Read this, then decide: Would YOU have taken the money?
There’s not much in life that makes me angry. Last time I got hot under the collar was when the chairman of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur sacked a manager who had twice guided us to Top Four in the English Premier League and appointed in his place one of Roman’s (many) Rejects.
I retaliated by not renewing my season ticket; a gesture that undoubtedly hurt me more than anyone else… but sometimes, you just have to take a stand.
This post is not about football. It is about libraries. And me.
You see, I owe my career as a writer to the British public library system.
My mother was a Jewish refugee – an asylum seeker, she’d be called today – who fled Hitler’s Germany and arrived in England on the Kindertransport.
Like generations of immigrants before her, she was determined her children should have the best possible education, which probably explains why some of my earliest childhood memories involve the libraries of Portsmouth. All of them.
I was an early reader, and the story goes that shortly before my fourth birthday, I demanded my own library ticket.
My mum asked the Man at the Desk for an application form, only to be told, “Children can’t be independent library members until they are seven.” (NB, this was back in the twentieth century.)
My mum promptly tore through several Men at several Desks, each one bigger than the one before.
Correspondence flowed like an angry river between our house and the office of the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth. Whose name I forget, although assure you he had a HUGE desk, as well as a gold chain. This I know because he presented me with my very own library card – pink and made of cardboard – long before I turned five.
Armed with this magical passport, I tore through the works of Enid Blyton, Frank Richards, Richmal Crompton and whoever it was who wrote the Chalet School books, before abandoning mum’s recommended classics and graduating to the likes of Ian Fleming and Harold Robbins not so very long after the Eleven Plus.
(Mum confiscated the Harold Robbins, but too late, and The Carpetbaggers probably has much to answer for, along with The World According to Garp, The Diceman, and Tale of Two Cities.)
Anyway. Given the dearth of football managerial opportunities available to women, I was always going to be a writer, and about the first adult decision I ever made was to turn down my University place in favour of an apprenticeship on the local paper.
Jobs followed on bigger papers, on radio stations and at advertising agencies. My mother, had she lived to see it, would have been very proud. And while you can take the girl from Portsmouth, you can’t take Portsmouth from the writer. Which is a first-draft way of saying libraries have always been enormously important to me.
I am, of course, a book-buying junkie – it goes with the territory – but as my career evolved, I prowled the libraries of Southampton, Lewisham, Islington and Camden, my library card, now plastic, always maxed to the hilt.
Then, when I moved to Primrose Hill, the icing on the cake was that my new home was no more than an Oxford English Dictionary’s throw from the local library.
Fast forward more than a decade. I am an author (two books published, a third parked on the hard drive, and a fourth under construction) who supports her habit with the occasional bit of copywriting. The other week, I reread The Diceman.
Primrose Hill’s career, meanwhile, has been yet more spectacular.
Once an affordable Zone Two backwater, it is now home to the likes of Jamie Oliver, Daniel Craig, Alan Bennett (we nod shyly to one another in the newsagent of a morning and occasionally my Jack Russell, Dow Jones, has a spirited crack at knocking him off his bike), David Milliband, Robert Plant, and forty per cent of One Direction.
And the local library? That’s a sad story.
Camden Council finally succeeded in closing it in April this year, citing budget cuts.
The silver lining is that the one-time Chalk Farm Library morphed into the Primrose Hill Community Library, meaning it’s now run by volunteers, assisted by a measure of initial financial support from the local authority.
But once this dries up, the library will have to rely on cash donations from the public – or close its doors forever.
Most of the people I know put their hands in their pockets, eager to step in where Camden Council had failed us.
Now I want to tell you about our local high street, Regent’s Park Road.
It’s a bit special, in that it has some lovely, quirky shops scattered between the many cafes, restaurants and cupcake shops. We’re lucky enough to have one of London’s best bookshops, a trio of hairdressers, various purveyors of strong liquor and a pet shop.
Then there are the chain stores, which include William Hill – very useful, and I do indeed speak from experience – Shepherd Foods, Graham and Green, estate agents John D Wood, and a Save the Children charity shop that operates under the brand of retail guru Mary Portas, who moved here a few months ago.
Over the past few months, there’s been an alarming trend: empty shops. Even Primrose Hill is not immune from the recession.
So imagine my surprise when word swept through the neighbourhood, “Space.NK want to set up a branch in Primrose Hill, and we have to keep them out!”
When I say word swept through the neighbourhood, it began with a couple of local traders protesting that the aforementioned Space.NK – a successful retailer of cosmetics – would be ‘unfair competition’ to an existing beauty salon. And it snowballed from there.
At the time of writing, Primrose Hill is a village divided, The local press has dubbed our squabble “Battle of the beauty salons”.
On the one hand, we have several traders, who have persuaded over 1,000 people – who may or may not live locally – signing a petition requesting that Space.NK should rethink its plan to come to Primrose Hill. “You’re a chain!” they cry. “And we don’t want chains in Primrose Hill. You people will drive up the rents, and then we’ll be out of business. Next thing you know, we’ll have Starbucks and Subway taking over our street. And mobile phone shops.”
On the other hand, we have a significant number of residents, myself included, who acknowledge: “The chains are here already. What are they supposed to do? Rename William Hill Primrose Hill? Space.NK fits the local demographic, and it’s an entrepreneurial business made good. It’ll give the neighbourhood a much-needed shot in the arm, and other shops will benefit from the knock-on effect. Retail competition is a fact of life, and the street isn’t supposed to be a Communist co-operative. The truth is that many of us yearn for a butcher, a nice little WaitroseLocal, or – whisper it – a pound shop, or even a five pound shop. But we’d better keep quiet about that, or we’ll get lynched.”
What’s all this got to do with Libraries?
Last weekend, we had the Primrose Hill Christmas Fair. It’s essentially a street market, where fledgling businesses from all over London come and sell stuff, there are rides for the kids, the burned-sugar aroma of candyfloss mingles with pungent spices and a couple of thousand people rollup and and have a good time.
This year, we also had David Milliband reading poetry (I so hoped he would stand up and recite: I once had a brother named Ed, I really wish he was –– but sadly, he confined himself to reciting ‘twas the night before Christmas), Nick Grimshaw failing to show up, a jolly good time had by all, and rental from the stalls helping to pay for the Christmas Lights.
One of the stalls was taken by – you guessed it – Space.NK. They decided to introduce themselves to the neighbourhood, by running a raffle and offering a face painting service for children.
In an effort to be good neighbours, they offered all takings from their stall to – you guessed this, too – The Primrose Hill Community Library.
You know what I’m going to say next.
The Primrose Hill Community Library turned down Space.NK’s offer of a donation.
“We don’t want your money,” the retailer was informed.
And that was that.
But this being a village, word soon spread.
Space.NK decided instead to give their donation to the local primary school, but that’s not really the point.
The Primrose Hill Community Library relies on goodwill and donations for its future. But now it seems not all money equally acceptable.
I think it’s a shameful decision. In effect, to prefer to make a political point, rather than accept the funds they need to continue to foster literacy and promote the joy of reading.
Space.NK are not arms dealers. Or drug runners. They sell slap. I gather they even pay corporation tax…
I fear local people will think twice before they give the Primrose Hill Some of the Community Library – as it is now being referred to – any more money. I know I will.
Does the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur regret hiring Andre Villas-Boas? (And if not, why not?)
Do I regret giving up my Spurs season ticket? (The answer has three letters.)
Advertising legend Bill Bernbach once said, “A principle is not a principle until it costs you money.”
On this occasion, I hope he was wrong. But I fear his words will turn out to be correct. And that’s a bloody shame.
What would you have done? Taken the money? Or turned it down on the basis that some residents don’t want Space.NK to open a shop in the neighbourhood?
Want to know more about Primrose Hill?
If so, you might like to check out two of my books.
The first, Bets and the City, was supposed to be a beginner’s guide to spread betting, but turned instead into a comic romp (God bless you, Harriman House) about losing far too much of money while hanging out with my gang of friends – the latterati – in Primrose Hill.
Then there’s my fiction debut, The Power Behind The Throne, which has several important scenes taking place in Primrose Hill. If you love a conspiracy thriller, I reckon you’ll enjoy it. Take a look and see if you agree!