In that Autumn-Ali Private Eye piece there was a quibble about value for money, challenging the idea of £17 for a wafer-thin manuscript, suggesting Ali Smith was a “mite too indulged by her kind sponsors at Hamish Hamilton”. The value for money issue is a thorny one.
There is more in a slim Leonardo Sciascia or a Joseph Roth Granta novella than in a whole raft of doorstop tomes. A sparse Susan Hill novella packs more emotional punch than an epic story. Writing something short and concise is an artform. So it becomes quite complicated when talking about value for money.
There are distant echoes here of Fire Engines, back in 1981 in their immortal Paul Morley feature for the NME, taking (poorly aimed) pot shots at The Clash’s Sandinista, when asked about whether they were ripping off punters with their twenty minute sets: “I’d rather pay seven quid for a great single than 4.99 for three albums of fucking shite”
In January 1981 a 7-inch single for £7 seemed an absurdity, whereas in January 2017 it is a reality. Who buys singles at seven quid willingly? Who buys new vinyl editions of LPs at thirty pounds a time? Who can afford to go to high-profile football matches home and away? Who can feel comfortable about the price of concerts and theatre performances? Who buys new books at £20-odd quid a time?
Thankfully there is still the local library. And the local library had Ali’s Autumn promptly into stock, and had it prominently displayed. That is delightfully apt as Public Library is the title of a campaigning collection of Ali’s stories, a set of tales thematically linked by testimonies to the power of the public library to change lives.
Ali’s Public Library book is very much a timely protest against the policy of councils facing funding crises to close libraries or to outsource them. The testimonials in the book have a strikingly elegiac tone, though. It is hard to recall anyone saying that they go to their local library every day now. Some of us do. It is very much part of the daily ritual, the morning round. The local library today offers sanctuary, more than any church, and a library card serves as a lifebelt. But, it is presumably part of the problem if libraries are viewed fondly as something to do with the past.
“Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” runs a rant by the male lead in John Murray’s The Legend of Liz & Joe, the 2009 novel by the funniest writer around, who was to Cumbria what Shena Mackay was to South London. John is now running writing courses on the Greek island of Kythnos.
There is a well-known, oft-quoted line in a Manic Street Preachers song about libraries. There is a great Go-Betweens song about a library and a girl(a god!) called Karen who works in it. There is a wonderful passage in Bill Drummond’s 45 about how a library formed a vital part of his daily work routine. But those are all pretty old now. Maybe that is part of another problem.
The local library is the biggest in the borough, which is a real bonus, with lovely staff to boot. It has self-service machines for getting books out and when returning them. This modern trend is a bit of an ongoing thing, with the local banks, supermarkets, W.H. Smith, and even Poundland all now having self-service machines. People get used to them.
As well as books, in the library, there are banks of computers, free for members to use, which is a vital service, and free lessons on how to use them. There are a whole host of other activities and services which now share a space within the library. The information desk is there for queries, but also for paying Council Tax, parking fines, for renewing disabled parking permits, for buying bags for recycling garden waste, and so on.
There is a local studies section, which is popular with those into researching their family trees. There are public toilets, which are a godsend because there are so few left for the public to use. There is a coffee machine, and meeting rooms for hire. There is the Citizens Advice (now without its Bureau) section set up in the far corner, and free wifi. In the children’s section, there are often storytime and singalong sessions, which can be fatal if you want to avoid singing about the grand old Duke of York for the rest of the day.
Upstairs in the reference section, there is a quiet study area, which gets packed at the weekends and particularly near to exam times with kids working away at essays and so on. Back downstairs there are vital commodities like the large-print section and shelves of talking books where anguished souls ponder about what will be right for their Aged Ps and other loved ones.
There are shelves of books and maps withdrawn from service, being sold for next to nothing, and CDs and DVDs which can be borrowed for a small charge, though presumably these have been affected by changes in how we listen and watch.
There is a line in an old Pop Group song about “searching for love in the library of a ghost town.” It is the seeking out of the unexpected, the joy of discovery, finding something inspiring and absorbing among what often seems like a random selection of stock, it is this that makes the library’s shelves so compelling.
There is little to compare with finding stray books, picking them up out of curiosity, and becoming enchanted by them, as indeed happened once with John Murray’s Jazz etc., and more recently with Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad and Jonathan Crown’s Sirius. And it is wonderful to find unexpected treats like a glut of Len Deighton and Eric Ambler reissues, or finding classics which delightfully prove to be revelations, such as Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Graham Swift’s Waterland, William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
It is thanks to the local library that it has been possible to hoover up several (actually the tally is up to seven now, so that is just about at the halfway mark!) of Ali Smith’s books in the space of a couple of months, pretty much most of what she has published in the past ten years or so. This has been possible, partly, due to being part of a London Boroughs scheme where it is possible to reserve any book from the many participating libraries for 60p, even from the comfort of a home PC, which is a delightful example of progress.