Barbarians At The Gate

The Wheel Of Time, here we GO.

I grew up in libraries. This may seem a strange statement from the rakish man-about-town that you all know and tolerate, but it’s true. I was a bookish child. The mobile library that called once a fortnight to the small Cambridgeshire village where I spent my formative years was both fuel and engine to my imagination. Later, a long low building in Woodford was almost a second home –  a refuge, a place of discovery and contemplation, a place where I was free to simply be a reader and writer. I have held a library card as soon as I was able. I hold one now. It  gets heavy use.

I don’t really think I need to tell you what I think of the ConDem’s plans to eviscerate our library service. A better writer than I has beaten me to it anyway. Philip Pullman gave a speech last month that tells the sorry tale truthfully, with passion and anger. The whole thing is here, and I agree with every word.

Mr Pullman’s right to be furious. My home county, Berkshire, seems to have found a way not to cull their libraries. His home and my neighbour, Oxfordshire, isn’t so lucky. The number of libraries in an area that houses one of the great seats of learning on the planet is set to be halved. In Essex, one of the libraries for the chop is Woodford, my old refuge, my second home, the place where I discovered Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Stephen King, Joseph Heller, John Irving, John Wyndham, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker.

The thought that kids are going to grow up in this country without the opportunity to learn, discover and grow that I had sickens and scares me in equal measure. Libraries are community spaces, somewhere safe for mums to bring their kids for story time, their internet connections vital lifelines for the 27% of British citizens that still don’t have a hookup to the web at home. Free access to news, information and education is a central tent pole of civilisation. Hacking away at it is the act of a barbarian.

Tomorrow is Save Our Libraries Day. Actions will be going on up and down the country. It’s a chance to show your local bookhouse some love. Go and join if you don’t have a card. Get something to read out if you do. Get lots out. Snag some DVDs or some music. Maybe a graphic novel or two. Use up that allowance. That’s what it’s there for.

I want to be clear on my feelings. Libraries are a light in the soul of a community, and snuffing that light is not just small-minded, short-term penny pinching. It wounds us all in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to feel.

(The excellent WW1 remix poster I’ve used as illustration is part of a set by Phil Bradley, that he put together to help publicise the issue. They’re all great, and you can check them out on Flickr here).

Explain Yourself

While watching Channel Four’s new attempt to resurrect That Was The Week That Was, Ten O’Clock Live last night, I had a minor epiphany. Or a dose of meat sweats, but I think it was an epiphany. David Mitchell, one of those blokes that I’m certain Douglas Adams was thinking of when he coined the phrase “brain the size of a planet”, was interviewing David Willetts, Evil Bastard In Charge Of Destroying Further Education As We Know It.

Although David M slung out a few tough questions, you could see that he was struggling with the fact that he had to remain at least partly civil towards his interviewee. He also only had five minutes, which the hateful Willetts used to his advantage, throwing out great screeds of smokescreen, cant and bullpucky that served no decent purpose other than to use up time.

Politicians are trained to do this, of course. You’ll never get a straight answer out of them, and it’s a rare interviewee that’s able to cut through the fat and expose the meat. I’m thinking John Humphries and the brutal Jeremy Paxman. But they have to resort to an attack dog style, battering their opponent into submission. This leads to accusations of bias and bullying, and frankly a pitched argument is not the sort of nuanced political discussion I want to hear.

There is a better way. If the buggers want to talk, let em. My political slot would be called Explain Yourself. It would work like this. Say, for the sake of argument, I managed to talk George Osbourne onto the show. He would be asked:

“Mr Osbourne. You have asked the country to dig deep and pay extra tax. You claim that we are all in this together. And yet you quite happily use questionable methods to dodge £1.6 million in tax.”

There would be a second’s pause. And then the interviewer would simply say “Explain Yourself.”

The interviewer would not say another word. They would simply listen to Osbourne (or whatever moral void we managed to talk into appearing) as he exudes the usual fog of fibs, with a look on their face that suggests the appearance of a very bad smell in the studio. Osbourne (or another foul waste of valuable resources) would eventually tail off. The interviewer at this point is permitted one last sentence. “Is that it?” Depending on the previous response, this can be delivered in an air of intense boredom, astonished nausea or sheer unadulterated disbelief.

Then there would be silence again. And because politicians abhor a silence, especially when it can be filled with the sound of their own voices, Osbourne (or some other mouth-breather in a nice suit) would begin to talk again. From that point, all you have to do is watch as they dig themselves a bigger, wider and deeper hole. They’ll say something they don’t mean, contradict themselves and their policies. You might even get a hefty dose of racism, social prejudice or plain stupidity.

This will work, and it will work because you’re pitting a politician against their own worst enemy. Their big fat mouths.

I dunno about you, but I’d watch the hell out of something like that.

Hello again, Rob

Oh, you handsome DEVIL!

Dear Rob,

Well done, you! You increased your majority by a good few thousand, and with Martin Salter out of the picture, this makes Reading a fully Tory town. You must be really pleased. It’s a vindication of your sterling work as a local MP. It must be. Cos it’s got nothing to do with the policies under which you campaigned.

It must be amazing to be part of the parliamentary process at a time when it’s going through the most profound shift in half a century, with the chance of even more profound reform coming up. It was truly astonishing to see David Cameron on the steps of No. 10 with Nick Clegg as his deputy, and downright fall-off-the-sofa stunning to see the list of what they’d agreed to as a framework for future co-operation. The Repeal Act alone takes most of the issues I’ve written to you about over the past couple of years and fixes them in one fell swoop.

But there’s more, and as I read through the policy changes and announcements, I feel more hopeful than I have done in a long time. There’s balance here, the feel of a proper partnership. We have a cabinet that contains almost a third of all Lib Dem MPs, and although I’m disappointed not to see Vince Cable as the Chancellor, I can understand the reasoning. He’ll be kicking arse and taking prisoners in the banking sector soon enough. I’m a bit worried at a junior figure like George Osbourne taking on such a massively important job, but  it’s not like he won’t be getting the Vincester to check his sums, after all. I know it’s not fair, but I saw this on Twitter and laughed, by the way:

“George: Vince, can you check these figures for me?

Vince: George, that’s a drawing of a pony.”

This is a chance to really set aside party emnities and actually run the country in a co-operative and grown-up fashion, stripping away the old grudges, the petty point-scoring, the playground fights. Weren’t you sickened by the appalling display of sour grapes from some Labour MPs following the announcement of the coalition? (although you’ve got to laugh at the mindset that would settle on the word “harlot” as the most cutting insult they could come up with for Nick Clegg. Kinda sad really.)

Yeah, sure, there’s still some things in the new agreement that make me wince. The cap on non-EU economic migrants is likely to come up and bite the government in the bum when the NHS can’t get hold of the skilled staff they need from overseas anymore. As for the limits on the application of EU Working Time Directive – we already work longer hours in the UK than in any other country in Europe. Control on working hours is necessary legislation, and vital for the work/life balance that’s critical for everyone in these stressful times. But for the most part, I see policies that will help this country to become a fairer place.

So, what do you think of it all? I know it’s not ideal for you, but then let’s face it, I don’t think this is a situation that any of us voted for, or expected.  We’re in genuinely new territory now (although our European partners must be viewing the freaked reaction to the changes with some bemusement. After all, on the continent, coalitions are the norm and you don’t se gloomy pronouncements of economic and social meltdown on a daily basis there. But then they don’t have the Daily Mail, I suppose.)

So, Rob. I’m kind of pleased to see you back. It’s good to have a familiar face here in this unfamiliar territory in which we find ourselves. I’m looking forward to writing to you again. I hope you’re looking forward to hearing from me. We’ve been through too much together to let a little thing like the restructuring of British politics stand in the way of an amicable relationship.