Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Will the turkeys vote for Christmas?

Civilisation is under grave threat on all fronts, and one of the greatest treasures in the North East now stands right in the firing line.

George Orwell is proving eerily prescient about most things, just 25 years out in his timing. Today you need to be very complacent indeed not to spot that a surveillance state is tightening its grip on almost every aspect of our lives, and doing its utmost to extinguish any institution likely to encourage independent thought.

Everywhere public libraries are closing, or following the example of many schools in lobbing their outmoded books into skips to make more room for up-to-the-minute, interactive, multi-media experiences. Encouraged right from the top by “Culture” Secretary Andy Burnham, who told the Public Library Authorities conference last October that "Libraries should be a place for families and joy and chatter”, offering coffee and snacks, videos and computer games, and even welcoming the already ubiquitous idiot talking on a mobile phone.

Ironically, the threatened treasure to which I alluded at the outset was at least 40 years ahead of its time. Because when I joined Newcastle’s Lit & Phil as a schoolboy in 1969, it was already the world’s most welcoming library, offering the opportunity to enjoy a lively chat over a cup of tea and a chocolate Dundee biscuit in its Reading Room, and even to smoke a soothing cigarette.

But that did not detract in any way from its seriousness as a learned institution. The Lit & Phil is the largest independent library in the country outside London, and poring through its superb collection did more to get me though my A-levels and university exams than anything else. I owe it a truly great debt.

Despite the competing attractions of cyberspace, the Lit & Phil has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, greatly increasing its membership and benefiting from some generous legacies. So it is rather surprising that some now think its days as an independent and self-governing institution are over. Using the self-same language of inevitability and cost savings used to promote every baleful idea from unitary councils to European union, proposals are being brought forward to amalgamate it with the neighbouring Mining Institute to create a new North East institution. This will be more in tune with the Government’s “culture” agenda, doubtless focusing on “social inclusion”, “diversity” and “economic regeneration”.

Making the Lit & Phil hip to the groove, daddy-o, will apparently increase its appeal to both public sector and private funding bodies which can churn out lots of lovely money for, no doubt, more professional fund-raisers and challenging creative projects. Not, one suspects, to spend on more books or conserving the many thousands the Lit & Phil has already got.

Ours is an age of oligarchy, where essentially self-appointed cliques are gaining control of all the levers of power, at the expense of genuine representative democracy.

People have a tiresome habit of rebelling against this sort of thing if they are consulted, so the oligarchs like to make sure that no-one gets a chance to vote on their proposals, or simply ignore “wrong” results. Witness the regional assembly vote here, and the European constitution referendums elsewhere.

No doubt infuriatingly for the proponents of change, all the members of the Lit & Phil will soon have a chance to take part in a postal ballot on its future. Far be it from me to offer advice, but if they approve the merger, I think I can safely predict that it will be the last chance they get to vote on anything at all.

It looks to me as though the apparatchiks of the North East “culture” industry see a fat Christmas coming, and the members of the Lit & Phil have been cast in the role of turkeys. Which way will they vote?

www.blokeinthenorth.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

3 comments:

batterie said...

This is a disgraceful travesty of the the truth and a slur on the people who have dedicated so much time and effort to these proposals. You should be ashamed of yourself for peddling this nonsense. None of what you say has any basis in fact as even a cursory reading of the material available to members will show. Have you got the guts to retract once you done a bit of simple research? Remember when Journalists did that??

Keith Hann said...

If my piece is such "a disgraceful travesty" it seems strange that the Hon. Secretary of the Lit & Phil, Richard Sharp, apparently agrees with every word of it. However great my own ignorance, you would presumably concede that he knows a thing or two about the place. I refer to you to his letter to The Journal of 24 February (the very day on which you posted your comment) which concluded that "Keith Hann’s account of the dangers now facing the Lit & Phil is no exaggeration. Members should reflect carefully on his words and vote against the amalgamation proposals."

I naturally read the arguments put to members in favour of the amalgamation with close attention before writing my piece. I also studied the case advanced by those members of the Lit & Phil board who oppose the merger. As you will have seen, I found the latter more convincing. However, there are points to be made on both sides and it should surely be possible to have a constructive and civilized debate on this important issue. Frankly this is not furthered by posting abusive remarks from behind a cloak of anonymity.

In my experience, that tends to be the sort of thing to which people resort to when they know they have not got much of a case.

batterie said...

I don't need to read the Journal to be made aware of Mr Sharp's views as they are on display in the documents sent out by the L&P's Board. Like your article (but in more fantastical detail) he completely misrepresents the facts of the matter and impugns the integrity and honesty of the people who have made this proposal. Your 'travesty' is simply a paler version of his.

If, as you say, you read the arguments in favour of amalgamation 'with close attention' why do you say "the oligarchs like to make sure that no-one gets a chance to vote on their proposals, or simply ignore “wrong” results...No doubt infuriatingly for the proponents of change, all the members of the Lit & Phil will soon have a chance to take part in a postal ballot on its future. Far be it from me to offer advice, but if they approve the merger, I think I can safely predict that it will be the last chance they get to vote on anything at all."? You must know very well that the L&P is doing its utmost to get the arguments out to every member and is encouraging everyone to take part in a postal ballot. You must also know that a system of democratic representation has been suggested which it is hoped will be fair to both the L&P and the MI while addressing the need for outside expertise and experience. Why then did you write those words?

As for abuse and anonymity, you use the pejorative terms "apparatchiks of the North East “culture” industry" but you leave them safely anonymous--safe for you of course. I have no idea who you are and what you do and I have no interest in finding out. However I believe the L&P is about to make a momentous decision and opinionated half-truths will not help it to make the correct one.