About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Opening windows on a love-hate relationship with Christmas

Terrible, to think we're only 12 days away from the 12 days - that we are now halfway through Advent.

It's several decades since I last opened the cardboard window of an Advent Calendar to reveal….well, in those days, it was a badly-drawn scene from the nativity story. I loved that ritual, each morning revealing the next episode. Each year I longed to reach the climactic moment where you looked through the stable door to see Joseph and Mary and a donkey and a crib and lots of golden hay. Coloured cellophane. The cut-out shape of the star of the East. The shepherds with their crooks and glowing lanterns. Hold it up to the light boy!

These days,  kids get sweets, chocolates, trinkets, and for all I know gold, frankincense and myrrh each time they pull back those little flaps.

This year I'm hooked again. No cardboard flaps, though. I've  become an addict of the Advent Calendar of podcaster, Daniel Ruiz Tizon. As he points out so well in the first episode,  for kids the excitement of Christmas is all about the countdown, the expectation - and not about the day itself, which was often a terrible let-down.

OK, we have already got to Day 12 but there's still time to catch up. You can binge on Advent Calendar podcasts on iTunes, instead of one of those boxed-set TV shows. It costs less (well, nothing actually) and it goes straight to the point of our existences on the surface of this planet. In all honesty,  what could be better?

These daily nuggets of storytelling share some of the bitter-sweet observational humour of  the weekly show on ResonanceFM, Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available, which has already had a few mentions on this blog.

The theme is familiar – can jaded, life-battered adults ever recapture the magic of Christmas? – but the treatment is entirely and absolutely Daniel's own. It's sad, it's funny, it's obsessive, it's moving, its addictive. And if you were brought up in England at any point between the 60s and the 90s it's going to get your memory-strings reverberating in interesting ways.

The presents you longed for but never got; the ones you dreaded being given. The visits to no-longer existing department stores. Christmas TV of the 70s and 80s. Christmas pop. Above all the pain, the fights,  the embarrassments and occasionally even the joys of being part of a family.

Each day's episode is only 10 or 12 minutes, so although we're already past the half-way mark of this advent season, you can quite easily catch up. And I recommend you do: you will very soon be as captivated as I am.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's Threatened Libraries part 3: The Minet Library and Archive

Solid, functional, built to last: the Minet Library is not the sort of place that looks likely to take kindly to fashionable
notions of pop-up gyms and unstaffed libraries-lite….it's an archive, for heaven's sake!

However you arrive there, the Minet Library is always a surprise. Coming from the traffic-snarled grime of the A23 and Loughborough Road, it seems like an oasis of tranquillity, keeping an eye on the massive housing developments of past (Angell Town) and present decades (Oval Quarter) to either side.

Sat there in the middle of leafy Knatchbull Road, a street of fairly grand Victorian, Edwardian and later houses,  it has a strange crouching presence, with the outward appearance of a low-lying suburban redoubt. There's even what at a first looks like a drawbridge leading up to the entrance, which is in fact  a wheelchair access ramp.

That impression is perhaps not entirely misleading. The original Minet Library, built in the 1890s, was destroyed during aerial bombardment in 1940. This building, judging from old photos, was a neo-gothic affair with an octagonal reading room.

It was built at the expense of William Minet, the great-great-grandson of Huguenot immigrants to London who became major landowners in the Camberwell and Lambeth areas in the late 18th century.

At this point, I will quote from the wonderfully detailed  Myatt's Fields Park website:

"Minet Free Library and a parochial hall opposite St. James’ were…[William Minet's] bequests to the neighbourhood. William Minet was interested in the Co-operative Movement and the library was built by a company which he formed on co-operative lines.

"Myatt’s Fields Park was an integral part of the philanthropic projects undertaken by the Minet family for the estate. As Sir John Betjeman, who found the area ‘a strangely beautiful place’, put it in 1978, ‘Thank God for the Minet family’."

Have to agree with Sir John there…though Lambeth residents already knew the areas between those brutal trunk routes, the A3, A23, and A2, were beautiful, nothing strange about it.

Pre-war, the library was run jointly by Lambeth and Southwark boroughs. It also, then as now, had a dual function, being both a public lending library and the home of the local council archives.
Open door policy: the public are welcomed into the Lambeth Archive, and
have access to the same expert advice form staff as any academic

These, fortunately, were stored safely in a deep basement and survived the blitz.  The new library, built by Lambeth in the early 1950s, has that austere, brick-built solidity of the post-war era: functional rather than decorative, but admirable in its functionality.

It's saying, this time, we're here for everyone, and we're here to stay. As you enter, there's a large vestibule full of interesting things - and two big glazed entrance doors. One leads straight into the library, the other into the archive. Both are equally accessible to all. This is 1950s democracy in solid brick, wood and glass.

Strong, permanent: the library sits there, challenging by its presence the shiny architecture of the new Oval Quarter being thrown up a bit to the north. But we're entering a new age of austerity (for some)  and wealth (for others) and conflict, and the Minet's going to need all the help to can get, so it would seem - just at a time when it could in fact act as a hub for an even bigger community.

But, as we know the Minet is one of three libraries Lambeth is threatening to turn into gyms. Lambeth say the archive will stay in the Minet "for the time being".

Like all the other threatened libraries, the Minet has an active Friends group which has been keeping everyone informed on the council's moves, representing local interests at meetings, and which is now organising campaigns to challenge the threats to this institution, which remain, after months of protest, pretty much unchanged.

Yes, look how much goes on here:  is all this to be
be squeezed out to house some running
Friends of Minet Library are part of the Minet Hub which also represents the nearby Myatt's Fields Park and the Longfield Hall, a well-used community space which house a dance academy and much more, just two door up the road.

Lambeth made the Minet its official archive. Everything that has been documented in the government of this borough is there. There's an excellent account of the way this archive is run, and its value, by Ruth Waters on the Brixton Blog.

As we've already reported, the longer-term future for the building is far from safe. 

It's not a re-development prospect right now because of surrounding residential property, but that can change very quickly.

Meanwhile, I am stuck in the vestibule, looking at the amazing balsa-wood model of the future of Brixton, as seen by town planners in 1967. This table-top model is all that remains of the grandest, most radical redevelopment scheme in the borough's history, and it reminds us of that time, just before the Six Days War and the ensuing oil crises, when the car was king and every city was going to be modelled on Detroit or Birmingham.
Brixton as it might have been -  in 1967 the whole of central Brixton
was to be redeveloped as part of the inner-London orbital motorway
 scheme, and now this model in the Minet LIbrary is (nearly) all that's
left of it….

A six-lane inner South London orbital motorway flys over central Brixton, lands somewhere on Acre Lane and ploughs off through Clapham Common to the A3/South circular interchange near Wandsworth Bridge. That little stretch down to the river at Wandsworth Bridge was the only bit that was actually built in south west London, apart from the Coldharbour Lane barrier block, which was designed to insulate its residents from the worse impact of traffic speeding past their kitchen windows.

There are two groupings of slightly wonky 50-sotrey residential towers (eat your heart out, Nine Elms), built on the stacked threepenny bit model you can still see in a more modest form above East Croydon station.

And can just about see the notional aerial recreation centre, suspended on a gantry bridge above the motorway, just like one of those early service stations on the M1, such as Watford Gap. Just think, Brixton might have had the first glass-bottomed swimming pool in the UK, 50 years earlier than the one planned for the well-heeled residents of the future Battersea Power Station.

Poignant exhibits in the miniature Brixton Museum,
showing until December 8th in the foyer of the Minet Library
Just think…and then thank god for OPEC and the quick binning of all those road-building schemes. As a result we still have Brixton, rather than a zone 2 version of Croydon on this stretch of the Brighton road.

All this and I haven't even got into the library yet. Ok, but hang on over to the left there's another exhibit: the Brixton Museum, an art installation by Anchor&Magnet,  a space for "dialogue, reflection and exchange". It's only there for a few more days so get along to see it and contribute if you can.

Into the main library, and again it's a light, welcoming space, and it is being used by all age groups. Just like Tate SOuth Lambeth and Carnegie, this is a popular, busy public library, serving the community with print and digital media, advice and information, and maintaining spaces that used by so many community groups.

If you're feeling like you need some exercise after your
visit to the Minet Library and Archive, why not go for a
stroll in beautiful Myatt's Fields, two minute's walk
 down Knatchbull Road?
Check the various noticeboards to see just how much goes on here - it really is an amazing variety of activities. You only have to glance at the news pages and twitter feeds of the Friends of  Minet library to realise how important this library is to local residents, and how deeply felt the affection for this place is. You can't help feeling Lambeth council has taken on a bit more than it reckoned with, when you visit this  marvellous place.

And, if you're in need of a healthy workout after your visit, walk the 100 yards or so to Myatt's Fields, a park very carefully and sensitively restored by the council a few years ago. Here surely is the true healthy living centre of this part of Lambeth.

Why ruin a cherished library so that a few hundred of the thousands of local residents can build their muscles up to a point which will probably be difficult to sustain into their late middle age?

Was that a fair question to ask you, Lambeth Co-operative Council? Was it? Was it?
Is this a busy library, or what? Just where are all these activities going to go if - as proposed - Lambeth decides to install a GLL-run keep fit centre into this building…?

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Correction: Peter's non-stop closing down sale is still on

Catch it while you can…Peter's second-hand store on Prescott Place
survives to trade another day or two, but it won't last for ever...
My one hundred percent record for getting things wrong when it comes to reporting the demise of Greek-owned local businesses remains unblemished, you will be relieved to hear.

Five days ago I reported that Peter's second-hand lock up, in Prescott Place just off Clapham High Street, was finally closing. Yesterday, there he was, the lock-up was  unlocked,  stuff on the pavement, clothes on the rails,  books and bric-a-brac on the shelves, customers nosing out bargains, just like always.

For me it was a delightful reprise of my summer debacle,  prematurely reporting the departure of Andy the Barber on Landor Road. You can see why I never got far as a journalist.

For chapter and verse on Andy's 50 years in SW9, his plans for the future and the views of some of his most loyal customers, please listen to the two-part podcast interview  by Daniel Ruiz Tizon.

But back to Peter. In fact it wasn't quite like always, as his usual crew were not with him, nor his son. He saw it this away: the owner wants to knock down the lock-up and build some sort of luxury accommodation in this tight little plot of land just off the High Street. "Well, they're not going to start building in the middle of the winter are they," he says.

Of course it's possible even probable the owner will resort to using bailiffs, but what would be the point? As Peter says, all he wants to do is clear his stuff. He's keen to finish with this business, and perhaps sell a few Christmas trees on the side.

So - what could be better than  have Peter's festive long-running closing down sale acting as a sort of necessary balance to the over-priced Yuletide fare on sale in the Venn Street farmer's market a bit to the west? Exactly. So get yourselves down there quick - this is one bit of old SW4 that once it has gone will never return.

Once they do start building, they'd better take care not to damage that grapevine.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's threatened libraries

Here's a case of a campaign banner which intrinsically explains why the campaign is necessary. Tate South Lambeth Library, November 2015
I'm not Joni Mitchelll's biggest fan, but two lines of one of her old songs have been playing over and over again in my head of late.

You know the lines…."Don't it always seem the way….", and if you live in Lambeth (and plenty other parts of London, etc) you will know how horribly meaningful it has become, in relation to pubs, cafés, shops, music venues, much-loved murals and even whole council estates…and now, of course, our libraries as well.

And that nagging refrain is driving me mad, sending me out to make sure that at least I will know what we had until it was gone, if the plans laid out in the borough's "Culture 2020" programme actually come to pass.

So it became essential to revisit all of Lambeth's libraries, and especially the ones which are under threat of closure or having their hearts ripped out. There was a practical reason for this pilgrimage as well. I need to go out of my home to work. I don;t like working in cafés. Libraries are by far the best place.  But every time I've been to my own local library (Clapham) over the past few weeks it has been a problem finding somewhere to sit. The place has curiously limited desk space, there are strange little rooms where I don't think I'd be appreciated, and there some incredibly uncomfortable benches.

So - I'm off. Over the next few weeks I want to visit all 10 libraries in the Borough. I already use Brixton quite often (and that's at capacity as well).  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, so that, retrospectively, can be the first of this occasional and probably never-to-br completed series.

The Tate South Lambeth Library was next  on this itinerary, admittedly because it was on the route home from where I was working last week.

What becomes immediately apparent, as you enter each of these libraries, is how very different each is from the next. And how expertly each one has adapted itself and developed services to meet the needs of their surrounding populations, again so different across this hugely diverse borough.

This handsome old library was a case in point. It was also where the protest march of three weeks ago ended, and where the Councillor who devised the 'healthy living centre' plan was holding her surgery. It's a well-positioned building, bang in the middle of the Little Portugual section of South Lambeth Road and facing that colourful parade of  Portuguese cafés, delicatessens and restaurants.

The big banner outside, "SALVE A NOSSA BIBLIOTECA" says it all really. This library is real hub of the local community, including the large Portuguese-speaking community.

From the outside it's an imposing Victorian municipal building, red-brick with ornate terracotta tile work, grand but inviting. Inside the two main rooms are light and airy, but every square foot of space is being used - and even at this quiet time (2.30 on a Tuesday, before schools are out) there's a good mix of people using the building, the photocopiers.

Given to the people of Lambeth nearly 120 years ago, the
library has survived two world wars, depressions and
recessions, only to face the indignity of perhaps being turned
into a gym. So much for social progress.
It's only when you look at the noticeboards or the Friends' website that you realise wheat an amazing range of activities are held here - from a gardening club through to IT sessions for blind and partially-sighted people, a classic film screenings, ESOL classes, a knitting group….the list goes on. In other words it is doing exactly what a branch library should be doing, and would do much more of if it had the resources.

Lambeth's ongoing so-called consultation on the future of this and other libraries has put forward the idea that either Tate South Lambeth or the Durning Library, a mile and a half away in should become a "Town Centre" library for this part of the borough.

Whichever one is chosen, the other will be doomed for conversion into a bookish gym.

This is a desperately unfair and invidious tactic, pitting two of their own libraries, one  against the other, when the staff in each  are working so hard to meet the needs of their own users,  with quite different needs despite their proximity. Is this how a co-operative council behaves?

Next stop: The Minet Library