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

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

If Spain can afford beautiful public libraries like this one….why can't Lambeth?

This is the children's library - about one eighth
of the total floorspace of the splendid
Biblioteca di Gandia

Gandia, at the southern end of the Spanish province of 
Valencia, is not only the home of the infamous Borja 
family of popes and one saint, it is also where you find 
the best paella in Spain…and one of the best public 
libraries it has ever been my privilege to visit.
Apologies for long silence on this here blog thing. Have been holed up in a quiet and lovely Spanish city, an hour's train ride from the big bad port city of Valencia.

The small city in question is Gandía, and despite being the birthplace of the Borgias (or Borjas, as I have now learned to called them, yes they of the lurid 2011 TV drama starring Jeremy Irons etc), it's an immensely civilised place - at least in the winter, before the tourist hordes arrive.

I'm here to teach English, on a brief training placement paid for by that magnificent institution, the European Union, via an even more admirable, erudite and loveable body known as Erasmus. It's not a holiday: I teach 21 hours a week, in a Catholic secondary school, with classes of up to 40 13 to 18-year old kids. They're very noisy, sometimes a bit cheeky, but essentially they are delightful. It's absolutely worth the sweat we all put into it, on average two hours' prep per one hour teaching.

There's a very welcome lack of that oh yeah teenage "attitude" that I've seen so much of in the UK. Most of these kids are more interested in learning English than in seeming cool. But then to them English (or at least American) is cool, so we have an advantage.

Beautiful, spacious, cool, clean and stuffed with books and
resources and lots of helpful staff. A public library,  Spanish style,
helping to equip its citizens for a tough century ahead.
So, it's not exactly the EU gravy train I'd imagined. The work is exhausting, the accommodation is paid for but basic. I am unpaid but have a subsistence allowance, which covers most of the food and drink and travel.  Food and drink from the local Mas Y Mas supermarket is excellent and excellent value, compared with Tesco - or even Brixton market.

And you can get a good coffee or beer or glass of wine plus a massive tortilla sandwich in any bar, spend an hour using their wi-fi,  and come away with plenty of change form a five euro note.  Plus a smile and as much conversation as you can manage.

If you're lucky, like I was, you might fall into conversation with a photographer who retired here after half a century of astonishing, world changing photojournalism. This guy was German: he fell in love with this area thirty years ago, after a career working in South Africa, photographing Mandela and the ANC.

He also enjoys the café culture, where the unemployed, the migrant, the teachers, the bankers, the ex-pats, the students, aspiring writers, artists,  and the wealthy all meet to drink and talk in the same place.  The local cafe. Good coffee and good food: a simple human right. No-one here would dream of paying more than a euro (75p) for an espresso. They'd laugh at Costa Coffee. A simple human right.

Like a good library.

Where can you do that in so-called sophisticated, metropolitan, multi-cultural London? Here, they split off into cliques and clubs and age-groups. Horrible. So, where in London is my ideal Spanish café?

Tell me, tell, please tell me. And this is provincial Spain.

The apartment looks like it was abandoned in 1971, and even then it was badly in need of new plumbing. There's no internet, a big problem for someone used to doing all my lesson planning online.

So every night, I go out in search of wi-fi, and have visited many interesting and a fair few rowdy bars in this quest. Which brings me to the main point of this entry.

Complaining about this lack of connectivity in the absurdly small staffroom (there'd be a teacher riot if this was in a British school), my charming, always helpful mentor suggest I might try the local Biblioteca.

It's three minutes walk from the school, housed in a beautiful medieval building in a sun-drenched square complete with impossibly tall palm trees. I walk up to the door; it slides open. To the left is a relaxation area, about the size of the main room at Tate South Lambeth; there are comfortable chairs, tables with computers, racks of magazines and newspapers. To the right through another sliding door is the library proper. I pass the desk. Two staff are there to answer all queries. There's a big children's library, and beyond that a courtyard with orange trees, and a small cloister with  and a pemrnanet display of local historical photographs. I begin to learn a bit about Gandia's important role in the SPanish Civil War (this whole region was one of the most strongly anti-Fascist areas , and it was singled out by Franco for some particularly vile treatment.

I wander into the cafe for a cortado and a boccadillo, fresh chewy bread filled with newly-made, warm tortilla. Well stuffed, I go back to the main desk to ask about wi-fi. There's a sign there giving the pass word, and one of the staff points me upstairs. On the first floor is the main adult lending library (again with a floor area about the size of most of Lambeth's branch libraries), as well as a study area
(five groups of four-seater classroom style tables); a computer room (PCs at individual desks lining three walls) and a big music and DVD collection.

On this floor there's also a lecture room.

But there's another floor above housing specialist academic collections, as well as a big collection in the local dialect (Valenciano) and other languages, again with plenty of study space in three rooms.

Above that there's the city archive.

On each floor there are four or five staff at work, working toilets and bathrooms, power points for charging your laptop, stationery to borrow. It's a dream of an ideal public library and it is always busy, but never uncomfortably packed, even though I arrive towards the end of the year's main exam season. Oh yes, because of these exams the library is open up to midnight on weekdays.

As a whole this library brings together aspects of our very own Minet, Carnegie and Tate South Lambeth Libraries in a building that's bigger than the Brixton central library, more spacious, better equipped and better staffed. I'm not sure if the staff here are as knowledgable and friendly as you lot in Lambeth…in fact I doubt if they could be. But they have secure jobs….

Anyway, this place becomes my spiritual home, and I can't help thinking….Gandia is a small city, 80,000 population, and this is not its only library. Most of Spain has been hit far harder by the 2008 economic crash than the UK. I'm not an economist but I see that Spain's GDP per capita is about 29,000 pounds per annum compared with the UK's 44,000 pounds…

…But then we need all that extra cash to buy our ludicrously overpriced apartments, oh and for all the advanced features of our society that, as well know, don't really do much to add to the sum total of human happiness.

So for as long as I can I will enjoy the marble-floored, light, cool spaces of this library. I know that until recently I would have told a SPanish teacher that at least in Lambeth you will find some good local libraries, where you can work, relax, study, meet people. Now, of course, I know that this will not be true for large areas of that borough very soon…unless.

Will be back I hope in time for the next big march. Thanks and love to everyone working so hard to Save Lambeth's wonderful libraries!

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