“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“WHAT ABOUT THE LIBRARIES! WHAT ABOUT THE LIBRARIES! WHAT ABOUT THE LIBRARIES!”
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.
“IT’S DENNIS! MY NAME’S F**KING DENNIS!”
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?