Monday 24 March 2014

Don't ask me what happens next, or: the saving of a library, and who stole it in the first place?

Friern Barnet library was opened exactly eighty years ago this week, funded in part by the Carnegie Foundation - an event marked by a ceremony attended by the Earl of Elgin, no less: presumably the grandson of the geezer who helped himself to a few souvenirs from the Parthenon.

So: opened in 1934 by Lord Elgin, closed in 2012 by Barnet Tories, and re-opened in 2012 by squatters, members of the occupy movement, who helped local campaigners negotiate an agreement with the previously intransigent council, who had every intention of pushing through the sale of the site, and the adjoining green, to developers.

The library's birthday was celebrated on Sunday with a party by campaigners, activists, volunteers, speakers, friends  and guests at what is now a community enterprise, supported by the council, but staffed by volunteers. 

Supported by the council, and now, rather amusingly, even cited by their leader Richard Cornelius, as an achievement for which he and his administration were responsible. So keen on rewriting history, is this Tory administration, that the Mayor was due to come today to grace the event with his corporate seal of approval. 

Mrs Angry understands that he is unwell, and was therefore unable to attend, which is regrettable, but frankly it would have been quite inappropriate for the council's figurehead to be there. 

That this library lives to serve the community of Friern Barnet is in no way due to anything the Tory council has done for it. 

Every day it is open, every book it holds, every letter of every word you read there has been fought for by the people who use it, and their friends, in the face of bare faced indifference and active opposition by the council, until such a time as it became politically expedient for it to adopt of a policy of reconcilation, and compromise.

As it is, only recently Councillor Daniel Thomas made a great deal of promising that he will guarantee the leasehold of the library for the next four years. Mrs Angry, whose innate cynicism in regard to the scheming ambitions of our councillors knows no bounds, ventured a question from the public gallery: what happens in Year Five?

If you cannot guess: let me make it clear. It will join the list of council assets already drawn up for sale, to be activated as soon as - if - the Tories get back into power. And if you believe any promise on the subject of any funded project by a Tory administration in Barnet, you are too naive to breathe the foetid air of Broken Barnet, and should immediately make plans to move elsewhere.

Mrs Angry is easily amused, of course, and few things amuse her more than the capacity of Barnet Tory councillors to engage in acts of outright hypocrisy, right in the face of glaring, uncomfortable truths that their limited imaginations simply cannot accommodate. 

Take a look at this - an election leaflet now being distributed by Tory candidates in Coppetts ward:

Libraries are for communities, and communities need libraries, proclaims this shameless document, by members of the same Tory party which agreed to close Friern Barnet library, in the face of all protest from the local community, in order to sell the site for development. 

The Tory party which, despite the stated need for budget cuts which drove this closure, fell over backwards to subsidise the vanity project that is Hampstead Garden Suburb library, when its millionaire Tory voting residents kicked up a fuss at possible closure, whilst refusing to listen to the rather less advantaged and largely Labour voting residents of Friern Barnet.

Friern Barnet is open again only after occupation, and sustained resistance by local campaigners, including legal action - and let it not be forgotten that it was the negotiations driven by the occupiers, especially Phoenix, which achieved a victory for the local community.

So: bad enough that the Mayor was invited to yesterday's celebration. But Kate Salinger was present, and she is a local Tory councillor, along with two Labour members. For some reason Tory councillor David Longstaff also came along. Kate is a nice woman, and has supported the library activists, but ultimately is loyal to her party, the party who closed the library in the first place. And of course it was the Labour councillors who were first on the scene to show their support, as soon as the occupiers moved in, and helped to organise the legal challenge  ... 

To claim the establishment of the community library is an achievement of the Tories is frankly beyond contempt. 

The only reason there is a library there now is due to one thing: the occupation of the building by squatters from the occupy movement, and the determination of the local campaigners.

Lest we forget - Petra and Phoenix: the librarians from Occupy

It was rather annoying, yesterday, in fact, to hear so many fine speeches in praise of the enterprise, and no mention of the people to whom the library owes its very existence. Phoenix is away, so could not be present, but Petra, one of the original occupiers, and Mordechai were there, more or less unacknowledged. This is how history is rewritten.

When Mrs Angry arrived, long time library campaigner Joanna Fryer was conducting a literary quiz: she then gave a quick address, noting that when the library had held a sixty year anniversary, in 1994, one of the guests was a woman who had attended the library every day, since the library had opened, in 1934.

An extraordinary fact, you might think: or perhaps not, because the relationship between people and their libraries has always been extraordinary, intimate and loyal, long lasting, a contract of love.

Author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons took his turn to address the guests. He remarked first of all on the quiz being the best demonstration of why we need libraries: yes, indeed: where else would you find such a fount of knowledge, except amongst those who read, and read, and read, and fill their heads full of all that stuff?

He talked about his new book, 'Hate', based on the true story of a young woman, Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death because she was a goth. She dared to be different, he said. And we are all different, in our own ways. 

This is what literature does: it testifies to the human condition. If you lose a library, he warned, you lose the right to tell the truth about the human condition. 

He talked about a school where the library was removed, in favour of a 'reading room' - a place with books, but no librarian - no gatekeeper. He congratulated the activists who had saved Friern Barnet library as a community library, staffed by volunteers, but, he said: you should not have had to do it. He is right: and sadly, no matter how dedicated the volunteers, they can never replace the posts of professional librarians, and the support of a fully resourced library service.

And of course the government has a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive library service, but, ironically,  other than in prison, said Alan Gibbons, this was a duty increasingly ignored.

In fact, touching on the subject of prison was a timely move: ironic perspective duly ignored, Tory minister Chris Grayling is seeking further to punish prisoners by banning them from receiving any books, in a ridiculous new policy which, (along with its refusal to allow women inmates the privilege of wearing their own underwear), seems to be part of the new Coalition Poor Law, designed to dehumanise and humiliate those who fall foul of the law, and end up behind bars. 

No doubt the treadmill and picking oakum are shortly to be reintroduced as well, but the intent is clear: reading and education are once more the right of the privileged few, and too dangerous in the hands of those on the margins of society.

But to remove access to literature is a dangerous policy, said Gibbons: because reading is one way of teaching empathy. Learn to read, and read well.  

What if those feral young men who kicked Sophie Lancaster to death had had the chance to read - and understood - these words in Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mocking Bird'?

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Libraries, he said, are temples of learning - temples of hope. Exactly so.

Boyd Tonkin, (above, left) long time literary editor of the Independent, spoke about his love of libraries, and love of this library in particular, in which he spent many hours as a child. 

He could remember exactly where he had stood - where two little girls were playing now, amongst the shelves, oblivious to the speechmaking going on around them - reading a book on cricket, and puzzling over the meaning of a word, 'invaluable' ... he could remember the old counter, and the curious shrinking in height in inverse proportion to his own rate of growth. He recalled the speed with which he finished his weekly allocation of books. 

After his speech, Mrs Angry was introduced to Mr Tonkin, curtseying, of course, in homage: he said he loved reading the Barnet blogs: a modern day samizdat, he suggested. Who could hope for higher praise? 

Mrs Angry commented how well his words resonated with her, her own childhood rooted in weekly visits to Edgware library, and a similar obsession with a counter, and a fines box with a brass slot, and  a satisfying clunk when the pennies rolled in. 

The young Mrs Angry longed to be fined, so as to have the excuse to drop coins in it, but never had the excuse of overdue books because her own allocation would be read in the course of the weekend, and returned as soon as possible, as she read her way through every book on every shelf, and learned that the world of fiction was infinite in possibility, and possibly infinitely more preferable to the real world.

Where would children like us be, without a library? Books may furnish a room, but the children of parents who buy no books must find their own. 

No kindle or website can ever replace the feel of a book, the smell of it; the touch of the paper, the presence of the book beside your bed, or on a shelf in the library, inviting you to read it, and enter new realms of imagination, and confront new ideas, and words, and more words, the colour and rythmn of which rearranges your own way of writing forever, and shapes the way you think.

The last speaker was the least well known, the most modest, a quiet young woman with two very small children, who crowded round her as she read a poem, a poem read before in this library, at the re-opening ceremony: it should be reproduced in full. 

She prefaces this with an explanation:

I wrote this poem in anger, when the council tried to close our local library. The library was finally saved, thanks to Occupy squatters, who lived in the building for several months, and local activists. We owe them forever.
Today (23rd March 2014) the community celebrated 80 years of Friern Barnet Library. Here's to 80 more.

To The Book Thief 

by Alex Mankowitz

Would you snatch a book from my boy’s hands,
As he sat pulling apart each word, limb from limb,
Stumbling on phonics, cuddled against my breast?

Would you prise his little paws off the cover,
Ignore his baffled screams, my tearful pleas as you
Peel away bendy fingers, made sticky by a day’s play?

Would you snatch it if snatching made it tear,

Left him grasping a crumpled cover, bereft,
While you walk away triumphant, dropping pages like a trail?

Just how far would you go?

How about the books already in his head,
The bedtime stories lovingly tethered to his soul;
Would you steal those too? Why let them be?

Because you know, books are not like bees.
They don’t lie down and die after a single sting, nor fizzle out
like a match that burns to a searing stub at your fingers.

No. When you steal a book you steal it again and again.
You steal it from every child whose face ever pressed up
Against a rainy window pane, bored and poor and trapped.

You lock him in, in a way that no wall ever could.
You set up fences he can’t even see, burn ladders he didn’t know he had.
And you do it to his children and his children’s children.

For eternity.

That is what you are doing to us.

So I say: steal my baby’s books if you dare,
But first look at him, look at his big brown eyes,
And tell him what you’re going to do.

Say to him: Child, I am taking from you this book
that you are reading.

Say: Child, forget these pictures.
Say: Child, snuff out those rhymes.

And tell him: Don’t ask me what happens next.
There are no more pages to turn.
Because: Child, this is the end.

Then sing to him:

Lavender’s blue dilly dilly,
Lavender’s green.
I stole your books, dilly dilly
Cos I am mean.


Call up your men, dilly dilly
Call up your crooks,
Some to build pyres, dilly dilly
Some to burn books

Some to break glass, dilly dilly
Some to crush bricks,
While me and mine, dilly dilly
Still get our kicks.

Then take a long look at his big brown eyes.
Just look.
And see, just how much you are taking from us.

See just how much you are taking from us.

The story of Friern Barnet library is not just about a building full of books, that was closed, and emptied, and opened, and refilled with books. 

It is about the idea of resisting injustice, an idea you might read about in one of those books, and feel strong enough to carry into your own life, and make it change the world. And that is why our enemies want to shut our libraries and take away our books, to disarm prisoners of their access to learning, and the process of contemplation, dangerous thoughts: they want to stop us thinking, and thinking we might be strong enough to challenge the things they are doing.

Here in Broken Barnet they are taking away not just books, and libraries, but housing, and carers, and children's centres, and day centres, and so many vital services that support the most dependent residents of this borough. 

Don't be fooled by Tory candidates and their election leaflets that tell you they are your friends, and only want to help you. 

They are the ones standing with a knife in their hand. 

The only way to stop them is to go to the polling station on May 22nd and vote for the people who really do care about those who need help, and stand up to be counted, when it counts.

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