I’ve collected here all the posts
that had to do, in one way or another,
with the successful campaign in early 2011.
The future is secure now for two years at least,
thanks to a change in overall control on MK Council;
never thought I’d ever be celebrating a Tory election victory,
albeit one on this narrow special issue local account.
Hey, we were re-tweeted by Margaret Atwood!
October 2013: Roger Kitchen of Living Archive together with FoSSL (the Friends of Stony Stratford Library), have produced Wot no books? – a 25 minute film about the campaign – that can be found here on Youtube. (Click on the underlined words).
Saving Stony Stratford Library
January 16, 2011
Friday afternoon, I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. Against his wishes, Henry VIII is still married to his first wife. Churchman Hugh Latimer has just been released; he’s been in custody in Lambeth Palace for his reforming stance. Thomas Cromwell asks him how he’s been looked after. “Bare walls my library,” he replies. I saw some not often seen bare walls in my local library on Saturday.
Stony Stratford Library is under threat of closure. It’s just one of the hundreds of public libraries up and down the UK under such threat, but the response of the citizens of the town has been heartening, and the response of the rest of the world to the Friends of Stony Stratford Library’s ‘Wot no books’ campaign has, frankly, amazed us all. It makes you proud to be a small part of it, ennobled even. Apparently it’s gone viral on Twitter – now there’s phrase I never thought I’d use – and lauded for the creative style of the protest.
Basically, we’ve borrowed all the books; all the books that can be borrowed; for a couple of days the shelves are bare (and dusted). (Librarians will also recognise the value of this exercise as community assisted stocktaking.) It remains to be seen, of course, whether this will have any effect in changing the minds of the Lib-Dem councillors of Milton Keynes, though I would hope they would have to be extremely thick-skinned to maintain their current position.
The story is well told in essence in a piece by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian Online headlined, ‘Library clears its shelves in protest at closure threat’ – “Users urged to take out full allowance of library books in campaign to keep Stony Stratford branch open”. The Indy did a similar piece and even put it on their home news page for a while. If you want to see how things developed and mushroomed, and what it has meant to the Stony community, you can peruse the campaign’s own Facebook site and find lots of other links.
Jeremy Gill puts it nicely in a post to the campaign’s Facebook wall:
“In a hundred years time, the history books will be saying ‘Stony Stratford – home of the library with no books story’ – it’s not Cock & Bull”.
(Stony claims the origin of the phrase ‘Cock and Bull story’ from two of its old – but still in business – coaching inns.)
For what it’s worth, as well as filling my library card along with over a thousand other borrowers, I’m gratifyingly surprised at the effect of a personal contribution, which stemmed from a semi-serious (or half-joking) off-hand remark made at, it would appear, just the right time. I note this here because I want to make sure that I’ve got it documented that, apart from taking home my books (a heavy load) and signing the petition, that was the sum total of what I did. All the hard campaigning work was done – against a backdrop of reasoned resistance established early by the Town Council – by the long running Friends of Stony Stratford Library group, who took up my idea and flew with it. And how; to get a couple of paragraphs in the local free sheets was the aim, rather than the spectacular execution you can see in the photos.
It all goes back to my days at university in a time, long ago, when Rag Weeks were pretty much the only impact students had on the local populace – like that annoying bunch in the jeep in Antonioni’s film of the ’60s, ‘Blowup’. We (or at least, our lot) actually called them Drag Weeks (it was a time of great change), but what had stayed with me was the drink-a-pub-dry stunt. These days it would be called a flash mob, I guess. A pub would be selected in secret and the hordes would descend in an attempt to drink it dry. As a librarian (albeit now retired) I’ve always quite fancied the idea of the same kind of end result applied to the intoxicant potentially to be found in books and literature – no shelfsitters. And so it went. I await with glee the stories to be told when the books are returned with tales of what has been learnt or revealed as a result of people taking books they wouldn’t normally have taken out, here taken out as objects just to make up their 15. Of course the shelving next week is gonna be horrendous.
I started off with a literary reference; I’ll close with a couple more. There’s been a comment on Twitter to effect that the idea for ‘Wot no books‘ came from the first of Ian Sansom’s ‘Mobile library’ series of humourous crime novels, ‘The case of the missing books’ (2006). I have read it, but not so. There the community steals the books and hides them from the newly appointed mobile librarian. But there is another humourous novel about a threatened library closure that I found funnier – Mat Coward’s ‘Open and closed’ (2006). It’s listed in the MK Libraries catalogue if you fancy reading it. This from the blurb on the Fantastic Fiction website:
There’s a body in the library. The Bath Street public library in Cowden, London, that is. The borough council wants to close it as part of a “rationalization” package. So one autumn night, militant library-lovers enter the building and begin unfurling their banners and bedrolls. The mood is full of hope and solidarity-at least, until a garroted corpse is found sitting in the librarian’s office.
It hasn’t come to that yet.
I added a comment of my own:
A friend suggested this was a Situationist stunt. Could be; I wish I’d realised that at the time. Another (JW – j’accuse) confirmed and called it “a move worthy of de Bord himself”. I’m making no claims. But I like what Mat came up with: “The beach beneath the pavement, the shelves beneath the books.”
Saving Stony Stratford Library: Part 2
January 26, 2011 (a certain exasperation at how newspapers can get confused)
OK – what exactly is Stony Stratford and what is it, or is it not, a part of? It’s fairly obvious the UK media is always willing to take a stab at getting it wrong. Stony is an old coaching town, an old market town. In Roman times it was on Watling Street; much later the A5 main road went through the High Street. There is a certain amount of cock and bull talked about it being the origin of the phrase, “Cock and Bull story”, but what is certain is that in ‘Withnail & I‘ the part of Penrith’s King Henry pub was actually played by The Crown on Market Square, Stony Stratford. And the Penrith Tea Room, where Richard E. Grant declaimed, “We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” is now a branch of Cox & Robinson, the small chemists chain, situated on the same Square. Just round the corner from the Library as it happens.
Stony is one of the three towns and fifteen villages that became part of the designated area of the New City of Milton Keynes, a new town launched in 1967, the summer of love. It’s never actually officially been a city, but hey – who needs royal approval? MK was part of the county of Buckinghamshire, the highest tier of UK local government, responsible for libraries, until 1997, when MK became a unitary authority, taking over that responsibility. The MK Council area also took in the small towns of Newport Pagnell and Olney to the north, which had been outside the designated area of the New City. The current status of Buckinghamshire as far as most of the inhabitants of MK goes is neither here nor there, only that of the residual ghost of – a redundant line in – the postal address (although I’m told there is still some resistance to this notion in far-flung Olney). Stony also has a Town Council – the lowest tier of UK local government, the civil equivalent of a parish council – to do what it can do very locally and, in this instance, hearteningly vocally.
So Stony is a small town within a much much bigger and fast growing town that calls itself a city, even though it can’t give us a decent bus service. It is MK Council that is trying to close Stony Stratford Library, the third busiest and nowhere near being the costliest in pence per visit terms in MK. Stony is generally seen (OK, likes to pride itself, but most will agree) as the jewel of Milton Keynes, and no-one can deny that culturally it is significant in the life and identity of the ‘city’. Losing the library in Stony is unthinkable unless you’re a Lib-Dem MK councillor; I just add in passing that the Lib-Dems have never achieved anything electorally in Stony. The struggle continues.
Anyway, in the spirit of this blog and the protest action, these are the books wot I borrowed as part of the globally celebrated ‘Wot no books’ campaign, a campaign which spectacularly emptied the library shelves to international acclaim, even though the full allowance for loans on an MK library ticket is – compared to a lot of other places – a meagre 15. Being in on the caper I got in fairly early so didn’t have to plump for mere physical objects or Mills & Boons to fill my card. I would hope this shows the variety and value of what can be found in any half-decent branch library anywhere in the land. I hope and suspect many interesting discoveries and tangents will have been revealed to the citizens of Stony and its surrounds just because they borrowed their full complement for the sake of it. We shall see.
I already had a couple of splendid books on typography out from the Central Library, along with a rather dull book relating Stony’s history, so here’s what I got:
- Bill James: Hotbed. Crime novel set in Cardiff, the Harpur & Iles series one I’d long had a mind to investigate. Couldn’t get beyond the first paragraph. I get Agincourt, don’t need to be told it’s “a famous British victory in the fifteenth century.”
- Locomotives: a complete history of the world’s great locomotives and fabulous train journeys. Worth a skim as a reminder of what a great variety of industrial design is at play here; shame the photos were so small, hardly any approaching postcard size and many not much bigger than a definitive postage stamp. One of the fabulous journeys is Bedford to Bletchley. I kid you not.
- Simon Barnes: the meaning of sport. Again, didn’t get far with this one, even though I’d thought it worth a gander for a while. Utterly pretentious; I think he knows that and that’s part of what he’s trying to do, but, you know … the pile’s too big
- Alexei Sayle: Stalin ate my homework. Comedian’s memoir of growing up in a Communist Party household. I skimmed it with high hopes, but Alexei was never subtle; there are few belly laughs and there’s little poignancy here.
- Mark Oliver Everett: Things the grandchildren should know. Not that you’d realise it from the packaging, but this is the creative guy from the band Eels – a very decent band – whose dad was “a humble mechanic. A quantum mechanic.” I’m reading it; could be this is the sort of thing I’m looking for – something fulfilling that I would never have normally picked up were it not for ‘Wot no books’. Deserves fuller coverage another day, methinks.
And these that follow I haven’t even looked at so far, but I won’t take them back to the library just yet:
- Done in a flash: 100 speedy wok and stove-top stir fries. I’m full of good intentions in the kitchen. Andrea will spot the irony here.
- Fables: the good prince. A graphic novel; I used to read a lot of these. Looks good, lots of colours.
- Parlour poetry: 100 improving gems. Because you never know when you might need one.
- The Stanley Holloway monologues. Ditto.
- The essential Groucho. Marxisms galore.
- Andrew Collins: That’s me in the corner. Seems a sensible, entertaining chap in Word magazine.
- The book of lost books: an incomplete history of all the great books you will never read. Somehow – given those empty shelves – the perfect title, in so many ways, to end this post with. I look forward, of course, to getting lost in it. (As opposed to leaving it on a train, almost certainly nowhere between – no offence – Bedford and Bletchley.)
Saving Stony Stratford Library: Part 3
February 5, 2011
by Mark Niel
From the first scratches of stone on stone
To marks in clay and cuts in bone
From papyrus, parchment, paint on silk
To Guttenberg’s bible and printer’s ink
People have recorded knowledge they gained;
Events and mysteries have been explained.
From classic novels to Winnie the Pooh,
A universe of writers wait for you.
And when you walk through a library door
That world is yours to fully explore.
But where doors are closed, our minds may follow
And saving money sounds far too hollow
When future generations will bear the cost
If their doorway to the world is lost.
So I hope the protest of empty shelves
Makes the purse holders ashamed of themselves.
The lack of books
This poem was commissioned by the Friends of Stony Stratford Library. It’s in the public domain so long as Mark is credited (and you spell his surname correctly).
Mark Niel is one of the main movers of the MK poetry scene, and recently edited (or ‘reluctantly edited’ as it says on the title page) ‘Reflections from Mirror City: a Tongue in Chic anthology’ (TiC, 2010), which featured the work of local and visiting poets at the Tongue in Chic sessions. Mark has his own website, ‘A kick in the arts‘, and you can find more on the web by using ‘mark niel’ and ‘poet’ in your search engine; those quote marks are functional, not ironic. ‘Stony faced‘ was premiered at Stony Stratford Library this morning (Saturday, February 4). it was one of the contributions to Stony Stratford’s read-in as part of the national day of action in defence of libraries.
Saving Stony Stratford Library: 4
February 18, 2011
I know one shouldn’t mock the afflicted but when, in response to mild heckling at the Cabinet Meeting in the Milton Keynes Council Chamber on Tuesday night (Feb 15 2011), Councillor Jenni Ferrans – the cabinet member with responsibility for the Community Strategy & Regeneration portfolio (which includes libraries) said something about the pointlessness of anyone heckling because she couldn’t hear what was being heckled since she was “deaf in one ear”, one could not but extemporise soto voce on the theme: deaf in both ears to all reason and rational argument was more the point. As a librarian, albeit an ex-librarian, I can confidently say that the case for targeting Stony Stratford Library – the third busiest in the authority – in the cuts exercise, beggars belief. The minority-ruling Lib-Dems were a shabby bunch Tuesday night. They didn’t budge an inch – some consultation exercise. Things one expected never to hear oneself thinking, let alone saying: a couple of Tory councillors were magnificent last night, promising to ring compromises from the Lib-Dems at the full Council budget meeting next week, so there is hope yet. The joys of kimby-ism (Keep-It-in-My-Backyard). Click on Stony Stratford Library in the tags on the right for previous episodes.
So, as E.M.Forster used to say, “Two cheers for democracy“. Which nobody can deny.
This bit consists mostly of more about the books I borrowed
in helping to empty the shelves. I’ve left it in because some of it sits well at a tangent to what was going on.
The final chapter of this saga follows with the text reverting to being justified on the left again
if you want to skip this indulgence. No offence taken:
As it happens the current book for the Book Group I’m a member of – that meets in the library – is Forster’s ‘Howards End‘, published in 1910 and doesn’t it show it. I wanted to strangle them all, even the two gals (especially when Margaret marries the older man, that widower sod of a capitalist); it’s so bleedin’ precious. ‘Only connect …’ is his motto – again, which nobody can deny, and there are some decent thoughts and ideas at play. But given, in a book ostensibly in large part about the class system and urbanisation, that the lowest social class gent on display is a C2 clerk called Leonard Bast (!) one wonders just how rare the air was in Bloomsbury. What about the workers? – it’s a fair question in that Socialism (with a capital S) is a topic of conversation in the novel; the Schlegels and Wilcoxes – the families at its heart – probably never got further north than Hertfordshire.
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Elsewhere, in similar vein, there is – Jimi Hendrix fans – talk of this being a rainbow bridge, no less. Can I see Helen, the younger sister, and poor Bast in bed? – no. Back then the world really was crying out for D.H.Lawrence.
Can’t see Benjamin Zephaniah arguing with the theme of ‘Only connect’. Here, from the poem ‘Overstanding‘ (lovely word):
Open up yu mind mek some riddim come in
Open up yu brain do some reasonin
Open up yu thoughts so we can connect
Open up fe knowledge an intellect
It’s certainly what he’s trying to do in ‘City psalms‘ (Bloodaxe, 1992), making all sorts of connections, saving poetry from academe for his people, for we the people. And he certainly connected with me when he turned down an OBE in 2003 (hey – rhymin riddim), making his reasons explicit in the Guardian. I’ve always thought Benjamin – dreadlocked Aston Villa supporter, British citizen of the world – was a good ting (sorry) but I’d never really thought to pursue his stuff on the page. I won ‘City psalms‘ in a raffle at the Read-in at Stony Library on the recent national ‘save libraries’ day of action, where it had been donated by the Bard of Stony Stratford – a formidable performer himself – no less. I shall donate it to the Library shortly. Should I be surprised when I get more from it with closer re-reading? Probably not.
There is verbal excess on the page, as opposed to in performance, and I wish never to see that horrible convolution of a word – ‘politricks’ – ever again (two cheers for democracy!) – but there are also some fine phrases, passages and poems worth a place in any contemporary anthology. ‘Dis poetry‘ spells out his mission (“WID LUV”) while ‘Money (rant)’ is a fine exercise in spelling out Ruskin’s great truth (“There is no wealth but life“). He has a decent website too. Since ‘City psalms’ was published, BZ, who left school at 13, has received a handful of honorary doctorates from Exeter and various other universities, and his work is now studied in schools.
T.S.Eliot apologises to Groucho Marx about that sort of thing:
When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.
Groucho writes to Gummo. Actually, I’m kinda glad he was because I wouldn’t have got ‘The waste land‘ then otherwise. The cigar’d one’s exchanges with the poet are among of the highlights in ‘The essential Groucho‘ (2000), a compendium of film script excerpts, reviews, interviews, radio and TV quiz show one liners and repartee, and journalism by and about Groucho Marx, who was pretty much the only man to be a success in music hall, theatre, cinema, radio and television in one lifetime. ‘Essential’ can hardly be the word, though, for such a visual and expressively dead-pan performer when print is the medium; the magazine pieces were pretty good too. Was disappointed to be underwhelmed by the quiz show stuff (if that was the best …); better than most is him telling a couple of elderly newlyweds about his own wedding where, “They threw vitamin pills” rather than confetti.
The letters are interesting though, especially the correspondence with Eliot (a big fan of the movies), which led to the meeting mentioned above. It’s a tale oft re-told but worth telling again. The Waste Land poet reports:
The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, among other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.
But enough of Groucho, except to say, because of this book I felt the need and I now own DVDs of some of the movies.
I read ‘The essential Groucho‘ because it was one of the books I wouldn’t normally have had in my hands were it not for filling my library ticket as part of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library’s successful PR campaign to empty the library’s shelves in protesting its mooted closure. You could say such an action – serendipity-ly filling your library card and seeing what you find – deserves to be another random nudge, an extra card in Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique strategies’ pack; I ‘discovered’ Eels out of it, for which I am extremely grateful.
Didn’t discover too much from Michael R. Turner’s selections in ‘Parlour poetry: 101 improving gems‘ (Michael Joseph, 1967). On the whole I was not improved by this odd collection of the poems that were recited in the parlours of the middle classes in the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century.
Benjamin Zephaniah has this great line, “I wish I had a working wishing well“. There’s a witching well in the last but one of my own contribution towards clearing the library’s shelves, a graphic novel scripted by Bill Willingham with atmospheric visuals mostly from Mark Buckingham, ‘Fables: the Good Prince” (Vertigo, 2008).
I went through a big comics phase a while back when the saintly Neil Gaiman (who has always championed libraries) was producing his momentous ‘Sandman‘ sequence of books – as splendid a piece of storytelling as any in the late twentieth century. The ‘Fables‘ series (this is the seventh) came in its wake and shares some of the territory. There’s quite a back story. And I quote:
The immortal characters of popular fairy tales have been driven from their homelands and now live hidden among us, trying to cope with life in [the] 21st century …
In ‘The lost prince‘ the janitor of Fabletown, an ex-frog prince, breaks out from his despair to create Haven, a heaven on earth sort of ghost town (or at least, it’s real it’s created by ghosts who were dead at the bottom of the witching well. Confused? – you will be. I’m not sure I knew what was going on half the time, but how to resist a book where there’s a character, a builder called Weyland Smith (out of Weyland the Smith from Beowulf and North european legend, and feel the resonance with Oxfordshire’s Wayland’s Smithy ancient monument), where Little Boy Blue (‘Blue’ to his friends) is addressing the girl he fancies (futile tho’ the pursuit is) as ‘Red’ (that’s Red Riding Hood to us), where Hansel and Gretel are on different sides … you get the picture?
Oh, and in the context of the clearing of the library shelves stunt … on the second page of this narrative someone is complaining about needing to re-shelve piles of books – fables no less. I couldn’t live with this stuff in prose or film, but I love it in this form. The book design, its use of panels and columns is refreshing, hypnotic even. And it passes the graphic novel test, when you turn the page and are confronted with sudden occasional spectacular double page spreads of great peace and beauty (or indeed, mayhem) with flying colours. A delightful reminder of joys past.
The last book that filled my library card – now renewed of course – is ‘The book of lost books‘, which I’ve only just started reading. I’m tempted to plead poetic license and say I’ve lost it but I know just where it is.
Saving Stony Stratford Library: First Series Finale
February 23, 2011
If you take the creation of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library (FOSSL) in response to an attempt some years ago to close the upper floor of Stony Library as the Pilot episode, then the reprieve granted at last night’s Milton Keynes Council budget setting meeting, at which another year’s funding to keep both Stony and Woburn Sands Libraries open while a full and proper value for money (VfM) review takes place was agreed – the amendment carried in the early hours of Wednesday morning by 50 votes to less than a handful apparently – makes for a fitting climax of the First Series. Needless to say, pre-production plans for the Second Series are already in hand.
FOSSL did a tremendous job setting up and then following up on the initial (global!) impact of the ‘Wot no books?’ campaign. People Power indeed. And I guess, says this lifelong socialist democrat, one has to acknowledge the eloquence of certain Tory councillors, pitching in at just the right time too. The Save Stony Stratford Library Facebook telling the tale now needs a new name.
- As well as Karen’s Flickr photostream it’s worth having a look at her own website for some brilliant prizewinning animal photos.
As it happens I wasn’t at the Council meeting. Blame Matthew Bourne and his company’s production of ‘Cinderella‘, tickets bought months ago, but another day for that methinks. I’m slowly working my way through ‘The book of lost books‘ but I’ve only just got out of the Romans so, given I’ve hardly read a lot of the found ones so far, it’s all a bit lost on me.
Anyway, it’s not often one has cause to sup a glass of champagne at lunchtime, and I was there (though that’s not me, it’s FoSSL’s Peter Waterman).
October 2013: Roger Kitchen of Living Archive, and FoSSL, have produced Wot no books? – a 25 minute film about the campaign – that can be found here on Youtube. (Click on the underlined words).