Researching, soul searching and being besmirched
“Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d” Henry V
It’s been a tough old week.
Before setting off to celebrate libraries on Saturday 5th February, I emailed a few county councillors, asking how many hours a week they’d be working as volunteers at a local library. Seemed a reasonable request to make of those who support plans to replace professionals with unpaid enthusiasts: practising what one preaches, and all that.
I visited six libraries as a ‘flying author’. I met children who groaned at my terrible puns; elderly folk who pop in once a week; a migrant worker emailing his family; a bloke trying to improve his reading; people looking at newspapers, browsing, photocopying, returning books, borrowing books, asking library staff for assistance finding books.
It’s a haven, the library. There’s nobody bullying you into buying anything, nobody hollering into a mobile phone, nobody skateboarding between your legs. They’ve been around for years, these gentle chambers where greybeard reference sections nod knowingly at toddlers rummaging for Gruffalos. Like parks with solid benches, colourful playgrounds, and twisting paths through rhododendrons.
But I digress.
The awkwardness started when I arrived home to an aggressive email from a councillor who considered my enquiry ‘frivolous’ and requested that I do not respond to his, er… challenging observations.
Ouch. That hurt. Insult to injury stuff.
I did respond, of course. And proceeded to email all the other (majority party) county councillors. Seventeen of the forty have replied and one has knocked on my door to introduce himself. I was delighted when a councillor offered four hours a week, though he was later unwilling or unable to tell me if he could drive.
For, you see, I’d suddenly had this vision of retaining one of the mobile libraries to serve those communities about to lose library premises. Ten libraries, five days in a week makes half a day in each district; maybe a jingly tune on a crackling loudspeaker, like a lollipop van; borrow one, get one free; Book to Basics, it’d be called; all very jolly, with smiling councillors greeting lenders in all weathers and urban parking bays.
I got a bit carried away, to be honest. Saw myself as a crusader, embarrassing elected representatives into putting their shoulders to the wheel. But it was never really going to happen. Besides, as more emails trickled in, it became clear I’d have to convince them driving the mobile library once a week throughout the year was actually feasible, considering all the other voluntary work they already undertake.
Don’t get me wrong on this point. The councillor’s stipend is small and many don’t claim their permitted travel expenses. They too are public servants, doing difficult jobs. Answering irritating queries from an egotistical mischief-maker cannot, therefore, be the best use of their time.
Which led to the soul searching.
Was my circular email justified? How much unpaid time would I be prepared to offer? I can’t even drive. Should I expect people to undertake a mission for which they may have no passion? And how much does it cost to maintain, insure, house, stock and run a mobile library? Do drivers need HGV licenses? Would all volunteers have to be CRB checked? Many hours passed in internet research.
By Thursday I am losing heart. I’m sent a letter detailing the organisational headaches in a popular museum staffed by volunteers. Google can’t tell me whether public libraries were closed during the war. The email I sent the council on Monday about mobiles and driving licenses has still not been answered. I’m unable to attend consultation meetings about the libraries because, as a non-driver (on ethical grounds), I cannot get home by public transport.
Those wishing to run libraries have, I gather, to submit a viable business plan, within the next few months. Perhaps I should ask the grandmother who likes historical fiction, the Polish fruit-picker and some teenage Harry Potter fans to draw one up together. They will enjoy discovering that finance is the root of all that counts these days.
With my integrity questioned and seeing the gaiety and golden opportunities of the library treated with scant regard, I end the week feeling thoroughly besmirched.
But I am also angry, seething with questions I would like elected representatives to address seriously and not simply dismiss as ‘frivolous’.
Why is the public’s overwhelming rejection of the proposals being ignored? Why are experienced and valuable staff being treated with such disrespect? Why has there been not the slightest murmur of protest from county councillors concerning the reduction in local authorities’ revenue from central government? And why, oh why, is this noble country of ours allowing itself to be held to ransom by those greedy few who enjoy gambling with our money?
It’s been a tough old week.
I am very tired and shall climb into bed. With a library book. While I still can.
Marcus Moore is a Gloucestershire-based writer and performance poet, and was an ambassador for the BBC’s ‘RAW’ adult literacy project.