Time for the news of the week.
Let’s start with some sad and great news at the same time. Sad because, and this is not new, public libraries in the UK are facing increasing threats to have to close down because of spending cuts from the city councils and other local authorities. Many public libraries have been forced to shut down in the last ten years and it is still going on. In a very interesting article on the subject, The Guardian lists some public libraries which have closed down or been under threat of a close down in the last years. I’m just going to mention some of them, which were listed in the article, but I believe there are many more: in London, the Brent Council closed down the Kensal Rise library in 2011, alongside 5 other libraries, despite a strong mobilization from the general public and famous writers including Zadie Smith. A volunteer-run library should open next year in a community space following a long protest campaign (but let’s not rejoice too quickly, nothing has been done yet). In 2014, Liverpool Council announced its plan to close down 11 of the 18 libraries of the city! The project luckily aborted thanks to a “love letter” to the city’s libraries which was signed by more than 500 writers, including Carol Ann Duffy and Jonathan Coe. Finally, the last blow to the public library system came this month from local authorities in Fife, Scotland: 16 libraries from the area will be closed down, including the Bowhill library, which is the library where Ian Rankin came to while he was growing up (it was for him “a refuge and a place of constant wonder”).
This shows that the only way for libraries to stay open in this country is for them to receive a huge support from influential writers or personalities or to be closed down and reopen in another form, as volunteer libraries run by volunteers and not public libraries anymore. This is obviously quite dramatic but this is where the good news come in. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) has now decided to act and to start a legal battle against the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over its failure to provide quality public services — this comes after hundreds of libraries where shut down last year and more closings are planned for next year. They were advised by human rights barrister Eric Metcalfe and are now claiming that while the government regularly claims that the provision of this “comprehensive and efficient” service is down to local authorities to determine, this is not the case, and it is the “legal duty” of the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, “to provide clear statutory guidance on the definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service”. Cilip is now urging the Government to do its duty by respecting the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which states that the public has a statutory right to a quality public library service. Therefore, when the Government is handling this task to local authorities, it is offloading its responsibilities and, conversely, Cilip has warned local authorities that these planned closures could be against the law and that they should put them on hold until decision is made in accordance with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Cilip also emphasized that the Secretary of state has not only the “duty to maintain and improve the library service” but also to give local authorities “legally compliant guidance”, which it has failed to do and “in the absence of which many local authorities have taken discretionary decisions about their services which risk flouting the law”. Let’s hope that this campaign urging local authorities and the Government to respect their duty towards citizens is going to change things. In any case, I believe that this is a very important thing to highlight how current politicians allow themselves to actually break the law with complete impunity and to make them face this fact.
Let’s move to something that I regard as funny even though it is also, in its way, quite tragic. Tom Bennett, a school behaviourist consulting with the British Government, reported that a certain number of parents were offended by the fact that the Harry Potter books were being stocked in school libraries and also sometimes used by teachers as classroom materials (even though the series is not part of the English literature syllabus and is therefore not extensively studied by pupils). Most of this offended parents have religious backgrounds (most of them being Evangelical Christians or Muslims, or Jehovah’s Witnesses) and don’t want their children to read a book which “trivialise or normalise acts of magic.” Even though I fully understand that these parents’ religious faith or beliefs may involve close links to magic and that these people actually believe, in a way or another, in magic, for me this does not justify for them to forbid their children access to works of fiction. As every novel, Harry Potter is a work of fiction which was created by an author and which comprises inventions from this author. No matter how people choose to interpret these books, they do not refer from close or far to any specific religion. Therefore, this is absurd for parents to deprive their children from the chance of reading a book that could actually give them a real taste for reading and school in general. But what shocks me the most if the fact that Bennett advised teachers to be “flexible in delivering their content, and come up with ways to provide an alternative for those pupils.” If we start considering Harry Potter as a controversial book whose reading can be forbidden by parents, then why not letting all the parents ban from school any book that is against their beliefs or that they find amoral for any reason.
Finally, I would like to comment quickly on the “Bad Sex award”, which was awarded to Morrissey for this extract from his debut novel List of the Lost: “Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
The truth is that no matter how bad or poorly written this extract is, I do not believe that any short extract from any book deserves to be awarded such a crap prize. This prize intends to highlight “poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction” and has been awarded to some very big novelists over the past few years (Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe and Ben Okri last year). First, the authors are shortlisted for just a tiny extract (or even just a sentence) from a whole book, and this extract may not reflect or be representative of the rest of the book, which can be brilliant. Second, I believe that this prize was mostly made to humiliate authors and I do not believe that authors who managed to get their book published deserve to be humiliated. Most of them probably give all they have when they write their book and I don’t think humiliating them is something that benefits anyone. Why not having a good laugh at something that really deserves to be laughed at? There are so many “funny” awards which would be more useful than this one (for instance, in France, there is an award for the most racist sentence pronounced in the year by a famous person and I believe that laughing at this actually helps to make the world better). So I say no to this award, and I stand with Morrissey who finally reacted to his prize, which he didn’t bother to go to collect himself, and said it was best to “to maintain an indifferent distance” from the prize “because there are too many good things in life to let these repulsive horrors pull you down”. Also, I loved how Rowan Somerville reacted when he won the prize in 2010 for his novel The Shape of Her: he is actually one of the few authors who came to receive his “prize” and said in his speech the following sentence, which is gold: “There’s nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of a nation, I thank you.” Well said!
See you next week 🙂