Libraries are places of quiescent contemplation, study, joy, education and truth. Walsall has 16 wonderful libraries staffed by expert, professional and caring people who are the guardians of knowledge. Sadly, only truth is missing thanks to the fiction writers occupying seats around the cabinet table in Walsall Council House.
In January, bon vivant fun fair owner Councillor Anthony Harris, cabinet member for Leisure and Culture, let slip that six libraries would close. Far from being an uncharacteristic lurch toward candour following yet another long lunch, this was confirmed in a council statement issued on January 11. It states:
“Indications show that six of the 16 libraries may close but the locations will only be decided after the review, library chiefs say.
“We are not able to identify the locations which may be affected until the review is finished but we’re optimistic we will offer an improved service,” Councillor Harris added.”
Now, there is something of the Brothers Grimm about this review of library services. The draft budget document currently being imposed clearly states that the “remodelling” of library services will save £673,874 in 2012 and the same amount in 2013. If the review has not yet been completed, the accuracy of these figures which come down to individual pounds, suggests a plot worthy of Agatha Christie with the final page denouement being written first and the twists and turns worked out later. Indeed, one conservative councillor assured his constituents that their local library would not be closed.
There was, of course, understandable outrage and it did not take long before Walsall readers organised campaigns, petitions and demonstrations against the dismantling of collective culture and heritage. Interestingly, library staff have been told that if they protest about closure, even by signing a petition, they will find themselves summarily dismissed and loose any hope of redundancy payment. Ray Bradbury will be wincing.
Fast forward one month to February 10 and it seems that no libraries will be closed in Walsall. Apparently it was all “scaremongering” instigated by Karl Marx and Walsall’s own Groucho, Harpo and Chico became rather shrill in the local press and even the forgotten brother Gummo pitched in with his penny dreadful`s worth. Council Leader Groucho Bird said:
“Some will say the council is doing a U-turn but no libraries are closing in the next year.”
Right, “in the next year”, a bit like the increase in cabinet allowances he has generously deferred until next year. Harpo Towe was next:
“It is again disappointing to hear the Labour Party trying to make political capital over this budget, a budget they appear not to understand. There is no plan in this budget to close libraries, in fact we are investing more than £232,000 in libraries. No libraries will close in the financial year 2011/2012. After that, it is a moveable feast.”
One cannot escape the image of Towe honking a motor horn, lifting his leg and placing the hand of an incredulous journalist under his knee. Not to be outdone, Chico Andrew complained of the “political amnesia” displayed by the Labour Party. This logic suggests that Eric Pickles is a card carrying Marxist. In fact, and this might come as a shock to Walsall cabinet, Pickles was once actually a communist. It’s true – honest.
The forgotten man of forgotten words, Gummo Harris, made a major back-track and said:
“I can assure this cabinet, council officers and the community that we are not in a similar position to other authorities who say “we are shutting, we are closing” because we are not.”
Oh yes we are. In the face of public opposition the jokers in cabinet have simple postponed the vandalism until the storm has died down in the same way that the cabinet allowance increases will be back next year. Councillor Harris might like to reflect on the fate of the other missing brother, his predecessor Councillor Zeppo Sanders, who made the mistake of opening his mouth about the secret plans for Walsall illuminations and the future of the Arboretum. Silence, in cabinet, is golden.
The council leadership are clearly rattled and although he might not share the charm, boyish good looks and lovely dark hair of a Hosni Mubarak, Mike Bird and the rest of his cronies would do well to listen to public opinion. In the peaceful reading rooms and book stacks of libraries, Bird should take his own advice and “put up or shut up” or at least tell us the truth.