Summer reads and serendipitous books

Girl with spectacles and cloche hat sitting in a field and reading intentlySchool’s out, and as my summer offer begins – details below – my own summer reading is well underway. So far this year, my holiday reads are not so much the result of conscious choice as chance – books that turned up serendipitously in my life, embedded in their own little stories.

Cover of Love Like Salt by Helen StevensonThe first, Love Like Salt, turned up at a party, appearing out of the bag of its author, Helen Stevenson. We were at a writers’ party to which we’d been asked to bring copies of our books; after talking for a while about life and writing, we spontaneously swopped our own pieces of life-writing. Helen’s exquisitely written memoir centres on her experience as a mother of a daughter with cystic fibrosis and her decision to end what was, on the face of it, an idyllic life in France. But, like the best of its genre, Love Like Salt is really about love and the unexpected challenges life throws at us.

Cover of Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris PackhamMy second serendipitous read came via a back-handed recommendation from my godmother. She couldn’t say she enjoyed Chris Packham’s memoir about growing up with Aspergers, she said, but she found Fingers in the Sparkle Jar ‘an unusual book’ which made for painful reading at points. That got me interested, and so, despite the many other titles on my to-read shelf, I bought a copy.

But in the event, I aborted my reading on the second chapter, and herein lies a different tale about reading and writing. As a well-known zoologist, Packham has naturally not devoted much time to learning the craft of writing, while to this particular reader, style matters. It’s not that his book is badly written; it’s more that its voice is part celeb-memoir, part jolly-bloke, descriptive speaking style he tends to use on Springwatch – difficult to take in large quantities. Meanwhile, my own writing and reading background has heightened my awareness that, in fiction and non-fiction alike, the voice of the narrator is as least as important as the story itself.

fox cub sitting in the grassI’ll certainly go back to Packham’s memoir; sometimes all it takes to appreciate a book is a shift in mode and expectation. And of course the subject – the relation between humans and animals – is bang on-topic for my latest writing project. But, lying in a field earlier this month, I chose to move straight onto the other book in my suitcase, a short work of fiction given to me by a friend last Christmas.

Cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi HiraideWith a writer for narrator, The Guest Cat is very much a writer’s book. The story itself is slight – a cat starts visiting a couple; they get fond of it, and then [SPOILER ALERT]. But the voice of the storyteller has a still, matter-of-fact quality that takes you right into his distinctively Japanese world, something which the translation only seems to heighten. The novel explores an existential puzzle – why do the couple love this particular cat so much? – without ever reducing it to a simple answer.

If you’re noticing that common themes seem to be emerging out of my serendipitous summer reads – love, especially that between humans and animals, and the way life works on us, for better or worse – you’d be right. And perhaps that’s not a matter of chance.

SUMMER READING OFFER

Sign up to my email list and receive a free copy of one of the ebooks in The Secret Life of God series. Put your email address in the box to the right, and then claim your copy by sending an email to: alexklaushofer AT gmail.com with either DRUIDS, SUFIS, MONASTICS OR HERMITS and EPUB, MOBI or PDF in the subject-line. Offer ends 19th August.

Acorns on a branch against a background of green leaves and the cover of The New British Druids by Alex KlaushoferA whirling dervish in white and the cover of Sufi Circles by Alex KlaushoferA gate and archway revealing a vista of tree, garden and house that is the cover of The New Monastics by Alex KlaushoferProfile of man sitting looking at a craggy landscape which is the cover of Hidden Hermits by Alex Klaushofer

Exploring doubt and evolving non-fiction

Cover of the book 'Exploring Doubt' by Alex Wright featuring a row boat beached on a boggy landscape

Alex Wright’s short book Exploring Doubt is bang on zeitgeist. Situated firmly in the terrain between religious faith and unbelief, it turns on the thesis that ‘it is in hiddenness, not transparency, that life’s meanings may most eloquently be expressed.’ Along with a growing number of voices pointing to the limitations of a society which defines meaning in terms of the certain and the measurable, Wright calls for a recognition of ‘the practical value of mystery’. In this, the most literal of times, he argues that people ‘have lost sight of how to refer to the divine analogically, with meaningful – and therefore truthful – reference to symbol, metaphor and creative approximation.’

Whereas most modern thinkers of agnosticism tend to look for the locus of non-religious meaning in art – see Alain de Botton, among others – Wright choses two issues which we twenty-first century folk typically struggle with: the breakup of a relationship and the loss of a home. Drawing on his own experience of divorce and concomitant move from his beloved landscape of Norfolk, he illustrates how loss and uncertainty are bound up with the birth of new life and creation of new meanings. It’s an argument by analogy: as in human life, so in the experience of the divine.

As an exercise in experiential theology on similar territory to The Secret Life of God, I found plenty to enjoy and agree with. But, for me, the main interest of the book lies in what it says about the direction of contemporary non-fiction. Part academic essay, part memoir, and with some sections of beautiful nature writing, Exploring Doubt is an example of a trend that has blossomed over the last decade of books crossing conventional genre boundaries. The best examples of this genre-weaving non-fiction take a ‘home genre’ such as travel (The Hare With Amber Eyes), or a starting subject such as gardening (The Morville Hours), and work out from there, expanding to include other styles and subjects to create a read that is more than the sum of its parts.

The result is the emergence of a capacious form of non-fiction eminently suited to exploring modern meaning-making: a diverse, evolving field that spans human relationships, nature, self-actualization and spiritual growth, articulating them from different perspectives and in different ways. This blend of thought and lived experience is what traditionally defined the essay, a form which has, since its heyday, been sieved through the specialisms that confine books to specific categories and spurred into narrative by the popularity of the novel and is now undergoing a creative renaissance.

I’m not sure how successfully Wright’s book melds together its constituent generic elements; its form certainly owes more to the academic essay than narrative non-fiction. But it’s a welcome addition to a vibrant literary form which expresses the questioning, questing character of the other twenty-first century.

Alex Wright’s Exploring Doubt is available on Hive.

Midform publishing in the digital age

Kindle reader on top of book
Photo by G=]

Sometimes it’s hard, to misquote Tammy Wynette, to be in publishing. There’s so much talk about the opportunities opened up by the digital revolution, but most of it is set against a background of change in which the struggle for readers and sales is greater than ever.

But for me, there’s one digital-age development that stands out as an unqualified opportunity: the rise of the midform. Shorter than a book but longer than an article – generally 5000-30000 words – the digital short is becoming an increasingly popular format for writing historically ruled out by the economics of publishing full-length print books. Now pieces whose natural length meant they saw the light of day in collections of short stories or essays, if at all, have found their form.

It’s not hard to see why the digital short suits the needs of the times. For writers and publishers, it requires an investment of time and resources proportionate to the likely rewards of certain projects; for indy authors it accords with the marketing practice of selling multiple, linked products and ‘cross-fertilising’ sales with giveaways. And it offers on-the-go readers the satisfaction of finishing something on their tablets within a train journey or two.

In non-fiction in particular, the emergence of the digital short represents a liberating trend. Figures on the decline of authors’ incomes show that, on average, writers of non-fiction earn half of the revenues from fiction, with travel and academic writing paying the lowest of all. It’s not surprising, then, that the digital short is finding favour in academic publishing, providing scholars and presses with a handy format to get research out into the world quickly, and in a form more accessible to readers than a full-length monograph.

In my own genres of travel writing and reportage, there are signs that the digital short may provide part of an answer to the challenges. Traditional travel writing is notoriously consumptive of time and money – the research and trips involved means that a full-length book usually takes years to produce, and that’s without counting the publication and marketing processes. And twenty-first century readers have many ways of learning about far-flung places other than investing hours reading lengthy armchair accounts of journeys by others. The crisis in journalism, meanwhile, has cut pages and budgets for foreign affairs, with the result that there are few outlets in which to publish in-depth writing about the wider world.

In this context, an economical digital read – short in publishing terms, longform if viewed from journalism – is a less daunting proposition. The ‘reporting’ category of Kindle Singles is host to pieces of reportage that would never find their way into a news paper or website. An early success story comes from Libya with The Shores of Tripoli, while A Syrian Wedding reveals how life goes on amid one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Beyond Amazon, a range of sites are bringing the articles that magazines now rarely print to a readership hungry for longer reads. My own first foray into midform led me to hope that the ‘travella’ – my name for a midform travelogue – may help to save the genre from extinction.

To be sure, the digital short throws up marketing challenges of its own. As Joseph Esposito points out in this excellent piece, the original short is particularly hard to publicise because, as a standalone, it has to make its way amid a sea of other digital-only publications with any connection to what’s already out there. Hence the appeal of ‘chunking’ – the breaking up of a full-length book into publications on specific subjects which can then be marketed to niche readerships.

Chunking was a natural next step for me when I released sections of The Secret Life of God on monasticism, Sufism and Druidry for readers interested in particular aspects of British religiosity. The approach effectively constitutes a sibling trend of post-publication serialisation which, as award-winning author Victoria Noe describes, helped her find readers for her niche writing on grieving for friends.

But, the benefits of niche marketing aside, there is no silver bullet for publishers of midform. As Esposito points out: ‘What’s important to realize about shorts is that they are native to digital media … Good creative work takes time. The Internet may be impatient, but we must allow creative people the time to develop a new publishing ecosystem.’

This piece was originally published in the Self Publishing Advice Center of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Mother Teresa and the dark side of goodness

Face of Mother Teresa
Photo by Papa Lazarou

So Mother Teresa has finally become a saint.

In the matter of Mother Teresa as an exemplar of whether religion is Good or Bad, I’m neither for nor against, and certainly wouldn’t go along with Christopher Hitchens’ condemnation of her as ‘a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud’. It’s a view which, as part of an atheist critique of organised religion as oppressive and irrational, loses sight of a rather interesting human being and ignores some important questions about the nature of altruism.

Leaving aside the potentially fraught question of how canonization is achieved in the Catholic Church, saints are interesting. I’ve seen how, in countries which really ‘do’ saints, they can function as a human locus for spiritual meaning: the drama of a saint-based festival in a Spanish village involving the whole community in dancing and parades; the way a mountain-top shrine in Lebanon becomes the recipient of the hopes and griefs of people from miles around.

Even in secular, post-Protestant Britain, saints live quietly on, reminding us through the names they’ve given to churches and hospitals of the needs of certain groups of people. And, as exemplars or intercessors, saints have parallels in other traditions, in the bodhisattvas of Buddhism or the wali of Sufism.

The more worthwhile controversy surrounding Mother Teresa, in my view, raises a more interesting issue to do with the psychology of goodness. Testimony from a former nun in her order and investigative work by a journalist and an Indian medic reveal the horrors bound up with the good deeds: the harsh conditions that prevailed in the orphanages, for both patients and nuns, despite the millions of dollars in the charity’s bank accounts donated by those who wanted to help alleviate suffering. Mother Teresa, her critics concluded, was in thrall to a ‘cult of suffering’.

From Mother Teresa’s point of view, all this suffering was in the ultimate good name – that of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, she suffered, and encouraged her followers to do so too. But a good psychoanalyst wouldn’t take this kind of theological justification at face value. S/he might point to, for example, the denial involved in imposing unnecessary suffering on others, and ask questions about the feelings and repressed energy that drove such obsessiveness. Taking a further, sociological step, s/he might also question the kind of idealized view that the mainstream west has of Mother Teresa, asking why we as a society tend to think of public figures in black-and-white terms, as either entirely good or entirely bad.

Personally, I also wonder whether this tendency to split the world into good and evil is fostered by Christianity and its legacy. Pagan traditions, by contrast, are much better at acknowledging the dark side in life and all of us; in modern terms, they’re more psychologically realistic.

Incidentally, when I wrote briefly in The Secret Life of God about about the spiritual doubt expressed in Mother Teresa’s diary, I unwittingly came up against the dark, controlling side of the Catholic establishment to which the Hitchens critique refers.

The context – you’ll need to bear with some technicalities to do with copyright law here – was that I wanted to quote a paragraph from Come Be My Light and wrote to the Mother Teresa Center seeking permission. Now, I was almost certainly being over-zealous here: as a friend with copyright expertise reminded me, citing a short passage from a long work of prose comes under ‘fair use’, and no permission is required. But the request had gone in, and the answer came back: permission was conditional on Mother Teresa being ‘accurately represented’ in my book, and the MTC wanted to see the whole chapter in which the citation would appear. Without it, permission was withheld. ‘God bless you,’ the email concluded.

Obviously, no journalist worth her laptop would allow her writing to be censored in this way, so – on the offchance that the citation might, in a copyright case, be subject to the more stringent rules governing the use of poetry or song lyrics, I took the simple expedient of deleting it from my manuscript and paraphrasing its sense.

But I was left with mixed feelings about the body which represents the work of the now-Saint Mother Teresa. One of them was surprise that they’d managed to confuse copyright – which simply protects a creator’s rights to credit and remuneration for their work – with potential defamation. It was supplemented by a feeling of wry amusement at the hopeless hubris of seeking to control how a person is perceived in the world – whether it’s a boss trying to ban gossip among the workforce or a government to quash dissent, it never fully works. Bless them.

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.

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.

‘Spiritual but not religious’: the other Britain

Photo by Nic (Flickr)
Photo by Nic (Flickr)

When I started researching The Secret Life of God I was really just following a hunch. I had been spending time in the Middle East, where – despite the headlines about sectarian conflict – different faith groups have long lived side by side in the atmosphere of pervasive religiosity that the Arabs with most of the rest of the world.

Back home, the story that Britain was telling about its own way of seeing the world didn’t make sense. Most talk about anything religious or spiritual turned on a crude opposition of belief vs unbelief, which at its most extreme was represented by religious fundamentalists on the one hand and fundamentalist atheists on the other. The latter, with strident prophets such as Richard Dawkins, had the sexier story, one shored up by the post-Enlightenment certainty that British humanity was resolutely marching away from superstition to a faith-free zone characterised by scientific materialism, humanism and rationalism.

But the everyday world in which I lived didn’t match this picture. Nobody I knew, including those who declared themselves to be atheists, seemed to make sense of their lives in this tough, faithless way. At turning points and crises, an entirely different language emerged, one that expressed a concern with meaning, purpose, mystery and the sense of a connection with a wider reality. Often people expressed this vaguely in terms of things being ‘meant to be’, but as my generation started hitting the big, midlife stuff – the death of parents, the untimely deaths of others, the disintegration of youthful dreams – some admitted to having a direct, personal experience of the spiritual.

Recent surveys suggest that this shift away from the ‘religious’ to the ‘spiritual’ may be part of a wider trend. Institutional religion may be on the wane but, far from dying out entirely, contemporary religiosity is more based on experience, more ‘lived’, and arguably more authentic. This shift may turn out to be another of the major transitions that (British) society has periodically undergone, moving from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity, and European Catholicism to the broader church of Anglicanism. Whatever the case, something is afoot in the spiritual life of Britain which is going largely undocumented.

Loosely in the form of a travelogue with a journalistic edge, The Secret Life of God attempts to put some of the faces and places to this other, more spiritual, Britain. I set out to find people experimenting with religious life or on the fringes of mainstream institutions, but you won’t find many New Age dilettantes on its pages. The individuals and communities I encountered in the course of my research are the spiritually serious, those firmly committed to a journey in search of the right form of faith for them, now.

I explored the outer reaches of contemplative Christianity, went undercover among Sufi Muslims, and took part in the resurging pagan movement. It wasn’t possible to cover Britain’s faithscape comprehensively; many interesting traditions have been omitted for reasons of space and time. But the forms of spiritual life chronicled in the book are deeply connected to British history and geography, as well as reflecting its changing social make-up.

They also, perhaps reflecting an old truth that any successful quest is rooted in experience – very much mirror my own biography as a twenty-first century Briton shaped by the place of my birth, changed by travel, and half in love with nature.

The Secret Life of God is available, in paperback and as a Kindle edition, on Amazon.

Introducing the ‘travella’ – the short form travelogue

Glastonbury Tor by Andrew Gustar
Photo by Andrew Gustar

Travel writing is in crisis, for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reflects – perhaps even amplifies – the wider crisis afflicting journalism: failing media outlets, derisory writing fees and an editorial culture that favours puff pieces over independent reportage. ‘The dream is over and the quickening plunge into poverty is unsettling,’ explains Leif Pettersen.

Secondly and more happily, the age of the monied, cultured Victorian explorer who recounted the traveller’s tale of unexplored lands peopled by savages has given way to a smaller, more democratic world in which we all know more about each other.

The coming-together of these two trends has caused many to wonder whether the genre is on its way to extinction. But to predict the end of travel writing is a bit like assuming the invention of photography will bring about the end of art. The former only jeopardises the latter if you assume its role is to represent in a literal way. As many lovers of the genre have argued, travel writing is as much about ways of seeing a place and the inner journey of the narrator as the recording of facts and external events.

My current, preferred formulation of what travel writing is for us, now, comes from Michael Jacobs : “the greatness of good travel literature lies perhaps in its mingling of genres”. A genre that has traditionally combined reporting on place with autobiographical elements provides the perfect starting point for the writing about place and nature which makes up so much of contemporary narrative non-fiction.

Meanwhile on the economic front, it’s possible that the digital age may yet give back what it has taken away. The rise of longform journalism/shortform writing represents something of a revolution: the economics of traditional book publishing has rarely allowed the publication of standalone short stories and essays, while collections have long been the cinderella of full-length works.

The emergence of longform is enabling me to combine the new form of the short, digital travelogue with an old tradition of travel writing in which the narrator, drawn by the popular image of a place, goes to find the reality. In In Search of Glastonbury, I set out to discover how far the market town lives up to its reputation as a New Age mecca for our times.

I’m calling this little travel book a ‘travella’ – a short travelogue with a nod to the novella. (I did think of ‘travelette’, but was put off by the association with the moist towelettes you still get on some airlines which doesn’t have quite the same ring.)

In Search of Glastonbury will be published on June 20th, the eve of the longest day, when I plan to set fire to – oh, damn those prepositions! ­- in my garden.

Free Public Libraries! We’re all Victorians now

Photo by Rich Grundy
Photo by Rich Grundy

The past is closer than we think. It’s easy to forget that public libraries haven’t been around that long. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave councils the right to establish free libraries in their areas. But many obstacles had to be overcome before the legislation of 1964 imposed on councils a statutory obligation to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ enabling the likes of you and me to go to a building in our local area and come away with a stash of fresh reading matter.

I’m particularly aware of this because my great-great grandfather, Thomas Greenwood, was a leading figure in the Victorian public library movement. In the 1880s, despairing of the fact that fewer than 50 libraries had opened across England, he published an influential manual on how to set up and run a public library. The preface to ‘Free Public Libraries: Their Organisation, Uses, and Management’ argues that every community should have a public library because ‘Book hunger presents a demand as clear, as definite, as the cry for good drainage and good water’.

A social reformer typical of his age, Greenwood was making the point that access to knowledge and culture were essential for a member of a civilised society. Surviving and thriving was not just about the body; mind and spirit needed feeding too. In the late nineteenth century, this kind of thinking still involved breaking new ground: education (until the age of ten) was only made compulsory in 1880. My great-great grandfather’s call for public funding for libraries – ‘a penny on the rates’, as he put it – met with fierce opposition from his conservative contemporaries. Being obliged to pay for books for the poor, they felt, amounted to theft through taxation.

Reading his book while doing some research into my nonconformist ancestors, I was struck by how little, a century and a quarter on, things have changed. Of course, there is now a social consensus that libraries, rather like motherhood and apple pie, are A Good Thing.

But in real – that’s to say, political and financial terms – public libraries have become one of the battlefronts of the Great British Recession. They were among the first areas to suffer cuts; I remember reporting on reductions to library services back in 2008. Their prominence in lists of proposed cuts caused some to wonder whether councils considered them soft targets, at least until they discovered that communities were prepared to create uproar to save them.

Some seven years on, over a third of libraries in the UK have closed. But it’s a statistic, as Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News points out, that fails to convey the extent of the decline in the service.

‘The number of libraries being closed is actually misleading – the battle for library buildings has been won,’ he says. ‘The battle against hollowing out what lies in those buildings is being lost. And, all the while, those who have never used libraries are less and less likely to go in and use them, or are turned off when they do, due to lack of investment and promotion.’

The results is a reduction in the numbers of libraries users which helps to justify further cuts. One piece of recent research found that the number of people visiting a library a year had fallen by 40 million over the past four years, a sharp decline that is particularly marked in deprived areas.

‘Investment in staff and books are being continually scaled back,’ adds Anstice. ‘This means that English libraries are a pale imitation of the wonders seen in other countries such as the USA, Australia or in Scandinavia where library usage is as high as it has ever been.’

Ironically, de-investment in libraries has involved a huge investment of time and energy from both sides. Yet the savings seem disproportionate to the costs – the recent, defeated proposal to close seven of Cardiff’s libraries would have saved only £283 000. A lot of money to you and me, but peanuts out of a total budget of £547 million. And what was the cost of all the meetings and documents that went into proposing cuts that won’t happen?

Why is so much effort being poured into the preservation/ dismantling of the library service? Part of the answer, I think, must be that The Battle for Britain’s Books is about more than saving money or buildings. It’s about a shared understanding that as a society, we have got to a point where everyone has the right to participate fully in the cultural life of the nation. In other words, everyone has the right to a life of the mind.

And if you have access to experiences beyond your own – other people’s ideas, histories, stories, values, the key word here is ‘other’ – might you start to question those of your own society, to consider how things could be different, better? For there is something inherently counter-cultural about books: in the early days of printing, a person sitting alone reading was regarded with suspicion. In Britain, it took a religious as well as technological revolution to establish the principle that people had the right to read the scriptures for themselves.

Historically and globally, books seem to incur a kind of iconoclastic rage. Think the destruction of Buddhist texts in twelfth-century India, of libraries in World War II and of books in Iraq’s Library of Mosul by Islamic State earlier this month. Here are some depressing highlights of what authorities through the ages have done to destroy books.

I offer this as a thought rather than a thesis, and I’m certainly not accusing council politicians or officials of burning books. But it’s important to recognise that in the book battle of our time, wider forces at work than the size of budgets and books as physical objects. These days I better understand the connection between my great-great-grandfather’s nonconformity and his campaigning for public libraries and I’m proud of what he did. He was striving to create ‘free’ libraries in more than one sense.

So let us remember: as the ancestors of the near-future, we need to make those who come after us proud.