The plastification of Halloween, fusion of festivals of the dark

Stone cross on tomb with bare tree behind against a cloud-swept sky. Photo by Bill Mill.It’s that time of year again. The supermarket aisles are filled with plastic pumpkins and however many other Halloween spin-offs the buying team was able to order from China. It always irks me to see an ancient and interesting festival being used to relieve consumers of their money for yet more junk to fill our attics and oceans.

The social and ecological objections may hold good but, as Jason Mankey points out, bemoaning the commercialisation of the ‘true’ festival makes little sense. Modern-day Halloween is a curious amalgamation of various traditions and customs which have evolved and overlapped over time: the Celtic festival of Samhain on October 31st and the Christian All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, plus All Saints’ Day, which begins with the ‘hallowtide’ vigil on the 31st.

Not much is known about Samhain’s origins in the Celtic pagan world, and there is little to suggest it was concerned with the dead and discarnate. But it seems reasonable to conclude that, in line with the other festivals that punctuate the agricultural year, Samhain marked the beginning of winter, the time when life became less certain and darker in all senses. As such, it was perhaps a time of cultivated fearfulness, with rituals designed to acknowledge and come to terms with forces beyond human control.

All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is traditionally a time when good Christians remember their dead. Its association in the Catholic Church with the doctrine of purgatory – the state in which saved souls undergo a process of purification before proceeding to heaven – makes it a natural time for popular intercession. On All Souls’ of times past, the living helped to alleviate the suffering of their dead through the lighting of candles – soul lights – or the giving of soul-cakes to the needy.

Its calendar-neighbour All Saints’ Day also gives expression to this sense of a powerful bond between the living and the dead. Thanks are given for the lives and deaths of the saints who remain responsive to human prayers from their place in heaven. Today, in various countries around the world, observance of All Saints merges with the remembrance of the dead, with customs such as the taking of flowers to the graves of loved ones. In some countries, it’s a full-blown party in the graveyard, as held in Spain on the Dia de Todos los Santos.

The Spanish celebration of All Saints clarifies, for me, the meaning and function of Halloween in modern Britain: in a culture which has a profoundly uneasy relationship with death, the festival serves to preserve a connection with the dark and difficult. As Ronald Hutton puts in in The Stations of the Sun, ‘The fun consists principally of parodying or evoking two phenomena with which present-day industrial society is profoundly uneasy: the supernatural, and death.’

Black cat sitting behind large pumpkin
Halloween: all you need is a pumpkin and a black cat
In this respect it’s perhaps not surprising that Halloween is close, in both date and mood, to another early winter festival that centres on our difficult relationship with modern, man-made death: Remembrance Sunday. My uneasy feelings about the militaristic way we mark that day in this country crystallised in the course of research for The Secret Life of God, thanks to a sermon given by Art Lester at Croydon Unitarian Church. The Revd Lester drew on his experience of the easy mixing of the dead and living on All Saints’ in Spain – see the full account here – using it to highlight the contrasting, death-denying attitudes prevalent in Britain. And so it was that the intertwinings of our festivals of the dark enlightened me.

But the last word, for those of us celebrating Halloween this year, goes to Ovid by way of a rebuke to the purveyers of Halloween plastic: “Ghosts ask but little: they value piety more than a costly gift”.

Hunting foxes, hanging parliaments

Hunt master in red jacket on horse with line of hounds
John Harwood

Amid the mass of coverage spewed out by my radio the day after the election, I was struck by one voter’s reason for rejecting the incumbent Tory government. It was the Tories’ plans to repeal the hunting ban, he told the interviewer; he just couldn’t stomach them.

The hunting ban, which became law under a Labour government in 2004, put an end to a ritualised blood sport that had become popular, with its red jackets and ceremony, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In recent elections the Conservatives have generally supported the repeal of the Hunting Act, with May promising a free vote this time around. But with issues like Brexit and Austerity at stake, you would have thought it would be a pretty minor election issue.

Yet hunting seems to have had a significant influence on voters. According to one poll, half the electorate felt that a candidate’s position on hunting would affect the way they voted, while other research suggested that keeping the ban was Labour’s most popular policy. Corbyn no doubt expressed the feelings of many supporters when he characterised hunting as a ‘barbarity’.

Why such strong feelings? I think that hunting is one of those symbolic issues which plays into our sense of who we are and who we want to be. A distaste for violence, along with a growing awareness of the natural world and our impact on it, is central to the values of a modern western society. Add to that the fact that the British, as the enduring popularity of Springwatch shows, are a nation of animal lovers, and it’s clear why the re-legalisation of a bloodsport would be seen as retrograde.

Foxes, as the hunters of live animals prey of choice, seem to arouse particularly strong feelings. In books they tend to appear as either villains or heroes – as the shyster in Beatrix Potter or the Robin Hood-style family provider in Fantastic Mr Fox. These attitudes manifest into equally polarised human behaviours, with tabloids reporting ‘attacks’ by urban foxes on the one hand and extraordinary attempts by animal rescuers to help foxes on the other.

For me, this election campaign has coincided with a chance to experience the world of animal rescue at first hand. At Secret World Rescue Centre I’m learning how orphaned foxes are reared and, once fully grown, returned to the wild.

Peter Trimming
In particular, I’m following the fortunes of one trio of cubs who illustrate the extremes of attitudes towards foxes. With their (still lactating) mother shot by a neighbour of the land where they had their den, the cubs are now being cared for by other humans. It’s tricky work because human contact needs to be kept to a minimum so that the foxes will remain wild enough to survive in an environment in which humans – ban or no ban – remain a key predator.

If all goes well, by the end of the summer the cubs will be released into the wild, as will, soon afterwards, a short book telling their story.

Meanwhile, I hope that May, for as long as she’s around, will have more on her legislative plate than creating more vulpine orphans.

To be notified about the publication of Little Foxes: A very British story (working title) leave your email in the box above.

Dying to talk: death cafe at Bradford on Avon

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to do something I’d been wanting to do for some time – attend a death cafe. The death cafe movement, which aims to address the western stigma against talking about death and dying, has been going from strength to strength since the first British death cafe was held in Hackney in 2011. In the South West, writer Sue Brayne has now run over thirty on her canal boat Mystic Moon.

I can’t write about Sue’s death cafe better than Sue herself, so her blog, with her kind permission, is reproduced below.

Two daffodils, with pale outer leaves, against a black background
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger

Well, how long IS it going to take for them to die? Guest post by Sue Brayne

Mystic Moon rocked gently on her moorings as participants climbed aboard, making one participant a trifle uneasy. But we soon settled down to talk about what really matters with Noo Noo, the cat from next door’s boat, purring blissfully on someone’s lap.

Our conversation began by discussing the difference between Eastern and Western attitudes towards death and dying.

One participant had lived in India and Indonesia for many years and is a practising Buddhist. She has only recently returned to the UK, and now works in pastoral care at a local hospice. ‘I am saddened and shocked by people’s attitudes towards death and dying over here,’ she said. ‘There seems to be such reticence to talk about end of life issues. People seem to be so fearful of speaking about it. In Asia death is accepted as part of life. When someone dies the community comes together to celebrate their life, and it’s normal for members of the community to lay out the body as a mark of respect.’

“I think it’s because so few families live together these days in UK,’ said a participant. ‘We have lost community and what community means, especially when people die.’

‘Lack of community and accepting that death is a normal part of life makes people worried about doing the wrong thing or saying something to make things worse,’ said another participant. ‘I agree,’ said someone else. ‘The dying are also afraid of upsetting their relatives, so they hold it together for the family and nothing important is mentioned.’

‘A big problem is that death has become so medicalised,’ said an end of life care worker. ‘People mainly die in hospitals these days because lots of families don’t want to, or can’t cope with caring for a dying relative at home. This is beginning to change, especially for those with cancer because of Macmillan nursing support. But you don’t automatically get that with other terminal illnesses like Motor Neuron disease or heart disease. People have to get on with it the best they can if they want to be cared for at home.’

‘The decision to care for someone at home is a very personal thing,’ said a participant. ‘I’m not that sort of person, so for me it is out of the question. My mother knows this, and I don’t feel bad about it. ‘

‘I really didn’t want to see my father naked,’ said another participant. ‘I never did when he was alive, and I felt really uncomfortable about seeing him naked as he was dying. So I was very relieved he was in hospital being cared for by nurses. They were fantastic.’

Other participants also felt uncomfortable about washing their dying parent, or caring for the body after they had died, although some felt better about doing this for one parent more than the other. ‘I feel okay about caring for my mum,’ said a participant, ‘but I had a very difficult relationship with my father, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to do that for him.’

‘In my experience of working in palliative care,’ said the end of life carer, ‘sons are more reticent to see their mother naked than daughters seeing their father naked. But it does depend on the kind of relationship they have had.’

The end of life carer went on, ‘Because we have co-opted death to professional agencies, and it is now expected that professionals will care for the dying, it removes families for the reality of death or being able to cope with caring for a dying relative. Instead, I have experienced many family members expecting us to stop death from happening. They assume that if we are in the nursing profession our job is to make their relative well again. This might not be what the dying person wants, by the way, because they may be wanting to die but not saying it for fear of upsetting those around them.’

This started a discussion about DNRs (Do Not Resuscitate) statements. The pastoral carer voiced concern about whether DNR requests were respected by medical staff. ‘One patient told me how terrified they were of their DNR request not being followed when they started to die. They said in considerable distress, “I don’t want to be half way up the stairs, and to be brought back down again.”’

‘The difficulty is that these days doctors are terrified of not offering life extending treatments – to show they are doing something to the relatives,’ said another participant. ‘Paranoia about medical mal practice is becoming as bad as it is in the USA.’

‘I had a different experience,’ said someone else. ‘My mother was given a DNR by the doctors, but she didn’t want it. She was terrified of death, so she wanted the hospital to do anything and everything to save her life even though there was nothing they could do for her. When I approached the doctors about this, they just fobbed me off. I found that very distressing. If a patient wants to have life saving treatment, they should be given it without question.’

This turned our conversation yet again to the importance of making an Advance Directive. ‘It’s all very well talking it through with your GP,’ said the end of life carer, ‘but if you don’t actually have it in the house, or beside your bed, it doesn’t mean anything. So if it’s not there and the ambulance is called, they are legally bound to resuscitate you even if you have requested a DNR’.

‘That’s a big issue for paramedics,’ said a participant who works as a front line responder. ‘We have to resuscitate people unless the person has their Advance Directive on them. Which, of course, they don’t if they’ve been knocked down in the street or involved in a car crash.’

This prompted a discussion about the difference between providing solace to those who are terminally ill and those are involved in fatal accidents. ‘There’s often a lot of panic around when there’s been a harrowing incident,’ said the first line responder. ‘So it’s about containing that, and also providing support and care for the person who is probably dying in acute trauma. I often see fear in their eyes, but rather than using a platitude like, “You’re going to be okay,” I just hold their hand and say, “I’m here with you.” It seems to give them comfort. I have discovered over the years that people, even when in major distress, know if you are lying to them.’

‘I agree about the important of being honest with those facing the end of life,’ said the end of life carer. ‘But over the years I have noticed how stressed relatives can be, so they often don’t really connect with what’s going on. I’ve had relatives ask me things like how long is it going to take for Mum or Dad to die because they need to get back to work. They will have a look of alarm on their face and say something like, “I can’t possibly take six weeks off – so how long is it going to be?” I’ve also known some relatives say, “But I’ve got a holiday booked”. Or even, “It would be better for them to die now because it’s the school holidays soon.” I have to explain that dying from a terminal illness is a process not an event, and the person dies when they are ready.’

‘What would help people to deal with the fear of death?’ asked a participant. ‘I don’t know,’ said someone. ‘I was brought up to be terrified of death. My mother was Jewish and used to tell me, “Death is the Enemy.” Over the years I have got used to this fear, and I actually like it now. I think the most important thing to realise is that death is part of the creative process. There are peeks to every facet of life. Eventually everything comes to an end, because that’s what happens.

‘Life is like a wave, said someone else. ‘It’s follows the law of physics, and everyone’s life has a beginning, middle and end to it.’ ‘Can you imagine if life never ended?’ said someone else. ‘How ghastly that would be. Everything would just fall apart. We need to know there will be an ending to value what we have right now, and to give our lives structure and meaning.’

We all agreed with this, and it was a poignant moment for the pop-up Death Café to conclude.

Sue Brayne’s The D Word: Talking about Dying: A Guide for Relatives, Friends and Carers is available on Amazon.

Why I’m a Remembrance dissenter

Lone soldier with rifle marching in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington DC

The following is an extract from The Secret Life of God

On the Sunday closest to the eleventh of November, I set off to see how the Newington Unitarians mark Remembrance Day. This year, the day has acquired an added poignancy, with record poppy sales attributed to a rise in support for the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. A generation that has never known war finally has a conflict of its own, with real dead people to commemorate.

Fate, or rather my own incompetence, is against me. I miss the train by seconds, my hand smacking against the closing door. I know there is another Unitarian church just a bus ride away, although I don’t have the address. And so it is that, at a few minutes to eleven, I find myself careering around the concrete jungle that is Croydon, asking directions of the policemen posted at street cordons in readiness for the military parades. One officer helpfully walkie-talkies another to ask the location of the Unitarian Church, but he doesn’t know either. Cantering off in a likely direction, I enter the United Reformed Church just as the two minute silence is ending. The minister, seeing a woman in spiritual need, comes and put his hand on my arm, looking empathically into my eyes. But I am just physically lost, and in a hurry to get to a rival church.

Croydon Unitarian Church is a few hundred yards further on, a modern building crouching by the flyover. The service is well under way as I take a pew behind a sea of white heads. The interior has a utilitarian plainness and an abstract mural hangs in place of the east window; I feel momentary disappointment at the lack of the visibly numinous. But the proceedings have pace and interest: an American minister with a walrus moustache reads a poem by Mark Twain with aplomb, and introduces a silence with eloquence.

Yet as he moves to the pulpit to give the address, the Revd Art Lester seems gripped by hesitancy. It is a day on which it is easy to give offence, he begins slowly, a difficult day for ministers obliged to preach. Perhaps it has something to do with Britain in November, the loss of the last of the warmth which gives the time of year a bleakness like no other: he pauses, and mops his brow before finally getting to the point.

Remembrance Day is very different in the Spanish village where he and his wife once lived, he tells us. Every year, the whole village troops up to the hilltop cemetery for a service followed by a picnic among the dead. Graves become tabletops and commemoration gives way to fiesta because, for the locals, the dead are all around. ‘Here’s my father,’ a village woman had once said, and the minister had turned, hand outstretched, to find, instead of the bent old man he expected, a tombstone.

Unlike the Spaniards with their enviable connection with their dead, the Croydon minister continues, Britain’s remembrance of its war dead is dominated by a feeling of them ‘not being all right’. The country strikes him as being stuck in the first stages of grief – anger – and the triumphalist trappings of its annual commemoration suggest there are unresolved feelings. Their belligerence left out something that was important yet difficult to think: the fact that the conflicts had created deaths which were ‘early and probably senseless’. Maybe, he suggests, it would be better to ‘remember differently’ rather than continue to mark the day with brass bands and bugles. He pauses. He had often met with anger when expressing this unorthodox view, and had hesitated to give this sermon today, even though he knew he was among friends. Then he leaves the lectern and goes and sits down at the back of the dais with the air of a man who has got something difficult over with.

I gauge the silence that follows for signs of tension or discomfort, but find only calm. As the next hymn fills the air, I find to my surprise that I am suppressing a strong urge to cry. I master myself in time to notice the elderly lady in front dabbing her eyes with a white cotton hanky. ‘Is it the emotion?’ asks her neighbour sympathetically. The white head, doubtless full of its own war memories, nods wordlessly.

As the congregation gathers itself to leave, an elderly gentleman sporting an outsized poppy gets to his feet. The sermon leaves us with an important question to take away, he declares: how do you remember the dead without celebrating the war? He had been to a number of services in various churches that week but – he inscribes the air with a rhetorical flourish – he was certain you wouldn’t find anything like this anywhere else.

I should mention The War.

Or rather, the first and second world wars and how the deaths and enforced separations they brought worked subterranean influences which rippled down through the generations of my family, leaving their traces in absences and silences. It was a common enough story, shared by many British families.What made mine different was having a parent on each side of World War Two: a mother whose childhood was shaped by Blitztime London and evacuation to the country, and a Viennese father who had been conscripted at seventeen to fight for the Nazis and subsequently taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans.

Both histories came together in an odd postwar confluence in San Francisco in 1960. My mother was fleeing the gloom of 1950s’ Britain, with its greyness and rationing: with her best friend, she packed her trunk and sailed across the Atlantic. Other young Europeans were also escaping to the New World. At a party in San Francisco she met my father, who was building a new life in a society which, he said, had treated him better as an enemy than the one for whom he had fought.

Elements of life on the Home Front often entered my youth in fragments, like findings from an archaeological dig: vivid, yet lacking in context. There was the story of how a freshly docked sailor endowed my mother, then about eight, with the ultimate wartime rarity of an orange; references to the moving around and making-do of the time were always getting into admonitions about how you should be grateful for what you had, and look after your things. But while the facts of my father’s very different war were never hidden, he rarely talked about his experiences. Ebullient in company, at home he was a man of long silences from which it was difficult to recall him.

One day, in possibly my tenth year, as yet another battle played out on the TV screen, it dawned on me that being a soldier involved physical violence. ‘Dad,’ I asked, wide-eyed from my place on the sofa, ‘Did you ever kill a man?’ ‘Oh no,’ said my father, almost contemptuously, and relapsed back into silence. His wartime legacy manifested itself in other ways. There was his habit of bolting his food and then absent-mindedly helping himself to more when the rest of us had barely started eating, which he put down to his time in prison camp where, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat much. At village parties in the 1970s, the fact that some of the men had fought on the same battlefront entered the small talk. ‘Oh, were you at Monte Casino, too?’ a neighbour would ask cheerfully as he sipped his sherry. Decades later, when the village amateur dramatic society put on a production of ’Allo ’Allo! to mark D-day, my father, who could not act but was valued for his innate ability to play the funny foreigner, was General Von Schmelling. The play ended in satirical chaos, with a row of goose-stepping, uniformed Nazis – a part for every older man in the company – lining up on stage while the audience howled with laughter. The horrors of war had been tamed, rendered hilarious and made available in a village hall near you.

But within the family, the solution of not talking about the war prevailed. One day, a man from the Imperial War Museum in London came to record my father’s experiences for the oral history archive. Afterwards, hoping to get some real sense of his past, I listened to the tape alone. I was disappointed. The recording had the same tone of faux jocularity that coloured the rare occasions he did talk about his past, the anecdotes of his life as soldier and prisoner-of-war recounted as if they were part of some great escapade. This was my father the raconteur, the persona he used to entertain visitors and villagers. As a personal response to a youth blighted by war, it didn’t ring true, and I sensed that some sort of emotional burial had taken place.

It wasn’t the only war burial in the family’s emotional history. As long as I could remember, I had been familiar with the central story of my grandmother’s life: her love for Jack. She had waited patiently for him to finish a long-running dalliance with an older woman before he finally proposed. But four years after they married, Jack was dead, leaving her a widow at twenty-nine. It was the age before the welfare state, so she returned to junior school teaching, farming out her baby daughter as best she could. She taught until retirement. She thought then of the prophecy, made years before by a fairground fortune teller, that she would spend all her life surrounded by young children. My grandmother was puzzled. She was getting married, and married women didn’t work; that phase of her life was over. But the fortune teller couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, merely repeating: ‘All your life, I see you surrounded by small children.’

I was twenty-one before I learnt the truth about my grandfather’s death. One afternoon during the university holidays, my grandmother told me how, in her late twenties, she had needed medical treatment for gynaecological problems. But the NHS did not yet exist, doctors were costly and Jack didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He was discovered having ‘borrowed’ from the petty cash at work and given the sack. Facing financial ruin and social shame, he sent his employers an ultimatum via a messenger boy: ‘Reinstate me, or I will jump from Waterloo Bridge at two o’clock.’ It’s not known how the employers would have responded, but by the time the boy arrived at the office just after two, Jack had jumped. His parents refused to talk to his widow about the death, but my grandmother’s sanity was saved by some good friends who invited her to stay and encouraged her to talk. She talked for a week. My grandfather’s suicide was later put down to shell shock stemming from his time in the trenches of the First World War.

I can’t honestly claim that some shadow-knowledge of these events played a part, but as soon as I was old enough to think about it, I was uncomfortable with Remembrance Sunday. Every November brought a drawn-out moment at the memorial cross, torn between reverential silence and embarrassed fidgeting until the Last Post cut through the damp air, signalling the resumption of normality. Later, as a young adult living in London, there were parades in the streets. In my early twenties, I once tried wearing a white poppy, but it wasn’t my thing: it was too partisan, oppositionist and, anyway, I wasn’t a pacifist. So I gave up any kind of observance and the biggest challenge on Remembrance Sunday became working out why the Archers were on early and then reaching for the off-switch. Not this, this faux 1950s’ solemnity from Whitehall.

Now, decades later in Croydon, I leave a Remembrance Sunday service having heard something that makes emotional sense for the first time. Maybe I have finally found a name for that sense of emptiness that always beset me when standing in silent communion around a village cross. Maybe I was a Remembrance dissenter.

Outside the Unitarian Church, the parades are in full swing. I stand and watch them go by under a pale November sun. First come the brass band, weaving carefully between the cordons, then the various regiments and, finally, the youth corps of teenagers, their arms moving stiffly as they march.

© Alex Klaushofer, 2015

What Brexit Britain can learn from the Middle East

secret life god
Photo by Eddie Awad
El Hoda Coop

Like a lot of folk, I’ve spent the past few days wondering how I’m going to deal with the turbulent realities of living in Britain in the coming months and years.

Recessions aside, the recent history of Britain has been remarkably free of conflict and upheaval; my generation is unused to prolonged political uncertainty and deep social divisions. In this respect the British mindset reminds me of what a Gloucester shopkeeper said after we’d both waited some time for a particularly anxious customer to finish worrying out loud about non-problems: Not Enough Tigers. Local people, she explained, tended not to have the day-to-day experience of danger and threats experienced by those elsewhere in the world.

So it’s a shock to wake up and find that, overnight, our country has lost its key allies and lacks an effective government and opposition, while racist incidents seem to be springing out of nowhere. (Today on Twitter, someone with a German name said a shopkeeper told him he’d be going home soon. Since I have a German name, that could have been me.) And there is no clear way forward: what will be, at best, a period of protracted change and uncertainty will go on for years.

Rummaging around in my experience for resources to make an urgent psychological adjustment to this new Britain, I’ve been remembering the feel of everyday life in the Middle East. In both Lebanon and Palestine where I’ve spent a lot of time, what struck me forcibly was the resilience of ordinary people to chronic instability, their ability to live their lives in a positive way despite ongoing disruption and uncertainty.

In the Palestinian refugee camp I knew best, people held jobs and businesses, got married and had children, building their houses upwards to accommodate their growing families. They took pleasure in all these things while at the same time dealing, often on a daily basis, with checkpoints, incursions and worse; it was almost as if they were leading parallel lives.

In Lebanon a month after the 2006 bombing by Israel, I couldn’t sleep at night for the sound of partying. In the wake of the latest war, new clubs had sprung up around Beirut to meet the new level of demand for a good time. This heightened hedonism was an extension of the determination I’d seen in Lebanese generally to direct and enjoy their lives despite living under what aid agencies call low-intensity conflict.

It’s more than a dozen years since I saw my Palestinian friends. A few weeks ago a message turned up on Facebook accompanied by a picture of me on a beach with a small boy. The writer had now grown up and become the best English speaker in the family. All the children I’d known now had degrees and jobs in the professions, he said; the adults were ‘doing great’ too. There was no mention of The Occupation.

Don’t think that my Arab friends are in denial about the political conditions under which they live or the most likely future scenarios. They are coping with tough times in what seems to me a sensible, healthy way, by engaging in a kind of constructive double-think. That’s something we’re now going need to need to do in Britain.

Saving my library card in the hope of better times

Upper Norwood public libraries
Upper Norwood Library card circa 2006

I love this library card. It’s my membership card for Upper Norwood Joint Library in Crystal Palace, where I lived until recently. I’ve had a library card everywhere I’ve lived since the age of eight, but this library was quite my favourite. Housed in a purpose-built building of 1898, it is part of the high street and well used by members of the community of all ages – host to local history researchers, revising teenagers, elderly newspaper readers and toddlers’ groups.

On 31st March, Lambeth ‘decommissioned’ UNJL and made all its staff redundant. The service is to become The Crystal Palace Community Learning Hub, with (some of?) its books available for loan on one of its two floors and no dedicated librarians. (When I first published this blog yesterday, this was supposed to happen this Sunday, 1st May, but it’s since been announced the transfer will happen on 1st July.) I won’t bore you with all the twists and turns that led up to this situation, although as a former member of the campaign to save UNJL and the trust which will run the hub, I know quite a bit of the background. The library’s change of fortunes is part of the now notorious decision by Lambeth Council to turn some of the borough’s libraries into gyms, which led to the recent nine-day occupation of Carnegie Library in south London.

As leftfield as the idea of ‘gymbries’ is, the move is very much a sign of the times, in which councils, unwilling to bear the reputational consequences of out-and-out closures, are increasingly turning to the more oblique measures of dispensing with library staff and turning the buildings over to someone else, whether a private company or community group, to run. Such transfers tend to be accompanied by promises of an exciting new era in which we can have public libraries without the costs of public libraries. But campaigners see this as the ‘hollowing out’ of library services, in which reduced budgets, opening hours and staff in turn reduce the user-numbers used to justify the existence of the library. Countries still investing in their public libraries show how the story might be oh-so-different.

Despite having followed the dismantling of Britain’s public library network since the early days of the credit crunch, I still don’t understand the rationale. Libraries are, compared to other services, cheap to run, enormously popular and deliver multiple benefits in terms of education, health, community cohesion and poverty-reduction, as well as contributing to a vibrant local economy. The savings that can be made are small and in some cases may even be outweighed by the real costs of closing or transferring services. But for whatever reason, it’s clear that the public library service as we know it, with paid, knowledgable librarians, has fallen out of political fashion. Politicians don’t see its value and some councils, in a strange wave of cultural iconoclasm, seem to actively hate it.

My own family history makes me particularly aware of how quickly political fashions change. My great-great grandfather Thomas Greenwood was at the forefront of the Victorian movement to establish a national network of public libraries. In 1886 he published ‘Free Public Libraries: Their organisation, uses and management,’ a book which became the must-read text for those setting up a new library. The handbook distilled the lessons learnt and good practice culled from Greenwood’s compulsive visiting of the first wave of public libraries both at home and abroad.

Thomas Greenwood, author of 'Free Public Libraries'
Thomas Greenwood, author of ‘Free Public Libraries’

A central principle for him, alongside the importance of sufficient investment from the public purse, was the need for professional librarians. Employing ‘a good practical librarian,’ wrote Greenwood, was essential. His ‘salary … should not be begrudged, for upon him depends the future success or failure of the library.’

Now, only fifty years after the 1964 Public Libraries Act made local libraries part of councils’ statutory provision, librarianship seems to be a dying profession. A quarter of paid jobs in the library network have disappeared in the past five years, leaving expert observers in dismay about ‘a decimated and de-professionalised service’.

Yet while shortsighted councillors continue to dismantle the library network, the strength of popular feeling displayed up and down the land testifies to the achievements of Victorian pioneers such as Greenwood and Carnegie. Stories on the transformative effect of libraries on the lives of individuals abound, from ordinary families to well-known authors.

Is the tide starting to turn? In the wake of the Carnegie Occupation and public uproar about the planned ‘bookish gyms’, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering whether to formally investigate Lambeth to see whether it is meeting its statutory obligations. And, as I write, councillors in Hove are having a rethink about whether to close their purpose-built Carnegie Library.

So, in the week that I gave a talk at a family reunion about Greenwood’s legacy, I’m sad about the state of the nation’s libraries. But I’m also keeping alive a little hope, along with my UNJL library card. I’m saving it in the hope that the political world will see sense and that properly funded and staffed libraries will rise again.

The occupation of Carnegie Library would make our ancestors proud

Photo by Brixton Buzz
Photo by Brixton Buzz

The past week has been both a sad and
inspiring one for lovers of libraries.

As I write, the occupation of Carnegie Library in London’s Herne Hill is in its fourth day. Last Thursday 31st March, some sixty local residents of all ages and walks of life made camp there in a last-ditch attempt to stop Lambeth turning it into a gymnasium. (Some background, in case you missed it, is here.) The protestors argue that the library, founded by Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago, belongs to the community and is not the council’s to dispose of.

Carnegie was a contemporary of Thomas Greenwood, a Victorian public library campaigner and my great-great-grandfather. Greenwood’s biography tells of the battles he and his fellow pioneers fought to establish a free public library at the heart of every community. They understood that combating poverty was about more than having enough to eat: in a truly thriving, inclusive society everyone needs access to education, knowledge and the life of the mind. In doing so, these nineteenth-century progressives faced enormous opposition from the conservatives of their day, who bitterly resisted the idea that public taxes should pay for books for the poor.

So I am sad beyond description to witness how, only fifty years after the Public Libraries Act of 1964, a group of Labour councillors is dismantling the public library service in my former stomping ground of south London. They do so in the face of clear, sustained opposition from the local communities concerned – opposition which illustrates how far our Victorian forebears succeeded in transforming social attitudes. And lives: this piece and these comments from Carnegie library users are testament to how much difference a local library makes to individuals.
Photo from Brixton Blog
Yet I am inspired by the actions of the Carnegie protestors, including all those outside the building who are doing their best to support them. The politicians may have forgotten why they were elected, but the library campaigners of our times are remembering the future and making our ancestors proud.

Libraries and the sense of place

The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows
The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows

With National Libraries Day and the Speak Up For Libraries parliamentary lobbying day upon us again, I’ve been thinking about a
little-recognised aspect of public libraries and what they do for us, in housing resources that contribute to our sense of place.

Google ‘library’ and ‘local studies’ or ‘local history’, and you’re likely to find references to caches of archives, records, photos about the place you’re interested in. If you’re lucky, you may find there’s also a professional to help you navigate your way through obscure documents and yearbooks in the form of a local studies librarian. Libraries, as campaigners are pointing out, are about staff as well as buildings and books.

I’ve called on that kind of help myself in Crystal Palace, as I sought to find out more about the ancestors who, I discovered after moving to the area, had lived in the surrounding streets. In his last few weeks before his redundancy from Upper Norwood Joint Library, local history librarian Jerry Green directed me to the materials that contained photos of the church where my great-grandparents got married and other details of the lives of my local forebears. Not being a trained historian or archivist, I’m grateful he was around: there’s no way I would have been able to do that alone.

Now Upper Norwood Library faces an uncertain future when all its council-funded staff lose their jobs in April. The local history society may step in a provide some help in training people how to research local and family history. But, like all grant-funded projects, it is likely to be short-term.

It’s also thanks to a local studies librarian that I’m getting to know my new home of Wiltshire. This week, county local studies librarian Mike Marshman gave a well-attended talk in Bradford on Avon Library on the white horses and other hill figures for which Wiltshire is so well-known. I learnt that the white horse I can see from my road is the Westbury horse, cut in 1778 and possibly replacing an older horse looking the other way, and that the better-known new Pewsey horse was cut by the fire brigade in 1937. The Devizes Millennium White Horse, cut in 1999, gets his own birthday parties, complete with cake.

Other, more established, residents were learning things too. ‘You need to get out more in Wiltshire’, Marshman told us sweetly when we failed to have heard of a horse.

Topographical trivia? I don’t think so. Cumulatively, collectively, this is the stuff that binds people to place and helps us to know and love the settlements and landscapes that hold us. Local libraries – the clue’s in the word ‘local’ – have, in their hundred-and-fifty-year history, have played a vital role in doing this. My great-great grandfather saw this when he campaigned in the century before last for a publicly-funded library in the heart of every community; the 1964 Public Libraries Act placed an obligation on councils to provide all residents with access to a public library.

It’s disappointing – no, it’s tragic – that central government, with its recent guidance that the statutory obligation on councils to provide a public library can be interpreted in the loosest terms, replacing proximity to a library with access via digital technologies. For libraries are not just there to promote reading, education, culture and community – they are also about our relationship to place.

Make Words Pay: a new deal needed for writers

Photo by Ritesh Nayak
Photo by Ritesh Nayak

As 2016 gets underway, I’m beginning a three-year term on the management committee for the Society of Authors, the trade union for UK writers. The SoA has kicked off the new year with an open letter to publishers, part of an international campaign calling for fairer terms for authors.

It’s a response to the under-recognised crisis which has seen authors’ incomes plummet over the past decade. According to a 2013 survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, a minority of UK professional writers – 11.5% – make their living exclusively from writing, a fall of nearly a third since 2005. It’s a reflection of a polarised market in which commercial success is increasingly confined to an elite composed of famous writers such as J K Rowling.

Meanwhile, publishers’ profits are largely holding up, and the market is becoming dominated by big players who are setting the terms of publication.

‘It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before,’ says SoA president Phillip Pullman. ‘But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged, but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude. They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit.’

Yes, it’s always been hard to earn a living through words, as departing SoA management committee member Andrew Crofts points out in this review of forty years of professional writing. But while everything he says is true, things have changed to the point where professional writing is in danger of becoming the province of the rich, and the books we read an expression of a limited viewpoint.

My hunch is that the changed landscape of publishing is a mirror image of what’s going on more broadly. British society is becoming increasingly commercialised, with growing inequalities and big organisations grabbing a disproportionate share of the wealth and power. Add to that the confusion that accompanies a technological revolution in the form of the unhelpful belief that books should be ‘free’, and you have a cultural disaster in-the-making.

Writers and bookish folk generally tend, for temperamental as well as practical reasons, to be leary of standing up for their rights. (See the libraries campaign.) But if we want writing to remain a real possibility for the ordinary rather than the elite, now’s the time to wise up and speak out.

On being a Remembrance dissenter

Photo by Jan Heuninck
Photo by Jan Heuninck

In my exploration of religious dissent in The Secret Life of God, I conclude that nonconformity – once such a force for change in British society – has lost much of the muscle that comes from swimming against the tide.

But there’s one area in which these latter-day dissenters have shown me the way. Attending, a few years ago, a Remembrance Sunday service held by the Unitarians – historically the most radical of the independent churches, persecuted for their refusal to uphold the Christian doctrine of the trinity long after other groups gained acceptance – articulated my long-held feelings of unease about the way Britain marks the world wars. It wasn’t so much the commemoration as the way it was done, with all the trappings and triumphalism of militarism that somehow seemed also to celebrate war.

It took a Unitarian minister – then very much swimming against the tide and a little nervous about expressing such unorthodox views in public – to put his finger on what is amiss with the way Britain commemorates conflict. The national tendency to glorify war, he suggested, masks some complicated feelings about death which contrast sharply with the way other cultures think about it; perhaps we need to acknowledge them and learn to remember differently. Since then, I’ve been much less lonely in my remembrance dissent.

Just a few years on, the debate about how we remember our war dead has entered the mainstream. Our involvement in new, Middle Eastern wars has brought the issue alive and the guilt and defensiveness generated by Iraq has helped to foster a vocal counter-culture. This week, Jeremy Corbyn has been in trouble again for voicing reservations about the amount spent on the commemorations of World War One. But, unlike the dissenting minister I heard, he’s no longer a lone voice.