Sunday, 6 November 2016

Remember, remember: the 5th November march for libraries

Barnet Unison Library convenor Hugh Jordan addresses the libraries demo

Yesterday saw a march in London on behalf of campaigners fighting to defend the foundations of our cultural life from death by a thousand cuts: museums, galleries - and most of all libraries.

The library, for so many writers, artists, academics, is where it all began, or at least for so many writers, artists, and academics from less affluent backgrounds, whose only access to education, beyond their school life, was from their local public library.

At the demo were several eminent children's writers, including the Children's Laureate, Chris Riddell, Phillip Ardagh, Alan Gibbons, and Michael Rosen. Michael spoke about the 'emancipation' of his parents, living in the East End, by their use of Whitechapel Library, and the Bethnal Green Museum, and he deplored the fact that similar access was being taken away from those who need it now.

Nothing has changed, from the days when Mr and Mrs Rosen depended on their local library and gallery in order to have a life enriched by literature, or art. Even in our grossly materialistic society, money cannot buy the pleasure and benefits that they bring. Yet our Tory politicians think that downloading a book or an image on a laptop, or kindle, creating virtual and remote ownership of a borrowed idea, or picture, can be an adequate substitute - preferably generating profit somewhere for someone. If the disadvantaged citizen is excluded from this activity: hard luck.

We didn't have many books in our house, when I was a child. 

Or rather, we didn't own many books: yet reading was for all of us, in our different ways, central to our lives - a refuge, an escape, and a passage to another world - different worlds, as many different worlds as the library could provide us with, for our own needs, parallel, and yet separate to each other, in our semi-detached, suburban isolation. 

Semi detached, emotionally as well as literally: a home where words were read, not spoken, and thoughts kept to ourselves, for fear of the exposure they might make, an admission of feelings best left unacknowledged, the dangerous thoughts of a household unsure of its position, aspiring to a place of middle class respectability, behind the privet hedges, in the pink blossomed, cherry tree lined avenues of Edgware.

My parents were both self educated; intelligent and thoughtful, forced to leave education in their early teens, my mother resentful all her life for the missed opportunity of the grammar school place she had won, but had had to refuse, as her impoverished family, struggling to survive on my grandfather's miner's wage, could not afford the expense of uniform, bus fares and all the other extra costs that this would have involved. The sort of hidden barrier which would seem to have returned in this age of inequality of access to education. She spent much of her time reading historical fiction, usually the better sort of bodice ripping romantic sagas that came in endless series, like Catherine Cookson, who wrote about the North East, and the close knit working class background she was obliged to leave behind, on marriage, and was disappearing, rapidly, in the post industrial era of my early childhood. 

And my father had left school at fourteen, a bright and determined child from south London, who found a job as an office boy in the City, and worked his way to a directorship, on merit, at a time when promotion was entirely dependent on a public school background, and a network of patronage. He took me to the library, every Saturday morning, and while he chose his own books, left me to my own devices, from the age of four or five, in the junior section, lost in the bookshelves, without a moment's doubt that I was safe, in a a nurturing environment, full of wonderful things to read, and to choose to take home. An experience made all the more more precious by the fact we were allowed to borrow only three books at a time. My father would usually borrow the sort of naval historical fiction written by Alexander Kent, acutely aware he was the first generation of his West country family not to go to sea, but fascinated to explore, from the safety of his landlocked life, what might have been, should have been his life, if things had been different.

Being at an age now when I can't remember any more pin numbers, or passwords, or what was on my missing shopping list, I am still cursed with a clarity of recall for the most trivial detail of my early life, and still can list many of the books I read as a child - can see them still: the covers, the illustrations; where they were to be found on the shelves.

The very first book I had, however, was a rag book, which I used to have in my cot, a sort of painted prison in which I seem to have been kept for hours at a time, even in day time - and which I can still remember climbing out of, out of boredom, when a toddler. 

The first proper book I had then, still in captivity in the cot, was one with pictures of dimple cheeked babies, illustrated by Mabel Lucie Atwell: did my mother read it to me?  I doubt it. She wasn't the sort of mother that snuggled up and read to her children, or at least to me: she would always say she was too busy. In fact that was so rare an event I can remember what seems now like the only occasion, a speedy and rather grudging indulgence, her resignedly reading one of my books to me, on a Saturday evening, me perched awkwardly on one of our horribly uncomfortable armchairs, designed, as they were then, for endurance rather than comfort. Well chosen, for our house. Neither of us were keen to repeat the experience.

Of the few other children's books in the house, there was one with which I developed something of an obsession, a Noddy annual, discarded by my older brother, with pictures coloured in the most alluring tones of bright pink, and red, acid yellow, green and blue, illustrating a realm of stories from which I was cruelly excluded, by my lack of literacy. 

No one would read them to me, so I resolved then to learn how to do it myself, and was reading before I went to school, aged four. School was a great disappointment, in fact, obliged as we were then to read out loud the interminably dull tales of Janet and John, and not annoy the teacher by outreaching the limitations of their strictly regulated vocabulary. 

Thank God, then, for the new library, in Edgware, and its fabulous children's section, developed in line with the vision of Eileen Colwell, the pioneering librarian: a haven with endless oak lined shelves of books to discover. 

I can still recall the shape and feel of the metal door handle, shaped like the burnished wing of a modernist era angel, which a child's fingers must firmly grasp, before pushing, with no little effort, on the heavy, unyielding door, to enter the room. It seemed appropriate, to be obliged to make that effort to gain entry to the privileged world of books waiting for you inside.

There was the counter, on the left hand side, at which you would stand, rather hesitantly, hoping not to have to engage with the fearsome librarian, whose fingers ran so lightly through the cardboard tickets kept in long, narrow wooden boxes. If you were foolish enough to bring back a book later than the three week limit: the shame would be too much to bear. But you would at least have the great pleasure of putting your fines in the brass edged slot in the counter, and listen to the coins roll down with a satisfying clunk, into the box below. My books were never overdue, as I was so desperate to exchange them for new ones, so rather to my regret, I never did have the chance to try this out.

Not having any guidance - or interference - from parents was a blessing, in fact. I would choose books by a process of serendipitous illogicality, usually doing what we are advised not to, that is to say, to choose a book by its front cover, or its illustrations, tempted by, for example,  the beautifully coloured pages of Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, (definitely the reason I have a ginger and white cat of my own ...) 

Or anything, like the Nurse Matilda books, with cross-hatched pen and ink sketches by an artist whose style I quickly learned to recognise, Edward Ardizzone.

Folktales and legends, in Edgware Library, had their own bookshelves: on the wall to the right of the door as you entered: a wealth of cloth bound tomes of the sort you would never publish for children now, as they would be considered too long, and too complex. Series of tales from all around the world, and every culture, from the Greek and Roman myths, to those of Egypt, India, Africa, Scandinavia: Hans Christian Andersen, the brothers Grimm: introducing children to the range of archetypal themes that populate all cultures, and symbolise the human condition - giving an insight beyond the limitations of a child's own developing mind, into the realms of something more profound, and eternal.

Some books, and their sequels, were favoured because of the possibilities of freedom and adventure they offered: the Narnia series, one of many works of fiction which appealed, I suppose, to a child whose own parents were so authoritarian, because they were about children at large in a fantasy world, without adult supervision, independent, and powerful.

This was also partly the appeal of so many books set in boarding school: Malory Towers, the Chalet School - and even the Jennings books, an example of the necessarily secret cross gender reading of a girl of that period, running out of her own books, at the weekend, or on holiday, and forced, in desperation, to borrow her brother's, and learn what it was to be one of that other species, a boy: Jennings, Just William, Biggles -  Rider Haggard, and Captain Marryat, then HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes, and so many others.

Another favourite genre as a child was biography: especially those issued in the exemplary series, published by Max Parrish, telling the story of the young lives of famous figures - including an unusually high number of women - writers, artists, musicians, reformers; Elizabeth Fry, Mozart, the Brontes - Charles Dickens.

Curious, in retrospect, that so much of the fiction of childhood featured a young protagonist that was an orphan, or a child living apart from family - like Oliver Twist, or Jane Eyre, foundlings like the girls in Ballet Shoes; Anne of Avonlea, Heidi, and so many others. 

The cruelty of early life displayed in Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, especially resonated, for some reason: for a particular reason, being sent to a Catholic school, at the age of six, whose merciless regime seemed designed to break the spirit of every child left in its 'care', beyond the intervention of family, and parental protection, if that had been offered, which it was not.

Perhaps I identified with those orphaned characters, those children left in the world to fend for themselves, because the emotional distance within my own family had fractured my own sense of belonging; or perhaps it is an experience common to all children, that they must explore and develop their own sense of self, as they grow up.

Reading so widely, and learning the ability to recognise the same feelings, and to feel a common bond with other lives, is an invaluable process for all children: but perhaps more important is the recognition, and understanding of difference - to learn the process of empathy: to understand the feelings of others. This is only possible by the use of imagination, that step away from the world of your own experience to a world inhabited by someone else, where the rules you live by no longer apply, and everything familiar to you has changed. How will you manage? And how does the world appear to the person standing next to you, or in another country, or from a different culture?

One of the leading organisers of yesterday's march and demo was the children's writer Alan Gibbons, who has been to several library protests here in Barnet. He came to the occupied library, in Friern Barnet, and made a very interesting speech on the subject of the link between reading fiction and empathy. How many children -  or adults, he asked - who become involved in violence, and acts of hate crime, for example, lacked that vital stage in their development in which the experience of reading would have allowed a sense of empathy to become embedded in their minds, and prevented a fatal degree of emotional detachment, and alienation, and the establishment of anti-social behaviour - or worse? 

Well written fiction, biography, folktales, poetry and drama: all help to show the way: they navigate a path through the unknown, and teach you how to survive: they encourage the development of resilience, of emotional intelligence, as well as academic proficiency.

What a tragedy it is, then, that we have turned our backs on the defence of the public library system: that future generations of our children, and grandchildren, will grow up without this precious resource. 

Of course the children and grandchildren of those implementing the cull of libraries will not lose anything. 

The children and grandchildren of politicians whose own lack of empathy endorses a government agenda of unjust and illiberal social policies are unlikely to be encouraged to learn to enter the world of imagination, and connect with the lives of those different from and less fortunate than themselves. 

But the children of the poor, the disadvantaged: those who, for a century or more, benefited from the provision of free access to a public library, are seeing the destruction of that vital means to education and empowerment.

In Barnet, as elsewhere, the lifeline offered by public libraries is being remorselessly cut: the right of access to a public library, for many of the borough's least advantaged children, is about to end. That right, which we always thought had been enshrined in statute, in the Libraries act, will become meaningless as the Tory council implements its new programme of devastating cuts, hidden behind the lie of 'reshaping'. 

Children will be banned from the new open library system: a system imposed through sacking half of the library staff, and introducing the as yet untested concept - on this scale, and in this urban context - of completely unstaffed libraries. 

The children of East Finchley: barred from unstaffed libraries, supported by Labour AM Andrew Dismore

Banned from the new DIY libraries, but if they manage to find a staffed library where they can borrow books, (or study), should they have problems returning them on time, perhaps because they live a long way from a staffed branch - their Tory councillors have reintroduced the idea of fines for children's overdue books, in order to generate income. And perhaps to deter children from borrowing them in the first place, which will in turn  lower attendance levels, and give the council more ammunition in the argument for shutting libraries. All utterly cynical: and very clever.

The truth is that the Conservative administration in Barnet has been deliberately running down our once exemplary library service - one awarded beacon status, and recognised for its value for money performance. The staffing structure has been cut, again and again, with a motive of de-professionalisation, and a deliberate abandonment of standards in service. The stock has been culled, and cut. The loss of specialist librarians for children, and information, has become evident in stock selection and the overall management of the libraries.

As part of the latest, most grievous assault on Barnet libraries, senior officers, from the council and Crapita, provided a series of pointless 'information sessions' about the new cuts, in which the exchange of information was diverted down a one way street. Residents were told how the 'reshaping' of their libraries would begin. There was no time for debate over the decision. There never was any possibility of choice. 

The libraries will become libraries in name only: buildings with a nominal library function, the buildings now given over to Capita to run. The carving up of space, and the loss of library functions within these buildings is about to be enacted: nothing will ever be the same.

I attended one of these sessions at North Finchley, and was appalled by what they are planning to do to the beautiful, purpose built library. The children's library at the front, designed with curved, low windows especially for the use of young readers, is to be emptied of its purpose, the children removed from their own designated safe space, and the rooms given over for renting to businesses.

Except of course, that excuse is nonsense. When questioned, the senior officers happily waved away any concerns about the lack of demand for such office space. It didn't matter, the lack of any business plan, or even the lack of any revenue from such fantasy rental options: the library budget, newly slashed, would not be affected. Why not? It seems because in fact the council is going to use the space itself. Will Capita earn income from renting the space to other council services? We don't know: but we do know Capita does nothing without charging a fee.

Looking at the children's library, about to be destroyed, was overwhelmingly sad, just as it is to visit the children's library in Golders Green, where I once worked: where bookshelves used to be overflowing, now there are many gaps, and empty shelves, and a dearth of variety or choice. 

So sad, all of this, because of the terrible injustice of what they are doing: but sad also because the children's libraries have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent from the standard set by Eileen Colwell, all those years ago. A few paperbacks on sparsely populated shelves, in a run down room, with peeling paint, and a sense of decay, and a loss of spirit. We lost our libraries a long time ago: and we will never reclaim them, until there is a political will to recognise the value of reading, the value of access to information, supported by qualified staff: the need for quiet, safe spaces for children, the elderly, the less advantaged members of our community.

In a borough where the political administration abhors the very principle of public services, which refuses to acknowledge the idea of community, there is little hope of any long term future for our libraries. 

Unless, that is, we rise to their defence. 

Barnet library strikers before the march

Yesterday many Barnet council library workers, campaigners, residents, union members and Labour councillors marched through London, to show their support for our libraries. Many of the staff members present face the loss of their jobs, and many of the residents the loss of their libraries. 

During yesterday's march, I had the great pleasure of walking alongside a woman called Megan Charlton, from Durham: one of the spokeswomen for the 'Durham Lions' - a group of magnificent women from the North East, teaching assistants fighting the loss of a massive slice of their pay, in what appears to be a grossly unfair and arguably discriminatory cut by the local county council. 

Durham Lion & TA representative Megan Charlton meets Barnet's People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd

Fortunately the support they feel has been missing from the local Labour establishment, and the leadership of Unison, has been found elsewhere, including from the Durham Miners Association, whose late and much missed president Davy Hopper came to support a library march in Barnet, along with representatives of the fabulous LGSM.

No coincidence that Durham produces such strong women, like the indomitable women in my family, whose fighting spirit continues in a new generation, after the battles during the pit closures, and now with the teaching assistants' dispute, whose campaign is about so much more than a devastating cut in pay: it's about justice, and who will be counted, when there is a fight to be fought.

We talked about all sorts of things as we walked: the sense of empowerment that results from taking action over such injustices, and the need - the duty - to stand up for what is right, in order to set the right example for your children. And both my children, who work part time in libraries, were on strike yesterday, because both of them have been brought up to do the right thing: to stand up for what is right. 

For the sake of all our children, then, now and in the future, it is time for all of us to stand in solidarity with those fighting these terrible cuts in public services. If you want to fight the destruction of your local libraries - it's now or never.

And here in Barnet, as the library strikes take place, it's time for you to show your support for this service, and these workers, and stand in unity with them.

Labour councillors Alon Or-Bach, and Arjun Mittra, left & right, with Mrs Angry & son


Anonymous said...

Master Angry:
Did you buy him some sparklers?

Mrs Angry said...

Yes: Fireworks AND sparklers, as a reward for going on the march, and having to be seen in public with his mother: see how I spoil my children?

The sparklers wouldn't light, sadly.

Anonymous said...

Your son is splendid.But him some more sparklers.

The library nonsultation closed last week.They clearly were not interested in what anyone had to say as East Finchley's "information evening" is this coming Wednesday, 6-8pm.I urge all those who may not have been able to attend the march to come along to this and voice their opinions.

I am particularly pleading with GCSE and A'Level students who are going to find they have no study space at exam time. Too late then to moan about it, make a fuss NOW

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm: people are always remarking, with a surprised look on their faces, how delightful and well brought up my children are. I have no idea why this is a surprise, of course.

Yes: now is the time to speak up, if you have not already done so ...