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

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times