Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

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The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Thorntons factory, where yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thorntons abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

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As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.

Of canaries and donkeys – celebrating National Poetry Day

Last Thursday, 1 October, was National Poetry Day. In a belated celebration of the event, I thought I’d share with you the only two poems I’m able to recite from memory. The first on my list is the work of the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), described on the Poetry Association website as “the most widely known, appreciated, and imitated American creator of light verse.”

Canary Literacy

PHOTO CREDIT: “Canary Literacy” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The verse in question runs to only 13 words, and therefore is clearly no Paradise Lost! On the other hand it has just the degree of cheeky irreverence guaranteed to appeal to a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Which I guess is why my teacher Mr Williams introduced us to it, and why, over half a century later, it still trips off the tongue. The Canary was published in Nash’s 1931 collection Free Wheeling, and still makes me chuckle today…maybe it’s the birdwatcher in me?

The song of canaries
Never varies,
And when they’re moulting
They’re pretty revolting.

My second poem is a lot more serious. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936), universally referred to as G K Chesterton, was an English author, journalist, critic, philosopher and theologian.

Just why my headmaster chose to display a poster bearing the text of Chesterton’s poem The Donkey in the main corridor at my primary school will forever remain a mystery. Thankfully he did, and at a time when my brain was like a turbo-charged sponge, desperate to absorb new ideas and images, I consumed it greedily. Chesterton’s words have remained with me ever since. Here they are:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

If you are one of those people who prefers to listen to poetry, rather than to read if off the page, the link below will take you to a reading of The Donkey by Elric Hooper.

The Donkey celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As I am not, either by upbringing or instinct, even remotely religious, it may seem strange that this poem has stuck to me like glue for more than half a century. But the words have another, more profound meaning which resonated with me then and still does today.

In the first three verses Chesterton’s subject speaks to us directly of the contempt in which he is held by the world, contempt for his origins, his appearance and his lowly status. The donkey appears to us as a pathetic, self-loathing creature, lacking in confidence and eaten up by the ignorant and hateful way that others perceive him.

And yet…in the final verse we learn that he has a noble past, a back-story of which he is justly proud. The donkey has witnessed and been part of an extraordinary, world-changing event. He, no less than any of those who decry and despise him, is worthy of our respect, admiration and love.

File:Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, a fresco in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And I guess that’s the philosophy by which I have lived my own life. The opinions held by others about our origins, outward appearance and social status are a mere distraction, an irrelevance, perhaps even a lie. We must look beneath the surface to perceive a deeper truth.

All lives have value, and all are worth living. We should never feel the need to apologise for what we are, and what we are not.

Instead of feeling imprisoned by other people’s perceptions of us, surely our focus should be on how each of us can best play the cards we have been dealt in order to help make the world a better place for ourselves, for our fellows and for all living things.

PHOTO CREDIT: Laraine Davis via Pexels

Each of us, guided by a spirit of tolerance and compassion, has the potential to do good. And each of us has the right, as well as the innate capability, to live a happy, fulfilling life untroubled by the negative opinions of those who would wish us ill.

Even donkeys can be beautiful.

Simple pleasures

We’d got big plans for 2020. No overseas visits – we wanted to spend a full year in the UK recovering from our 2019 New Zealand adventure – but plenty of travel here at home: a week in Norfolk, a few days in Liverpool, a fortnight in Cornwall, a long weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, and a Scottish odyssey centred around a two-weeks stay in the Orkney Islands. But Covid-19 has blown our plans out of the water: we’re going nowhere in 2020.

Instead, 2020 has become a year of simple pleasures. For more than three months we barely left the house, other than to buy food, so there was plenty of time to read. As a means of escape I’m working my way through the Jeeves novels and short stories by controversial novelist PG Wodehouse. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is claimed by some to be the funniest writer of all time in the English language. That’s overstating his abilities, I reckon, but he’s definitely brought me some welcome comic relief in recent weeks.

Written over a period of 60 years between 1915 and 1975, the Jeeves stories comprise a series of tales about upper class buffoon Bertie Wooster, a supremely stupid representative of the English idle rich who’s always getting into scrapes, and Jeeves, his smart, suave and sophisticated personal manservant, who invariably comes to his rescue. The early 20th century class system portrayed by Wodehouse is achingly absurd – grotesque, even – and one is left wondering how Britain ever achieved its prominent position on the international stage when ineffectual prats like Wooster ruled the roost.

My lockdown reading!

The Jeeves stories allow us to glance over our shoulders at a (thankfully) long-lost world, one in which rich White Englishmen did what they liked and everyone else did what they were told. However the books are wittily written, and as long as we remember the historical context and laugh at the appalling aristocracy rather than with them, it’s just harmless, escapist nonsense. And god knows, in the year of Covid-19, we all need opportunities to escape.

Speaking of escapism, we’ve also been using lockdown constructively to binge our way through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. We missed out on it first time around, but if ever there was an opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about it’s now, when we’ve got loads of time on our hands and not a lot to do with it.

Small Tortoiseshells have been common this year

And what a treat it’s been, an epic fantasy, a seething cauldron of death and deceit, dwarves and dragons, debauchery and depravity. Blood and guts litter the landscape in nearly every episode, while power-mad tyrants battle for ultimate control and leave mayhem in their wake. To be honest, it seems not unlike a normal day in the politics of your average western democracy.

For an old cynic like me it’s always been tempting to assume that something as popular as Game of Thrones must be cheap and nasty, just populist rubbish that combines mass appeal with minimal merit. It isn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. The production values are superb, the characterisation vivid, the narrative complex and compelling. There are few positive aspects of Covid-19, but for us one of them has been creating the space and motivation to finally watch a TV show that just about everyone else on the planet has already seen. Love those dragons!

With opportunities to go out and about strictly limited, initially by government edict and then by our own caution, we’ve spent more time than ever before in our little garden. Thanks to my bad back and knackered knees I don’t look after the garden as well as I should, and it therefore has a slightly wild and unkempt appearance, like my Covid-19 hairstyle. But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the birds and the bees and the butterflies have visited regularly throughout the summer.

2020 has provided an abundance of bumblebees

One day I even spotted a bat, clinging to a pondside plant in broad daylight. It was during a hot spell and I assume he’d gone to the pond to take on water. He took off before Mrs P could grab her camera, circled two or three times around the garden before flying away. A rare treat, something we’d probably have missed in a “normal” year when we’re away from home for much of the time.

Less rare, but still a treat, is a visit from Milky Bar. Regular readers of this blog will know all about Milky Bar, a local cat who claims our garden as his own. Although he occasionally exerts himself by hunting insects, he is probably the most idle cat in existence and spends most of his time with us sleeping, waking just occasionally to chase patches of shade as the sun tracks westwards across the sky. Milky Bar is a great character, and his visits throughout lockdown always lifted our spirits.

Milky Bar: the most idle cat in existence

It would be banal to say that 2020 has been a year like no other, but clearly what’s happened in recent months was unimaginable as 2019 drew to a close. Mrs P and I have got off lightly. The virus has – so far, at least – passed us by, and as we’re retired and financially secure we’ve been spared the worries about the future that have afflicted so many working people. Instead we’ve spent our days here at home, comfortable and content.

It could have been so much worse and we’ll be forever grateful for our good fortune, and for life’s simple pleasures.

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Postscript: for all you CAT-LOVERS out there, here are links to other posts featuring Milky Bar:

Movies and music lift the lid on chemical pollution

When campaigning about pollution, environmentalists currently focus much of their attention on CO2 emissions and plastics. While this is understandable, it’s important to remember that there’s plenty of other stuff that we should be concerned about. The movie Dark Waters, which is based on real events in a small town in West Virginia, reminds us of the devastating impact that pollution by the chemical industry can have on communities and individuals.

factories with smoke under cloudy sky

PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Hendry @worldbetweenlines via Unsplash

The star of the show is lawyer Robert Billott. Billott takes up the case of small-time livestock farmer Wilbur Tennant, who has watched in horror as his herd of cattle succumbs to a range of illnesses. Tennant believes, and his lawyer finally proves, that the sickness amongst his stock is due to contamination of their drinking water by chemical corporate giant, DuPont.

But the damage isn’t limited to Wilbur’s herd. Billott discovers that DuPont dumped toxic waste at a local landfill site for many years, apparently without regard to the possible consequences and despite the fact that its own research warned of the dangers.

The pollutants released from the landfill are shown to have found their way into local water courses, with probable links eventually being identified between them and medical conditions including various cancers, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia, ulcerative colitis and rotting teeth in humans and animals alike.

The movie homes in on Billott’s marathon David v. Goliath battle. The lawyer takes on DuPont, and many years later finally wins justice for his clients and the local community.

For me, this movie generates a huge sense of indignation, as well as real fear for the future of our planet. If you haven’t done so already I encourage you to watch the movie Dark Waters, and to read the lengthy New York Times Magazine article upon which it is based.

This is not a happy movie, and in a sense I took no great pleasure in watching it – it was too raw, too traumatic. But I’m glad that I did so, to be reminded that I should be vigilant and not take at face value those who glibly tell me that we can trust scientists, big business – and their lawyers – always to do the right thing.

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And while we’re on the subject of chemical pollution, the Process Man (also known as the Chemical Worker’s Song and the ICI Song) tells another – equally horrifying – story. The song was written and recorded in 1964 by Ron Angel from Cleveland in the UK.

The economy of that part of north-east England has been dominated by the chemical industry for generations. The industry has provided employment for many thousands, but the human cost – as highlighted by Angel’s lyrics below – has been huge. The lyrics have been sourced from the Antiwar Songs website.

A process man am I and I’m telling you no lie.
I’ve worked and breathed among the fumes.
That trail across the sky.
There’s thunder all around me and poison in the air.
There’s a lousy smell that smacks of hell.
And dust all in my hair.

But you go boys go.
They time your every breath.
And every day you’re in this place.
you’re two days nearer death, but you go.

I’ve worked among the spinners I’ve breathed in the oil and smoke.
I’ve shovelled up the gypsum till it nigh on makes you choke.
I’ve stood knee deep in cyanide gone sick with a caustic burn.
I’ve been working rough I’ve seen enough to make your stomach turn.

But you go boys go.
They time your every breath.
And every day you’re in this place.
you’re two days nearer death, but you go.

There’s overtime there’s bonus opportunities galore.
The young men like the money. Aye they all come back for mare.
Ah but soon you’re knocking on. You look older than you should.
For every bob made on this job you pay with flesh and blood.

You can listen to Ron Angel singing his song by following this link on YouTube.

Such a powerful protest song has inevitably been recorded by a number of artists over the years. Possibly the best known was sung by the Canadian folk rock band Great Big Sea. However, my personal favourite is the version recorded by English folk duo Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith.

At their best the arts, including music and film, are much more than simple entertainment: they are a repository of lessons that we forget at our peril. Songs like the Process Man are an important reminder that much of the prosperity we currently enjoy has been built upon the misery of the masses over many generations, while movies such as Dark Waters should serve as a warning that the profit motive continues to tempt organisations and individuals to do stuff we – and they, ultimately – will regret.

Pollution is an ever-present danger in our modern world. We owe it to the planet, to all creatures currently living on it, and to those who will come after us, to remain vigilant.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?