Posts Tagged ‘Public Libraries’

Ali Smith - Public libraryI loved Ali Smith‘s Public library and other stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) and would have probably written a lot more about it here if I hadn’t had to take it back to the public library because there were reservations on it; other people were waiting, and who was I to frustrate their reading pleasure any longer?  I may well return to it when the paperback comes out later this year.  It’s an unorthodox collection –   there is no actual story with the title Public library; in italics in between the stories are various other writers’ thoughts and memories on the crucial importance of public libraries in their early lives – the spark of imagination – and to a community.

The stories are wondrous things, putting words (“Words were stories in themselves“), writing and books at the heart of a tapestry of individual’s lives, triggers to particular moments in their lives, with hardly a physical library in sight – just the treasures they hold.  The opening story, Last (yes, it’s that kind of book), opens with a veritable dip into the thesaurus suggesting what could well be the final journey in a woman’s life; words swim in her brain (Hey: the Travelling Etymologies – that could be a decent band name, she thinks) but an unlikely sequence of events at journey’s end lead to the fresh re-discovery of the double-(at least)-entendre: finality and endurance.

In The poet, a poet throws an old book (one of Walter Scott’s from a famous collected edition) up against a wall in frustration, and in the damage done sees a page from an old music score used in the inner spine binding – something I’ve noticed (and wondered about) myself; not, I hasten to add by throwing old books against a wall – which leads us off into other paths, while telling her story.  Intrigued, through the wonders of the interweb I find she’s a real poet, find examples of her work.

My favourite piece (at least first time round), is The human claim, wherein another, more contemporary writer, researching what happened to D.H.Lawrence’s ashes (fascination enough in itself), finds herself in frustrating correspondence about fraudulent use of her credit card, which leads to her trying to find Lufthansa’s offices at Heathrow.  On that journey she sees a road sign to Harmondsworth, where Penguin books used to be published from, not least the first copies of DHL’s novels she got the bug from.  In the end she’s thankful for her credit card frustrations because they illuminate her understanding of Lawrence and his generations’ rage against TB, the disease that killed him.  It’s such a powerful story powerfully delivered that I believe I’ve taken nothing from your appreciation in giving this outline.

Tory austerity policies mean challenging times even for those institutions surviving the ongoing cull of local libraries, nevermind it remains a statutory duty placed on the relevant local authorities under the Public Libraries & Museums Act of 1964 “to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof“.  A situation these days, to borrow Hamlet’s words, “More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”  Yet paradoxically they wouldn’t dare remove the legislation.

Penelope Lively - Making it upMore short stories

There is a public library in one of the confabulations in novelist Penelope Lively‘s Making it up (2005).   She’s such a memorable phrase maker – ‘book-affected homes‘, my title here is taken from Making it up – that, suspecting it might be a neologism, I had to look ‘confabulation’ up in the dictionary; it wasn’t.   Here are seven short stories hanging on the precarious contingencies of a life.  What if she hadn’t become a successful novelist?  What if she’d got pregnant at that Chelsea Arts Ball?  And so on:

This book is fiction. If anything it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have hinged in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories.  It is a form of confabulation.

In an introduction to one of the stories she broods on  “Contingency: the great manipulator,” and there is plenty in this rich and satisfying collection to get you contemplating the many such moments in one’s own life, a – as she vividly suggests – veritable Burgess Shale of lives not lived.  (The celebrated Burgess Shale formation is a fossiliferous deposit – it says here in Wikipedia in the Canadian Rockies where, citing Stephen Jay Gould, “the extraordinary diversity of the fossils indicates that life forms at the time were much more disparate in body form than those that survive today, and that many of the unique lineages were evolutionary experiments that became extinct.”)  So:

A faithful exercise in confabulation would proliferate like an evolutionary tree. I should write not one book but hundreds ; I should pursue each idiosyncratic path.

Three stories in particular shone for me.  There’s The Temple of Mithras, a wonderful summer soap opera of life on an archaeological dig; Comet, where the discovery of some bones from a plane crash in Italy in the ’50s which solves the mystery of a story of seemingly unrequited love back then and leads to a delightful new romance in the here and now in Oxford and the Yorkshire Dales; and Imjin River, where she imagines her future husband not surviving his National Service stint in Korea:

that is what history does to people. It picks them up by the scruff of the neck and puts them where they do not want to be.

I mentioned her way with words.  How about she and her sister’s parents presenting them “with a vision of the good life which reflected the Whig interpretation of history.”  Or a soldier on watch in Korea, staring out “into the darkness, which was leached with light, a proposal of dawn” – a proposal of dawn!  Meanwhile, “Weary men brewed endless cups of tea.”  The couple both on their second marriage: “He too was on a second shift.”  Elsewhere she opines, “I was never fully-paid-up young, and I didn’t know the tunes.”  Nevertheless, At university, there was that great swathe of required reading, which was fine, but I liked to read off-piste …”  Absolutely!

Forest flowerIn praise of Charles Lloyd

It’s not often I buy an album on the strength of one short review, and there have been regrets before; not this time though.

First, a bit of history.  Back in the day when we would awake to the sound of The Doors and were discovering the delights of Beefheart and Velvet Underground a jazz record would occasionally find its way onto the turntable and time stood still as side one of the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s Forest Flower, live at Monterey in 1966, played.  Just two tracks: Forest flower: Sunrise and Forest flower: Sunset on Side One.  On Atlantic records.  Such a beautiful, gentle but nimble melody line led us in to 20 minutes of a wonder both calm and exciting.  Pianist Keith Jarrett – later to dazzle as a solo improviser, you’ve either never heard of him or he’s practically a deity – is all over his keyboard: soul jazz to Monk to the enchantment of finger-plucking at the strings in the body of his grand.  It is all so mesmerisingly fluent – pretty even, at times – but with the occasional squawks and squeals of Lloyd’s tenor sax adding to the mood – this is a flower opening and closing, invariably dramatic, never an exactly smooth operation – and the return to that gorgeous melody line and Jarrett’s groove approach divinity.

You could call it a step back, a gentler dilution of the pioneer work from the bands of John Coltrane – a huge influence – but it created a wondrous territory all of its own, and for me and my pals it was also a way in to the great man (Roger McGuinn’s guitar solo in the Byrds’ Eight miles high was too!).  Charles Lloyd took jazz to the hippies.  There’s an album recorded at the SF Fillmore called Love in and it can be argued that their flights of musical anarchy are closer to the old hippy concept of a ‘freak out’ than more traditional modern jazz improvisation.  (Yes, trad-mod: I know – I like it).  I still listen in meditative awe to those two title tracks on Forest flower and feel all the better for it afterwards.  I guess there’s a big element of nostalgia too.

Though I’m less in thrall to it Charles Lloyd played – still plays – the flute, as well as tenor sax.  He’s got a colossal discography built up over the decades, including a lot on the German ECM label, the civilised late 20th century and further home of jazz.  Now well into his 70s, he’s recording for Blue Note, the greatest jazz record label of them all.  I long to see you was released earlier this year, credited as by Charles Lloyd & the Marvels.  It’s not your standard jazz combo, nor is it really a jazz album a lot of the time, though you certainly wouldn’t want to take the jazz out of the old man.  There’s a significant contribution from the eclectic Bill Frisell on guitar, plus steel guitar, bass and drums.  Yup, sax and steel guitar.  Does it work?  You bet it does.  Then there’s the material …

Charles Lloyd - I long to see youThey kick off with a spacey, committed, blues tinged eight minute exploration of Bob Dylan‘s Masters of war.  You know, the “And I hope that you die / and your death will come soon” one.  No words.  It’s a totally absorbing spiritual experience.  The anti-war theme is revisited later with Last night I had the strangest dream, this time with Willie Nelson (yup!) providing catch-in-the-throat vocals: “Last night I had the strangest dream / I ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed / To put an end to war.”  What else?  It is shot through with longing.  Shenandoah, the spiritual All my trials, and the hymn Abide with me, a Mexican folk ballad called La Llorona.   There are three Lloyd compositions to complete the bill, including a mesmerising sixteen minute closer that starts off meditatively and picks up energy as it goes along, and takes me right back to Forest Flower.  The only other vocal comes from Norah Jones on Billy Preston’s You are so beautiful.  And the whole thing, the whole album, is beautiful, a heart-breakingly sad elegaic lament, and totally absorbing.  ‘Extraordinary’ was the word that concluded the brief review that drove my purchase.  There is hope in the beauty.

Closer to home …

Vaultage early March 2016Scribal Mar 2016Early March Vaultage the Fabulators fabulated and Chris Beck (that’s him on the poster) did some decent stuff of his own, including a rather good song stemming from his experiences as an altar boy in church.  A sad reflection on the times that I bet some of you thought ‘abuse’, but no, it’s just that the punchline of I remember Jesus is “Jesus wasn’t there.”

Corinne Lucy steps into the breach.  Photo (c) the ever excellent Jonathan JT Taylor)

Corinne Lucy steps into the breach. Photo (c) the ever excellent Jonathan JT Taylor)

The March Scribal saw MK’s Poet Laureate Mark Niel reprise his greatest hits, accomplished as ever, Stephen Hobbs gave us the fine monologue that was posted here on Lillabullero a few days ago, and, owing to man flu (that’s what she said) the triumphant appearance of just one Straw HorseCorinne Lucy did a tremendous solo spot of her own in the band’s stead.  We loved her subtle songs and whole-hearted performance – all delivered with plenty of variation – and she reciprocated.

[If anyone’s wondering, The Antipoet album launch was far too good just to be tacked on here; more another time]



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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.  For the nitty-gritty you can visit the campaign’s Facebook site.  And here are links to that of the Town Council and the MK11 AboutMyArea pages.

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 – remember 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.)

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October 2011:
I’ve collected all the posts
relating to this campaign on one page,
so you might want to go straight there
(everything in this post is repeated there)
and get the full story, along with various cultural quips
along with assorted asides of tangental relevance
I couldn’t resist at the time.

Here’s the link again.

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.

It’s a crime but this is no fiction –

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.

There’s a bit more about the action in a later post.

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