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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle