09 +00002014-07-28T10:54:51+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments
I’ve been a fan of John le Carré’s for a very long time, especially of the Smiley novels. I know that Smiley had to be put out to grass when the Cold War finished, but – I imagine like le Carré himself – I mourned his eclipse and secretly I’ve always hoped that Smiley will enjoy some kind of reinvention one day. In the meantime, his creator has had to tackle the problem of how to write about espionage and amoral acts of skulduggery without the wonderfully ambiguous backdrop of East-West relations to sustain him. (This leads me to hope, in passing, that perhaps in some future book he may take as his topic Putin’s Russia and its significance for present-day relations between the East and the West.)
Meantime, I’ve been a faithful reader of the post-Smiley le Carré novels, but I have to confess that, although every one of them is skilfully put together and tells a cracking tale of intrigue, mystery, vice and complicated modern moral issues, I haven’t enjoyed any of them as much as the chronicles of the lugubrious George Smiley and his flawed but semi-likeable nemesis, Karla. It was therefore not exactly with misgiving, but with a resigned knowledge of knowing more or less what to expect, that I began to read A Delicate Truth.
Oh me of little faith! This novel is a masterpiece. It begins in Gibraltar, with a man who is only half in the know masquerading as someone called ‘Paul’. He has been persuaded to carry out an assignment that seems to consist of very little except several days of near-terminal boredom spent in a seedy hotel, followed by one burst of swift, strenuous activity, handsome remuneration and repatriation. Paul is mostly in the dark about the true nature of the assignment, yet he accomplishes it (rather gracelessly), picks up his financial reward and goes home to his comfortable middle-class, Middle England existence. He is a little uneasy that something about the assignment didn’t exactly go as planned, but he soon persuades himself to forget about it.
Fast forward three years. Paul’s identity and his home circumstances are gradually revealed. Another man who was involved in the assignment turns up at his house and his club and then mysteriously ‘commits suicide’. Paul is challenged with some uncomfortable assertions about what it was that went wrong in Gibraltar and has to swallow his cowardice and inclination to turn a blind eye to find out if they are true.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as that would spoil it for those who have not yet read the book – which I recommend them to do at the earliest opportunity. I’ll therefore conclude by saying that A Delicate Truth shows le Carré in top form again. He’s created a subtle and complex group of characters who together grapple with that most fundamental of issues, the nature of good and evil. As I’ve said, it’s a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I’d still love to believe that one day I might enjoy a further dose of old Smiley!
09 +00002014-07-11T22:32:17+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments
Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Publishers Licensing Society [PLS], which this year was held for the first time at Burlington House, Piccadilly – a wonderful venue at which I’ve found myself on several occasions and which I wrote about last year.
Hands down, the keynote speaker at the meeting, William Sieghart, stole the show. The founder of Forward Publishing, he has recently been asked to conduct a review of public libraries in England and map out a plan of what their future might look like.
He began by saying that there are 151 library authorities in England, which is ‘an awful lot’. Anyone wishing to appraise the public library service has to engage with all of them and also the two central government departments involved, the DCMS and Arts Connect. The money for libraries comes from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but ultimately the organisations that influence them the most are the 151 local authorities around the country. In order to carry out his review, William Sieghart has been obliged to place himself at the centre of a very complex set of problems. His thoughts on the task so far completed are as follows:
1. Any review can only make a set of recommendations that essentially skirt around the dysfunctionality of the public library service, as there seems to be no appetite to change the way it is set up.
2. Fifteen years ago the government invested in ‘The People’s Network’, which involved placing computers in libraries for people visiting them to use. It was very exciting at the time; is less so now. Currently, only 37% of the libraries in England have wi-fi. The dysfunctionality that he referred to applies not only to the governance of libraries, but also to the way in which they buy goods and services. For example, the average commercial organisation would expect to pay £200 – £500 for setting up wi-fi, but, because of the way that they procure things, libraries can spend several thousand pounds on it.
3. “The Pub is the Hub”. This is an initiative that has taken place in local communities where the shop and all other amenities except the pub have disappeared. Its rationale is based on the fact that many pubs have a spare room that can be devoted to community activities. Libraries could and should occupy the same role within their respective communities, and some do, but because of the ‘hollowing-out’ of the system, this concept isn’t as widespread as it might be. Somewhat grimly, William Sieghart said, ‘It’s been a revelation to me over the past few months how Britain doesn’t work.’ He compared the closure of so many libraries with Beeching’s closure of much of the rail network in the 1960s, and said that we shall regret it. Andrew Carnegie founded libraries (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) as centres of self-improvement and, essentially, this function hasn’t changed. All sorts of things go on in libraries that have nothing to do with books and reading. Libraries are a haven for children, students, old people and the unemployed. For example, most jobs now require online applications, but 13% of unemployed people have no access to a computer; the public library is the only place they can go, either for this or for help with digital and literacy skills. ‘Give a library coffee and wi-fi and it will be packed.’ The problem is, said William Sieghart, that ‘joined up’ is not a term that is readily recognised in Whitehall; there is a failure of imagination to identify the many services that libraries could be used for. It is the system of management in so many places that has allowed public libraries to descend in a downward spiral, but in many others an upward spiral has been achieved.
4. We as members of the public have no stake in public libraries. William Sieghart advocates a system similar to that operated by school governing bodies. He said that Suffolk, for various complicated reasons, had to confront public library closures before anywhere else in the country (essentially, it ran out of money). All forty-two libraries in Suffolk are now run as community partnerships. One of the reasons that so many communities are in a panic about the future of their library service is because they ‘haven’t got their head around what Suffolk has done’. William Sieghart said that there should be a professional body ‘out there’ in a country like ours to make sure that this happens. Currently he’s lobbying government and big business to buy wi-fi and a digital network for every library.
5. William Sieghart also believes that there should be a ‘Librarian-first’ training campaign, run along the same lines as the ‘Teach-first’ campaign intended to attract young, energetic recruits to teaching.
The combined thrust of all his recommendations will be that a national support network for libraries should be created that is both inward- and outward-facing. More controversially, he suggested that this might, perhaps, include a ‘single content management system’. (There was little reaction from the publishers present to this, despite the unspoken effect on ‘economies of scale’ to their revenues.)
William Sieghart’s was an impassioned and eloquent speech. At the end of it, he made a plea for the creation of a ‘Library-Plus’ library service that will enable libraries to operate from a position of strength, instead of the ‘tragic, tragic position we’re in at the moment.’ He was an unusual choice for the PLS annual meeting keynote, but his speech made all the more impact because of that. Happily for me, he not only articulated many of my own deeply-held beliefs about the importance of the public library service, but outlined an ambitious and energetic plan that, if adopted, should help it not only to survive, but also to thrive.