Fighting the Greedy Ghosts
Philip Pullman rails against the idea that communities must bid against each other for the public services they need, including and especially libraries.
You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone knows that the government, in the Dickensian persona of Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed the responsibility for making the savings on to the local authorities. Some have responded to the challenge enthusiastically, some less so. Some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of
Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.
Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 of our 43 public libraries. Keith Mitchell, the leader of our county council, has said the cuts were always inevitable and has invited us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly or would youth services come under the axe?
I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.
Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers; what patronising nonsense! Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple that any old body can step up and do it for a nice thank you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are all these people whose lives are so empty; whose time is so free, who have no families to look after, no paid jobs to do, no responsibilities and enough wealth that they can commit many hours of every week to working for nothing?
The fact is that if there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing for a good cause, they are already working as volunteers in one of the day care centres or running a local football team or helping out with the League of Friends in a hospital or doing one of the many other activities that bind our communities together. So what’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?
Which voluntary activity would the council like them to stop doing so that they can take on the library service? It is a question that needs asking, especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what? – volunteers.
Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?
This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to include so many volunteers.
There’s even a prize being dangled in front of these imaginary volunteers. People who want to save their library, we’re told, are going to be ‘allowed to bid’ for some money from a central pot of public funds.
The sum first mentioned was £200,000. Divide that between the 20 libraries due for closure and you have a portion of £10,000 each, which doesn’t seem like very much to me. But of course it’s not going to be equally divided. Some bids will be preferred, others rejected. And then comes another trick: the amount we can bid for is ‘generously’ increased. It’s not £200,000. It’s £600,000. It’s a victory for the volunteers. Hoorah for the Big Society! We’ve ‘won’ some more money!
Oh, but wait a minute. We’ve been conned. Because it turns out this isn’t £600,000 for the libraries alone. This is the total sum to be ‘bid’ for by everyone who runs anything at all. And all those volunteers, all bidding like mad, will soon chip away at the £600,000. It will only take a day care centre here, a special transport service there, an adult learning course somewhere else, all full of keen-eyed volunteers bidding away like mad, and before you know it the amount available to libraries has suddenly shrunk again.
For the sake of simplicity let’s imagine that it is only libraries bidding. Imagine then two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, and neighbourhood watch schemes in every road. They are already all organised and more than ready to go.
Now I like people like that. They are the backbone of many communities. I approve of them and of their desire to do something for their villages or towns. I’m not knocking them, I’m not mocking them. But I am pointing out that they have certain advantages that the other imaginary community does not. In this other community, there are people out of work, a lot of single-parent households with young mothers struggling to look after toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, don’t be silly! They might, if they’re lucky, have an old, slow computer or a van so beaten-up they dread the next MOT test.
For these people, a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise and a lot of energy to negotiate; getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can just imagine the rest.
So, which of those two communities is the one that will get a bid organised to fund their local library?
You already know the answer. And it’s a sad one because one of the very few things that can help make life more bearable for the young mother in our second imaginary community is a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road.
She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome. But does she or any of the other mothers or any of the older people who all enjoy and use the library have the social confidence, political connections, administrative experience or even the spare time and energy to enable them to become the volunteers that will keep the library open?
I hate that this bidding culture sets one community, one group, one school against another. If one wins, the other loses. I’ve always hated it. It started being introduced when I left the teaching profession 25 years ago, and I could see even then the direction in which things were heading. In a way, it’s an abdication of responsibility. We elect people to decide things, but they don’t really want this difficult task and so, instead, they set up this bidding nonsense that means, whatever the outcome, they aren’t really responsible. They can say things like ‘Well, if the community really wanted it, they would have put in a better bid…’ ‘Nothing I can do about it…’ ‘My hands are tied …’
The idea of bidding for public services, including and especially libraries, imports the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them; the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die. And as with all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics in this arena are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life.
The greedy ghost of market is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.
The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.
That’s just about all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.
Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re ‘in it for the money’. (I had thought the general custom of public discourse was to go through the substantial arguments before descending to personal abuse. If he’s doing it so early in the discussion, it’s a sure sign he hasn’t got much faith in the rest of his case.) No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.
Love is not a vague feeling of ‘goodwill’ but a passionate attachment to something very particular; to books, for example, and in particular the books that libraries have brought to me.
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs – why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No one else can get in the way, no one else can invade it, no one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the full magnitude of that gift?
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that same age in Battersea, who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.
A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about 16. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet was very big at that time. I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read too. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city.
Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed. It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. Again, a life-changing discovery, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.
One final memory, this time from just a couple of years ago: I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams ran in Oxford, for a book I’m writing called The Book of Dust. I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of a clever member of staff, I managed to find some old maps that showed me exactly what I wanted to know, and I photocopied them, and now they are pinned to my wall where I can see exactly the information I needed.
I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and continues to do for me as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.
Leave the libraries alone. You may not know the value of what you’re looking after but you should know it is too precious to destroy.