Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hark to the Uninterested and the Philistines... You Might Think Reading is for "Squares" but the Library is More Important Than You Might Think.

Philip Pullman's speech on the state of libraries in England (specifically, Oxfordshire) has spread like wildfire. This is not a problem limited to that side of the pond. In the former Colonies, it has been much easier to slash a libraries budget or close them than make a concentrated effort to save one of the building blocks to not only knowledge but Democracy itself. Perhaps, I am slightly biased, I came from a family that never had money and the library was a fundamental source of family entertainment. We --as a family unit-- went to the library at the very least once a week or more to borrow books, movies and music. I have worked in libraries for roughly seven or eight years and it was delightful to see families who conducted the same ritual. I figured I would post Philip Pullman's speech --even though it has been shared elsewhere-- because the library (in America, England or elsewhere) is essential to the betterment of a nation's citizenry... Without its presence we will condemn ourselves to the intellectual dark ages and the future of humanity will be the worse for wear because of it.


Philip Pullman's speech, "Leave the Libraries Alone, You Do not Understand Their Value"

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

“The council is hoping that the youth service, which is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?”

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.

But there’s a prize being dangled in front of these imaginary volunteers. People who want to save their library, we’re told, are going to be “allowed to bid” for some money from a central pot. We must sit up and beg for it, like little dogs, and wag our tails when we get a bit.

The sum first mentioned was £200,000. Divide that between the 20 libraries due for closure and it comes to £10,000 each, which doesn’t seem like very much to me. But of course it’s not going to be equally divided. Some bids will be preferred, others rejected. And then comes the trick: they “generously” increase the amount to be bid for. It’s not £200,000. It’s £600,000. It’s a victory for the volunteers. Hoorah for the Big Society! We’ve “won” some more money!

Oh, but wait a minute. This isn’t £600,000 for the libraries. It turns out that that sum is to be bid for by everyone who runs anything at all. All those volunteers bidding like mad will soon chip away at the £600,000. A day care centre here, a special transport service there, an adult learning course somewhere else, all full of keen-eyed volunteers bidding away like mad, and before you know it the amount available to libraries has suddenly shrunk. Why should libraries have a whole third of all the Big Society money?

But just for the sake of simplicity let’s imagine it’s only libraries. Imagine two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, neighbourhood watch schemes in every road, all organised and ready to go. Now I like people like that. They are the backbone of many communities. I approve of them and of their desire to do something for their villages or towns. I’m not knocking them.

But they do have certain advantages that the other community, the second one I’m talking about, does not. There people are out of work, there are a lot of single parent households, young mothers struggling to look after their toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, they might have a slow old computer if they’re lucky and a beaten-up old van and they dread the MOT test – people for whom a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise, a lot of energy to negotiate, getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can imagine it. Which of those two communities will get a bid organised to fund their local library?

But one of the few things that make life bearable for the young mother in the second community at the moment is a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road. She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome. But has she, have any of the mothers or the older people who use the library got all that hinterland of wealth and social confidence and political connections and administrative experience and spare time and energy to enable them to be volunteers on the same basis as the people in the first community? And how many people can volunteer to do this, when they’re already doing so much else?

“What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another”

What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses. I’ve always hated it. It started coming in when I left the teaching profession 25 years ago, and I could see the way things were going then. In a way it’s an abdication of responsibility. We elect people to decide things, and they don’t really want to decide, so they set up this bidding nonsense and then they aren’t really responsible for the outcome. “Well, if the community really wanted it, they would have put in a better bid … Nothing I can do about it … My hands are tied …”

And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands... He doesn’t understand libraries at all. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards?”

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

Now of course I’m not blaming Oxfordshire County Council for the entire collapse of social decency throughout the western world. Its powers are large, its authority is awe-inspiring, but not that awe-inspiring. The blame for our current situation goes further back and higher up even than the majestic office currently held by Mr Keith Mitchell. It even goes higher up and further back than the substantial, not to say monumental, figure of Eric Pickles. To find the true origin you’d have to go on a long journey back in time, and you might do worse than to make your first stop in Chicago, the home of the famous Chicago School of Economics, which argued for the unfettered freedom of the market and as little government as possible.

And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of “scientific management”, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on – the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.

And you could go on, further back in time, way back before recorded history. The ultimate source is probably the tendency in some of us, part of our psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors, the tendency to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers. All fanatics and fundamentalists share this tendency, which is so alien and unpleasing to the rest of us. The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.

I’m afraid these fundamentalists of one sort or another will always be with us. We just have to keep them as far away as possible from the levers of power.

But I’ll finish by coming back to libraries. I want to say something about my own relationship with libraries. Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re in it for the money. I thought the general custom of public discourse was to go through the substantial arguments before descending to personal abuse. If he’s doing it so early in the discussion, it’s a sure sign he hasn’t got much faith in the rest of his case.

No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library.

“Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library were open to me. I didn’t dare go in. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building.”

Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.

One final memory, this time from just a couple of years ago: I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams ran in Oxford, for a book I’m writing called The Book of Dust. I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of a clever member of staff, I managed to find some old maps that showed me exactly what I wanted to know, and I photocopied them, and now they are pinned to my wall where I can see exactly what I want to know.

The public library, again. Yes, I’m writing a book, Mr Mitchell, and yes, I hope it’ll make some money. But I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hi, I'm Bence...nice to meet you.

Hi again. After the immediate surge in traffic after my last post I have been graciously offered the chance to supply my own humble opinions from time to time. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I intend to be quite focused on film.

So I've had this idea for a column in my head for awhile and I hope to bring it to fruition here at Portemaus.

I call it "Movie Night". There's nothing better than hanging out with friends and family and watching some movies, drinking and talking about them. The French did it the best during the New Wave. Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol amongst others would sit around and watch movies ALL DAY. I'm talking 3-5 movies a day. They'd drink wine and talk and discuss and write articles about them. To top it off if they had any ideas they'd grab a camera and go shoot a few scenes.

In my last post I mentioned that I enjoy searching out all cinema has to offer and to find film masterpieces from all over the world. I propose that in each installment of movie night will discuss a few movies. Maybe one...maybe 3....maybe I'll get brave and write about a whole directors ouevre. The point is I want to discuss a set movies that are loosely connected in the hopes that I can expose this massive readership to some gems that maybe they wouldn't have seen otherwise or at least to incite some discussion. Of course I will not solely live in the depths of obscurity, rather I hope to have a healthy mix of films. So I invite the lot of you to engage with me if you can. Feel free to comment and I will do my best to respond in a speedy manner as long as it's ok with Master Funkowitz. The man does keep us all here on quite a short leash.

I should have the first installment up within a week or so and am planning to contribute one maybe two installments a month. Any more than that and Manfred said I should begin looking for another job, and in this economic climate I really couldn't afford to leave the offices of Portemaus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Now, for the Conclusion of Bence's Analysis of 2010 in Film... Films Five Through One

5 - The Social Network - David Fincher

Movie of our maybe? I feel like as I watch this film over and over the more I will like it. Who knows maybe it will even crawl up this list, but for now it lands here in the middle of my picks. Anchored by an incredibly intelligient script and the best score of the year Fincher takes us through the origins of Facebook and gives us a glimpse of the modern social experience. The first scene in the movie is by far my favorite. It sets the tone for the whole movie and the exchange between the two makes the perfect statement on communication that the rest of the movie analyzes in greater detail. With star turns by Garfield and Eisenberg and Finchers confident direction the film is a huge success and another step towards Finchers masterpiece which I firmly believe we have not seen the best he can do

4 – Exit Through The Gift Shop – Banksy

Real or not Banksy crafts this documentary with the style and audacity that goes into his more well known “street” art. Here we have equal parts celebration and indictment of street art as we see the form go from underground cool to the epitome of sell out with Mr Brainwash at the center of it all.

3 –Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkrich

The best of an already perfect series of films. Woody holding the phone as Andy speaks gets me everytime.

2 – Inception – Christopher Nolan

Last time Nolan went up against Aronofsky it was TDK vs The Wrestler….TDK for the win. Here Aronofsky edges out Nolan. Still this film is AMAZING...Nolan describes it as his James Bond movie but damnit as cool as Bond is there has never been a bond film as complex and slick as this. What amazes me the most is how complicated the plot is and how many "realities" he has going at once yet through his masterful direction and editing as long as one is paying attention he never loses the viewer.

1 – Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky

Ok so truth be told i LOVE Darren Aronofsky. He is easily my favorite director working right now. That out of the way this movie is BRILLIANT. It is by far his most mature and refined work to date. Is it my favorite? probably not that still probably rests with Requiem but that's neither here nor there. I could go on and on about this film, but ill spare you all more of my dribble. So here's just a few points Libatique's cinematography is so cold and precise and matches our heroines mindset so perfectly it blows me away, Mansells "adapted" score is so subtle and nuanced that its a shame he wont receive more recognition for it, Portman has NEVER been better this is a performance of a lifetime. Aronfosky makes films about passion and how that passion can always lead to obsession and how that obsession affects us as humans. He is enamored with this idea whether that passion is information or drugs or love or acceptance or perfection he explores what ultimately drives our lives. Here in this film he shows us so beautifully how hard the journey is to fuel our passions.


Cinema Achievements of 2010. Part I: Detailing Films Ten Through One

2011 is here and it’s time once again to reflect on the many cinematic achievements of 2010. While I respect the funkmasters opinion given his esteemed degree in the filmic arts, I do not share his cynicism towards the state of the craft in this modern age. It is without debate that mainstream cinema continues to disappoint with its continued celebration of mediocrity, but there are still gems to be found if one looks hard enough. Thanks to Netflix, the internet and some persistence, seeking out filmmakers who continue to push cinema to the limits has become easier and easier, and for one such as myself… I am still able to keep the fires of cinematic passion burning. So to you Manny I say pshawwww…..heres my top ten

Quick note – I have not seen True Grit or The Fighter or The Kings Speech….i imagine True Grit would find its way on here for sure the other two…maybe a revision will occur but aside from Grit I feel this list is pretty solid

10 - Animal Kingdom - David Michod

The cover for this film calls it "Australia's answer to "Goodfellas"".....a quote that I feel misrepresents the film quite a bit. This feature from first time director Michod shows us the Australian underground through the eyes of an orphan thrown into his estranged family's troubles after a recent tragedy. The biggest diference...when our hero enters the scene the family has already begun its downfall. We never get to see the glory side like Scorsese shows us, rather Michod takes us on a tour of a family falling apart at the seams as it struggles to stay together. This debut is impressive because of how straightforward it is, relying more on long takes and cutting out the sound to set an overwhelmingly somber tone. I often found myself watching and taking a few moments to realize the horrific acts appearing on screen because he lets them unfold organically before he draws your attention to them with his camera.

9 – Scott Pilgrim Vs The World – Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright is smarter than all of us, and that’s really something we’re all going to have to deal with. This is the perfect example of style supporting the substance. Wright creates a world in which you can never gather enough coins, 1ups exist, and if you gain enough experience you can pull a flaming sword out of your chest. In other words every boy’s dream who grew up in the nineties.

8 - Mic Macs – Jeane Pierre Jeunet

Jeunet does whimsy like no one else. He uses film to transport us to another reality where people live in junkyards and make beauty out of trash. Where weapons are evil and together with our creativity and perseverance love and art will always come out ahead. His actors embrace this hyperreality and help to bring this reality to life. The result is an optimistic movie dealing with themes far more serious than most would think upon first glance.

7 – The Ghost Writer - Roman Polanski

Polanski returns to the thriller genre here and does so in top form. Ewan Mcgregor is the titular hero ghost writing the memoirs of an ex primer minister. He soon uncovers secret plots, war crimes, CIA agents and more. Polanski works within the genre so masterfully that he keeps you engaged while working the slow burn up until the very end.

6 – The Good The Bad and The Weird – Kim Jee-Won

Taking its cues from Leone this Korean western starts and never lets up. With its amazing cast of bounty hunters, assassins, and train robbers, not to mention the Japanese army, all scrapping to find a treasure map the film moves at a bullets pace using the camera to weave in and out of the action it serves to set the pace of the film without being distracting(im looking at you Tony Scott).

End of Part I (10-6)... Part II (5-1) will begin after a brief intermission.

Difference of Opinion on Cinema... Nay. I Find it to be an Altogether Well-Rounded and Complete List of 2010 in Film.

I would like to take the opportunity to preface the following post detailing the year that was 2010 in cinema. I think it is always good to have different views on certain things and honestly, his list is pretty good. (I disagreed with his 2009 list though... If I remember it correctly) I like his take on film, it is not a cynical as mine as he is willing to watch (almost) anything once. For the record my cynicism is directed towards most mainstream cinema. I also must admit he saw a couple films that I missed out on (The Good, The Bad, and The Weird and Exit Through the Gift Shop) Now, if you will excuse me, I have to have hit the local video mart and pick up some movies... For your viewing pleasure, Bence's year in film Part I*.


*Always the consummate professional and gentleman... Bence did what I aspired to but ultimately did not do this time around. Not only does he give you a list of ten, he broke them down as well... Explaining why he chose each of them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year's Resolutions... A Call to Improve Oneself that Usually Goes Unanswered.

In a bid to be more fun and fancy free or attempting to be more lighthearted (after all, one cannot be "heavy," all the time)... I felt I would share the New Years Resolutions I made after painting the town red with these party animals.

1. Eat more grains... Wheat specifically. (What can I say, grains are all kinds of delicious)
2. Tone down the level of awesome that I have obtained to this point since most find it intimidating.
3. Not that I need to but become more ruggedly good looking. (This one seems to be becoming true)
4. Make a concerted effort to overturn the Supreme Courts ruling in 1893 landmark case of Nix v. Hedden. (It is time to sent the record straight... Tomatoes are fruit! Consarnent!)

And finally,

5. Learn how to play "Mary had a little lamb" on a guitar. (I make this one every year)

Hopefully, I can successfully complete this resolutions. (Only time will tell) If not there is always next year.