Redbrick landscapes

As a starting-point, check out Philip Pullman on the Oxfordshire projected library closures. He brings a bit of passion (and reality) into a cold world of numbers and council leaders:

Then read on…

We need Pullman’s passion, and his capacity to embarrass, to hammer the leader of Oxford county council, to make us realise just what it is we’re in danger of losing.

What he doesn’t quite get over is the once and forever nature of the cuts. Once the libraries have gone, they’ve gone. Built up over a hundred years and more, part of the great legacy of Victorian civic duty and philanthropy. Much of the red brick is still with us, often looking rundown, but there, at the core of the old communities. New communities have more modern spaces, but it’s all the same tradition.

We can wipe it out in a blink of an eye. 

We’ll find new uses for the buildings. Like old chapels they might make bijou residences for the likes of Mr Mitchell (the council leader).

The government merits as  much opprobrium as councils. I’m pro the big society but government is obsessed with the notion of volunteers taking over what should be legitimate functions of the state, not least libraries. Volunteers are never likely to be equipped to run such institutions, and certainly not in those run-down areas where libraries need to be revived, not shuttered.  

Much better to focus the big society on civic duty, an old and unpopular (these days) and indeed Victorian term.  Volunteers can help in all sorts of ways, but not in running the show.

I know what Philip Pullman means about book publishing, but he’s wrong. The same goes for booksellers. It’s market forces driving them, not moral turpitude. Some of the books he anathematises are the stuff that people borrow from libraries. The great thing is people are reading. And new publishers come along all the time and take risks, explore new areas. It was ever thus. 

Mr Pullman doesn’t like the profit motive. He even mentions Mr Marx which is a little unwise as he’s stir up the ire of the market fundamentalists. We do want to win this case. And it won’t be easy. The fundamentalists carry clout.

Council leaders and fundamentalists like to trot out e-books and the internet as arguments against libraries in their present form. Pullman doesn’t mention them. It’s enough to say that the huge majority of us still read the old-fashioned way – and I suspect will continue to do so.

But Pullman is right on the bidding culture. That needs to be chucked out immediately. The clever arguers and smartly educated guys get the money, all of it. Those with equally good causes but who fall down on the smooth argument get nowt. We need money spread around in a common-sense, even-handed way.

Where, Mr Mitchell will ask, can we make the cuts if we don’t cut libraries? By paring back across the board, I’d argue. Maybe for now buying in fewer new books, even laying off staff, here as everywhere. What you don’t do is wipe out an institution which if you do you wipe out forever.

There’s nothing wrong with redbrick landscapes whether out there on the high street – or as landscapes of the mind.

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