Sunday, 23 January 2011

Mud and fog

It took a long while to recover from the ice. Gradually I noticed that the cold had become less acute, the pavements were mostly safe to walk on and that muddly brown and a dull, dark green had been added to the dominant outdoor colours of grey and white. There's still mud in the garden where there should be a small patch of lawn. Every so often obscurity returned.

The fog seemed to echo a more general confusion. I don't know how to protest at the cuts with sufficient force. It's not just the loss of public services that puzzles me but the government's willingness to borrow more money so that services can be cut. Raising tuition fees will cost £13 billion in extra government debt - but apparently that goes in a special column in the accounts so no-one need worry. The re-organisation of the health service will cost £1 billion in redundancy payments. Every so often I hear a government spokesman explaining that there won't be any savings till 2015. I thought the economic crisis was supposed to be an emergency.

Meanwhile uncertainty stalks many of us who are neither millionaires nor members of the government. Some people are doing well. The luxury goods market is flourishing. Tesco continues its expansion; its vast retail hangars are no longer consigned to waste land but are intruding in city centres and suburban high streets. Small outposts of supermarkets move into once-friendly streets and undercut the local traders. I'm used to empty shops and office spaces now. Every so often I try to remember what used to be behind the blank glass or below the "To Let" sign but the memory seems to have moved on with the prosperity or extravagances of past times.

I went to rejoin my local library. I haven't been a member for years. Demands of work left me paying too much in fines. I tried using a library near my office instead - I liked the elegant curves of the walls and the helpful librarians ordered books from the County Reserve. But they're turning the building into a Job Centre, cramming the collection into another building and selling off all the books they can't fit neatly onto the public shelves - that includes the entire County Reserve.

Across the country libraries are being closed. Our local library is merely threatened with cuts in hours - and I think it's large and popular enough to avoid the most drastic cuts, at least this year. I missed the campaign meeting so I don't know all the details. But I know the cuts in opening hours, mobile library services and librarians risk won't just wreck a service - they'll wreck lives.

Council spokesmen, whatever their original allegiance, have become passionate advocates of the cuts. Every so often they take a step backward and insist that they don't want to do this - they are acting this way because the government makes them. Every council is fulfilling the government's demands - none is prepared to emulate the councillors of Poplar in the 1920s or Clay Cross in the 1970s and resist and risk imprisonment or bankruptcy. Instead they ask protesters "Do you want us to cut social services instead? Should we take money from children or the elderly to pay for libraries?"

It's not easy to answer those questions - until you look at the children, elderly people and social services who also depend on their local libraries. A library isn't just a place for borrowing books. The crude calculation which assesses the cost of a library at so much per book borrowed ignores the library's full value.

When I consult books in a library I don't always take them away with me. Quite often I look for ideas or information in several books and then return them to their shelves. I use the library as a source of local knowledge. I can consult maps and directories there, find out about clubs and evening classes, see what is happening, enjoy whatever exhibition is on at the time (I particularly like the work of local artists), use a computer if my internet connection is down. Members don't just arrive, choose a few books and then leave. Schoolchildren use the library for homework or just to sit and read for a while. Many locals settle in a comfortable chair for a quiet time with a book or journal. Parents and carers bring their children to special events - storytime for the very young is a particular favourite. I've been to talks, poetry readings, book launches and evening classes in my library - and that's only part of what happens there.

I suppose those who don't use libraries can't imagine that a quiet place with large quantities of books could be at the heart of a community. And those who want measurable results for statistical analysis won't find what they want in by counting loans and library users. Nonetheless public libraries seem as precise an image as I can achieve of what is good and valuable in our culture. They represent what I understand by the word "civilisation."

I'm not a councillor. If I were, I don't know whether I'd have the nerve to face prison or bankruptcy. But the defence of Britain's public libraries, from which I gained so much as a child, is pretty high on my list of priorities - and I'll do what I can to save them. In this government's age of austerity we need our libraries more than ever.