Saturday 26 June 2010

The Lit and Phil

If you were put off by the terribly middle class socialist Polly Toynbee laying into the Lib/Con Coalition in a newspaper that had spent years laying into Gordon Brown and actually advised people to vote for Clegg, you might have missed this little piece in The Guardian:

Beguiled by the Lit & Phil
Neil Tennant's favourite Newcastle library is a reminder of what a rich environment can do

Lynsey Hanley
Friday 25 June 2010 21.00

Just at the point where it felt that Neil Tennant – Pet Shop Boy, public intellectual, "critical friend" of Elton John and the Liberal Democrats alike – couldn't get any higher in my estimation, I found out recently that he is the most famous member of Newcastle's Literary & Philosophical Society.

A few years ago he was filmed in its 1825 Grade II-listed home reminiscing about his teenage membership of the Lit & Phil, a library and meeting room in which he could wander and think, and occupy the part of his mind that wasn't set on becoming an international pop star. What I remember most about that interview is how strong was his sense of indebtedness, both to his native city and to the kind of place in which you can at once anchor yourself and fly away: a place like home, which is all the more valuable for not being home.

In a spirit of pilgrimage I visited the Lit & Phil for the first time last weekend. The tone of this trip was pretty much, "Neil Tennant may have held the book I'm holding in my hands right now!" – but my sense of awe, if not quite my dignity, remained intact.

There were Thermos flasks in the corner, with a sign inviting browsers to fill a mug, take a biscuit from the tin, then press the lid back down (firmly), and drop 80p in the honesty box. An impassioned member of a local history group tried to convey to his colleagues what it is like to be homeless and penniless and then to have your life saved by literacy (he was talking about himself). A young father kept his children rapt without the aid of "soft play". A man and woman* in another corner gossiped knowingly about local things**.

Around the corner is the beautiful new Newcastle public library, modelled on the "Idea Store" concept that has been successfully trialled in libraries in the East End of London. In its lightness and spaciousness it resembles the kind of 1960s socialist-paradise library that I grew up using. It is, rightly, as inclusive in design as possible; it could be as easily mistaken for an art gallery as for an upmarket shopping arcade.

The impression it gave, like the Idea Stores and like my local branch library, was one of fussy facilitation rather than transformation. The trend for libraries to serve as a Which? magazine for consumers of council services may be an improvement on the old stuffiness of reading rooms, where old men went to keep warm and read the Morning Star on a long pole. But is it a place where you are implicitly trusted – a place that gives you a fundamental sense of peace the minute you walk inside? I'm not sure.

The Lit & Phil is a charity, having being formed in 1793 as a private members' institution. It is free to enter and to use, but not to borrow books from, making it a civic-private hybrid of the kind that the Con-Libs want to see more of. Its freedom from the perceived need for all public services to fit a model of consumer choice means that it can stay as true to its original form as possible while keeping its appeal constant and wide.

Whether this means it will survive for longer than its municipal equivalent in the face of spending cuts depends on the loyalty of its members. But you can bet that those members are fully aware that the Lit & Phil is something to be cherished and preserved. They repay the trust invested in them, by keeping their phones switched off without being asked, by keeping their cups of tea a good distance away from the books.

There's plenty of room for optimism. I wonder whether, finally, it's beginning to sink in among policymakers that the richness of people's lives depends on the richness of their environment, and not on the idea that some are doomed to be born thick. David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us should be read by anyone persisting with that myth.

Malcolm Gladwell has already exercised this theory in his book Outliers. The most moving chapters concern two would-be "geniuses" from working-class backgrounds, one of whom never manages to graduate due to his social and geographic isolation and chronic penury, while the other is on course to succeed due to being part of an accelerated learning programme at a specialist school.

There needs to be a return of focus towards what the writer and academic Raymond Williams called "the articulation of what men have actually seen and known and felt". "Any restriction of the freedom of individual contribution," he wrote, "is actually a restriction of the resources of the society." To get from Neil Tennant to Raymond Williams and back in one train of thought, you need to learn what people have seen and known and felt. You need libraries.

* Terry and Val

** Paul

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I'm glad about your visit.
    I'd really appreciate your blog.
    Sorry about my poor english but it's the best I can make. I can understand almost everything I read but it's very dificult to write in english.
    By the way, I'd love your play list!!