Monday, 6 December 2010
Are you sick of hearing about libraries yet?
My dad, having been taken out of school at fourteen by his father, was an auto-didact and borrowed mainly non-fiction. My choices were Worzel Gummidge, Dr. Dolittle and Mary Poppins (libraries are perfect for books that come in series). Later there was The Lord of the Rings.
I loved Lavender Hill library because the cone-topped turret made me think it was a fairy castle, a belief I still think not far from the truth. We didn't have all that many books in our flat in St John's Hill. It was a "railway flat" because my dad worked for the Railways at Waterloo (no-one said British Rail in those days). We had the complete works of Dickens, which I later devoured.
I wouldn't have moved on to my next library without the JAGs one.
This was at Newnham College, Cambridge. I was in Clough Hall where the library was. Every week I competed with nine other young women to borrow the texts and critical books needed for our weekly essays in English Literature. Recently I went back to that college to give a talk and a workshop. There is a new library, unrecognisable, which contains some of my own books. That would have been unimaginable when I was a student.
Spool forward ten years or more and I am living in Crouch End, raising young children. This less than beautiful building is Hornsey Library, where we took our little girls every week to get out their books, just as I used to with the grandfather they never knew.
They know this building as a friend, from teddy bear's tea parties when they were little till the oldest was taking out books on the Russian Revolution for her A level History.
Then in 1990 came a bombshell: Hornsey was scheduled for closure by Haringey council along with several other libraries. Yes, you didn't read the date wrong: I HAVE BEEN CAMPAIGNING TO KEEP LIBRARIES OPEN FOR TWENTY YEARS! No apologies for shouting. It makes me want to shout, nay, scream. It's not as if it's all been plain sailing since then either.
I was elected Chair of the Hornsey Library Campaign and ran successful events there for three years, supported by local celebs like Penelope Fitzgerald, Tim Pigott Smith and Buchi Emecheta. We kept all the libraries open. And again when Hornsey's music library was under threat, we saved that too. My little girls, bigger now, got used to marching on demos with placards saying "Save Our Libraries" and "Closed libraries = Closed Minds" which I see are being recycled now.
In 1993 I added to my campaigning by starting CENTRAL, a support group for School Library Services, which I ran for six years.This task has now been ably taken up by Alan Gibbon's Campaign for the Book.
Write about what you know, some people say, so in 1997 I published a novel called Special Powers, in which the heroine, Emily fights to save her local library. She is helped by a family of extra-terrestrials who have a personal agenda for wanting to keep it open: it is a gateway to the other world they have come from and their route home.
We had no aliens with special powers to help us save Hornsey and the other libraries but sheer people power did it and it seems we will have to do it again. The government has announced it is withdrawing finance from 50% of the libraries in Oxfordshire, the county I live in, including ones in impoverished areas like Blackbird Leys. They think they can be kept running by volunteers, an example of David Cameron's Big Society.
Well, David Cameron is my local MP and he will be getting a letter, as will Ed Vaizey and the imaginatively re-named by James Naughtie this morning, Jeremy Hunt Culture Secretary. Re-phrasing their heroine's famous dictum, I shall tell them "there is no such thing as Big Society"!
When Emily in Special Powers hears that her library is under threat of closure, she thinks, "It was like someone saying there weren't going to be any more Fridays or that red had been outlawed."
That's how it feels when you hear something so impossible and wrong. I came from a lower middle class family where no-one had been to university but where books and learning were respected. I know for sure that I would not be a writer of nearly a hundred published books if it had not been for the libraries - and librarians - of Lavender Hill, JAGs, Newnham and Hornsey.
I salute them and I will do everything I can to make sure that generations of children to come have the opportunities - and delights - that I did. Please join me by writing to David Cameron, Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt. They've had to re-think the school sports cuts; let's make them do the same for libraries.