Month: April 2014

Bank on books and invest in public libraries – do it, David!


I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign.  I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:

“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”

Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt.  How do you put a monetary value on any activity?  It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering.  If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse.  I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched.  The article continues:  “The authors … speculated that  … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.”   I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion.  Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else.  I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.

But let me get back to the point.  If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now,  the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services.  Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits!   By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself.  He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.

I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’.  In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain.  If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across.  Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries.  Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:

None of them subjects is interesting to me.  All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here.  Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around.  No convenience, no water.  I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.

– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.

– I’m not very good at reading, I never was.  I’ve never liked it some’ow.

– Too long.  I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times.  I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.

You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed.  Apparently they weren’t.  But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday.  This lasted for at least three decades.  When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige.  They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.

Is there a moral here?  I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable.  It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library.  It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service.  That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts.  If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries.  There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.

When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall.  (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years.  The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve.  There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’);  I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books.  We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.

(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known.  I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas.  I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)

#Lobby4Libraries THE BIG UPDATE

This is the most magnificent campaign against library cuts in Lincolnshire and I’m delighted to give it my support. Please add yours and support @savelincslibs to keep libraries in communities.

The best of the London Book Fair 2014

LBF bag and mag

LBF bag and mag

This year’s London Book Fair and the Digital Minds Conference that preceded it were characterised for me by two related issues that recurred time and again: the importance of preserving copyright and the need for publishers to experiment and be flexible about formats, business models and sustainable pricing. Associated with the latter, in particular, were several inspired talks and presentations that demonstrated the opportunities that can be harvested from adopting an intelligent approach towards print and electronic content and therefore finding ways to enable them to complement, rather than compete with, each other.
I was particularly impressed by Martha Lane Fox, the former Internet entrepreneur recently made Chancellor of the Open University, who gave the afternoon keynote talk at the Digital Minds Conference. She said that she was ‘crazy about the Web every single day because of the power it can bring to people’s lives,’ sometimes in very complex situations. She was referring particularly to countries where strict censorship is practised, or where women have not yet achieved equality of opportunity. She said that publishers should continue to fight for basic digital skills to be introduced across all communities. “The consumer has an incredible time of it right now. It is the duty of the publisher to help the consumer on his or her journey.”
Also fascinating was the panel session at the conference entitled Hybrid and Author Publishing, which was essentially about self-publishing. Orna Ross, of the Alliance of Independent Authors, was a particularly compelling speaker, because she has both published with an eminent publisher (Penguin) and published her own works, and she said that she infinitely preferred the latter experience. Her reason? She feels that self-publishing gives her greater freedom of expression and the ability to experiment: for example, this year she has set herself the task of publishing nine short books (one a month, with some break months). She said that she ‘absolutely didn’t want her first self-published book to be taken up by a traditional publisher.’ However, she acknowledged that her writing career had been supported by the initial successes that she had gained through traditional publishing. Hugh Howey, another author who took part in this session, said that audiobooks were under-valued by authors and highly sought after by the reading public. Having spotted this, he has ensured that all of his books are available in audio format and revealed that he ‘could live off his audio sales.’ Food for thought!
Another panel session was entitled Subscription Models: Pros and Cons. It discussed the relatively new trend of selling trade e-books via subscription models. Andrew Weinstein, of Scribd, said that it had been launched as a dedicated subscription service for consumers. Subscribers pay $1 per month and publishers are paid per download. Scribd works closely with HarperCollins, which has promoted its growth by making many HarperCollins backlist titles available in e-format. Nick Perrett of HarperCollins said that there is a rapid shift taking place in publishing from what was essentially a trade-focused structure to what is now becoming a consumer structure. The best outcome for the publisher is to have multiple points at which consumers can access content. After this, their core job is to maximise the royalties that go back to authors. Good analytics are therefore vital: one of the advantages that HarperCollins has gained from working with Scribd is that it obtains a rich data set which can be used to inform both marketing and publishing decisions. There is more about Scribd here.
Among the speakers at the digital seminars that take place throughout the Fair was Rebecca McNally, Publishing Director at Bloomsbury UK, who described the genesis of Bloomsbury Spark, a born-digital imprint for Young Adults. She said that Spark is a one-of-a-kind global imprint for Young Adult literature which publishes across all fiction genres. Bloomsbury has particularly focused on the YA market because it has a burgeoning online reading and writing community. It is also less susceptible to market variation across geographical regions than, for example, picture books. It has some powerful informal advocates among the blogging community and, as a result, is migrating to digital faster than any other fiction sector. Young Adult in digital format actually has a broader constituency than it has in print.
Authors benefit from Spark because Bloomsbury is able to offer a global publishing structure accompanied by local marketing support; it has a fair e-book deal that includes a print option; the translation rights are sold for p and e formats; the list is highly selective and distinguished. Bloomsbury carries out a massive cross-promotional campaign across the Spark publications; it encourages authors to send submissions direct to the Bloomsbury website, rather than operating through agents. Rebecca cautioned would-be Spark authors to remember the target reader (so far 180 submissions out of about 3,000 have been considered ‘too porny’) and to read the submission guidelines (she estimated that 30% of submissions had been disqualified because they weren’t followed). More information about Bloomsbury Spark can be found here.
Continuing with the copyright / flexibility in publishing themes, this year’s Charles Clark lecture was delivered by Shira Perlmutter, Acting Administrator for Policy and External Affairs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO]. Her talk set out the differences between recent legislation on copyright in the USA and Europe and indicated the areas in which each could claim to be ahead of the other. She said that, given the shared interests and concerns of both communities, close transatlantic co-operation in the future would be vital. There were three main issues to consider: to ensure that the development of international markets be allowed to continue without jeopardising copyright; that specific legal rules, although they might have to be rigid, should be embedded where possible in a more flexible framework; that more legislation should be developed to set boundaries and limits, rather than addressing specific copyright infringement issues.
After several years at Earls Court, in 2015 the London Book Fair will move back to the Olympia conference centre, which has been refurbished in its absence. Those of us who remember many earlier book fairs are quite pleased about this, as, although Olympia is harder to reach than Earls Court, it seems like an old friend. I think that most of us are also hugely grateful that an earlier plan to give the Excel Conference Centre, in East London, another chance has been rejected. Those who attended LBF 2006 there have not forgotten the almost total lack of ladies’ toilets, the absolutely total lack of anywhere decent to eat, the stands labelled back-to-front as if we’d just walked through Alice’s looking-glass, the unfortunate proximity of London Junior Fashion Week (half-naked giggling teenagers wandering by accident amongst the books) and the nightmare of the first day, when we were riding round and round on the unmanned Docklands Light Railway with no clue about when to get off the train or where we were meant to be heading when we did! Whereas next year, if I can’t be bothered to wait for the spur railway to Olympia, at least I’ll know that if I turn left out of Kensington High Street station and keep walking, eventually I’ll arrive at the exhibition centre, where there will be toilets, civilised cafés, a proper floor plan and no accidental captives!

Under way and making way at Greenwich University…

The Thames at Greenwich

The Thames at Greenwich

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Ten days ago, I went to Greenwich University to discuss a project for a new journal which will allow students to publish articles alongside academics and get equal recognition for their work. This was exciting in itself and an initiative which is greatly overdue: for as long as I can remember, academics have delighted to ‘co-author’ works with students and grab most of the credit as a reward for their ‘names’, while allowing the students themselves to do the donkey work (although I should add that there are some honourable exceptions and also that one or two other journals already exist that are published along the same principles). I shall probably write more about this project when it is up and running.
Greenwich University is a vibrant place. It has long been the home of the Maritime College: there have been naval buildings there since Elizabethan times. Adjacent is Deptford, famous for its docks and as the place where Christopher Marlowe, allegedly a spy for the Elizabethan government, was murdered. Greenwich itself is the final resting place of the Cutty Sark. The university dates from the mid-nineteenth century, though some of the buildings are much older. It stands proudly against a steep curve of the Thames, alongside a stretch of the river that is uncompromisingly wide and majestic. This is frequented by both barges and pleasure boats, which reminded me a little of the river traffic in Shanghai.
The university is housed in a series of white stone buildings with evocative names such as Queen Anne Court, Queen Mary Court, King William Court and the Dreadnought Library. Much more recently, one of the buildings has been dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lawrence. There is a maritime museum, admission to which is free, and across the road another museum which is currently hosting an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s sea paintings. Unfortunately, I had no time to visit either of them, but I shall be returning later in the summer and plan to be much better-organised then.
I know from personal experience that, as well as being cosmopolitan, Greenwich students are extremely switched on, because for the last several years I have recruited student panels from among their ranks for some of the conferences and seminars that I have organised. Like students everywhere, they seem to prefer to wear a uniform. This spring, for the girls, it is cropped tops and pale (very short) denim shorts, these worn with thick tights and brightly-coloured canvas ankle boots, and, for the boys (many of whom sport Pete Doherty-style pork pie hats), skinny jeans with long plaid shirts.
Not to be confused with the ‘real’ students was the seemingly endless procession of secondary school parties that were doing a tour of the campus and its attractions. Each was (more or less) in the care of two or three harassed teachers, though the pupils were without exception doing their best to ignore the latter; they were slouching along at a snail’s pace, spread out across the pathways two or three abreast, just like the pupils I have seen dawdling to and from our local secondary school. The real-deal students, by contrast, were marching along rapidly and purposefully, busy, busy, busy, laughing and chatting, with too much to do but taking it all in their stride. A couple of years ago they were probably staunch members of the slow-stroll brigade. Is university really so effective at inspiring them to action, I wonder, or are those having to endure the ignominy of supervision just trying to drive their teachers berserk by taking the longest possible time to trail from A to B?
Despite the somewhat alarmist weather reports about the ‘Stage 10’ smog in London which I heard being discussed on the Tube and elsewhere during my journey, it was a beautiful, clear, sunny spring day in Greenwich and at least five degrees warmer than the dank and misty Yorkshire that I’d left at 7 a.m. Spring may be coming slowly, if surely, to the North, but I can bear witness that in London and environs it is now full-on.
My meeting about the journal slid by all too quickly, three hours gone in an Augenblick. I’d hoped to have time for at least a quick peek at the Cutty Sark before I left, but my watch told me that I had less than an hour to get back to King’s Cross if I were not to endure the combined wrath and triumph of the ticket collector as he rejected my fixed-time ticket and forced me to buy another. I’ll therefore have to save that pleasure for next time, too.
However, as I was waiting at the traffic lights in one of the busy main streets that threads through the old town of Greenwich, I happened to look back and see the masts of this historic ship rising surreally above the buildings and a row of buses, as if it had just joined the queue of local available public transport. I took a quick snap before I hurried on.
Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark

Where sheep may safely graze…

Terence the tup

Terence the tup

Most of Terence's flock

Most of Terence’s flock

Brave new world

Brave new world

Supplement for the smallest triplet, to help mum...

Supplement for the smallest triplet, to help mum…

We celebrated the start of spring this weekend by paying our friends Priscilla and Rupert a visit. We were looking forward to seeing their new-born lambs. They have eight ewes altogether, of whom four have borne a total of nine lambs (three sets of twins and one of triplets). They don’t know whether the other ewes are in lamb or not – apparently it is very difficult to tell whether a ewe is pregnant unless she undergoes the ovine equivalent to a scan, which for most farmers would be prohibitively expensive. (It occurs to me that an enterprising entrepreneur should come up with a ewe’s pregnancy testing kit!)
Whether or not the remaining ewes have been successfully impregnated, one thing is certain: Terence the Tup is in clover. Some of my readers will remember that Terence had a few runs-in with a mating harness at the beginning of the winter. Once Rupert had finally figured out how to put it on, it chafed Terence, so he was allowed to step out of it forever. This meant that his virility could not be measured. All that Priscilla and Rupert could do was wait and hope that he had triumphed.
Terence takes over the story:
You wouldn’t believe this, but that Rupert has fitted up a telescope in his bedroom so that he can spy on me. Prurient, that’s what I call it. If a ram tried that, he’d be locked up. It’s bad enough trying to get a bit of privacy when you’ve eight ladies to look after, without him butting in. He says he’s doing it on humanitarian grounds. Pah!
Everyone seems to think that I’ve struck it lucky here, that it’s an easy billet for me, with just eight women and no other blokes trying to muscle in. I’ll have you know it’s not a straightforward as it looks. For one thing, some of my girls are quite flighty. They’ll argue with each other over who should be next for my favours and then, when I pick one and take her side, they’ll all turn on me. Sometimes, that means I don’t get anywhere with any of them and I have to wait until things have settled down before I try again. Then Rupert comes out (having, I imagine, been glued to his bedroom window – you’d think he’d have better things to do) and says he’ll get rid of me if I don’t perform. You can’t win.
And another thing…  Rupert and Priscilla bought special fodder for the ewes once they thought they were in lamb, to give them the right nourishment. I’d no objection to that, but they were downright stingy when it came to letting me eat it as well. I didn’t get any of it ‘officially’. They didn’t seem to understand that I was as busy making lambs as the ladies were – busier, in fact. I’m a dad of nine now, and counting, not just a mum of two or three. They should have seen that I needed the victuals to keep my strength up.
I found a way round this eventually. I decided to cold-shoulder any lady who wouldn’t share her provender with me. It worked a treat: they all gave me some. They might not have minded ganging up on me sometimes, but if there was one thing that none of them could stand, it was being ignored. I should have tried it in the first place: they’d all have been in the club in no time. Rupert thinks that I’m getting a bit fat now, but what does he know about BMIs for sheep?
Once the lambs started to come, though, I got the boot. Seriously, it’s the truth: I know it sounds outrageous. They used some hurdles to fence off part of the field to segregate me from the girls, and fastened me in with one of last year’s lambs, ‘to keep me company’. Little whippersnapper. I give him a good head-on crack, skull to skull, whenever I think no-one’s looking. Fortunately, the telescope has been trained on the girls who’ve yet to give birth, so Rupert doesn’t see it if I’m careful. I ask you, though, what kind of maternity unit does he think he’s running here? I’m certain there are no telescopes involved in ‘Call the Midwife’.
By the way, eight of my nine are boys; they could use me in China. ‘Ramming it’, I call it.

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