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

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Why do libraries matter so much? Carnegie's occupiers let the poets explain

Amazing scene in SE24 yesterday afternoon: a young woman was reciting, with passion and clarity, a poem about one of London's great lost libraries, the old Whitechapel Library. She was reading this on the steps of another amazing but seriously threatened London library, the Carnegie Library, Herne Hill.

The poem, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East, by Bernard Kops, described how this library gave him - as a drifting East End street urchin during the early years of the blitz - everything he needed to get going as a writer and to become the great playwright and poet we know today.

It includes these lines:

I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name
and pulled me inside.
And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
And my brain explodes when I suddenly find,
an orchard within for the heart and the mind.
Plenty of other great poems were read out by people  both inside and outside the occupied Herne Hill

Ted Hughe's late poem, Hear It Again, is another amazing work. Hughes had no doubt that libraries were not merely important, but a crucial factor in the development of civilisation.

He pulls no punches. In the first verse, he announces that the destruction of the library in Alexandria 14 centuries back "brain-damaged the human race".

Then these terribly prophetic lines, later in the poem:
And it's plain
Decay of libraries is like 
Alzheimer's in the nation's brain.

The traffic on Herne Hill Road at that time was busy. But whether coming up from Loughborough Junction or down from the leafy heights of Herne Hill, almost every vehicle slowed down and beeped its  support for the occupiers.

In fact, I counted twenty, in the space of about 3 minutes, and 17 of them beeped. They even made it difficult for some of the poetry readers to make themselves heard!

And it was not just private cars. The biggest beeps came from white vans, trucks laden with building debris and scaffolding, taxi cabs, scooters, minibuses, oh yes and Range Rovers and the occasional Audi. Even the police car that had been parked round the corner gave a  little peep as it drove off, and then a couple of growls from its siren.

There's no doubt whatsoever how deeply loved this library is. Nor how much respect there is for the people who are doing their best to save it from this strange Lambeth Council plan to instal some sort of gymnasium.

Attached to the locked metal gates outside the Carnegie Library,
Herne Hill, here's a message those wishing to gut this building need to
We now know, thanks to the Brixton Buzz website,  that Lambeth has issued a possession order to evict the occupiers and get on with its ludicrous scheme of turning part of this dignified building into a gym.

I've read stuff from Labour councillors saying we shouldn't worry, that the library will re-open with the same books, etc etc. Well, I wonder about that.

The real, absolute killer in the Lambeth plan, which they freely admit, is that there will be no trained, paid library staff in the new "healthy living centre". So however many books they have there - and you do wonder who will be looking after them, replenishing stock, etc - there won't be anyone there to help you with informed, expert advice on where to look, or what to try.

And, while Bernard Kops' beloved Whitechapel Library has now closed (it is now part of the art gallery), at least that council (Tower Hamlets) provided a proper library building to replace it, staffed with real, paid librarians.

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