Here's to Edward Edwards and Public Libraries
Not the American politician of the 1920s, who ran on the anti-prohibition 'Applejack campaign' in 1920 in New Jersey, went broke in 1929 and who shot himself. May he enjoy eternal rest and all that, but my thoughts tonight are turning to someone much more indirectly important to me.
Edward Edwards was a bricklayer. One of the best men I have ever known, Michael J. Kelly, my great Uncle Mickey, Michael John Joseph Aloycious Patrick Kelly as he sometimes styled himself, who died when I was young, was a brickie. A big John Wayne style man.
Bricklayers fit into my category of decent worthwhile men almost automatically, a bit like US Marines, and have to put themselves out by doing something bad. My lingering affection for Boris Yeltsin doesn't just derive from his bravery in the face of the dying Soviet tyranny, nor the tale of his stupid games with grenades that cost him two fingers--typical brickie stuff that--but also that he was a construction worker.
The Edwards of whom I speak was a construction worker who educated himself in the first half of the nineteenth century. He spent his days in backbreaking labour and then headed off to the Mechanics' Institute to read. To devour books and ideas with all the concentration and hunger of the men I once worked alongside on easy-ride holiday jobs and nightshifts in steelworks and factories and depots in Corby.
Edwards, having educated himself, then associated himself with two campaigns. One, Chartism, was the great 1840s campaign for democracy in the United Kingdom. It was supported by the working classes and the insurgent middle classes and for a brief moment looked like it was going to deliver vibrant change to the British Isles.
This archipelago has been the swagbag and fortress of global bully boys and hypocrites at the top since the Normans committed their particular theft in 1066,though I guess the Romans offered a precedent. The idea of changing it is in itself uplifting. Possibly pointless, since you can't peel such a deep culture as this away from it peoples, but uplifting anyway.
The Chartist support broke, however, when the middle classes realised that they would have to remedy the ills of Ireland and redistribute land if they were to sustain the coalition. The radical democrats, some of whom were motivated by distaste for Irish issues and Catholicism, found themselves dispersed. The Scottish ones, like Allen Pinkerton, founder of the eponymous Detective Agency, and Andrew Carnegie, made it to America.
Others put their energies into incremental reform. Which is where Edwards comes in. He was, along with two Liberal MPs, William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton, responsible for universalising the provision of public Libraries.
I love those institutions. My father, God rest him, took me to one in Rugby when I was seven. We had moved around the country since the steelworks he had worked at closed in Corby, and ran tough pubs that we would either turn around or see closed. I say we; I feel part of it, since the scary Victorian cellars and closed upper floors of the places we ran in the Midlands, floors or ceilings pounding with music played above or below, and the smells in the morning and the tales of tough criminal clients are a part of me.
Public libraries, of course, predate Edwards. Various orders of monks provided them after a fashion in the 1400s, and cities like Bristol, Lincoln and Norwich asserted their civilisation by building them in the early seventeenth century. Even the Bodleian in Oxford presented itself as a haven for the republic of all the learned, roughly at the same time as it brought forth the first versions of its incredibly uncomfortable chairs.
I remember the first shelf of books I discovered in Rugby Library. It was to the right of the desk and facing the wall furthest from the door on the ground floor. I'm sure that I have written about them before. They were the Target-imprint Doctor Who collection, each book written around a particular theme and the one that in my mind I first lifted was Planet of the Spiders by Terrance Dicks. It was the one in which Jon Pertwee's Doctor sacrificed himself for some broth eating plebs he could have abandoned but didn't, and regenerated according to the prompt of an old Tibetan Rinpoche who turns out to be a Time Lord.
It thrilled me. This eccentric, wine sloshing dashing independent character who'd seen it all and saw hope rather than the fatalism and passivity he was entitled to, his glamorous companions and the fact he used his brain and his somewhat qualified integrity rather than a weapon.
I used to be able, like other children in the eighties, to walk back and forward to school through Rugby on my own, and would tarry in the library when school finished and I should have been going straight home. When we left Rugby and moved to Kettering, I did much the same, though by then the library was a diversion, if one associated at that time with a leafy drive. I loved the smell of them.
In a way, it was Edwards who gave me this pleasant moment tonight. Edwards who made the arguments, in those cold candle-lit libraries, for the likes of me to be able to read, Edwards who laid the groundwork for me going to Oxford, Edwards who allowed me the chance to have a life where I can relax for a night with DVDs courtesy of Wandsworth Council and Putney Library that deprived DVD shops and sundry lowbrow parasites of the chance to charge me forty pounds for a chance to view a little of the world. I owe him, in the same way I owe the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic mother Church of the West what capacity of reasoning I have.
I have some great films and a Cabernet sauvignon here for the weekend, reader. Close-Up, an Iranian film by Abbas Kiarostami, is described on the box with licit exaggeration, as 'the greatest film of the 1990s'. In it, a child of the Islamic republic goes post-modern, but unlike, say, 'Bad Education' which is a sort of Almodovar tale which plays traumatised transexuals for entertainment, it tells a moral tale of a complex but non-relativist sort.
12.08 East of Bucharest, tomorrow's feature if I have time, is all about a celebration of Romania' messy liberation from Ceaucescu ending up in a medialand phone-in that disgraces a lonely ex-Santa and a drunken historian. Porumboiu got four stars from three viewspapers, the Daily Mail, the Independent and the Big Issue, so must have done something right since all three usually pretend to hate each other.
I've also had the pleasure of wandering through Andrew Anthony's Fallout (which is much better than the controversy that surrounds it and the purposes to which it was put, as is Nick Cohen's What's left, frankly) and Conrad Black's biography of Nixon. I want to blog about that, since in the golden summer before I went up to Oxford in 1991, assured of a place by the old Oxford entrance scheme, I spent my time alternating between Stephen Ambrose's then two-volume histories of Eisenhower and Nixon, Bruce Springsteen records, my girlfriend of the time (who was a very talented singer) and working at Texas Homecare. At least the first two I got from the Public Library in Corby.
I buy hardly any books or DVDs these days. It isn't just that I prefer not to add to the coffers of global publishing corporations, even if the OUP warehouse in Corby does employ my cousin Philomena. It's that, thanks to Edward Edwards and those who followed him in the 1850, 1964 and 1996 Public Libraries Acts, I can sit here having cooked a nice meal if I do say so myself, enjoying a cheap cab sauv, and see these films and read and read. The monkeys in local government have to stop, for once, burning up money on nonsense and provide a service, the massed ranks of publishing land can't smother me with the rubbish they serve up as literature or general reading in the bookstores, and the world is mine in my head.
So, at the end of this long and rambling post--thank you Edward Edwards.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord,
and may perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
With my thanks and gratitude. Well done that brickie. I might point out that as I write I am listening to classical music from the middle ages on another free, collectively-procured service which proliferates outrageously against the interests of the British form of media capitalism. Well done to those lads too, for once.
And yes, I do know this blog will somehow come back to haunt me.