Mad As Hell

So, welcome back to my world. It’s debatable whether or not it’s better than the real world, but trust me, I wouldn’t have voted for him, so there’s that. People use the phrase “in a perfect world”, but it seems like 2016 was fuckin’ Nirvana compared to the shitshow this year is looking to be. Naturally, I’m back online to spread a little sunshine on proceedings, because my Smiths blog went really well (sample review: ‘you’re talking shit’).

There are people better qualified and give a toss more than me about international politics. The Falklands Conflict was memorably described by Jorge Luis Borges as being “like two bald men fighting over a comb”, and the world has become a more spiteful and petulant place since the chilliest days of the Cold War. All I can say is that historically you don’t know you’ve lived through a crisis until you see it on a documentary. I watched some Channel 5 thing about 1990 the other day; turns out it was full of barricades, resignations and civil disobedience. All I remember was my dad almost crashing the car when Lineker equalised as we were driving back from the Walsall’s Concerts for Schools evening and having four life-sized posters of the Ninja Turtles tacked over my bed.

But one crisis I am aware of is that Walsall Council has just decided to shut nine libraries in a cost—cutting measure, which means that a lot of my friends will at the very least be resettled into new roles and more than likely lose their jobs or have to speed up their retirement. I worked in Walsall’s library services for nearly four years – my first full-time job after university – and though I left over a decade ago, I’ve been aware that closures were on the horizon for a while. Fairly recently Lambeth made the national news for its borrowers’ attempts to stave off liquidation of service. The depressing news from my old workplace is no less important, but grim as it may be to contemplate, they’re probably part of a wider trend.

Because I’m ten years gone, and this is my blog, I can say what I think of this decision, and I think it’s fucking disgraceful. This is not because a lot of people I know are facing a redundancy process, or because I have an axe to grind with Walsall Council (for the sake of honesty, let me state I’ve been through my own redundancy process, and was treated perfectly fair), but because I feel so strongly about library service provision and what we’ll be losing in districts all over Britain.

There is a fantastic article by my friend Gemma, who works for a Mobile Library Service, touching on the importance libraries play in the lives of people who have no other human contact, or otherwise cannot easily travel to one of the branches. I won’t step on her toes but trust me, it’s a powerful piece of writing. But what I do want to speak up about is exactly why I think shutting libraries to save a bean is a misguided and dangerous thing.

I’ve always been a library user. Some of my earliest memories are storytime at Aldridge, being read to by Gail or Vicky (both later to become friends of mine), or my dad taking me and my sisters there on a Friday evening while my mum was shopping. I did my work experience there. I hired cassettes of Rowan Atkinson and Monty Python from their single spindle. It’s where I first borrowed A Clockwork Orange and every Asterix book. Thanks to Walsall’s music reserve, I heard Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul at age eleven, and one day I’ll understand them. So I have that emotional connection, but what I’m about to say I say from a point of reason. Libraries are dying; I might as well say what I think while there are still life signs.

I could add something clever here, but this man wrote a book about the dangers of losing our access to ideas, so he wins.

I genuinely think that the people taking the final decision to shut any library have no need of them. When you’re in a position of power where all you do is attend meetings and decide policy, what use is an imagination? What’s the point in keeping open a vector of infinite knowledge – free of charge – when it doesn’t bring in any revenue? Those places where a person, who pissed their early years and schooling down the toilet and only now plucks up the courage to start asking a few questions, can go and build some confidence in themselves; those racks of information for the primary, secondary or further education student can find the answer to that nagging question: Who, what, why am I? Shut them all. What a waste of everyone’s time they are.

It’s been argued that libraries have been dying for years, ever since the internet became a go-to learning resource. Sorry, but that’s bullshit. They're more necessary now than ever before. Your access to impartial information gets smaller every day as things disappear behind paywalls and sponsored links. Dunderheads like Donald Trump happen to the world because we’re living in a society where it’s acceptable to know just enough about a thing. The irony of the Wikipedia Generation is that the majority of those pages are edited and policed by educated people who give their time and expertise for free – just as a skilled librarian will give up an entire day to help you with your query – but none of that seems important when you want your little nugget of trivia at your fingertips now. Who should I vote for? That bloke off the telly who makes me laugh, of course, rather than the politician that’s spent ages traipsing round dark streets campaigning for some candidate who doesn’t know he exists so he learns how to listen to people and help them. Libraries belong to the curious. That’s why they don’t fit into the world now, because curiosity’s not important.

What really saddens me is that many people seem so content to live inside their tiny little bubble. They are connected to a vast repository of information, more than they could ever absorb, but unless it’s a link attached to a Tweet, they won’t bother. But to me, these people are inherently scared of places like libraries. Not because they are intimidated by the staff, but because they will discover just how small their world is. Understand I’m not accusing people of being stupid, as much being dismayed by their contentment with ignorance. Holding a library card won’t make you instantly smarter, but it will give you the keys to the kingdom. Reading and learning is the one thing you can do with no apparent effort at all: nobody’s asking you to host a symposium on magnetised graphene, but see that film Fight Club? That’s loads like the book. Just picture a film, in your head. Only the words make that film a bit better, because you’re creating it yourself, using the imagination you didn’t think you had.

While I’m not attached to libraries anymore, I do still have a job so I’m not going to stray into litigiousness. But I will head to the finish by saying you should all be very pissed off about libraries disappearing. It’s not even really about redundancies, it’s about another free thing being taken away from you. You shut a library building and it’s not going to open again. That’s one place fewer for your kids to go for a storytime, or you to look up Citizen’s Advice info when you need it. One place less where you can get internet access when your phone battery is drained. One less place where you can just go, when it’s pissing down and you have ten minutes and you heard someone telling you about the vague plot of something that they quite liked but you can’t remember the name of. Politicians need libraries like a hole in the wallet. Ordinary citizens need libraries even though they don’t even know it yet.

Who knows what will happen for Walsall or dozens of other councils who are bearing the brunt of a rapacious government’s quest to save all the money even though it seems they’re not spending it on anything. Some may be staffed by volunteers – great in theory, but they’re not librarians as much as custodians – but I fear this is not the end of the bad news. It may be that my first novel never appears on the shelves of a Walsall library building, which would be a devilish joke considering I left libraries to do exactly that. But in the short term, if you see a petition to save libraries from closing, sign it. Kick up a stink. Be pissed off about it. You pay your council tax; you deserve access to education and services. Stop assuming this is all you deserve and start pushing for what you should have. At the very least, visit a library. Get the visitor numbers up, and while you’re there, take out a book. Say hello to the librarian. Be nice. They’re scared. This is their life. This is what they care about.

Besides, I have a lot of good memories of libraries. People I care about. The fun times I had there, especially in the service lift. If you have one, use your imagination.


  1. A stunning piece Chris, I hope others read this and see what is happening.


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