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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Will Dinner with Dali be this year's Christmas cookbook hit?

Out of print for 43 years, the surrealist cookbook Salvador Dali wrote in 1973 is now tipped to be this year's surprise festive success. Do the recipes actually make for a nice dinner?

"At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook." So begins the introduction to the new edition of Les Diners de Gala, but the quote is not completed. It's from his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, and it continues: "At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily since." Nevertheless, aged 68, Dali returned to cooking with this book, which collects his paintings, drawings and recipes. For a long time, the book was only for very serious Dali fans – a signed first edition, if you could track one down, went for as much as $25,000 – but it has now been republished by Taschen, allowing anyone to hold a Dali dinner.

The question is, do you want to?

Food was clearly important to Dali, and not just when he was hungry. He said that the melting timepieces of his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, were inspired by a Camembert melting in the sun. Lobsters, too, were an important symbolic device, most notably in his Lobster Telephone, but also in live events and photographs, in which he covered the genitals of naked female models with crustaceans. "I do not understand why," he wrote in his  Secret Life, "when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone."

There are no recipes for telephones in Les Diners de Gala. It's a queasy, meaty read, interspersing visceral paintings and collages with recipes for frog pasties and veal with snails. The paintings are horrific, mixing religious iconography with distended and mutilated forms. Almost as unappetising is the food photography, which, in the tradition of 1970s food photography, looks like the kind of thing you'd find in the window of an elderly kebab shop. The chapter on eggs and seafood, Les Cannibalismes d’Automne, opens with a painting of an armless Joan of Arc in a dress made of crayfish, hosing a pile of corpses with her own blood while what look like kidneys rain from the night sky. It's not exactly At Home With Mary Berry.

The gastronomic challenge of Les Diners de Gala is not in the technical difficulty of the cooking, then, but in maintaining an appetite amid the pictures of self-carving limbs and priapic dwarves. This was clearly not a problem for Dali, who found something powerfully stimulating about the sight of blood. Brian Sewell’s first encounter with Dali, recalled in his documentary Dirty Dali, was outside a butcher’s shop in Catalonia, where Brian was making the most of his beach holiday by slicing up “the windpipe and lungs of some wretched animal” to feed to some stray dogs he had befriended.

For my own Dali dinner, I made no attempt to recreate the first hour of Sewell's first visit to Dali's Catalan home, during which he, Dali and Dali's wife and muse, Gala, sat separately in three huge white eggshells in the garden, shouting at each other. Nor did I have the resources to recreate what followed. After a few drinks in the eggshells – perhaps the Casanova Cocktail, the spiced brandy recipe that is the only drink to be found in Les Diners de Gala – Dali led Sewell to an olive grove, where the critic was induced to climb naked into the armpit of a 70-foot-long statue of Christ that Dali had built from trash, its ribcage formed from the rotting hulk of a fishing boat, and to masturbate while Dali took photographs. 

It is certainly true that there is an unacceptable amount of fly tipping outside my flat, but it's not enough to construct 70 feet of iconography. Also, it's probably a lot easier to masturbate al fresco on a summer's evening on the Catalan coast than it is on an November in south London. None of my guests offered to try.

The problem of resources extended also to ingredients. The Penge branch of Sainsbury's didn't have the dozen larks necessary for recipe number 73, steamed and stuffed larks, so I opted for number two: Oasis leek pie. It's a nice leek and bacon pie which Dali sends on a whacky journey eastwards by adding three teaspoons of curry powder and a pastry island, complete with a palm tree made from a leek. It looks, one of my guests offered, like the sort of thing that would get you kicked off Bake Off in the first round. The curry powder may have been enough, 40 years ago, to make a dish taste foreign, but to modern, globalised palates the leeks, bacon and cheese are the overwhelming flavours.

The chapter on "aphrodisiacs" includes the Casanova Cocktail – which, with six tablespoons of brandy per glass, would no doubt have been grist to Brian Sewell's erotic mill. It also contains a recipe for Aphrodite's Puree, which is less of a collar-loosener: you would need to be a committed surrealist for instructions such as "crush the head of the cod" and "the fish is rather difficult to mash" to create any stirrings below pan level. That's not to say that it's horrible. Once cooked, Aphrodite's puree is a salty, Catalan-style brandade that is great on toast. The photo in Les Diners makes it look like a pile of wet cement.

I didn’t ask anyone to stay for brunch the next day to try Dali’s Avocado Toasts. These sound innocuous until you read the ingredients, which include a lamb’s brain and three tablespoons of tequila. If anything can end the Instagram community's pathological obsession with avocados for brunch, the surprise of finding oneself chewing on an insufficiently mashed sheep's amygdala ought to do it.

Most of the recipes in Les Diners assume a certain familiarity with techniques – number 122, The Breast of Venus, gives the ingredients but not the technique for making a Genoise sponge cake – and many have the feel not of recipes designed to be cooked by the reader, but by the reader's cook. Many are in fact not actually Dali's recipes, but recipes donated by his favourite Paris restaurants, Maxim's and Lasserre. There are also some classic menus from other restaurants, including perhaps the famous crazy-times menu of all time — the night in 1870 when the restaurant Voisin, lacking access to conventional meats because Paris was under seige by the Prussians, turned the animals of the city zoo into a tasting menu that included consommee of elephant, haunch of wolf and bear chops. Dali would no doubt have loved to have been there.

But perhaps the most revealing of Dali's recipes are the least surreal. Here and there are hints of the person Dali might actually have been, in his own time. His public image — in person, the celebrity surrealist who introduced himself to the actress Lillian Gish by throwing an anteater at her, and on canvas, the fearless illustrator of his own nightmares – must have been exhausting to uphold. Are the homely recipes for Gratin of Provence and Toffee with Pine Cones (a classic Catalan candy of pine nuts) Dali’s night off from being Dali? They’re almost certainly nicer to cook and eat than Frog Cream or Peacock a l’Imperiale Dressed and Surrounded by Its Court.

After cooking a number of his recipes, I came to realise that while Dali’s art will always have the power to shock and appal, what surrealism existed in his food has been now overtaken by the modern world. My local One-Stop convenience store, for example, sells a product called Teddy Bear Sausage. Even Dali’s most outlandish confections of frogs and snails look pedestrian compared with a product made from the mechanically reclaimed meat of thousands of pigs, pureed, mixed with sodium diphosphate and shaped into a sandwich-ready meat-toy. The world of food has become dizzyingly unreal in the 43 years since Les Diners de Gala was first published. Perhaps, were he around today, Dali would have been a cook after all.