A couple of days ago I crept into Bishopsgate library with some time to kill between appointments. I stepped away from a busy, buzzy traffic-fumed hell-hole that is the City populated by impatient pedestrians into another time-space continuum – a world that is diametrically different. Bishopsgate Library, unlike Bishopsgate, is a haven of calm and peace where there is no change of season or time. It is the perfect library. I found an empty table and sat down with my papers, and relished the perfect tranquillity. The tables were old, wooden and solid and the room was book-lined, the ageing titles protected by glass doors. There was a librarian with a pony tail, and a couple of old codgers reading the daily papers, along with a number of studious students, tapping away quietly on laptops. I sat at my table inhaling the silence and calm and scribbling away at my notepad, marvelled at the difference between this library and Brighton’s Jubilee Library, described as “your multi-award winning library.” When I tell you that Brighton’s central library runs stacks of special events, including ‘our evolving conversation project’, the ‘baby boogie’ sessions and pioneering exhibitions, you will realise that it is slightly different to Bishopsgate. I tend to think of the Brighton Jubilee library as the Jubilee Jumble. It has a fine archive and loads of books, but in a way it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with books; it’s so politically correct that there are no high bookshelves, all the books are accessible to people in wheelchairs, which is great, but it doesn’t seem like a library at all, and because of this nobody treats it like one. There are children’s music events at the back of the main hall, a story telling group in another corner, a visitor (not always the same) with a very loud voice; also a cafe, and a great glass window the length of the wall so it’s light and bright, so there is absolutely no expectation of peace and quiet at all. If you said ‘shhh’ people would think you were a total nitwit. I love it, and I use it a lot for music and DVDs and the occasional book, but it does not put me in that place that a great old library does.
And so, as I sat in the beautiful calm of Bishopsgate, scribbling away, I felt like a fraud and an alien, because I really belong in the Jubilee Library of Brighton, which is about as peaceful as the Dagenham Girl Pipers, or Kate Bush on a screamy day, and I felt as though I had crept into that hallowed place under false pretensions. I belong with the Brighton “Jumblies, whose heads are green and whose hands are blue” – eccentrics of noise and merriment, not the literary angels of peace and quiet. But you know, with hindsight, every library is something special, and Brighton’s Jubilee is every bit as wonderful as any other, and given the disgusting financial pressures applied to local councils by the present nasty Government, it is nothing short of a miracle that Brighton’s showpiece library is not only open, but open seven days a week, and up to all sorts things that are part and parcel of the City’s community.
And before I depart – I have to pay heartfelt homage and thanks to two of Brighton’s Green Councillors, two tremendous fighters for the cause of libraries – my lifelong pal – Councillor Geoffrey Bowden, who has done everything in his power to keep Brighton’s libraries going, and Councillor Christopher Hawtree who with his pioneering ‘Friends of Hove Library’ saved that magnificent Victorian edifice from being moved to the horror that is Hove Town Hall – a fate definitely worse than death. These two visionary bibliophiles have given so much joy and pleasure, inspiration and magic to thousands and thousands of men, women and children in Brighton and Hove. Let’s hope that the cultural gifts of the Greens continue to prevail in this City. Those that love books are heroes… without a doubt.
A month ago I mentioned that my funeral readings website was nearing completion, so if you have been sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting and worrying about what has happened to it, please feel free to take a break and have a cup of tea because www.funeralstoday.org is now live, with nearly 100 readings. Although it hasn’t been announced to the world, because of interruptions, unexpected visitors, cleaning teeth, stroking cats, holidays and work, it does exist, and the readings, thanks to the brilliant Meerkats – web development and hosting wizards – have made it all possible, turning what started out as an idea and some words and PDFs into a working, living website, which is actually being used and being useful… even though not all that many people as yet know about it.
The last reading to go into it is called The West Wind. It is dedicated to a dear friend who departed this world around 20 years back. I didn’t print it here because I have not yet mastered the formatting on this page…
I have just returned from a few days off in Wales.
Wales is beautiful but I don’t belong there. I belong in Brighton. I was born in London near Parliament Hill and went to school in Highgate and later attended a very dicey Secondary Modern School in Kings Cross. Dicey or no, the history, English, modern dance and biology teachers seemed pretty good. Mine was not the kind of education that Tony Blair or Maggie Thatcher would have liked. They wanted pointless non-descript kids that failed the 11+ to be trained for work rather than educated. In fact they might have liked the occupants of Starcross Secondary School to be rounded up and sent to the poor house, but luckily 19th Century compassion and 20th Century Socialism deprived them of this opportunity. I don’t think they liked the idea of history or languages being taught to the likes of us.
History is useful, although I could never fathom the logic or the horror of people being exiled, until I was much older. For Dante it seems to have helped him a lot, he appeared to have written some of his best stuff in exile, but English people exiled in the 12 and 13th Centuries probably had a gruesome time. At school I thought exile sounded fun, like a prolonged holiday for those that had been naughty, but with the passing of time I realise that exile is a real pain, and downright horrific in the 20th and 21st Century when it involves entire communities being forced to live in refugee camps far from their place of birth. Exile is not pleasant; in fact it is so unpleasant that we prefer to imagine those that are forced into exile as being different to ourselves. The word ‘refugee’ sounds different to ‘exile.’
Belonging and living in the place of ones choice is a massive privilege. I am very aware of just how blessed I am, having met refugees, and also Chinese people who like refugees did not (until recently, I think) have much choice as to where they could live. I belong in Brighton for a zillion reasons. Originally it was the early 19th century architecture that drew me – I was born in a Regency Terrace, and I don’t think I have ever got over that wonderful light, or those beautifully proportioned rooms. I did live in Brunswick Square, but now I occupy a Victorian House, and I still long to sit and dream in a Regency room from time to time. Brighton is full of people that don’t come from Brighton – my friends are Londoners, South Africans, Northerners, Midlanders, French, Italian, Americans, Essex folk… with a couple of native Brightonish thrown in. This place is a microcosm of the UK, with its great diversity of people, ideas, culture and architecture; the major difference between here and London is that people talk to each other, love the sea, thank the bus driver and have the best Member of Parliament in the country. Belonging: it’s about spirit and connection.
The assumption is that with the passing of time we get cleverer. The assumption is wrong. Plato – the great philosopher to some and the great mathematician to others, happened to live over 400 years before the birth of Christ. Leonardo da Vinci – painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer and geologist was born in 1452. Let’s not even think about the geezer known as William Shakespeare. Is there any writer or scriptwriter or filmmaker today that comes anywhere near the power or invention of this bloke? In 1991 two German tourists walking in the Austrian Alps discovered the mummified body of a hunter that dated back 3,300 years or so. Otzi, as he came to be known, was dressed in clothes of extraordinary sophistication – his shoes were waterproof and wide, designed for walking across the snow; they were constructed using bearskin for the soles, deer hide for top panels, and a netting made of tree bark. Soft grass went around the foot and in the shoe and functioned like warm socks. But it doesn’t stop there, his bow and arrows were highly complex, and he had 57 tattoos on his body, which as it happens did not include his girlfriend’s name or that of his favourite football club, but identified various energy points – acupuncture points. Presumably in normal circumstances he was able to do a certain amount of self-healing. With the passage of time we are not any cleverer than our antecedents, but we like to think we are.In the past our forbears had powerful connections with nature. They could read the impending weather from cloud formations, identify the healing or poison content of a plant by communing with the spirit of that plant, and connect with time using various methods either oracular or by changes in consciousness. Above all, our forbears related to the spirits of nature in plants, animals, birds, the weather and music of life going on around them. We have pretty well lost all of this.
When I warble on about spirit, I have a request… please don’t confuse spirit with religion – as I mentioned before (in another blog) I wrote that spirit is cosmic – religion is manmade. Spirit is nothing to do with spiritualists either, which I never understand, apart from some bloke in a shell suit standing on a platform yelling “is there anybody in the room connected to Blackpool?” When I write about spirit, I think of the energy, the nature, the noise and the unexpected music and movement of the wind, which whether it comes from the North, the South, the East or the West, is as diverse as any four people you might come across – only more so. We are pretty well oblivious to that kind of spirit, unless we find ourselves living with a tribe of people in the Amazon jungle… or dying. Now this is an interesting one. Many people who experience near death experiences – NDEs – come back with a complete fascination with the beauty and poetry of life in all its forms – from butterflies to whales – and not only this, they come back believing and often saying that we need to take much greater care of our planet. Why? It’s all about connection – the environment is about us, our connection with birds, bees, bears and beetles. So long as we close our eyes and ears to the music, the beauty, the harmony and the inspiration that goes with nature, we will close our minds to the damage we do by poisoning the soil, contaminating the water, fouling the air and filling our planet with the garbage of our materialistic life style. It’s about time we made friends with the spirit of the West wind. It could take a lifetime, but I promise you… if you succeed it will be worth it.