“I owe my career to the British public library system.”

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.

No dice.

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.

“Should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.” New York Times Review

(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.

We fought.

We petitioned.

We lost.

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.

Alan Bennett takes a night off from being chased along the streets of Primrose Hill by my dog, Dow Jones

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.

“Primrose Hill Community Library will close forever unless local people donate cash.”

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.)

Will The Primrose Hill Community Library regret telling Space.NK to shove their money? 

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!

 

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11 Responses to “I owe my career to the British public library system.”

  1. Ian says:

    I’m a Spurs fan and a founder of Voices for the Library (hopefully you’ve heard of us!). I don’t agree with you re AVB (I’m glad they got rid of Harry)…but that’s for another day :)

    I think your point re the community library gets to the heart of something that has concerned me for sometime about the nature of these services. Once they are no longer owned by the council, they are owned by a small section of the community. That means that they are not operated in the best interests of the community as a whole necessarily, but in the interests of the community that runs the library. This applies to funding, as highlighted here, but also in terms of stock and broader policy decisions. What you describe is simply the tip of the iceberg. Like many others, I have been warning about what the growth of community libraries means in reality (it’s a bit like the government’s promotion of mayors – it gives the impression of devolving power but actually concentrates it). Everyone who cares about libraries should ensure that as much as possible, the service is provided by the council to ensure it meets the needs of EVERYONE within the community. Community libraries do not and will not to the same degree. They are just not as good as a council run service.

    As for AVB…things are slowly coming together ;)

    • sally says:

      I’d love to agree with you 100%, Ian, but I wish Harry had been allowed to finish the job, and guide us back into European Glory Glory nights.

      Consider the following: Had AVB not been sacked and replaced by RDM, then Chelsea would never have won the Champions League, we would therefore have qualified in fourth place, and Harry would still be in the hot seat. So in effect, AVB is to blame for Harry’s departure.

      I take it you believe we had to go backward to go forward? But think back to that game last season against Newcastle, then contrast it with AVB’s brand of football. He may grow into the job, and we can only hope so.

      Talking of libraries, did you know Terry Venables once wrote a novel?

  2. Elizabeth (@ElizCro) says:

    This just highlights the concerns many hold in regard to volunteer run community libraries. Public libraries will have policies and procedures in place to deal with such things; community libraries may not.

    I wonder whether those running the library were caught on the hop by this offer of a donation and, not wanting to delay to confer, or to alienate locals who were against this store, declined the offer made. Unfortunately though, Primrose Hill Community Library may lose the support of others who see this as a foolish rejection of much needed funds.

    My concern is that volunteer run libraries might go off on further tangents, not originally intended. The real value of public libraries is their neutrality. Whatever my lifestyle, political leaning, sexual orientation or interests I am as welcome as the next person and I can expect my needs and interests to be accommodated.

    Is there not a very real danger that volunteers might follow own agendas or be swayed by weight of opinion by those most vocal, deciding to reject certain book stock, activities or offerings in the library?

    It appears that local authorities consider volunteer run libraries as being additional to core provision and therefore are not covered by the 1964 Act, which means the provision need not be deemed comprehensive. Will we shortly see volunteer run libraries choosing to promote or suppress different things – such as one or more religions over another, or making value judgements regarding lifestyle choices.

    I also see the very real threat that book choice could be limited by the imposing of criteria, based on the principles held by a small group. Who is to decide what is great literature and what selection of materials is on offer? None of these and other issues is a concern in public libraries as they need to comply with the Act.

    • sally says:

      Thank you for the insights and the broader perspective.

      An ex-boss once said to me, “Make every mistake in the book. But only once.”

      I hope the Library has learned from this.

      I also wish those who are campaigning with so much energy against the arrival of Space.NK had shown equal passion when we were fighting for the Library to continue under the auspices of Camden Council.

  3. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  4. gillian says:

    A truly entertaining piece. I would just like to say that I bumped into a big Space NK fromage this morning on my way to work, who informed me that the offer from Space NK was actually 50% of their first day’s trading- which i should imagine (just before Christmas) would equate to quite a tidy sum!

    • sally says:

      Space.NK have confirmed that this was indeed their offer. Which means the library rejected a four figure donation…

      I am also told that the people at Primrose Hill Primary School – staff and parents – are absolutely thrilled by this unexpected windfall.

      The more I think about it, the happier I become. Not only because I am one of life’s optimists. But because I believe the school will use the money wisely.

  5. LA says:

    Wow, just… wow.

    I’ve rewritten this comment three times to try and properly get my disbelief across but this is the best I’ve got.

    Just…. wow.

  6. Objective Observer says:

    Interesting and heartfelt piece, BUT, I have seen the correspondence which passed between Space NK and PHCL (Primrose Hill Community Library) and, I’m sorry to say, you are factually incorrect.
    So, sorry, Gillian and Sally, but you are simply mistaken.
    There is no conflict here, there is no attempt to play politics by the library, quite the reverse, and there is no sense in which the library wishes to, or should, involve itself in the politics of the High Street.

    • sally says:

      But the facts are not in dispute.

      They went unchallenged when I spoke to the Library via Facebook – although unfortunately, the Library decided to ‘hide’ our conversation. I also know that a member of PHCL went into Gillian’s shop for a conversation on Monday, and the facts were not in dispute then, either.

      Moreover, I met a Space.NK executive on Tuesday who told me the offer was of 50 per cent of their first day’s takings on December 8th 2012, rather than for the takings at the Fair.

      Having now reached the ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ phase, I wonder if perhaps the library volunteers thought that by turning down Space.NK, they were removing themselves from High Street politics, rather than throwing themselves in at the deep end?

      My understanding is that the Library Board will now be thrashing out a consistent policy about donation acceptance, which is – surely – a good thing.

  7. francesca says:

    I wonder, if as Objective Observer says the piece is “factually incorrect”, then surely PHCL would have been the beneficiary of Space NK’s generosity. Space NK offered a donation to someone in Primrose Hill and as we all know Primrose Hill School will be the beneficiary of the donation. There are only two ways this have gone, accept the donation or don’t accept it. So it seems to me that it may be a case of the same facts in a prettier dress.

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