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.

IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496