Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2011  



London Reading


by Peter Byrne





"Book lovers will understand me, and they will know too that part of the pleasure of a library lies in its very existence."
—Jan Morris

"Sharing is under siege. It is the sworn enemy of the global market."
—Naomi Klein


(Swans - April 25, 2011)   I've had a long affair with London libraries. It started with the British Museum reading room and the revelation that it was more than a big eggshell around slumped figures with books attached. A library was not only a cluster of seats where you sat to read for free. It was a society in reduced dimensions where whispering was the native tongue. The meat of the Bloomsbury egg throbbed with community life. I mused there at least as much as I read. We regulars communicated less by our few quiet words than by our shared admiration.

It was real love. We delighted in the testy regulars, almost always given to entertaining eccentricities. The old Grub Street scribblers affected George Gissing touches of Edwardian dress. There were snuff takers among them, robust sneezers and authors of high-drama coughing fits that would shatter the silence. As for the visitors from abroad researching something or other for a mere few weeks or a month or two, we treated them with the tolerance reserved for children whose promise was still well concealed. We saved our disdain for the well-dressed Britons, often members of Parliament or their lackeys, doing a quick search to make an oratorical splash. They always sat down lightly, as if our seats ran with plague germs. When they hurried off with their natty briefcases, you could hear a collective sigh of good riddance. They didn't belong amongst devotees of disinterested knowledge or seekers for a few facts to ballast an article that would keep the pot boiling.

My secret ambition was to find the seat that Karl Marx had claimed as his own. The search weighed on my days. In pub intervals or corridor talk, I was falsely flippant, fishing for clues. Old-timers poured forth tips galore, often shrewd, learned, or spiked with 20th century revisionism. I was sent scurrying around the sacred circle, but I never found certainty. I finally gave up when a cynic told me to check the seat closest to the exit for the urinal. The exiled Rheinlander was always full of beer from his pub stops on the walk in from Hampstead.

I decided it might be easier to commune with the great man by his grave in Highgate Cemetery. But there wasn't room for him among the Eastern European schoolmarms and gaping Maoists. The animal head on his grave, a squared cannon ball, didn't belong to the man I wished to know. I went back to the reading room, declared that my seat had been his seat, and actually began to read him.

Margaret Thatcher said it in so many words. There was no such thing as society, only individuals, all busy as bees with their stingers into one another. That was before New Labour, which sotto voce pretty much agreed with the Tin Lady. Now the new Conservative regime talked of the "Big Society," a kind of pie-in-the-sky land that each individual on his own should sting his way toward and help himself to his own slice according to his muscle. In the meantime, pleading the deficit, their government would cut public services beyond la Thatcher's wildest dreams. Four hundred public libraries have been axed across England and Wales with another four hundred under threat of closure. Listen to the author Philip Pullman's lament in The Guardian of January 29, 2011:

Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. We're coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we thought was safe and solid. "Everything solid melts into air," he said. "All that is holy is profaned."

Time had come to revisit my favorites and see if they were still warming the public's heart. I started at the outer fringe of inner London, registering the neighborhood effluvia. The Kilburn High Road was an ethnic merry-go-round that never stopped turning. For a century and more the Irish trod it. They conquered the Victorian pubs that stood brazen as any stock exchange. These piles of wedding-cake masonry gave shelter to deadpan Irish mice that nibbled away religiously at the edge of their pint glasses. It was a colonial revolt under cathedral ceilings by way of the wainscoting. The last watering place built on the authentic Irish rural pattern had been plowed under a few years back. Tiny and close to the ground it sold groceries too, and you could ask for a "short," which was Irish for a shot.

Now the parental stand-ins in the Mom and Pop stores came mainly from the Indian subcontinent. They used their nervous humanity to fend off the big chains. Blacks from the Caribbean operated beauty shops and evangelical churches to serve themselves and assorted Africans. The two groups overlapped. When dressed like 19th century parsons with starched spouses they were heading for church. In flamboyant threads, loose and flapping, they were on a godless binge, just happily living. Under the frail shelter of the bus stops, Bosnians regrouped like sheep. They were the reflux of NATO's reckless push eastward in the 1990s. Riding the retreating tide, they stayed where it swept them. The sturdy Poles, on the other hand, never stopped moving as if 1989 had set them in perpetual motion. I passed a keep-the-kids-out-of-trouble community center where girls and boys with guitars strapped to their backs poured in like musical lemmings. There was a Primark shop that sold T-shirts for two Euros a throw and whose cashiers wore headscarves.

Turning west from the Kilburn High Road I walked through a rapid class analysis. The semi-detached and row houses got more shipshape with each step. Gentility increased along with the white paint on the walls visible through parlor windows. In five minutes on foot I'd risen into the middle class. Meritocracy worked if you had thick soles.

The Kilburn High Road post office had been a multicultural cartoon. Creaking oldsters punctuated the long queue, often in carpet slippers. They were picking up their pension money before returning to tea and TV. Swarthy business types mailed boxes overseas with a time-is-money crispness. Refugees on a far-from-home cloud waited for their subsistence handout like the diners at a soup kitchen.

The Salusbury Road post office was an expurgated version. Customers were wide awake and stood up straight with bourgeois aplomb, maybe because the queue was shorter. The street boasted a gourmet wine shop with a Spanish ham hanging in the window, an up-market bakery, a "Yoga in everyday life Ashram," a sedate Presbyterian Church, a pub that looked like a private club -- each with people to match.

I headed for a favorite haunt of yore, the bay-windowed Kilburn Library, a goodie of the Brent Council that ("Proud of our diversity") was losing six other of its twelve libraries. I slipped in before a late closing. (Open five days a week, twice till 8:00 p.m.) All was pretty much as I remembered. I flicked through the Gujarati and the Polish shelves. I couldn't read either language but wanted to see if the volumes showed use. They did, and I liked the idea that alien reading went on, sometimes right to left, in the more sober byways of London. An African couple sat side-by-side, not concerned with books at all. They had obviously come each from their own job to meet after work. A partnership was shaping up. In Paris they would have rendezvoused in a café. In London that sat gingerly among books.

A bright-painted corner for children had been added since my last visit. One exemplar had broken out of it and, exalted by his discovery of space, toddled back and forth screaming on the carpeted floor. Nobody was bothered. Several readers sat tight till the door was ready to slam. They were more comfortable here than in the cold cramped quarters they had to call home. The staff in the person of a fiftyish matron good naturedly tidied away the loose ends of the day. Let's hope her job survives future lurches toward the "Big Society." Now it was eight sharp and she locked up. The books were snug for the night, square Gujarati typefaces nudging in sleep Polish romantic fiction.

Next morning I was off to Leicester Square and a small library with attitude. How did it manage to get itself there amidst London's most expensive real estate? The answer was simple. It dated from times that may have been cruel but when society wasn't yet a dirty word and money didn't rule entirely. The library's neo-classical façade topped with red brick was wedged apologetically between two landmarks. The Garrick Pub was almost too lavish for drinking and the Garrick Theatre boasted an 1889 gold leaf auditorium. All three buildings held hands over a forgotten underground river. The Charing Cross Library is on the royal way from Leicester Square down to the National Portrait Gallery and into Trafalgar Square where the world mixes it up in the national boxing ring.

But the library has been less impacted by the monuments of empire than by the vigorous growth of Chinatown in the back streets nearby. Now it doubles as an ordinary lending library and a center for Chinese readers. There are Chinese among the librarians. This morning there was actually a sale in progress of excess Chinese books, five items for a pound sterling, a dollar and a half. I had to remind myself that I couldn't read the language to keep my hands from reaching out to shape a little bargain pile.

The Chinese clientele appeared stunned by the public service. Their diffident smiles said, "This isn't, can't be meant for me." There were students, but also kitchen workers and the occasional traveling businessman. Lusty readers abounded but also visitors with no specific aim except to sit quietly and be present.

Not everyone was Chinese. There was a scattering of the usual denizens of public libraries: office workers on lunch break, wandering scholars, kids wrapping up their homework, myopic newspaper readers with arms stretched to the corners of a broadsheet, and the inevitable single entranced reader attached to the printed page as to life support hardware. The central position of the library also attracted that special category of nodding reader, the lone wolf on the move. He often sat beside his valise on wheels and an unharnessed, too-full backpack. He may have a home somewhere, but not in London. When he starts to snore, it's the task of a bespectacled young man of the staff to reintroduce the sleeper to silence. Slight of build and no man of action, this apprentice functionary doesn't seem entirely convinced that the library isn't a good place for dreaming. And why shouldn't it be an oasis even for those who hold their books upside-down?

In the third millennium city, the Chinese community has wound up in the sparkling center of imperial London to congregate amidst books. Nineteen-century Jewish and Irish immigrants had to fight for a toehold in the squalor of the East End. One of my favorite libraries was there, not far from renowned Toynbee Hall. That institution was the father of all top-down social do-gooding. The clergyman who launched it in 1873 deemed his parish "inhabited mainly by a criminal population." Toynbee Hall was at the center of the struggle against Fascism that rocked the area in the 1930s. Among its supporters were Clement Atlee and William Beveridge, who would shape the post-WWII welfare state.

Toynbee Hall worked for the benefit of wave after wave of ethnic minorities. (It inspired Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago.) Something of its spirit managed to survive even the coming of New Labour and government by PR men. The neighborhood is now inhabited predominately by Pakistanis. If you walk east on White Chapel Road, you will pass the East London Mosque, the capital's largest, and become entangled in a long sidewalk market whose exuberance London's heavy damp air hasn't tamed.

The market snakes right under the overhanging second floor of a four-story modern glass building. That market people find shelter from the rain there is a sign of the building's acceptance by the neighborhood. It's an Ideastore, named with a bow to the market-obsessed times but offering the general public traditional library services and opportunities for learning.

I know the place and get right into the elevator. It's Saturday and I want to check the football scores. The café is still there on the top floor with its fine view over the East End. But the TV sets are gone. I used to sit in front of them with other males on leave from domesticity, mostly extra-Europeans, and point out the missteps of millionaire soccer players. It was an exercise in democracy of sorts, but the entertainment quotient had apparently got out of hand. Now there were more computers where the TV screens had been. Students of all ages did their homework. I went through the newspapers spread out on the tables, skipped the work of local artists in the art gallery, and took the stairs down.

The third floor houses reference books, more computers, and many so-called "learning labs." These are glass-fronted rooms where small classes are held. They also offer private space for learners who want to avoid the promiscuous big rooms. I noted a clutch of blushing girls in headscarves in one of them. Books on the second floor concern film, theatre, and music. There's a DVD collection, more computers, and lab rooms. Here I came upon an image emblematic of Western Europe just now. A stout female figure in full burqa rifled through a cabinet of CDs as if she was at home sorting her laundry.

The ground floor may be as announced "a creative community resource," but I've always felt it was a salon tailor-made for East London. A patient staff orientates befogged oldsters or the linguistically challenged. There's a crèche and a children's library. I watched a mother with two children in tow picking at the shelves as if gathering a bouquet. From a far corner, a familiar voice resounded. He was the London end of a Mumbai business operation who conducted his duties loudly by cell phone during Ideastore's opening hours from nine to nine. His spiel didn't seem to disturb the old men dozing in the overstuffed chairs around him. Maybe it reassured them. But generally the ground floor clientele is lively. Easy access to the shelves inclines them to reach out and taste. White natives mix with Africans, occasional Asians, and wearers of exotic headgear, yarmulkes, or crocheted Indian skull caps. The excitement of Internet surfing on this floor brings people to the edge of their seats.

It was time for me to go back west and count the new century's gains and losses. The British Museum still served the public in a big way, though its library had moved out. A new British Library has been built a mile to the north, a sleek and beautiful low building that downplays imperial grandeur. Even the Conservatives wouldn't lay a hand on it although their more resentful elements regularly agitate to make its users pay.

The old reading room has been swept away. The inner courtyard in which it stood is now roofed over by a knit-glass web. When the sun shines through it, there isn't a dusty corner left for an old scholar smelling of tobacco. Of course he can sit in the glare, as I do, and drink decent espresso. The only Marxian flavor in the air is the smell of fried onions that drifts in from the sidewalk vendors beyond the gates. Where the reading room had been, a circular exhibition structure rises. It's an impressive swirl of white walls. The old neo-classic façades around the courtyard have become background and, now out of the weather, appear too 21st-century-clean as if admen had doused them with spin.

I read a notice at the bottom of the exhibition hall stairway: "Come upstairs and relax in the Court Restaurant under the spectacular glass roof. Enjoy the chef's à la carte choice of European classics or try one of the exhibition specials." I was no more going up there than Pullman's "old Karl Marx" would have. Still, as Karl could have been, I was curious what the "exhibition special" would be today. The current exhibit was of "The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead."

Philip Pullman again, from the same Guardian article, this time addressing the government:

I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence 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 don't know the value of what you're looking after. It is too precious to destroy.


[ed. Here is a speech that Philip Pullman gave on January 20, 2011, in defense of Oxfordshire libraries: "Leave the libraries alone. You don't understand their value." A must read to understand the difference between a Peter Byrne and the "greedy ghost," as Pullman calls the money people for whom anything and everything are about profits.]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 25, 2011