Friday, 29 August 2008

Just who are you to say that?

Of all the poor benighted cultural institutions in this country, the one that attracts more ill informed comment than any other is the humble public library. Last weekend saw another classic of the kind, as the Observer's Hephzibah Anderson added her complaint.

I don't rely on, but I do use Lewisham's libraries. They're nothing special, and do provide me with access to the information and books that I need when I need them. Like the time my broadband fell over and I needed to get online, or when I needed a travel book, or that text for my evening class.

But it's since my little boy has come on the scene that they have come into their own. T so loves his trips to Bounce and Rhyme at Lewisham that he goes for a second helping at Crofton Park. In doing so he's learning to communicate and to engage, and he's learning to be at home in the library, which I hope provides a foundation for him to help him learn and to have fun throughout his life.

I'm a fan of libraries, no question, and (as regular readers of this blog now) as a committed localist I have an understanding of the role they play in local communities.

Which is why I get so upset when I read articles like Anderson's. They want to kick T out of the library and replace him with a mini-Bodleian. They just don't get where libraries are now.

Libraries are about providing access to information and to literature in settings that are appropriate to the communities that they serve, and this goes completely against the 1950s views of Anderson et al.

The public library exists so that those who would otherwise be unable to access the information and literature they need can do so in a setting that is social and communal. That vision needs to be constantly refreshed as technologies, society and places change.

Libraries never were about being palaces of books, but the argument that they were and that they should be again is sadly dominant in our broadsheets and amongst our cultural commentators. They drown out the voices of those who actually understand libraries and know their role in national and local life.

Anderson as good as admits this:
Like plenty of people who count themselves supporters of public libraries, it had been a while since I last stepped inside one.
So, who is Hephzibah Anderson? If she's not been in a library for years, what else qualifies her to pontificate on what they should be about? According to Jewish Quarterly, she is:
deputy fiction critic for The Observer, Fiction Editor of the Daily Mail, and a visual arts writer for the Evening Standard. She sits on the editorial board of the Jewish Quarterly, and writes regularly for the Jewish Chronicle, the New Statesman and Zembla Magazine. She also reviews for BBC Radio London and BBC Radio 2.
So, we can safely assume that she knows nothing about what libraries do and what they are about. Sadly, this doesn't stop her or her colleagues in the arts pages, or novelists (now, there's a producer interest!) lecturing the rest of the world.

Such people are the only obvious participants in what is a very one sided debate. Let's hope local councils listen to their communities, not the siren voices of the Sunday papers.

Popularity or otherwise

I have got hold of a piece of kit that tells me how many people are reading these ramblings and where they hail from.

By far and away the most popular page on this blog is the one that somewhat controversially described the incumbent London mayor as an idiot.

People from all over the globe alight on this entry, stepping off from Google searches, of which the most common is "Boris", "Johnson" and "idiot".

I'm not sure what this proves, if anything.

Friday, 22 August 2008

New Ladywell Tavern

The new Ladywell Tavern has been done out in the style of the boozers of Crofton Park, but has been done so without the expected ethnic cleansing of the locals, which is welcome.

I have been there more times in the past month than in the past two years, and I have been impressed by the more extensive range of drink. I will go again, and more frequently.

I'm especially pleased to see bottles of Thatchers, one of the food and drink highlights of the West Country.

Sadly, to get Thatchers into a London pub it has to market itself to a demographic who, in the past few years, have been browbeaten into thinking that it is somehow normal to serve cider with ice. This is not a normal activity, and people who put ice in cider should live in shame.

More worryingly, the Thatchers' brand in question is 'Pear Cider' - a nice tipple, but as anyone with half a brain will tell you there is no such thing. Fermented pear juice is 'perry'. You might as well call beer 'hops wine'.

Great to see Thatchers in this neck of the woods - sad to see it can't be here on its own terms.

I will probably blog at length about this bizarre prejudice in the future, but for now, I draw your attention to the Facebook group.

Lost: one ladybird and one snail

T has an arch from which hang toys which we stretch across his buggy to entertain him when we're pushing him about.

Earlier this week he returned from a stroll round Hilly Fields without the ladybird mirror and the snail that plays 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'.

If anyone finds aforesaid snail and ladybird, then do let me know here at Non-Provincial Lives.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The next Tory Government and the Arts

The Tories are waiting in the wings, and every part of public life is beginning to wake up to what might be a new reality. Culture is no different.

In recent months, debate on cultural policy has focused on how the money is spent, with (and I paraphrase somewhat here) artists and cultural practitioners and their cheerleaders in the arts pages of the press (Charlotte Higgins being the latest) complaining that the cultural bureaucracy is somehow bringing arts and culture in this country to a nadir.

The opposite is in fact the case. Public spending on arts and culture has skyrocketed over the last decade. The Government has - quite rightly, in my view - put an emphasis on this money being spent efficiently and in delivering public good. This has led to the wholly exaggerated debate over "targets" and the self-defeating and meaningless debate over "intrinsic" versus "instrumental" value. It is the bureaucracy that secures efficiency and that public good against which the artists, critics and now ministers are turning their fire.

Dominic Cooke points out that even if the Tories don't turn out to be vicious cutters the slowing economy means that arts and culture cannot expect to receive the largess that they have come to expect, and whichever Government we have they are damn well going to want to see a return on their investment.

Artists should be careful about attacking the Arts Council and other cultural agencies - you might just get what you wish for.

Burchill versus Monbiot

I'm not really a fan of the Today programme. Too much heat, not enough light. Burchill versus Monbiot this morning was a case in point. Take one controversialist self-publicist and one self-righteous humourless green, add a healthy dose of class prejudice and stand back.

I've always found Julie Burchill a bit tiresome, and it worries me that the older she gets, the more Bristolian she sounds, despite having left the place decades ago. Does this fate await every exile? Are my declining years to be spent sounding more and more like a member of the Wurzels?

Monbiot, meanwhile, is someone I can claim to have had a minor run in with. Many years ago I invited him to come and speak to a student society. He sounded faintly bored with both me and my request, and dismissively palmed me off on an acquaintance of his, who is nowadays given over to propagating the wildest of fantasies.

So it was mildly diverting to hear these two thrash around the thesis that greenies are posh and preachy. Most commentators seem to think that George won, and he was so enraged he immediately went home and penned a piece for the Guardian.

The sad thing is that George went a very long way to proving Julie right. On the issue of the environment, he's of course absolutely correct, but he's so desperate to be seen to be absolutely correct that he's found himself arguing with someone who is adopting a controversial position for the sake of a controversial position.

In tilting at this particular windmill George was wasting his time (and the BBC was wasting mine, but that's another story) but you got the sense that if someone, anyone, is going to disagree with him, then he isn't going to let it go.

And, sadly, in doing so, he gave credence to Burchill's contention that greens are just posh people who like bossing their inferiors around.