Philistines: neo-liberal Tories force cuts and closures on Tyneside

Who else, but the state, would build a library in Jesmond?

In June, Zadie Smith attempted to express in words how it feels to repeatedly defend the idea of public libraries, only to find your earnest and seemingly watertight arguments have made little impact on the run of things. “There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on,” she wrote. “A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”

While Smith was sitting at her laptop (on a crowded desk in an American library), the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt was busy rolling out a £125m advertising campaign aimed at promoting all that is “Great” about Britain. “Knowledge is GREAT”, “Heritage is GREAT”, “Creativity is GREAT” ran posters hanging from the walls of Grand Central Station in New York. Union Jack-clad subway trains rumbled through the tunnels below. The message was repeated in cities worldwide.

In this instance, “knowledge”, “heritage” and “creativity” exist as marketable items – buzzwords, wheeled out in an effort to promote tourism to the UK. They are not elements of British life valued beyond their ability to generate revenue. If they were, why would Newcastle council be faced with enforcing a 100 per cent cut in arts funding, and why would it be talking about closing the majority of its libraries?

The culture which predicated this year of flag-spasming jingoism (QED Boris Johnson on the games: “Yesterday I cycled down the canal towpath to the Olympic Park, through Hackney; and everywhere I looked there were scenes of riparian merriment of the kind you expect to see at the Henley regatta”), is built of delicate stuff. Earlier in the week, representatives from 23 British theatres argued that “a modest but sustained investment in the arts has had an incalculable effect on the country.” Nicholas Hytner, Creative Director at the National Theatre, said the government’s default promise to encourage arts giving was nothing but “a smokescreen”. He enquired how private funding was to be secured in poorer areas beyond London. “These are not communities where there is space cash floating around. Where are the super-rich of Bolton, for example?” The same arguments have been bandied around with reference to our GREAT universities.

Some of the products of a “modest but sustained” arts investment since the 1950s were archived in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Boyle, whose own interest in theatre might never have emerged if not for a job as an usher at the (state-sponsored) Octagon Theatre in Bolton, said that such organisations “create communities, and these communities come together and make these big works of art like the opening ceremony.” The bottom line, with theatre as with libraries, galleries and museums, is that “they provide something else to believe in … something in our cities and towns that isn’t Wetherspoons and Walkabout pubs and Mario Balotelli and John Terry.”

Across the globe, a history of private financial mismanagement and greed has been successfully repackaged into a reality in which an undeserving public forced the state to overspend and kamikaze into recession. This fallacy is now largely uncontested. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has proposed one way in which the companies who have gained most from doing business in Britain, might repay their debt to the public. Invoking the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, whose red-brick libraries, purposefully built with ascending stairs, a lantern near the door and the motto “let there be light”, Winterson argued:

“Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to legally avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries”.

For the price of a Starbucks franchise and a “take this book home without returning it for only £6.78 online at…” insert on the back page, it’s an interesting proposition. But the kind of paternalistic “big ideas” conservatism which encouraged philanthropy for the public good is a thing of the past. Neo-liberal austerity thinking does not require any such commitment.

Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, Northern Stage, Tyneside Cinema and Seven Stories are some of the institutions may loose 100 per cent of council funding. This does not mean they would fold, necessarily, but it does destabilise their efforts. The Theatre Royal would lose more than £500,000 annually. Chief executive Philip Bernays has pointed out, “we play to audiences about 15% above the national average, so we’re almost as successful as it’s possible to be … such a cult would almost certainly have an impact on the level of service we can offer or the programme that we can provide.”

Of the 18 libraries on Tyneside, only the Central Library is safe. This means that smaller, suburban libraries such as Jesmond – which provides internet access, local history resources, space for community groups, reading groups, lifelong learning courses and, of course, freely available books – are likely to be sold off to developers, despite the fact so many of them are less than 15 years old.

Zadie Smith expressed her frustration at having to write a long newspaper article to defend public libraries. “What kind of a problem is a library?” she asked. The services they provide, as places of free education, pleasure and community focus (perhaps the only indoor space available to enjoy without being expected to open your wallet), do not provide obvious financial benefits, and are therefore expendable. Local authors in the north east have written an open letter to the council, saying: “It is the young and the elderly who disproportionately depend on branch libraries. The cost in educational underachievement would far outweigh any savings made by cuts.”

But their argument, like Smith’s, will only be added to the pile. Because who, today, believes strongly enough that the people of Jesmond want, need and deserve a library? And more importantly, who believes it strongly enough to agree to pay for it, when the state no longer will?

The first Carnegie library, built in Dunfermline in 1883. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era