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.