You can’t kill off libraries and call it ‘creative’

In his song “Gave It a Name”, Bruce Springsteen circles around the question of guilt. A man who has done bad things “couldn’t stand the guilt or the blame/So he gave it a name.”

It is a weird, offbeat psychological insight, but one which modern politicians would understand better than most. This week, and in these pages, Andy Burnham, currently moving onwards and upwards from his job as Culture Secretary (last year it was his “dream job”), has been busy playing the name game.

Boasting of the government’s commitment to what he called “Creative Britain”, Burnham revealed how schoolchildren and students were now being helped and encouraged to become part of it. There were Creative Apprenticeship Schemes, overseen by a body called Creative and Cultural Skills. Another scheme called Find Your Talent had been introduced to schools. “Ideas are the raw material of the creative industries,” Burnham boldly pointed out. Find Your Talent would “give pupils access to quality culture – not just as passive consumers, but as practitioners.”

Creative, talent, ideas, culture, quality: you could warm your hands on the crackle of these lovely words. Unfortunately, Burnham’s rosy vision of Britain’s children, their little heads teeming with ideas and quality culture as they prepare for careers in Creative Britain, has been dealt a rather serious blow by a more sobering document – one which points out that, under his watch, school libraries have continued to be closed and reduced at a shameful rate.

It is blindingly obvious that the best way to allow children and young people to be drawn into new worlds of knowledge and imagination is though books. Yet, when it comes to libraries, all the reassuring words about access to culture are conveniently forgotten. A new e-petition from the Campaign for the Book (which can be found on the 10 Downing Street petitions page) has pointed out that prisoners have a statutory right to a library, but schoolchildren do not. There have been closures and general downgrading of libraries in Oxfordshire, Kent, Lancashire and Nottingham.

Once the catch-all excuse for this betrayal of the next generation was budgetary; now it is the new technology. Primary and secondary schools have been encouraged by the government to introduce a “Virtual Learning Environment” to support teachers. In the squeeze for space and resources, it is often school libraries which have deemed to be surplus to requirements.

There is, admittedly, an image problem here. For a hip, trend-conscious head-teacher, how much more exciting it must be to launch – or perhaps even to roll out, going forward – a Virtual Learning Environment than it would be to announce that books and a qualified librarian will continue to be available. Yet the evidence is clear. Access to books is essential to every government academic target, the foundation of any worthwhile education.

Of course, libraries for children do not conform easily to government by soundbite. In the early days of his 15-month tenure as Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham suggested that libraries should “look beyond the bookshelf” and aim to become places of “joy and chatter”. The idea that what he calls quality culture can be found through the politically dull expedient of reading words has always seemed slightly too straightforward and old-fashioned to be taken seriously.

When his former colleague Barbara Follett reports next month on the future of libraries, let us hope that she proposes at least giant step towards the establishment of Creative Britain – giving schoolchildren the same rights to a library as prisoners.

What’s in it for Kelby to re-tell this story?

Has any clumsy, unachieved sexual overture ever enjoyed such a sustained Indian summer of publicity than the taxi-rank incident involving the two writers Derek Walcott and Nicole Kelby?

It all happened, or failed to happen, 16 years ago in Boston in America. Kelby, who was married and with a successful TV career, attended a creative course taught by the eminent poet Walcott. One night, while waiting for a taxi after dinner, Walcott suggested that Kelby might like to come back to his place. She declined. He allegedly threatened to block the production of a play she had written.

The play never made it. Kelby abandoned the course. Her marriage broke up and ran up debts. At one stage, she sued the university and Walcott for sexual harassment, but nothing much came of it.

Here is the mystery. Kelby is now a successful writer who works under the name NM Kelby. She is remarried and seems at ease with the world. Yet during the recent excitement surrounding the appointment of a new Oxford professor of poetry, she eagerly told and re-told the great taxi-rank incident, most recently in a Sunday newspaper.

It seems odd behaviour, still casting herself as victim all these years later. Of course, the publicity might just shift a few copies of NM Kelby’s books.

Talk of Sugar’s ennoblement makes me queasy

Was it my imagination or did Adrian Chiles, introducing “Sir Alan – soon to be Lord Sugar”, almost drop to one knee as if he were a humble subject?

The subsequent discussion – on The Apprentice, You’re Hired – of Sugar’s forthcoming ennoblement was queasy-making on several levels, not least because the life peerage has not actually been conferred and must therefore have been leaked for political purposes.

Meanwhile, no fewer than seven peers have been brought in to prop up Gordon Brown’s tottering cabinet. No one could accuse the Government of not doing its bid to hasten reform of the ludicrous honours system.