Monday, 24 January 2011

A national treasure worth keeping

I ADDED my name this week to a petition to keep our public library open.
We use the library a lot. If it wasn’t there our daughter would either read less or we’d have to shell out for several more books a week than we already buy.
But the bigger reasons for wanting the library to continue functioning aren’t the selfish ones.
The loss of the book groups would be a blow to many. So would the loss of the various children’s groups. So would the loss of the weekly art-and-craft sessions which give a vital boost to a number of eager older folk.
The lost jobs would also be a kick in the teeth.
The library is a social centre of the community. To expect the community to run it as a volunteer service without trained professionals is wilfully unrealistic. A thin veil over the axe.
But the Tories – either in Westminster or County Hall – don’t care about the community.
They care about cash.
Mark Littlewood, director general of the self-styled “free-market think-tank” the Institute of Economic Affairs, was talking on the radio about libraries.
He thinks they’ve have their day, for two reasons.
Firstly, because of the pure cash reason – the total cost of libraries as divided by the number of books loaned out (about £3 per loan, apparently). As if that were the only role they fulfilled. And as if cutting it would make any dent at all in the national debt.
Secondly, because the internet has put rapid access to information in so many homes that the library’s function as a place of reference is redundant. Which is fine – up to a point – for those of us who can afford a decent broadband connection.
And assuming Wikipedia and the like are as accurate, as reliable and have as long a shelf-life as a good old-fashioned reference book.
As a former PR man for both the Liberal Democrats and the Pro-Euro Conservatives (according to Wikipedia, at least), Littlewood is clearly a fellow in tune with current government thinking.
As is made clear by his cuts-crazy rant on his Conservative Home blog shortly before last year’s election.
In it, he says: “Whole swathes of activity need to be moved from the public to the private sector.”
So, rob the people to pay the rich, then. Conservative ideology in a nutshell.
In the same article, Littlewood jokes about selling off Hyde Park and the rest of London’s green spaces to developers. At least, I think he’s joking.
He describes the parks as “national treasures” – which, revealingly, seems to equate the nation with London. A mistake common among foreign tourists, international businesspeople and free-market think-tankers.
No doubt he has been in Hyde Park more recently than he’s been in a public library.
He admitted on air that the last time he entered a library was “about 15 years ago, to look something up”. Which would have been about the time he started his first job.
This may explain why he doesn’t seem to know or care much about ordinary people. People who live their lives somewhere outside the M25 ring.
And why he fails to recognise that our public libraries are themselves a national treasure.
A key part of what made Britain a land of opportunity (well, some opportunity) for all.
By providing access to books, and space in which to read them, libraries helped create a literate and educated society. Losing them will be another step in reversing that process.
But then, that’s the other thing Tories care about. Turning the clock back.


IT started, as these things do, over possession of a ball.
In this case, though, it wasn’t a football but a fluffy, scruffy old tennis ball. And, as it turned out, the other dog wasn’t really interested anyway. He was more concerned about the stick he’d been chasing.
So after a few rude doggie words and a bit of aggressive body-language, the confrontation was over. A little circumspect circling, a good sniff at each other and both were on their way, no harm done and no hard feelings.
Some dog owners can be a bit sniffy themselves about this sort of thing, but it’s really just part of the natural social round.
There was certainly nothing in it this time to upset or impress the other owner – a man who’s been known to put it about a bit himself when a ball’s at stake.
Roy Keane is also famous, of course, as a dog-walker. So it was always on the cards, from the moment he moved to my town, that he and I would meet somewhere on a field or a footpath.
I’m not sure whether it’s ironic or merely natural that it happened only after he had ceased to be Ipswich Town manager.
Possibly the latter. After all, he has more time to spend with his dog now.
And, may I say, what a very handsome and mild-mannered dog he is too.
Which is probably just as well for my mutt, who could have got himself in trouble squaring up to a fit young german shepherd.


Suzanne said...

I no longer use our municipal library here in France, which is a shame.
I remember my first contact as a schoolgirl with a huge collection of Russian short stories from our public library in South Harrow. It taught me some names such as Gogol's "Three gobs of spit".
I remember a story about some Indian "pundit".
We had no books at home.
My Dad used the Watford library on wheels for years as an old man.
You are quite right.
My daughter-in-law's new Kindle is really not like a book.

Aidan Semmens said...

And there was me thinking of getting a Kindle, Suzanne...
I can't really imagine a home without books - I've certainly never lived in one myself - but your memories make the vital importance of the library that much more vivid.