Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blogging Short Stories #4 - THE LIBRARY CONFERENCE

“Colleagues, if I could have your attention!”
     It was the occasion of the Annual Library Conference and the librarians were gathered together in the Assembly Room at the main library. Dennis, the Chief Librarian, was standing on the platform addressing the assembly.
     On the platform with Dennis, in a seat around a large occasional table, was a lady in a blue trouser suit with a look of importance on her face.
     Dennis continued.
     “Thank you. We are pleased and honoured to have with us today as our special guest the Minister of Culture, one of whose responsibilities in government is the promotion of public libraries.” He turned to the lady. “Minister, welcome.”
     Applause from the room. The lady nodded her head. Dennis took his place in a seat next to her at the table.
     “Minister, as you know there has been, and indeed there continues to be, much upheaval in public libraries today up and down the country. Many libraries have been forced to close completely, others have been constrained to reduced their opening hours, sometimes to only several hours a week. Can I ask you this question to begin with. Is your government committed to public libraries and what importance do you place on them as part of our cultural life?”
     The minister cleared her throat.
     “Well let me first of all thank you for inviting me here today. The priority facing the government today, of course, is the appalling state of the economy which we inherited from the previous administration. Getting the books balanced is and must be the main focus of the government’s attention. And I can tell everyone here today that a great many steps have already been taken to achieve this aim. What we need, what we must have, is a strong and stable economy in order to stimulate growth and attract overseas investment. And I can assure you all that this is exactly what my friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is giving all his attention to.”
     “But can you also say that the future of public libraries is high on the government’s list of priorities?”
     “What I can say is that the first priority of the government must be re-establishing the economy and stimulating growth. As I travel up and down the country talking to people, the thing they ask me more than anything else is: ‘Are you focusing your main effort on creating a strong and stable economy after the disaster of the previous lot?’ And let me assure everyone here that this is precisely what we are doing.”
     “But what about public libraries, minister? Local government has been forced to close libraries due to lack of funding from central government. Will you do anything about that? For instance, will you guarantee that local government will receive more funding for our public libraries?”
      “What I can categorically guarantee is that the principal focus of the government - and I think I can say that the whole cabinet is united in this - the principal focus, I say, is getting our economy onto a strong and stable footing. That is absolutely what we are focused on. And in my many journeys up and down the country, this is precisely what people ask me about. These are hard working people that I’m talking about. Hard working people. And it is exactly hard working people and their families that this government is working to help.”
     “But what about public libraries, minister?”
     “Yes, well I’m coming to that. I just thought it was important to make the point about the appalling state of the economy that we inherited from the previous administration. As for the state of our public lavatories….”
     Just then a delegate jumped up from his seat.
     “Libraries! Not lavatories! Libraries! What are you going to do about our libraries?”
     Dennis stood up.
     “All right, Tim, calm down. Just sit down and we’ll…”
     Tim sat down. The minister turned towards Dennis.
     “But there are lavatories in the libraries, aren’t there, Derek?”
     “Dennis. My name is Dennis, minister.”
     “Whatever. I mean, I couldn’t imagine a library without a lavatory. Or a lavatory without a library for that matter. That’s certainly the case with my husband who does a lot of his reading in the lavatory. So in a sense you could say that his lavatory is also his library.” She laughed, but there was silence from the room. She continued: “But anyway, joking aside, let’s not lose sight of what we’re here for…. what we’re here for….” She whispered to Dennis. “What are we here for?”
     Dennis, trying not to lose his composure, said calmly to the minister: “What we’re asking, minister, is will the government provide addition financial aid to local councils so that they can maintain the library services they offer to the public?”
     “Ah, right! Well, what I will provide, and what I am happy now to provide, and I can confidently say that my colleagues in government are behind me 100% on this, is that we will er….. er…. we will keep our minds focused in respect of all…. and indeed, everything, that needs to be done to create a strong and stable framework on which we can build the kind of country that hard working people up and down the land want to see for themselves and their families. And indeed when I am travelling around the country myself, this is exactly what they say to me. In fact, many of you seated in this room today will have voted for my party.”
     “Not any more!” a voice boomed from the gathering.
     It was immediately followed by another voice: “Ask her if she ever reads a book!”
     There was laughter and applause. Another voice called out: “Ask her if she knows how to read!”
     More laughter and raucous applause. Dennis once more tried to calm down his colleagues.
     “OK, Miranda, that’s fine.” He turned to the minister. “But, in fact, it’s a good question. Do you read books, minister?”
     “Of course I do. Up and down the country, where I do a lot of travelling, I read constantly. Only today on my journey up here on the train I was reading a leading think tank report on the state of our economy which praised the government’s efforts of creating a strong and stable economy to undo the damage done by the previous administration to the livelihoods of hard working people up and down the land.”
     “But what about the libraries, minister? Will you support local government in their endeavours to preserve our public libraries?”
     The minister adopted a grave and sombre tone and expression.
     “Well, of course, this government recognises how vitally important public libraries are to the fabric of our country. They provide a vital service to poor and disadvantaged families, such as books, access to computers, as well as being a hub where young people can meet to discuss table tennis, and where the elderly can go to read the newspapers in a peaceful and er… quietful… environment. They are a legacy of the Victorians, who founded libraries at the time of the Victorians, and who, like the current government, valued knowledge and culture, and who saw libraries as a way of reaching out to others in their community. Libraries are an essential part of a civilised nation, and their welfare will always be at the heart of this government’s priorities.”
     Dennis applauded.
     “That’s excellent, minister!” 
     Dennis looked to the room for support. But no one joined in his applause. He turned once more to the minister.
     “So, minister, can you tell us what your government will do to help public libraries? Because I can tell you that we are in crisis.”
     “And the prime minister is just the person to handle a crisis. Do you know what he does, the prime minister, whenever a crisis occurs?”
     A voice called out: “He goes shooting pigeons in Norfolk!”
     Laughter and cheers rang out around the room.
     The minister continued.
     “No, now that’s unfair. The prime minister is a very hard working, dedicated, and conscientious man. Let me just tell you all what he said to me the other day. ‘Doris,’ he said - because that’s my name - ‘Doris, life is a bloody wonderful thing, Doris!’ I said: ‘You’re right there, Geoff.’ And up and down the country this is precisely what hard working people say to me. And they tell me that life is a bloody wonderful thing because of  the work and dedication that the prime minister and his government are doing to reverse the damage done to our economy by the previous administration and create a strong and stable economy for the benefit of everyone and not just the privileged few.”
     “It was in the papers that you and Geoff had an extra-marital affair!” a voice shouted from the room.
     “That’s a dirty lie!” the minister shouted back.
     The delegates laughed and jeered the minister. Dennis stood up and gestured with his arms for everyone to calm down. He then turned to the minister.
      “Yes, Donald?”
      “Dennis! My name’s Dennis.” There was creeping irritation in his voice. “Minister, what we all want to know, and what I’ve been trying to get you to tell us since we began, is your assurance that the government will provide sufficient funding to local councils to enable them to provide a high quality of library service to their citizens. As Culture Minister, minister, will be provide that assurance?”
     The minister addressed the assembly and tried to speak in a calm and controlled manner.
     “Ladies and gentlemen, I know things are hard. I know because I’ve been there myself. I know you all may think that government ministers like myself, caring for the country that they love so much, striving with every breath in their bodies to do all they can to help hard working families make ends meet, to help them recover from all the catastrophic mistakes of the previous administration, I know you may all think that we seem remote and distant from the everyday concerns of ordinary, simple people like yourselves. But it isn’t true! It isn’t true at all! Let me give you an example of it. Just recently the whole of the cabinet, myself, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, and all the others, were gathered together for a weekend slaughtering pigeons on the prime minister’s estate in Norfolk. There was a chill in the air, I remember. But as I was…..”
     The minister was interrupted with a chorus of cries from around the conference room.
     “She’s waffling! Someone put her out of her misery!”
     “Come on, Doris. Never mind the sound bites - What about the libraries! What about the libraries! What about the libraries!”
     The delegates picked up on the refrain and repeated it in chorus while clapping their hands.
     On the platform, the Culture Minister sat tense and motionless in her seat, seething with anger. Some delegates swore they could see smoke coming out of her ears. Then she suddenly rose to her feet, went to the foot of the platform, and screamed aloud: “Now listen to me you….you…..”
     Her outburst was cut short by a volley of eggs followed by the raucous sounds of laughing and cheering.
     The vocal avalanche continued until, finally, the Chief Librarian got up from his seat and addressed his colleagues.
     “All right, let’s everyone just calm down. OK? 
Everyone just stay calm. Remember those training courses we’ve been on. Remember them? How to remain calm in stressful situations. How to keep our sang froid. We’re professionals, remember? And we handle all situations, whatever they may be, in a cool and professional manner. Now can we all just remember that, please?”
     The minister, egg yolk running down her face, turned to the Chief Librarian.
     “Thank you. But I think we should end this meeting right now, Desmond.”
     The Chief Librarian exploded.
     He then grabbed the government minister by the throat, pulled her to her knees, and began to throttle her.
     The delegates went silent, stared in amazement. Then two of the library janitors clambered onto the platform and wrestled the Chief Librarian onto the floor and dragged him away from the minister.
     The minister got herself back onto her feet.
     “Well, that’s just… I don’t know…. throttling a government minister…. whatever next?…. wherever I’ve gone…. up and down the country…. talking to hard working people…. I’ve been heckled at times, yes…. I’ve even had projectiles slung at me…. but no one has ever tried to throttle me….. this is most unseemly…. Where’s that husband of mine?” She then called out in the high-pitched voice that she normally reserved for whipping junior ministers with: “Gerald! Gerald!”
     A sound was heard from the back of the room. The librarians moved  aside to reveal a gentleman in a tweet suit, his tie undone, his shirt ends sticking out of his trousers, staggering forward with a half-empty bottle of whisky in his hand.
     “Yesh, my love?” He hiccupped.
     “We’re leaving!” the minister said. “Get me out of this…..  nest of discord!”
     “Yesh, my love.” He hiccupped again.
     The Culture Minister and Gerald helped one another to the door and out of the conference room amid a loud cheer from the delegates. 
     By now Dennis had regained his composure. He called for calm.
     “Thank you, colleagues. Excitement over. If you could now organise yourselves into groups of six we’ll carry on with the next item on the agenda. Which is…” He consulted his notes. “Which is…. ‘How to increase issues.’” There was a groan from the librarians. “So if each group could consider ways in which we can get customers to borrow more books…..”
     The librarians did as Dennis asked them to do, and the air of dignity and quiet normality that the public associates with a roomful of librarians descended once more upon the gathering. 


The incident with the Minister of Culture was soon forgotten. More, it was if it had never happened at all, as if it had been nothing more than a dream, a mere fantasy, a manifestation of the collective imagination.

     But imagination, too, has it’s reality.

     So who knows?



Sunday, 22 January 2017

Sunday, 15 January 2017


‘Let me introduce myself, introduce myself. My name’s Roger, Roger, and I have this strange habit, strange habit, of saying the same thing twice, saying the same thing twice.’
     I was intrigued to know more.
     ‘How did it begin?’ I asked him.
     ‘Well, well,’ Roger said, ‘I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I was quite young at the time, quite young at the time, certainly not old, certainly not old, and I suddenly found myself, suddenly found myself, saying something, saying something, that I’d only just said, only just said.’
     ‘Gosh,’ I said. ‘Did you see anyone about it?’
     ‘I did, I did,’ Roger said. ‘But there was nothing they could do, nothing they could do. Seems they know very little about it, very little about it. They’re carrying out a study, carrying out a study, to try to find the cause, try to find the cause. But until then, until then, I’m afraid we’re in limbo, afraid we’re in limbo.’
     ‘So there’s no treatment for it?’ I asked.
     ‘Not at the moment, not at the moment,’ Roger said.
     ‘It’s not contagious, is it, contagious is it?’ I asked.
     ‘It can be, it can be,’ Roger said. ‘In fact, in fact, I think you might have caught it, think you might have caught it.’
     ‘Oh no! oh no!’ I exclaimed.
     ‘Sorry about that, sorry about that, old boy, old boy,’ Roger said.
     Just then the train we were travelling on pulled into a station. Two minutes later a young woman approached down the aisle.
     ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ the young woman said, ‘is this seat taken, is this seat taken?’
     ‘No, no,’ Roger said.
     ‘Do you mind if I sit here, mind if I sit here?’ the young woman asked.
     ‘Please, please,’ Roger said.
     The young woman sat down.
     ‘I shouldn’t be here actually, shouldn’t be here actually,’ she said, ‘but the carriage for people who say things twice, people who say things twice, was full, was full. I hope that’s all right, hope that’s all right?’
     ‘It’s perfectly fine, perfectly fine,’ Roger said.
     ‘Ah, but I see, but I see, that you say things twice too, that you say things twice too,’ the young woman said. She then turned to me. ‘And what about you, what about you? Do you also say things twice, also say things twice?’
     ‘I never used to, never used to,’ I said. ‘But since I met, since I met, this gentleman, this gentleman, I’m afraid I’ve started, afraid I’ve started.’
     I looked up and saw the ticket inspector coming towards us.
     ‘Tickets please, tickets please, for any passengers just boarded, any passengers just boarded!’ announced the ticket inspector.
     ‘Oh, I’ve just boarded, I’ve just boarded,’ said the young woman and gave the inspector her ticket.
     The ticket inspector clipped the young woman’s ticket and gave it back to her.
     ‘Thank you, madam, thank you, madam,’ the ticket inspector said.
     ‘Oh I say, oh I say, do you say things twice too, inspector, say things twice too, inspector?’ the young woman said.
     ‘Only since I’ve been clicking tickets, clicking tickets, in the carriage reserved, carriage reserved, for people who say things twice, madam, people who say things twice, madam,’ the ticket inspector replied.
     A that moment an angry gentleman shouted across from the seat opposite.
     ‘Inspector, I’m bally sick of all these bally people here saying things twice,’ he said. ‘It’s really bally annoying for us “normal” people who only bally say things once. I demand that you bally well do something about it.’
     ‘Is that a congenital problem of yours, sir, congenital problem of yours. sir?’ asked the inspector.
     ‘Is what a bally congenital problem of mine, you bally idiot?’ asked the gentleman.
     ‘Saying the word bally all the time, word bally all the time,’ said the inspector.
     ‘Oh really!’ said the bally gentleman, and slunk back into his bally seat.
     The train pulled into another station.
     ‘Well this is where I get off, this is where I get off,’ I said. ‘It’s been nice talking to you all, talking to you all. But I do hope I get over this, get over this, saying thing twice all the time, saying things twice all the time.’
     I got off train and out of the station. There was a taxi waiting in the small taxi rank. I got into the back and the driver pulled off.
     I took out my mobile phone and pressed a button.
     ‘Where to, sir,?’ asked the taxi driver.
     I gave the driver the address twice, and then spoke into the phone.
     ‘Alice? Alice? It’s me, it’s me. I should be back soon, darling, back soon, darling. But I should tell you, should tell you, that you may notice, may notice, a change in me, change in me. I’m afraid that I’ve started, started, saying things twice, saying things twice. ………. What? What? I said I’ve started to say things twice, started to say things twice. ……… Where did I get, where did I get it, did you say, did you say? Well, I just picked it up, picked it up, talking to a gentleman, talking to a gentleman, on the train, on the train. Oh, and I should just warn you, should just warn you, that it can be contagious, that it can be contagious. …….. What do mean how does it spread, how does it spread? By word of mouth, obviously, by word of mouth, obviously. How else could it spread, how else could it spread? ………. What do you mean, what do you mean, will it effect our marriage, effect out marriage? Why should it effect our marriage, effect our marriage? ………. Your mother, your mother, did you say, did you say? What would it have to do, what would it have to do, with your mother, with your mother? ……….  Calm down, Alice, calm down, Alice. I was not making, not making, a derogatory comment, derogatory comment, about your mother, about your mother. I was simply saying, simply saying….. ……… Yes, I know, I know, we could have a more straightforward conversation, straightforward conversation, if I only said things once, only said things once. …….. What? What? But there are lots of people, lots of people, who say things twice, say things twice. I met three on the train, three on the train, just now, just now. They even have a special carriage, special carriage, reserved for people, reserved for people, who say things twice, say things twice. …….. No, I haven’t been drinking, haven’t been drinking! ……… I tell you I was on a train just now, on a train just now, where people were saying things twice, saying things twice, and that there was a special carriage, special carriage, for…...for….. Alice? Alice? Are you there? Are you there?’
     But the line had gone dead. I sat back in my seat. I was seething, seething. I noticed the taxi driver looking at me in his rear-view mirror.
     ‘Couldn’t help but hearing what you said just now, said just now,’ said the taxi driver, ‘because I get that too, I get that too.’
     ‘Get what too, get what too?’ I asked him.
     ‘Saying things twice, saying things twice,’ said the taxi driver.
     ‘But when I got in your cab, when I got in your cab, and you asked me where to, asked me where to, you only said it once, only said it once,’ I said.
     ‘That’s because I was fighting against it, fighting against it,’ said the taxi driver. ‘But why should I do that, why should I do that? I mean, I mean, just because we’re in a minority, just because we’re in a minority. But we’re just as good as what they are, just as good as what they are? Ain’t that right, guv, ain’t that right, guv? But they look down on us, look down on us, just because they say things only once, say things only once. Well it ain’t right, guv, it ain’t right!’
     ‘By Gad you’re right, by Gad you’re right!’ I said. ‘Why should we be second-class citizens, second-class citizens, just because we say things twice, say things twice? On the contrary, on the contrary, we should be proud of what we are, proud of what we are! We should hold our heads high, hold our heads high, look them in the eye, look them in the eye, and loudly proclaim, loudly proclaim: “Yes, we may say things twice, say things twice! Yes, you may look down on us, look down on us, because you only say things once, only say things once! But we are what we are, are what we are! So get used to it, chum, get used to it, chum!”’
     ‘Get used to it, chum, get used to it, chum!’ echoed the taxi driver.
     ‘And we should boycott, boycott, segregated carriages on trains, segregated carriages on trains, for people who say things twice, people who say things twice!’ I continued in full flow.
     ‘Boycott, boycott!’ said the taxi driver.
     ‘Justice I say, justice I say, for all people, all people, whoever they are, whoever they are, wherever they are, wherever they are, whether they say things once, say things once, or whether they say things twice, say things twice, for we are all equal, all equal, indivisible, indivisible, and free, free!’ I exclaimed.
     ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah!’ proclaimed the taxi driver.
     I lay back in my seat. I felt exhausted and at the same time exhilarated, like there was a fire inside me, a fire inside me! And I felt the motion of the taxi carrying me forward and onward to a bold new future in which people are judged not by the way they speak, whether they say things once or whether they say things twice, but by what is inside their hearts when they say it.


Monday, 9 January 2017

Reminiscences of a Cool Shakespearean

2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Royal Shakespeare Company

I was about 18 years old when I bought my first Complete Works. I remember it well, a hardback book with a plain cover; thick, poor quality paper which quickly became tacky; and tiny print with no footnotes. It was absolutely the worst
My original Othello
Cambridge Shakespeare
kind of books to begin an exploration of the works of the Bard. But I suppose that I must have persisted for at some point I graduated to individual editions of several of the plays. The Cambridge Shakespeare, with their red covers and a drawing of Shakespeare by Picasso, were my preferred editions, and I remember purchasing Hamlet, As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Richard III, and perhaps several more that I no longer recall. I carried my copy of Hamlet around with me for so long and read it so much that it literally fell to pieces. I particularly liked the prose scenes with their lively, witty, esoteric dialogue, such as Hamlet’s assertion that he was ‘but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

I now have a copy of Hamlet from The New Cambridge Shakespeare with a footnote explaining that ‘handsaw’ has been interpreted as ‘hershaw’, a kind of heron, and ‘hawk’ as a plasterer’s tool so named. 

I don’t know why I bought Troilus and Cressida, that strange ‘problem play’ set in the Trojan wars with its anti-war, anti-heroism sentiment, so different to Homer’s Iliad. It was only later that I read the other ‘problem plays’: Alls Well That Ends Well; and Measure for Measure, a play of sexual permissiveness in Vienna, in which a phoney monk (the Duke of Vienna in disguise) proposes marriage to a nun (Isabella, the play’s neurotic heroine), and a convicted murderer refuses to attend his own execution. A problem play indeed!

I also at this time saw my first theatrical production of Hamlet. It was presented by the Prospect Theatre Company with Ian McKellen as Hamlet, John Woodvine as Claudius, Faith Brook as Gertrude, James Cairncross as Polonius, and Susan Fleetwood as Ophelia. McKellen was the evident star with posters of him on sale in the foyer for 50 pence. But, alas, his Hamlet failed to impress at least one critic, who wrote of his: ‘sudden shuddering emphasis of lines which seem to bear little or no relationship to his or any other interpretation of the play.’ The same critic, however, praised Susan Fleetwood’s verse speaking as ‘graceful and true’, and thanked Faith Brook for her interpretation of Gertrude as a drunkard ‘ready to sign up with Alcoholics Anonymous’. 

Ian McKellen as Hamlet
Prospect Theatre
It was many years before I saw another production of Hamlet. It was in period costume, though in one scene Hamlet was strangely watching TV. I would need to refer anyone to the play’s director for an explanation of that one.

I bought many more individual editions of the plays, but I didn’t acquire another Complete Works until the Compact Edition of the Oxford Shakespeare of 1988. This controversial edition printed the plays not as they believed Shakespeare wrote them, but as they believed they were performed in the playhouses at the time, since Shakespeare (and others) made alternations during rehearsals or early performances. Some of the alterations were quite shocking to Shakespeare purists, of which I at the time was sadly one. I was particularly outraged by Gertrude’s line in Hamlet: ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’, being transformed in the Oxford edition to: ‘The lady protests too much. methinks.’ No doubt the editors had sound scholarship on their side. But take it from me, dear reader, it was definitely not cool. And neither did the tomfoolery end there. The Oxford editors also decided that the forest in As You Like It was not the forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s native county of Warwickshire, but the forest of Ardenne in France. A travesty! Revolutions have been fought over less!

A new edition of the Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works was published in 2016 and is proving to be equally as controversial as its 1988 predecessor. Its most publicised claim is that Shakespeare had a collaborator in the writing of the all three parts of Henry VI, namely his chief rival Christopher Marlowe.

My most memorable As You Like It
Kate Buffery as Rosalind
My interest in Shakespeare has now become a kind of ‘gentlemanly hobby’ (to borrow a quote from Anthony Burgess) and I am building up a collection of editions of The New Cambridge Shakespeare (whose covers now depict a portrait of Shakespeare by David Hockney). I very occasionally participate in the hashtag #ShakespeareSunday on Twitter, in which participants are asked to tweet their favourite Shakespeare quotes on a given theme. I usually avoid reading biographies and critical studies on the plays but can recommend the following:

James Shapiro - 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. An examination of Shakespeare's plays of 1599 against a background of contemporary events which Professor Shapiro believes influenced the dramatist's writing at the time.

Charles Nicholl - The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. A fascinating study of Shakespeare at his only known address in London and the domestic drama that unfolded.