Monday, 19 December 2011

The Library - A final post for 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my local library recently. I’ve got few bad words to say about libraries… they’re a public service, and they’re full of books. I believe in the value of both of these things, and I doubt many will be surprised by my saying as much. There are, however, two types of opinion in this world. The first type is an opinion based on principles that sound morally persuasive, largely rational, and in keeping with the rest of our views. The second type is more a conviction than an opinion, you find it in your gut and think little more about its meaning thereafter, you simply believe in it. The second type is infinitely superior, it makes me think of the words of the eighteenth-century philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, “A man lives by believing in something, not by arguing and debating about many things.”

Almost all of my political beliefs come from my gut. Sometimes they could use a bit of moderation, but that’s the only place from which I believe they should rightly originate. I grew-up in a town where half the young people have nothing to do but ruin their lives with drugs, they have no employment prospects, and the formal politics of this country trundles along seemingly oblivious to this inconvenient fact. This experience of growing-up underpins my politics. My position on libraries, on the other hand, I must confess has generally, until my recent visits, come more from out of my head than anywhere else. It’s only since spending regular time in a library that the conviction has made the journey south into my guts.

Each time I go there I see a man with holes in his jumper and a woollen hat sitting on top of his head. A satchel from an adult learning college rests against his chair and beside his workboots. He rolls his jaw forwards, setting eyes on dense diagrams in a book concerning the study of plumbing. Fair enough, I might be giving you a heart string tugging stereotype here, I might even be romanticising the (non) working-poor, but I don’t care, because that stereotype exists, and in him is everything that is noble in a human. You have a man in one of the poorest areas in London, seeking self-improvement so as to earn a livelihood for himself, and if you can’t esteem a man like that then who can you esteem? Rather than assisting him in his endeavour, the council see fit to close the library, limit its opening hours, or put it under the stewardship of unemployed volunteers such as himself, because of course none of us have (increasingly expensive) livings to earn, and it’s not as if anybody is paying any taxes after all.

I could give all kinds of examples for the value of libraries. I could talk about after-school clubs for children who might not have any other safe place to go to. I could give the hypothetical author who fell in love with books in a library at a young age, could give the old man who walks in and collapses from his walking stick into a chair to sit and read a newspaper. I’ll lay off the heart strings though, and stick to my man studying plumbing.

I don’t like Winston Churchill. He’s a racist, his views on Islam are embarrassing, the worst examples of a British ability to take pride in its bigotry. As a military politician he is overrated, and as a civilian politician he’s a blue-blooded aristocrat with contempt for the working man. That said, there is one anecdote-come-quotation of his that I am happy to hold in high regard. In discussing where to make savings to fund the war, Churchill was encouraged to cut the arts. His apocryphal response to this was one of outright refusal, Churchill arguing that “if we cut the arts, then what are we fighting for anyway?”

A society takes its value from its pinnacles, its most sacred entities, not from the median points and bog-standard mediocrities by which it slopes along through one more orbit of the sun. Our modern politics believes that if things are ongoing, if life continues, then all is well, like life expectancy as a measure of quality of life. In the rational, emotionless eye of modern politics, if people are still alive then things are already a success. The institutions on which our society might once have prided itself, because they were more than just the bare minimum, are no longer sustainable. Pinnacles are an excess, and society is healthy so long as you are breathing and Warner Brothers and EMI are taking-care of the pride, ambition and joy.

Let me tell you. A library is a pinnacle. It’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s full of knowledge, and people go there to learn. If any politician believed in economic recovery (and they don’t) rather than short-term self-preservation and lip service (which they do), then they would not even consider jeopardising the future of something so integral to education. Unless we’re envisaging UK sweatshops as a means to economic growth (and, who knows, we might be) productivity is based on education. Everything that damages education will likewise damage economic productivity. Not only that, but social cohesion also depends on education, because education is the only thing that allows people to genuinely perceive that there is more to their life than the number of decimal places that they don’t have in their bank account, the brand of trainers they don’t have on their feet, and the car they don’t have in their driveway. To put that into the context of modern Britain, education will help people perceive that there is more to their lives than the number of decimal places that they used to have in their bank account, the brand of trainers that was on their feet, and the car that they used to have in their driveway but recently had to sell.

Anyway, with all that said and done, I’ll leave you once again, hopefully with the value of libraries consolidated that bit more in your heads. In order to really see what I mean, in order to get that feeling down into your gut where it belongs, I recommend stopping-in for a visit next time you’re on the high street.

On the subject of books, my own has attracted a good amount of publishing interest lately, and I hope to be talking about the follow-up this time next year.

Festive tidings to you all... keep your wits about you.

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