Libraries: gateways to other lives

Zadie Smith speaks out in defence of libraries -- and a Tory spokesman responds.

Zadie Smith gave a speech last night at a pub in Kensal Green, very close to the local library she hopes to defend. Public appearances from Smith are rare these days, and her most recent appearance is testament to her strength of feeling on the subject of library closures.

Smith delivered a robust defence of the value of public libraries. Books are a form of education, and education is one of the few effective methods of social mobility that this country has. Zadie Smith put this simply: "I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives."

She continued:

It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money. "If education matters to you," they ask, "and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?" They're the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money.

No doubt the government would like to deny this. So who, when Radio 4's Today programme went looking for an official response, did the coalition send to do battle with the dangerous Zadie Smith? They sent Shaun Bailey, "ambassador for the 'big society' project", and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. As an unelected party member, he wasn't a participant in the parliamentary debate held in January on library closures.

Bailey is a former security guard, and a man who puts things starkly. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, he said: "The key wickedness that the Government has perpetrated is the idea that government can pay for everything. If you continually give people things and ask for nothing back you rob them of their will. People have to be involved in their own redemption."

To Bailey, Smith's speech was not about library closures, community disintegration or the dissolution of social apparatus, but rather "about self-driven success".

"The problem with this big massive state that she really enjoys," Bailey said,"is that it actually hasn't had any luck in imparting the notion of education to young people."

What if Smith's point, as the Today presenter Justin Webb pointed out, is not merely that we shouldn't be closing libraries, but we should be encouraging people to use them? Bailey runs what looks like an excellent social charity, which aims to "break the cycle of poverty, crime, and ill-health in struggling communities, through people centered sustainable change". Yet he didn't see how libraries would help this aim.

Smith isworth quoting at length on "community":

Community is a partnership between the government and the people, and it's depressing to hear the language of community, the so-called "Big Society", being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership, as it attempts to renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so they can build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives, and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government, and the protection of public services to government, that being government's mandate, and the only possible justification for its power.

Bailey had other ideas: "it isn't the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it's actually your local authority ... that's why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them. If you, as a group of people, want your opinions heard and that you have the right and the mechanism to go and do that so actually I don't accept any of her points on that."

Perhaps it's more that he didn't understand any of her points? Libraries are, currently, a public service. As Smith recounts: "Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services - not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities."

Smith spoke yesterday for a reason, and it would be a shame if fleeting publicity were to be the only result. Many people have been fighting to save libraries for quite some time now -- if you want to join them, or to check what your own council's plans for libraries are, a good place to begin is here, where Ian Anstice, a public librarian, has created a site that is the most up-to-date mine of information on the web. From there, you could visit Voices for the Library, and add your voice to theirs.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism