Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

Come to the Feast

May 21, 2012

The Prospect of Happiness – paperwork by Liz Mathews

This beautiful work (with text from my book The Principle of Camouflage) is on show at Liz Mathews’ current solo exhibition light wells in Kentish Town, north London. (It’s also the banner image for the Thames Festival facebook page…)

There’s another large work in the show, Spring, which also sets text from my book, and I’m very proud that my words have contributed to a truly inspiring show.

Spring (detail)  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews

The Thames is the motif for us in London this summer; Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is on show in Writing Britain, the British Library’s major exhibition for the London 2012 Festival.  It is wonderful opportunity to see this very large work opened up to almost its full 17 metre length, and it is an impressive sight.

We went to the opening last week, a glamorous occasion ably described by the curator Jamie Andrews on his blog, of which I will merely say that we enjoyed everything among the great and glorious of the literary world – the folk rendition of Jerusalem, the cider, the idea of the smoked eel canapes…

The exhibition itself is a real joy to any writer or reader with a love of literature which invokes the spirit of place.  It avoids the pitfalls of concentrating too exclusively on pastoral or urban by having a variety of themes, as the subtitle puts it, from Wastelands to Wonderlands, and a combination of elements that couldn’t be missed out – John Clare, Virginia Woolf – with unexpected treasures like Kathleen Raine’s diary.

One of my favourite discoveries was Bernard Kops’ poem about a now-defunct library, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.  He reads it in a video at the show which has visitors in pleasurable tears (whereas I saw at least one person laughing at Ezra Pound’s rendition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, accompanied on kettledrum…):

‘Welcome young poet, in here you are free

to follow your star to where you should be.

The door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.’

Even in a big exhibition like this, there isn’t room for everything everyone would like to see; the land-, city- and seascapes of Britain have been so crucial to the sense of ourselves as indivduals in a place defined by our literature. The writing represented here, in all its diversity, has a common ground in the way it maps the inner landscapes of the psyche even as it explores the human place in the physical terrain.

The importance for us of word linked to place is acknowledged by the Pin-a-Tale on the literary map feature, where people can nominate their own ur-texts for specific areas; the map already bristles with red flags.  A champion of my work has contributed The Principle of Camouflage, together with this beautiful photograph of Crambo’s beach.

Sea from the dunes – photograph by Liz Mathews (1993)

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Secular cathedrals

January 19, 2011

London transport – photograph by Liz Mathews

Introducing the building, the architect of the British Library invokes the lost library of Alexandria, that potent symbol of the treasure house of knowledge destroyed by the Barbarians.  He describes the library as a secular cathedral, an almost sacred space.  (I only query the ‘almost’.)  By presenting this library as the antithesis of the Nazi book-burnings, he also identifies it as a champion of ‘the freedom and diversity of the human spirit’, which the books that it houses both embody and protect.

(The Nazis, of course, weren’t the only burners of books.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which now seems so innocuous, was burnt in the cellars of Scotland Yard, the fate of banned British books.  However, there are now several first editions, which somehow escaped the flames, perpetually preserved in the British Library, which is some compensation.)

Although the Round Reading Room at the British Museum was much-beloved by the scholars who used it and mourned its passing, there’s a grandeur about the scale and scope of the ‘new’ Library that makes it – especially now – a contemporary wonder of the world.  (I went on one of the early reader’s induction courses, when the whole puzzling system was carefully explained to bemused researchers who were used to filling in request-cards to order books they’d looked up in a physical catalogue.  I’m not sure if they even do those tours now, since the technology is more familiar, but the ethos is similarly serious and helpful.)

There’s a persistent urban myth that the British Library is nuclear-proof, and that many people sought shelter there in the confusion after the London tube bombs.  Its enormous storage basements are fire- and flood-proof, and would certainly serve as a deep shelter just as well as the tube stations that were used during the Blitz.  But since a nuclear strike doesn’t leave anything to emerge to, whether the cellars would stand up to it seems like an academic point for any human shelterers.

The books might well survive, though.  Since the collection is of virtually everything ever published, it would give a strangely complete picture of our civilisation to later visitors from another planet; from the ‘things in books’ clothing’ that still get an ISBN to the most obscure specialist monograph, it’s all there.  Not to mention the treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, original manuscripts by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, et al. The impression given to the theoretical aliens would be of a wonderful civilisation, a breadth of culture and expertise beyond imagining, an artistic achievement that indeed expresses the intense beauty of the world, as well as its darker aspects.

In this anti-intellectual country, so distrustful of the arts, so resistant to education, it seems extraordinary that such a magnificently unapologetic, vast library was ever created.  Now it’s there, it would be difficult to abolish it completely, but like all our other monuments of learning, its funds have already been cut.  There may be fees for some of the services in future, or entrance charges for exhibitions. But for now, it’s all free – reading rooms, permanent collection, temporary exhibitions.

The current exhibition there, Evolving English, is huge, diverse and fascinating.  My own favourite exhibit is the Elizabethan phrasebook for adventurers to the New World, complete with advice on behaviour to the local inhabitants, as well as pronunciation of their language. But the signage is also a highlight, from over yonder to down the apples and pears; somebody enjoyed doing that, and the visitors like it too.

Those who doubt

December 9, 2010

Rubbish – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it, and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

This pertinent admonition is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (More of it on The Guardian book page.)

Those who doubt that his world view has any great relevance to writers in Britain might consider the strange case of the Public Lending Right, about which I wrote so eulogistically back in February 2010, when my payment was due.  The PLR has escaped relatively lightly, so far, in the cuts; payment per loan drops from 6.29p to 6.25p, which is variously interpreted as a 3% or 1% reduction (as the Society of Authors point out, this is merely a mathematical excercise).  More laborious calculation brings forth the figure of a 6% (or 10%) cut in real terms over the next four years.  All the figures are available on the PLR’s own website, where even a non-mathematician can see that the annual budget available from which to make the payments is considerably less in each successive year.

The ‘Culture Team’, and the various politicians who implement these matters, take the line that everyone else is losing income and funding, so why should authors be any exception?  What they haven’t managed to justify, or even begin to explain, is why the pay-out organisation itself  – PLR – should be abolished and its work transferred to some other body.  The PLR has done its job for over 30 years, in Stockton-on-Tees, with a staff of nine people plus the Registrar.  They spend 10% of the total budget on running costs (maybe less, after recent savings) – and it’s obvious that no other body could do their complicated and specialist task so cheaply and efficiently.  The cost of transferring the job elsewhere would be enormous, and the organisations to which it might be sent – the Arts Council, or the British Library, are among the suggestions – have already suffered cuts of their own, and will be hard put to it to fulfill their previous obligations, without taking on onerous new duties.

Many writers’ organisations have, of course, taken up arms; the PLR is uniquely popular for its ethos of politeness and respect towards authors.  Although PLR is acknowledged as a legal right, it still needs administrating, as well as funding, so to attack the way in which it gets handed out is a fundamental threat to its actual existence.  This is an indirect but very effective way of making it even more difficult to be an author in the future. Writers’ representatives also gave evidence to the select committee of enquiry on the ‘Funding of Arts and Heritage’  on 7th December, where they emphasised, again, the tiny budget allocated to ‘Literature, the work of our writers, acknowledged throughout the world as our greatest art…’ (as Maureen Duffy described it in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group).

Despite all the action, the petitions and the statements of clear sense, the outcome seems unlikely to be good.  There might be a stay of execution, if it’s publicly acknowledged as blatantly nonsensical to cut such a model organisation – but since there was, evidently, never any reason to consider PLR a quango whose abolition would save money, it must be presumed that there were other motives for deciding that it must go. Which brings even those who doubt, by a circular path, back to the observation that there is an ideological distrust of writers at work here, from a regime not unrelated to those who ‘fear [literature] so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

Spilt Ink

February 4, 2010

At about this time of year, in early February, authors in Britain receive their Public Lending Right payments. Any actual money paid to a writer, for their books, must be a cause for celebration (if not amazement); an annual salute is due to this peculiar institution. For, extraordinarily enough, writers are still paid a miniscule fee from government funds every time one of their books is borrowed from a public library.

This remarkable Right was gained after a long struggle, notably in the 1970’s by Maureen Duffy and her fellow campaigners. An Act of Parliament established PLR in 1979; rather discouragingly, some of its main opponents were librarians who thought it might increase their workloads. Readers were also concerned that they might be made to pay the fee directly – of course, they already paid for library services indirectly via rates and taxes. University or specialist libraries, and private institutions, were not included in the scheme, or might presumably have objected too.

The new PLR was widely seen as a triumph for the socialist principle of the writer as worker-hero, rewarded by the state in proportion to their service to the masses – although it could also be represented as a legal concept relating to the free use of a copyrighted product. But, whatever the socio-political implications, the outcome for the writer was good. The PLR payment, whether it’s just enough for a bottle of wine or makes a noticeable contribution to the writer’s finances, is some recognition that a writer’s work is worth something to our not very literary society. Despite its drawbacks – the sample system’s hiccups, the lack of many ‘alternative’ books, the rewarding of the authors who need it least – it is a rare example of idealism in action.

Apocryphal stories soon circulated of penurious writers repeatedly taking out their own books in order to increase their pay-out; and perhaps then there might have been enough libraries and books for even such a daft tactic to have some minimal impact. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find enough libraries open, with the books in them. The closure of libraries, reduction of their opening hours, and lack of funds to replace books (or buy all but the most obvious new ones), inevitably cuts down borrowing.

Not that the PLR itself is in decline. According to the organisation’s own statistics, funding for the current year has been fixed at around seven and a half million pounds; the fee per loan increased to 6.29p (from 5.98p). This tiny amount of funding means that a writer whose books were borrowed 50,000 times might make over £3,000. Very few do. There is a maximum payment of £6,600, which just over two hundred authors reach – otherwise another million pounds would be divided between them. Of the 35,000 registered authors, almost a third get nothing, either because their pay-out would be less than one pound, or because their books have not been borrowed (most likely because the libraries no longer hold them).

This decline of libraries is painfully illustrated by the statements which show the number of times each title has been borrowed during the year. (The system uses sample libraries for this calculation, so there are sometimes demographic variations, especially if books are of local interest.) There’s a pang to see that a once-popular book has received zero borrowings; this means that the copies have been read until they literally fell apart, and not been replaced. Otherwise, the libraries have been closed or amalgamated, and sold off books – thus the number of ex-library copies available from second hand booksellers.

From the remaining libraries also come statistics which can encourage the writer. I receive the PLR statement for the works of my mother, the Scots historian and biographer Caroline Bingham, and it’s inspiring to realise just how many people – despite the obstacles put in their way – have had the pleasure of reading her books on Robert the Bruce or Darnley, or Royal Holloway College. The history of the Highlands is slightly more dependent on the sample location; the anthology of Scots historical verse has vanished. The two volumes of James the Sixth and First are perennially much-borrowed, and were obviously well-made books.

This statement conjures up, to me, an image of readers in a whole range of libraries; the mobile van crammed with bookshelves whose arrival in a village is a cause of excitement and running out of houses as delightful as the ice-cream or chip van’s; the small local whose rare opening is attended with the punctuality of a church service by an army of regulars; the great civic building endowed by Victorian educational philanthropists to house a vast collection. But this may be whistling in the dark. If public libraries fade away, become overheated day-centres with a few detective stories or outdated reference books for decoration, with one out-of-order computer stuck in the corner, the great idea of PLR will become irrelevant too. So much spilt ink.