since the very beginning. She thanked the occupiers for their help, and spoke passionately of her own belief in the power of words to change people's lives, reminding us of Malala, the girl the Taliban tried to silence, and who represents so clearly the idea that the contents of a book, the content of a library, could prove so powerful a threat to those who abuse their position of power.


Perhaps the most affecting contribution, however, was from Fiona Brickwood, a resident and now trustee of the newly reopened library. She described wryly overhearing the police called to the occupied building dismiss the situation as 'middle aged, and middle class', apparently presenting no threat to society. She explained that for her, involvement in the campaign had been a personal journey, and a life changing experience for a law abiding citizen who had never been involved in any 'civil disobedience' - a sin of omission. A shy child, whose experience of school had been 'wretched', she saw herself, in the course of the campaign, 'cast off the crippling inhibitions of my childhood', speaking to the world about the cause on Radio 4's Today programme, or giving evidence in court.


This is where the strength of such campaigning lies, and this is why the tale of Friern Barnet library, the occupation and the re-opening, is such an interesting phenomenon, and indeed has been followed by media attention from all over the country, and all over the world, from France, Australia, China, Japan, and even Russia.

This is about so much more than the successful preservation of a building: it is an archetypal story, a very British story, in this context, of a diverse group of people, from a wide range of backgrounds, who came together to fight a common enemy, and won, and in the process found something even more valuable: a sense of identity, both individually and together, and more - they made a community where there was none, and gave hope to every other individual, village, suburb or city centre, where people are struggling to resist the injustice of political decisions made and imposed without their consent.

Friern Barnet Library: the People's Library, occupied and opened, the heart of the community, and an inspiration to all. 

You can order a copy of Rosie's book here

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