It’s halfway through January, the sky is grey and decidedly damp, and after a wonderful week on holiday, I’m now back at work. And rather enjoying being in the thick of it, I must say. But there was one thing about my holiday that I feel I must share with you, and that’s how many words there were in it. Which is what I want to write about today.
Words? I hear you say. On holiday?
Well, yes. Because aside from the lazy mornings and the lovely walks, the nice food and the staring out to sea, I read and I wrote. Fiction in both cases. Hundreds of words. Thousands of them. Four novels read, and one personal effort worked upon. It was wonderful.
Now, here’s the thing about reading and writing. You need somewhere to do it. And whilst at the height of summer I could probably have got away with lazing on the beach, early January and average temperatures of 0ºC are not particularly conducive to outdoor literary perusal. Thankfully, my lovely little seaside town has, in addition to a wonderful snug little library, a cafe and a pub, both of which are staffed by extremely kind and friendly people who are prepared to let me buy a drink and then sit, lost in paper, for hours. And I really do mean hours. Three or four, usually. It’s wonderful.
The books I read on holiday were almost all Christmas presents, but I also make trips to both my local library (for fiction, mostly) and to several larger London libraries in order to work or borrow texts for research. And it occurred to me, as I sat in a snug little back bar on holiday, sipping my beer and reading E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (which is HILARIOUS by the way, you should definitely read it), that for the most part such innocent nooks are entirely lacking in big cities. For the price of a beer, I could sit in comfort for the afternoon. And at the library, of course, I could do the very same thing for no money at all.
With Tristram Hunt announcing his intention to quit politics and take up the directorship of the V&A, many people have been quick to dig out his opinion piece for The Guardian in 2011, declaring that we should start charging entry for all museums. (A piece which is he now having to rescind.) It’s a very sticky topic, since closures and collection relocations over the last twelve months have made it clear that there is a worrying London bias and inadequate funding to other parts of the UK’s museum scene. But in a free-entry museum, you get to see two varieties of amazing things: the collections, of course; and also, people just being with them. Sitting on the floor in front of paintings. Set up on a camp stool to sketch a statue. Paused by a display for a conversation. People slow down and look, and talk, and consider the world around them. They can learn and reflect. They can find out more about the world and even, perhaps, themselves.
Our world is losing, at an alarming rate of knots, places to be quiet and still. Most cafes and pubs play music, and you have to pay to be in them anyway. Music-less establishments with quiet tables, as I found on my holidays, are most certainly not the norm. The benches in the middle of a shopping centre are also usually subject to a soundtrack, since apparently walking from W.H. Smith to Boots just wouldn’t be uplifting enough if you had to do it in silence. Even if you’re prepared to sit outside, most urban furniture now appears to be designed to throw you off it after ten minutes or so. If you want to read, or look quietly at photos, or similar, you will probably have to pay to do so if you’re not at home: buy a coffee, a pint, lunch, a train ticket. (Heaven knows you won’t be able to sit and read at the railway station, since every major terminus I’ve ever been to seems absolutely determined not to provide seats for more than about ten people at any given time.) Want to be quiet and read or draw or think? Then pay up.
And of course, if you can’t, then it’s just tough. Periodically I see new articles go past which once again prove, positively prove that engagement with practical music-making is hugely developmentally beneficial to children. I don’t see anyone handing out musical instruments, or developing schemes to ensure that every child gets to have a go. You know what else is beneficial? Reading. And much like learning an instrument, reading gets better if you practise. At, say, a library. Where the books are free, and the room is warm, and there’s the chance to sit and… oh, what’s that? Closing libraries all around the UK, you say? Hmmm. Well perhaps they could go to museums and see sculpture, pottery and artwork, and fragments of ancient architecture and stained glass windows and…
You see where this is going. Social mobility becomes a possibility only if there are scenarios out there that actually make it possible – opportunities and resources. Creativity, imagination and empathy all rely upon engagement with literature, painting, music, the plastic arts – with seeking to understand and explore the world around us, and inside us. One of the first novels I read after Christmas was George Orwell’s 1984. The books there are written by committee, the songs are meaningless and intended to pacify, and artwork is non-existent if you stay on the right side of the law. Still, on the bright side, I guess they all saved a fortune on funding arts and culture.