The Reading Room 08 – The Final End
I do not cope well with change. Of that I am sure. For my kamikaze writing career I’d come to rely upon my small table outside the toilet in Costa Coffee and the reading room in the library, as they were the only places in town where you could sit quietly and do some work1, and so I was therefore distraught when I was cast out of the reading room, beyond the reach of spiritually bereft librarians for ever, and it had nothing to do with hanging about with strange men in there like you might imagine.
Times were hard, everywhere it seemed, and the whole library thing had been rumbling on for a while as the Council had had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at shutting down my local branch, full of children’s books and public-access internet, so perhaps it was inevitable that they would eventually turn their attention to our popular Central Library in town.
With cost cutting at the fore some faceless pencil neck, no doubt without a hint of culture in their soul, devised a questionnaire which would go on to be scattered around the tables of the reading room like confetti. In it I spotted, hidden amongst the long grass, a notion seeking agreement that in order to save money the library should take on “other things”.
As you might imagine the library already did a lot of other things from facilitating family and local history, to holding electoral records, to displaying health advice, to housing community activity groups, to hosting visiting speakers, to teaching old people to use computers, but upon seeing this one other things question I imagined that the questionnaire really wasn’t worth bothering with because that one vague term could be used to justify anything that they’d already decided to do.
How could one so young be so cynical?
Make your own mind up as shortly after the questionnaire data was collected and collated the librarians let slip that the Council were going to remove a large amount of their floor space, ironically removing their ability to provide many of the other things that they already did, to give it to the art gallery to house a new “sculpture park” which, they said, would bring in tourists from far and wide.
This claim, about the tourist magnet, was met with a heady mix of bemusement and confusion by those who encountered it. But still, if this was a money-saving exercise, at least it wasn’t as if the Council were selling the library off… mainly because they were having to stump up seventy-five thousand pounds to pay for this act of cultural vandalism. And that was just for the first year.
When these plans were unveiled many thousands of locals objected, naturally, which the council promptly proceeded to completely ignore. These machinations would remove two-thirds of the library space and this of course included my beloved reading room.
The weeks counted down.
All facts were uncertain.
All dates were pencilled-in estimations.
And then one day the doors were shut.
The Council who’d received scorn for selling off the townsfolk’s silver, in the form of our Lowry painting, had now thrown the common man out of their own library.
Three weeks later I got my first glimpse of Manchester’s newly reopened Central Library after their four year period of renovation to turn it from a 1930’s neoclassical building into a modern technological pantheon. They’d been busy in that time, filling it with light, and technology, and hipsters; they’d even driven out all the actors from what was a theatre in the basement, where I once saw The Merchant of Venice, and instead put in a glass ceiling – that much-heralded nemesis of equality – which allowed men and women alike to peer up through the whole building and, with the cleaned windows in the large domed ceiling, it meant that you could see the sky above as well. The ancient four-poster clock with four golden faces in their reading room2 was still there and visible right above, with its spindly legs of ornate ironwork balanced on green malachite pillars, and with the information terminals and the overhead lametta-like LED strips which supplied dancing public information forming a fairy ring around this ceiling vantage point the whole library did all have the appearance of some sort of cavernous steam punk time machine. I hung around, trying to get some good photos without anybody in the shot, wary that this only increased my chances of being caught, but as I loitered no rogue security came and eyed me up or felt my collar and with the party going on around me I got the distinct impression that not only did they not care about people with cameras in their library, but that they actually seemed proud of their building and were happy for people to take pictures to show it off. Fancy? And as people around me were eating and drinking produce that was being served up by the library’s own café it just seemed that anything goes now in 21st Century Manchester.
Whilst moseying about the most surprising aspect, despite all of this, was in finding one of my old local associates – the Rubber Band Man, him with his big crystal eye – sat in one of the a curved library rooms on the upper levels, ogling one of the newspapers and no doubt giving the crossword what for. As we’d both lost our former home it was good to know that he, at least, was thriving in the wild.
The last time I’d seen him, a couple of months previously, I’d arrived for late night library Wednesday to find two grotty mismatched woollen gloves on my table. I didn’t have to guess as the fabled Rubber Band Man, like a travelling tinker, carried his many belongings with him which he liked to spread out over several chairs and tables until he was encompassing a two metre radius. When he appeared, from who knows where around the library, he took his place on another table and before long I heard a snip, snip, snip sound and when I looked up I found that he was shaving his stubbly beard with a pair of scissors before scraping his chin with what looked like a seashell. Nothing at this point phased me. He was later drawn to the windscreen TV on the wall and stood, stock still, staring at it for several minutes as if the BBC local news, without sound, was somehow being beamed into he very soul; however, when he paused to go and sharpen a pencil over the bin around the corner, in an effort to thwart his peculiar behaviour a librarian took the opportunity to nip around and turn the TV off at the plug. Disappointed to find the picture gone, when he returned, he took himself off on a wonder around the library again and reappeared with an old crisp bag and an eaten apple.
I didn’t like to imagine.
Still, he was somebody else’s problem now.
I am a deeply prejudiced person. The council had thrown me out of my library reading room to save money3, or to turn it into a “world renowned sculpture centre”, and yet even the many overheard librarian explanations to borrowers, from the latest rumours that they’d heard, did not prepare me for the eventual fate of the formerly grand sprawling Bury Central lending library when that reopened.
When I got to see it, sealed off with a false wall from the sculpture centre building site, I found that the lending library now existed in just one room, with almost no windows, where you couldn’t move without bumping into someone, or something, and upon seeing what it had become I couldn’t help but exclaim: “Is this it?!?”, before hastily filling out an angry comment card.
I refused to go and have a look at the sculpture centre when that finally opened, for fear that they’d use my brief visit to bolster their visitor figures and help them to justify the venture as a success, but then a couple of months later, after I’d been to investigate the local newspaper archive in the basement for the first time, I was tricked into an odd exit and upon climbing the stairs I suddenly found myself right in the middle of it. I had my prejudices already tarring my judgement – along with people’s comments after a local newspaper article had revealed that it contained a small amount of text art stencilled on the pristine white walls with guff quotes like WATER MADE IT WET – but, suddenly confronted with it, what I wasn’t expecting was that.
My heart skipped a beat.
Time slowed down.
Words failed me.
Imagine two large empty rooms, devoid of any traditional sculpture or visitors, where in one of them there existed a row of rickety-looking mismatched school desks at the far end, positioned together like a catwalk runway, with an old-style typewriter sitting on each them. And from where I stood that was it, all I could see, with a handful of small spotlights to highlight the airy nothing.
The whole place was now sterile, empty, dead, and no longer the creative centre it once was full of the town’s pensioners keeping up to date with the state of the world, schoolchildren doing projects, and buzzing with high-pentane local character action.
I was pretty sure there was nothing else in there but then I was being dazzled by the new extremely shiny floor, unencumbered with the inconvenience of having library users standing on it, but then seventy five thousand pounds had to buy you something because all that money had, after all, been swallowed up somewhere.4
Shortly after this I saw an interview with the Art Gallery’s manager, the man behind this monstrosity, and he did seem to go on about the floor a lot so I guess that a really shiny floor must have been the place’s major selling point.
And some people call that art.
I vowed to come back with my camera, to capture the absurdity of what had become of my former home, and when I nipped in to take my photo a blonde girl appeared, probably surprised that a visitor had arrived, and she asked me if I wanted any help. I didn’t, because I knew of someone who had already asked the obvious question.
When are the sculptures arriving?
The answer they supplied was the one you all expect, by now, and akin to a chilling line from a classic horror film.
They’re already here.
1 – One, admittedly, charged less than the other although they did offer hot beverages included in what I liked to see as the price of admission.
2 – Which through aid of some architectural plans I found on the internet, a ruler, a calculator, and the dodgy scale on Google’s satellite photography maps I estimated was a quarter the size of a football pitch.
3 – I was informed from a source that to make the changes irreparable most of the expensive reading room chairs and tables had been sold off, cheaply, when they’d cost nothing to upkeep, surely, beyond that of giving them a bit of a wipe from time to time.
4 – That’s seventy-five thousand pounds plus a further twenty-seven thousand pounds from an Arts Council grant.