Monday, 27 June 2011

Two Cheers for Libraries

IMAGINE a BBC drama where an idealistic young journo/councillor/social worker finds himself in a town in with public and private financial problems and ends up concluding that while the private sector is simply interested in the cold-hearted pursuit of financial advantage so too, when it comes down to it, is the public.
No, it wouldn't happen. The narrative will never be messed with: public good, private bad. That's socialism, right? The ruling ethos of the BBC.
If ever there was a time to have some real drama, art that makes us consider and think about current predicaments instead of headlocking us and dragging us to the conclusions North London Observer-readers always come to, it is now.
I thought this as I stared out of an upstairs window in Croydon Library. I was looking at something which had rather knocked me back, but more of that later.
Having moved from Highgate and currently of no-fixed-abode (furniture and possessions in storage; sleeping in parents' spare room) I am back in my old stamping ground and taking a look round.

There is controversy about the borough's cultural life at the moment because the Conservative Council decided to prune £1.5million off the arts budget and having done so they got the taste for it and are now looking at libraries.
I supported the first round of cuts. They mainly affected live events at the Clocktower, the cultural centre based in the Town Hall and library complex. Almost every event staged there was laughably politically correct, box-ticked to the last Labour governent's rigid requirements of Cultural Marxism (and the predictable tastes of the Guardianistas who ran it all). I am trying to think of some good examples off the top of my head.

The African storytelling which only allowed black children in was a good one. I sold the story to a national newspaper but it was never used (though I got paid). When push came to shove the relevant spokespeople - who were independent of the arts centre itself - denied the anti-white apartheid, but I had already made a careful study of how the event was advertised and those promoting it only approached black people with flyers. When I asked about this one of the promoters made some remark about 'cultural specifics'.
There were many other events, most of which were coded propaganda for Multiculturalism and other satellite creeds.

So, the axing of all that could only be a good thing. Then they chopped the two free music jamborees, the Croydon Festival and the Mela. All my liberal friends got upset about this. I observed the outrage via Facebook. In all the ranting no-one connected the largesse of the previous Labour council and government with the current situation. The shit-or-bust public spending based first on tax creamed off a boom created by consumer debt and City cowboys* and then, when that failed, based on good old borrowing.
As a regular festival-goer at Croydon I could honestly report that it had been going downhill for years. The nadir reached when Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sang to dodgy backing tracks in a hideous porridge of sound. My suggestion to a promoter friend of mine who got very exercised by the axe falling was: promote it yourself. If people love it as much as they say they do they'll pay a fiver on the gate.
Funnily enough my friend didn't fancy the gamble.

So the festivals went and I don't think anybody's too bothered now that the dust has settled. The Mela often ended in violence as various Asian gangs fought out obscure tribal ructions, though this went largely unreported because the local newspapers were slavish adherents to the NUJ's race reporting guidelines: if it reflects well on the particular community big it up; if badly, try and swerve it if you can. We'll have no black marks against the Multicultural project, thank you (no pun intended).
So now libraries. There is a great deal of controversy over proposed library closures nationwide, as well there might. According to Public Libraries News there are three hundred and ninety five (316 buildings and 75 mobiles) libraries under threat in one way or another. My maths says this adds up to 391 but I won't argue with librarians, they never take it well. It appears the Government doesn't quite know what it is going to do about libraries, so the figures are unclear.

Alan Bennett, who to the Obs reading-crowd is a sort of cross between Gandhi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, has called the cuts child abuse. The sane man receives this pearl with a sigh: if the old Holy Fool were that worried about child abuse why didn't he pipe up about the endless literal child abuse his beloved socially democratic public services allow because to intervene would be to judge and judging is for the petty conservative moralisers of suburbia, the ones Bennett's been taking the piss out of for fifty years. That's the way, Alan, EM Forster's the answer to Baby P's murderers. Has Bennett had anything to say about the shocking levels of illiteracy in London? Does he feel that his generation's battle against elitism has missed its target and destroyed standards instead?

The Evening Standard battled for months to jemmy those shocking figures out of the authorities. Tony 'Education, Education, Education' Blair donated the princely sum of £5,000 from his vast personal fortune towards that paper's crusade for literacy. I don't think it was some kind of heartless joke on his part but you never know. It certainly made me laugh albeit sardonically.
Child abuse is, among other things, the dumbing down of education, something that, whether he likes it or not, his 'side', the clever bien pensant side, have taken to with a vengeance as a sort of final solution for class equality. When there is a Prime Minister from a comprehensive school and if he is not a dunce, then I will say the project has finally worked. At the moment it doesn't look too clever, with the posh kids getting from education all they need to succeed and those in the lower social spectrum getting what the NUT lefties think they need to succeed. Guess who loses in the long run?

The council has allegedly been in talks with a ghastly-looking U.S. company that specialises in turning libraries into commercial propositions. The Institute of Directors, arm of Thatcherism in all its forms, recently said that libraries can go hang because the public are now buying cheap books off Amazon as well as Kindles etc. The Socialist Party squeals for the end of cuts.
So I decided to go in Croydon Library (first time in a while) and see what was going on. First floor: book aisles virtually empty (two people browsing, four seated); seven people at the computer terminals checking emails or Facebook. Fifteen children doing their homework, ie talking, in normal voices. This went unremarked and uncorrected.
Floor two: Books aisles entirely empty: seven seated reading, mostly newspapers; twenty-five people on the internet checking emails and browsing Facebook. Most tables filled with children doing homework, ie talking in normal voices. As downstairs, this went unremarked and uncorrected.
The unofficial homework club thing has been going on for years and it certainly has turned me away on several occasions because every table is taken up and the place has the atmosphere of a classroom. Those doing homework rarely trouble the bookshelves so the necessity of their presence is questionable. As in so many areas the public services' non-judgement ethos of the Labour years has indulged socially incontinent behaviour and as a consequence the idea of the library as a place of solace and quiet study has been eroded. It is now, with the blessing of our cultural commissars, more community centre than place of learning. (Perhaps they, and Alan Bennett, imagine that hoodies are having a quick break from skunk dealing to knock off a couple of chapters of The Princess Casamassima.)
A similar picture was to be seen on floor three.
I walked the aisles and thought about it all.

It is fair to say that a good deal of my education came from the shelves in front of me. I didn't have to walk far to come across books I've borrowed. In work and out of work, the nine books and six CDs you were allowed to borrow kept you instructed, stimulated, diverted and contented; and all the time education (a word I naturally now mostly associate with cant) of one sort or another flowed in. Conrad, Dickens, Joyce, Melville, Waugh, Greene, Patrick Hamilton, De Mauppassant, Flaubert, Anthony Burgess, Zola and countless others.
In the art section I realised I'd borrowed at least half of the books perhaps more. Some on many occasions. Many were like old friends that I'd forgotten. Books I borrowed when I was a callow art student, beginning the journey. From these shelves the boulevards of the Impressionists' Paris opened up for me, Rennaissance Italy, Carravaggio, the Cubists, Van Gogh, the School of London, Turner, Ruskin, Constable, Picasso, war artists, photographers you name it.
Libraries: The best that has been written, painted, sung and drawn. All free.
And here it is, seemingly largely ignored while the Facebook terminals multiply.
It hit me then that the problem neither the cost-cutting right or the stop-the-cuts left can see is that money is not really the issue here, it is culture.
Our culture drifts year by year ever further in a vacuous, stupid, vicious and inane direction. High culture survives but it does so in an increasingly marginalised and hidden state. The war against elites became a de facto battle against standards, in effect a crusade for mediocrity but fought under banners that cried excellence. With imagination-destroying television and computer gadgets at the centre of culture, education and the family are the first and last bastions of culture and civilisation. Both are now undermined in many ways, and the state and fate of libraries are to my mind proof of this.

The book as cultural artefact is at the centre of Western Civilisation. When we are done with books we will be on a very dangerous road indeed. When and if public libraries vanish it will be a very dark day in British cultural history. But we can't save our libraries until we save our culture, and I don't see anyone in power doing much about that.

Which brings me back to what I was staring at through the second floor window of Croydon Library: a huge hole in the ground over which three vast high-as-cathedral cranes loomed. The site of, drum roll, Croydon Council's new Public Services Delivery Hub. 240,000 sq ft of public sector doings, consolidated from other council precincts. This despite 30 per cent of the town's office space lying empty. The council has so far refused to say how much the building will cost. It claims construction overheads will be offset by 'development' of the assets (there is 20,000 sq ft of retail space as well), therefore theoretically costing the taxpayer nothing. What that means is: if another boom comes along everything will be OK.
I don't beleive a word of it.

*Those Labour Party defenders who blame the whole debacle on the, yes, disgusting behaviour of banks and hedge funds would do well to remember the whole sorry epoch had the public blessing of Chancellor Gordon Brown and his crooked little fingertip Edward Balls, for tax-and-cash-swill reasons on his own. He even made it easy for them through his much-vaunted light touch regulation (which of course had an unpleasant and unspoken corollary: heavy touch stealth taxes on the workers further down the economic food chain: hedge funders boasted of paying less tax than their cleaning ladies: wouldn't you like to see that in a BBC drama: you might, but it won't happen under a Pink Government...)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Marr and the Bloggers

THIS BLOG, such as it is at the moment, warmly welcomes back Mark Brentano's blog to the internet. If there is a more entertaining commentator or better writer of English currently being published on paper in England, or indeed western civilisation, I do not know about them. I missed it during its interregnum.

Mark has opened up batting with a good whack at Andrew Marr, in response to the broadcaster's dismissive comments about bloggers, made here.

I agree with practically all Mark has to say on the matter, but there are a few thoughts I'd like to toss in.

The real reason Marr has taken against blogs is because the ones that have caused ripples and crossed the divide into the mainstream media have generally been those that have criticised the pinkish political, media, legal and administrative class which runs the country and which Marr belongs to and thinks a very good thing indeed. These blogs are what the Guardian would call 'rightwing'. Sure there must be left wing blogs by the thousand and by the end of Cameron's period in office I would imagine we'll have a left-wing version of the right wing tattle site Guido Fawkes. Indeed, new Labour stooge Derek Draper tried to start one a couple of years ago when he realised the game was up for that government.

If blogging were dominated by a mentality that a champagne cultural Marxist like Marr could get on with then he'd refer to the activity as the People's Journalism or some other predictable bit of Mandlesonese and would pat them on the head in print, saying how wonderful puff-pieces on diversity and graffiti art in inner cities are. It's the lack of control which horrifies Marr and all the many others of his ilk. The unmediated thought that is baldly said. His generation have been extraordinarily effective in creating an alternative reality in a very short time simply by playing with words.
Despite his preoccupation with pop festivals*, a libertarian is the last thing Marr is. There is no cast-iron way, as yet, that the internet commentariat can be politically corrected and superinjuncted. The political, media, legal and administrative class (lets mint a bit of Newspeak and call them the polmedigad) do not like this and will, if we are not careful, in due course take steps to see that it is.

But there is another side to this. The real problem with blogs is that they are, as Mark Brentano says, for the most part journals and therefore the product of journal-keeping, which is halfway between diary-writing and op-ed. It is punditry not reportage. A pundit, from the sanskrit pandit for learned man. A source of opinion but not necessarily a news gatherer. The feeling I get from blog-browsing is that reportage, which what real citizens' journalism would be, is far too much like hard work. The blogosphere is rather like the Observer used to be about 20 years ago, ten per cent news and ninety per cent opinion columns. Opinions are like arseholes, everyone's got one. That's the trouble with blogs. In the blogosphere, I don't particularly like that word but we're stuck with it for the time being, hard news is hen's-teeth-rare. Bloggers don't appear to go in for the cold-calling, interviewing, document trawling, FoI-ing** and on-the-spot reporting that constitute active journalism.

Of course, many paid journalists are now mere churnalists, recycling press releases. Then there are the platoons of journalists handed stories from the PR men and women in politics, showbiz and sport. However, even within the editorial preoccupations of any given newspaper/TV channel there will be real news stories broken along with those copped from other organs or the wires. Bloggers don't generally do this.

They wait for the stories to be supplied, then comment on them or speculate on new angles and motivations within them. There is nothing wrong with this at all. It allows the publication of sometimes gloriously spot-on reaction that would never be allowed in the mainstream media. However, it does mean that blogs are something that can be taken or left, like op-ed in a newspaper. They are not essential and that is their flaw, if you are putting them up as an alternative to mainstream media. Internet media briefly became essential recently when it did something that the mainstream couldn't do: name public figures whose sex lives had been kept secret by law. It started to break stories the press and tv could not break. I wonder if bloggers learned from this important moment the sheer value of new information as opposed to opinion given about new information or opinion which says new information is not true information.

If blogs are to go on and become something to rival the mainstream media, as opposed to their current situation, which is closer to myspace or facebook, they will have to join the hunt for new information and then comment on it as well. When that day comes, Andrew Marr and his class will come to fear and respect them.

*In his TV history of Britain he looked down on the Glastonbury pop festival from a helicopter and spoke an encomium to the event, calling it 'microcosmic society', which are exactly the same words as Mick Jagger used in the film Gimme Shelter to describe the Altamont rock festival in 1969, and we all know how that ended up. In a way of course Marr was right: hundreds of thousands of people all pissed, talking platitudes while listening to rather rubbishy music high on drugs IS a miniature version of the country, or parts of it.

**Submitting Freedom of Information Act requests.