a young man, standing in front of a bookcase feeling baffled. He – and occasionally she – is overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that has been written and the ground to be covered.’
‘All these books. I’ll never catch up,’ wails the young Joe Orton in the film script of Prick Up Your Ears, and in The Old Country another young man reacts more dramatically, by hurling half the books to the floor. In Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf someone else gives vent to their frustration with literature by drawing breasts on a photograph of Virginia Woolf and kitting out E.M. Forster with a big cigar. Orton himself notoriously defaced library books before starting to write books himself. This resentment, which was, I suppose, somewhere mine, had to do with feeling shut out. A library, I used to feel, was like a cocktail party with everybody standing with their back to me; I could not find a way in.Welcome to my world. Even worse, I've bought the bloody things. It feels faintly embarrassing to be defending libraries against Conservative attacks. After all, the stately homes from whence (see that, Ben?) the current crop have oiled, all have private libraries of their own. Eton has, no doubt, a fine library, and the libraries of the Oxford colleges inhabited by these lordly types are so fine as to be tourist attractions.
Perhaps that's the problem. Their home libraries aren't resources, they're decoration. Their college libraries are literally exclusive. The oiks can buy tickets to ooh and aah at the leather bindings and stern busts, but they're not invited to open the books. This lot resent the idea that they (and their imaginary public) should pay taxes for people to read Catherine Cookson and Horrid Histories and Sven Hassel etc.
To them, knowledge and enjoyment are private goods to be bought and paid for. To me, libraries are where you gain your freedom. My parents are highly educated, literate types. But if I read only the books they bought, I'd have a fantastic working knowledge of church architecture, Catholic doctrine, dermatological complaints, paediatric medicine and hymn lyrics. Admittedly, I've soaked up a lot of this stuff. But it was libraries which let me explore space and time, find out about the radical histories of Britain, Ireland, Spain, discover science and rebellion and poetry and Tom Paine and Mervyn Peake and Willa Cather. Much of this was smuggled into the house, caused violent arguments and got returned unread by and angry parent.
And if annoying your parents isn't a good enough reason to defend libraries, nothing is.
Last word to Bennett:
I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn’t require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn’t. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learned to read. I needed books. Add computers to that requirement maybe but a child from a poor family is today in exactly the same boat.
It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through. Libraries are, after all, as another think tank clown opined a few weeks ago, ‘a valuable retail outlet’.