Bold and beautiful: the new Library of Birmingham

Over its ten storeys, the Library of Birmingham houses an art gallery, a children’s area, a multimedia centre, two cafés, a music library, a performance space, a theatre, a restaurant, terraces with herb gardens and more.

Whatever you think of the coalition’s austerity measures, you can’t blame it for the closure of the library in Alexandria. No one is sure but that disaster seems to have happened a few decades before the birth of Christ – so it’s off the hook for that one, at least. Much of the world’s knowledge up to that point went up in smoke with the burning of that vast, ancient repository, its destruction now a symbol of philistinism. Some think that had we not been playing intellectual catch-up for the 19 or so centuries after that, we might have landed on the moon around the time of Columbus. We would certainly have 123 plays by Sophocles, rather than seven.

Libraries gave us power, as the Manic Street Preachers once sang. Libraries also exude their own power, actual and symbolic. Like hospitals and churches, they are buildings charged with meaning about how a society sees itself and what it values. If the coalition had decided to close the nation’s municipal golf courses, it is hard to imagine that Nick Faldo would have chained himself to the seventh tee somewhere – but from Alan Bennett to Philip Pullman to Carol Ann Duffy, our writers decried this near-heretical act. Closing a library amounts to taking a book from a child’s hand,possibly literally.

The opening of the new Library of Birmingham is thus a faintly surreal moment, one that seems to fly joyously in the face of the dour, Gradgrind tenor of the times. It is bold, it is beautiful, it is barely believable. For five years, Brummies watched an extraordinary thing growing in the piazza at Centenary Square: an airy, black-and-gold palazzo of mesh and glass. On 3 September it opened to the public and among the crowds there was a buzz more akin to that of a Saturday at the Villa or a gig at the NEC than the launch of what is, in essence, a big building full of books.

A modern library is much more than that. Over its ten storeys, the Library of Birmingham houses an art gallery, a children’s area, a multimedia centre, two cafés, a music library, a performance space, a theatre, a restaurant, terraces with herb gardens and more. I was shown around by the architect Francine Houben of the Dutch collective Mecanoo; the tour was made all the more exhilarating by her evident love of the library and her awareness of what it means for the city.

“This is a people’s palace,” she enthused. When I asked whether the building expressed a striking visual statement on her part, she shrugged amiably and said, “It’s not about me, it’s about them,” indicating the throngs of people already eddying into every cranny and terrace, chatting, reading, writing, flirting (“Perfect for a snog,” she pointed out).

From the central rotunda, walkways radiate out to the terraces and gardens. These are spaces with the kinds of views – breathtaking vistas across the city to the soft, green hills of Clent, the Malverns and Wales – that are usually the preserve of upscale bars and hotels where Wags and minor celebs sip eyewateringly pricey cocktails. It is a democratising coup de théâtre, giving the city back to its residents.

On the way to meet the library’s director, Brian Gambles, Houben invited me to smell the mint and basil in the herb gardens and picked a delicious raspberry for me. Gambles often stops off here for a moment in the balmy evenings, on his way to one of the regular briefings that the team holds to monitor progress and problems. When he came to work at the city’s old library in the mid- 1980s, one of the first tasks he oversaw was the installation of two PCs.

The new library has cost £189m, or roughly two and a half Gareth Bales. Gambles frankly admits that the commission came in just “under the wire” of the financial crisis. “We were given the go-ahead in October 2007, just before the crash,” he said. “I spent the first two years preparing cancellation reports, detailing just what the cost would be if we abandoned the project.” There has been, one feels, quite a lot of quiet and steely determination behind this venture, which is characteristic of a great, unfashionable and vibrant city that, like Chicago or Detroit in its heyday, has always worked hard and got on with things without self-aggrandising blather.

The opening address – short on blather, long on heart –was by an adopted Brummie, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ rights to go to school. At the end of her speech, she placed a copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist on the shelf, the last of the 400,000 volumes on display. There are hundreds of thousands more in the archive, including two – a Shakespeare First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds of America –worth £7m each.

As we passed a group of sightseers, one touched Houben’s sleeve and said, “This is beautiful. I love it. Thank you.” In these conflicted times, you might think it’s impossible to find a story that’s incontrovertibly good news. This seems to be it.

Gilded palace: the Library of Birmingham opened to the public on 3 September. Photo: Christian Richters

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear