Libraries gave us power


In Wells-Next-The-Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, in the sunny courtyard of a cafe called Bang!, which is rather lovely and serves a decent coffee.  I am reading this week’s Big Issue, bought from the lady on the High Street in Wells rather than our usual chap on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham (unavoidable disloyalty).

The Big Issue has been running a big literacy campaign recently and as part of that have focused on the importance of libraries in improving access both to books and to other essential services that many people would otherwise be left without.

At the very end of 2016, Nottingham City Council approved plans to sell the site of the Nottingham Central Library to developers. To be turned into new, shiny things but almost certainly not to remain as a library or any other kind of public service. There had been a vocal campaign to save it, with many concerned about the impact the loss of such large resource of help, joy and information would have, not only on the city’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, but on all the library’s users.

This all got me thinking about my own relationship with libraries and why they are so important to me. My local library as a child was Henleaze Library in Bristol, which remains open at present. My mother would take me and my sister on a Saturday, before food shopping at the Waitrose over the road. Many of the books I remember from this age were library books borrowed from Henleaze, and some of them became life-long favourites, such as Lucy Boston’s ‘Green Knowe’ series, which, having never owned them, I have had to buy copies of as an adult. I was also rather partial to the Doctor Who spin-off novelisations, although I recall some of these being better than others!

The best part of two decades later, I found myself back amongst the bookshelves at Henleaze, although this time in the grown-up section. I had just moved back to the UK after three years in Australia, and passed a bewildering seven months trying to rebuild a life in a country which seemed no longer familiar. I worked the same part time job I had had as a student and stayed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. A steady supply of books kept me feeling like I was moving forward, finding new experiences when the real world felt a little like it was moving backwards.

A year or so later, I found myself in Nottingham and Beeston Library became my local. Unemployed, isolated and feeling more than a little bit lost, the library became like a lifeline. It was somewhere that I could go and be a part of despite having no money, and, like Henleaze a year earlier, it gave me the chance to have experiences through reading that were otherwise closed to me. Having access to the latest books despite my sorry state made me feel like I was still living.

Libraries are also great for readers or all ages as they allow you to read outside your usual habits and comfort zone without worrying about having to enjoy it because you have paid eight or nine pounds (or more) for a book. I think carefully about the books I buy, but will borrow books from the library on the basis of cover art or a review quote on the back alone. If it turns out it’s not your thing, you can just take it back for somebody else to try. Because of this, I have had the joy of discovering a wide range of books, their different voices and perspectives, that it is otherwise unlikely I would ever have picked up.

Bromley House

I am now lucky enough to be a member of a beautiful private library in Nottingham (Bromley House, in the photo above), but I still visit my fantastic new local library in West Bridgford. It makes me feel so happy to see how busy it is, particularly with families at the weekend, and seeing children getting the same experience that I did as a child. I hope a library will always be there for them as they become adults, and for their own children, however they use it and whatever role it takes in their lives.


Down and Out



I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London in 2001, when I was 17. There were two things in the book that really struck me and have stayed with me to this day.

The first was the part about Tower House, the doss house on Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, East London, where Orwell stayed. I was transfixed by the idea of this ‘Monster Doss House’ (although I think it was Jack London in fact who awarded it that title), and when I found out that it was still standing, abandoned and derelict, I went on a visit. This was around 2002 or 2003 (I in fact visited twice, so perhaps both), and Tower House looked like this. I have some of my own photos somewhere but this was the pre-digital world and they will be hardcopies. At that time, Whitechapel was pre-gentrification, Fieldgate Street was a grimy, unkempt little passage and the building itself was being squatted by homeless people. It was truly a dismal scene.

In around 2005, the building got converted into luxury flats. It is a ‘modern portered development’ of ‘contemporary apartments’. Fieldgate Street is ‘conveniently located in the heart of Whitechapel with pavement cafes, boutique shops and galleries’ nearby. And whilst I am generally in favour of progress, a small part of me felt an enormous loss.

The second thing that stayed with me was the Twopenny Hangover. So fascinated was I by the idea that for two pence you could spend a night on a bench with a rope to lean on, that I spent years seeking more information and in particular pictures of this doss house set-up. Unfortunately very little information exists, and even fewer pictures, but the one above has lately appeared online. It apparently shows a doss house in Hamburg, where they probably didn’t call it a Twopenny Hangover, but it is most certainly the same thing.

Watching the BBC TV series ‘Victorian Slum’, I was far more joyful than was probably appropriate to see that the recreated doss house featured its very own Twopenny Hangover. The participants in the series, in which modern families are ‘sent back in time’ to experience the hardships of life at the bottom end of Victorian society, understandably greeted the Hangover with baffled amusement. They were a nice bunch and it was a well-made and interesting series, so I mean no criticism here, but the format naturally encouraged frequent comments on the difficulties of Victorian life, and how lucky we are now, in the modern world, with all our creature comforts and safety nets in place. One of the participants, overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and house his family, commented on how nowadays, this wouldn’t happen, how we have housing associations and council services to help us.

I very strongly wanted to direct him and all those who may be nodding along at home to another BBC programme, the documentary filmed in the housing offices of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where all but the most vulnerable (and ‘vulnerable’ is a very high bar) were turned away to fend for themselves on the streets, as there simply was no accommodation available. We may have one less derelict building and many more luxury flats, but how much use are they really at £1500+ per month rent? Watching the documentary, I wondered how far away we really are from the world of the doss house and the Twopenny Hangover.