Sunday, 31 July 2011

I spy - new fox on the block

This rather topical fox with his News of the World and Fox News loo paper is on a utilities' box at the Salusbury Road end of Hartland Road, part sticker and part grafitti. And just nearby is angry Policeman Pig

He's like a bad-tempered and all-fours version of a Richard Scarry animal (remember "Busy, Busy World", "What do people do all day?" and those other excellent books?) Here's Sergeant Murphy just to remind you

And here's another way of decorating utilities' boxes photographed by my friend Kathy Dalwood

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Philip Pullman event on 20th July

Philip Pullman in conversation with local novelist Maggie Gee at Queen's Park Community School on a wet Wednesday evening?  It was another cracking local literary event organised by the Brent SOS (Save our Six) Libraries group, following on from evenings with Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett and, just the week before, Harriet Walter (interviewed by Deborah Moggach). 

Queen's Park Books have supported all these events by selling tickets in the shop and taking their now famous "pop-up" shop out on the road with the author's books, ready for signing.  Thank you Lisa and the other staff for organising this - it adds a lot to the evening.

Anyway, back to the packed hall at QPCS where Maggie Gee introduced Philip as an author "who hasn't forgotten why people need stories" and this turned out to be one of the main themes of the evening.  Maggie  first read "His Dark Materials" with her then teenage daughter Rosa Rankin-Gee (who won Shakespeare and Co's 2011 Paris literary prize in June this year for a novella by an unpublished writer- many congrats to Rosa who also appeared at the Queen's Park Book Festival in June this year).

Philip first began writing as a child because he loved reading stories and was lucky (after a childhood growing up all over the world), to have an encouraging teacher at a Welsh school who read out one of his stories and who introduced him to Milton's "Paradise Lost" in  the "A" level course.  Philip then went on to Oxford to read English Literature "but I was a very bad student.  I didn't know how to write essays.  I should have been a cabinet maker - I enjoy that much more than writing".

He left with a 3rd class degree (in the year when they stopped awarding 4ths) and became a teacher in various Oxfordshire middle schools teaching 9-13year olds.  Before the constraints of the National Curriculum Philip devoted a lot of time to telling his pupils Greek myths - "they're great stories" - and it was that "apprenticeship in story-telling" where he learnt the value of timing and that "I can tell exciting stories, I can't do funny or domestic stories" which encouraged him to concentrate on writing and give up teaching.

Philip was asked  which particular collection of Greek stories he would recommend and his favourite was the excellent "The God beneath the Sea" by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen.  My battered copy with its haunting illustrations cost 30p in 1973.  I think it's out of print, but well worth tracking down second hand.

Apollo's Horses by Charles Keeping

The inspiration for "His Dark Materials" was books 1 and 2 of "Paradise Lost", as a fantasy in three volumes.  He'd also been thinking a lot about consciousness (and self-consciousness) and one of the most exciting moments of his life was when he realised that the most interesting characteristic of the "daemons" which he'd invented would be that they would stop changing shape when their humans developed consciousness (when they were no longer children).  If you haven't read "His Dark Materials", buy or borrow it and take it on holiday, or read it at home while it rains.  It is gripping and not to be mistaken as a book only suitable for children (not that I accept that idea, but that's another article).
A boy asked Philip "Do you miss Lyra now you've finished writing about her?".  Great news:  "I do miss Lyra, but I haven't finished with her yet.  I'm planning "The Book of Dust",  two volumes about her and her world".

Despite claiming to be unable to tell funny stories Philip was then very funny on the subject of research ("it's greatly overrrated.  I never found it helpful to go anywhere").  He couldn't afford to go to the arctic so instead went to the library and looked at maps and pictures (particularly of early balloons).  He also deliberately never sets any novel earlier than when there were photographs (for inspiration) and because he doesn't want to have to deviate from modern English.  

"The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" was an exception to this.  It came about because Philip wanted to look at the two different aspects - of Jesus and of Christ, from the point of view of an unbeliever.  The source material was the bible.  Philip was asked which brother he preferred.  "I liked them both equally but I was a bit surprised by Christ.  He became a more interesting character as the book went on".

Asked about the importance of bible stories and Greek myths, Philip's reply was that fairy stories are important too ("they nourish us in ways we don't understand until we're grown up"), and nursery rhymes.  "I'm passionate about this... children too young to even sit up should have nursery rhymes told to them... with actions... you only get a love for language, a confidence in language from being exposed to language... fun language, friendly language... I've a good mind to start a Nursery Rhyme Party and stand against David Cameron at the next election!"

The last question began "Hello Mr Pullman.  I was one of your pupils when I was about twelve...".  Philip was forced to admit that his great uncle who travelled down the Congo was a figment of his imagination, but it was obviously such a great story that his former pupil remembered it from many years earlier.  I think Philip said "I made a shrunken head out of papier mache" but I may have misheard over a sea of laughter and applause.

If you were there, you'll know it was a great evening.  If you missed it, I hope this will give you some flavour of the event.

Great photos of the event and another write-up here 

Download and read Philip's excellent pro-library speech in relation to Oxfordshire libraries.

Read about Day 1 of the Judicial Review hearing about the Brent library closures here
Read about Day 2 here
And about Day 3 here

Not exactly a shrunken head, but a bird made from an artichoke

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Brent Libraries latest - day 3 in Court 2

Great to see so many people manning the barricades again on the Strand and handing out stickers to passers-by. Best slogan of the day "THE  BRENT  SIX  ARE  INNOCENT"  A man who seemed to be breakfasting on a pint of vodka advised us to fight from the heart and not the head... We stuck to coffee, then headed back to Court 2. By the way there's a David Mach sculpture of a judge made of coat hangers outside that court - not quite as striking as his coat hanger gorilla in the Summer Exhibition last year - but quite a surprise in the Royal Courts of Justice

But I digress. In court Brent's QC, Elizabeth Laing continued her submissions on the question of fairness, in particular whether the non-disclosure of the seven secret criteria and the alleged moving of the goal posts amounted to unfairness. Predictably she said they didn't, and that the goal posts were firmly fixed throughout, but that even if there was unfairness the result would have been the same (ie that Brent would still have been entitled to decide that none of the proposers had put forward a robust business case and a proposal which would have involved no cost to the council).

She went on to say that if Brent was able to have part of its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service performed by other groups it would have to be sure that a business case was robust, and that if the groups were providing an additional service then it would have to be at no cost or the council couldn't achieve the savings which the so-called Libraries Transformation Project would deliver.

And, wait for it, the reason Brent had no criteria ready when it asked in the questionnaire
"14. Do you have additional comments or preferred course of action and your suggestion(s) on taking this forward"
was because it had no idea what those suggestions would be! It wasn't because Brent were planning to ignore or reject them all anyway [my words, not Miss Laing's]

Apparently "proposers had been told to make their best case and had been given a very full opportunity to do so". Officers then assessed the proposals using the seven secret criteria "to determine the overall robustness of the propostion". For example, in relation to Barham Park, officers decided that 84% of projected income would not be achieved by the group. All proposals failed because none (in the view of officers) had a robust business case and all involved some cost to the council. And even if the criteria had been disclosed the proposers "still couldn't have come up with a robust business case". Brent was right, in her view, to be very cautious.

As Miss Laing went on, painting a picture of Brent as a model of democratic engagement with its lucky citizens (something like the Athenian Assembly perhaps) it seemed we were straying into a parallel universe. One where labour members could vote with their consciences and for the benefit of their constituents, where partnership working was welcomed, where the council kept an open mind during a consultation...

In fact if the seven secret criteria had been disclosed "the court can be confident that there would have been requests for more detail... a never-ending dialogue", and the council has to be entitled to take a view, said Miss Laing.

Miss Laing concluded with highly technical submissions about Brent's duty under Equalities Legislation which were answered by our QC when she began her reply just after midday. Mr Justice Ouseley asked a lot of very probing questions and we felt that he was not in agreement with this part of the argument (but that's no reason for despair - as our solicitor said at the end it's only part of one of four reasons why Brent's decision should be set aside).

Helen Mountfield QC then dealt with her opponent's points on the meaning of Brent's duty to provide a library service - and submitted that a comprehensive library service cannot be provided without premises, even if some services can be offered on-line.

She also submitted that Brent had misdirected itself by failing to find out what specific needs were intended to be met by the new library service, for example, the needs of school students in overcrowded homes for a place to study. She queried why, given that 54% of the libraries budget was spent on staffing, Brent didn't look at replacing some staff with volunteers, and also queried Brent's rather perverse selection of the six libraries to be closed. For example, Neasden not only has more visitors than Kilburn but had substantial repairs in 2009, [whereas Kilburn has been waiting for repairs for years]

When Helen Mountfield finished there was a brief discussion about the next steps. The Judge indicated that it was very unlikely that he would be able to give his full judgment until October (unless by some miracle he was able to write it by the end of next week - the legal term ends on 29th July and there is then vacation during August and September). Miss Laing said Brent would need to know as soon as possible and, although reluctant, the Judge said he might be able to say which party had won by the end of the second week of August, and then provide a full reasoned judgment in October. This course is not ideal because whichever party lost would be unable to start the process of appealing without a reasoned judgment (and there's a time limit for this) and of course Brent are eager to press ahead and TRANSFORM THE LIBRARY SERVICE!

If you've read all this way you'll be wanting an assessment of our chances of success. All our solicitor would say was that he thought (as did we) that the Judge was against us on the very complex equalities argument, but as to our other arguments it was impossible to predict how he might decide. We all agreed though that Helen Mountfield had presented the case very well for us and that the Judge had engaged with all the arguments and asked relevant and searching questions. So I'm afraid we just have to wait and see (and stay optimistic)

Taking the placards away at the end of the day

And if you're only looking at this to see a cat wearing a wig I haven't found one prepared to do that yet, but here's a knitted judge which I saw today

Read about Day 1 in court here

Read about Day 2 in court here

Read the Kilburn Times article (ignoring  "Judge will give his verdict 12th August" )  here

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Brent Libraries latest - day 2 in Court 2

Everything that follows is hearsay because I couldn't make it to Court 2 today - but I'll defs be there tomorrow, so stick around- but it's all from reliable witnesses who were only onto their second or third glasses of wine when I spoke to them (at the Philip Pullman event - where else? - which was brilliant btw. More on that anon)

Anyway an impressive number of SOS supporters made their way down to the Strand again, to man the barricades outside the building and to fill up the back of Court 2 and the public gallery as much as possible.

Our impressive QC Helen Mountfield finished putting her case to Mr Justice Ouseley (a very senior and well-respected Judge), dealing with Brent's further failings including the particularly inadequate consultation and way in which Brent had dealt with the 9 community proposals (all rejected, as we know, because they would involve some cost to the council).

The QC appearing for Brent (Elizabeth Laing) opted to open her case with minutes to go before the lunchtime adjournment, and she kicked off with the seven secret criteria which Brent applied in assessing the community proposals (not to be confused in any way with the Seven Pillars of Wisdom). This turned out to be a bad opening gambit as the Judge was not impressed with Brent's wisdom, or their repeated references to a "robust business plan".

They really are attached to this term: it also pops up in Elizabeth Laing's "Detailed Grounds of Resistance" (her defence to our claim). Brent expected proposers to read into it the (unpublished) detailed criteria on the grounds that they were "obvious"! Sue Harper (Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services) asserts in her written statement:

"It was clear that there was some community interest [in the 6 threatened libraries] so part of the policy proposal was that a clear approach would be developed to voluntary organisations who wished to present a robust business case for running library services in the vacant buildings at no cost to the council"

The clear approach referred to was the seven secret criteria which Sue Harper agrees were not published in advance or otherwise disclosed.

After lunch the case rolled on, with the Judge  querying many of Elizabeth Laing's points (hooray! but of course we can't infer anything from it... it could still go either way).

And here's a picture of a cat with no legal background struggling to put on a pair of barrister's bands

Tomorrow I'll post a proper first hand account of the day's action

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Brent Libraries- latest July 19th

Just back from a day in Court 2 at the Royal Courts of Justice listening to our QC's submissions in the application for judicial review against Brent Council in relation to its decision in April to close the 6 libraries.

A large group of Save our Six supporters rallied by the Strand entrance to the Court from 9am onwards, with banners and the eye-catching red t-shirts.

Once inside there was a slightly surreal moment as there was a previous application about whether a woman had been illegally detained under immigration legislation once a medical examination had revealed scars on her inner thighs which were diagnostic of her having been tortured (in the country from which she'd fled).  One hard-of-hearing library supporter, after listening for about 20 minutes, asked "Is this the application against Brent council?"

Meanwhile the public gallery was being dusted down (literally) and given a quick squirt of furniture polish to make space for the 60 or so SOS supporters who couldn't all fit in to the main part of the court.

And then we were off!  Our QC, Helen Mountfield, explained that this is the first judicial review claim to examine the relationship between a local authority decision to close a significant number of libraries and the applicable statutory and common law duties (permission has been granted for a similar claim in relation to library closures in Gloucestershire).

Ms Mountfield asserted that Brent council adopted a fundamentally flawed and unlawful approach to the objective of making savings in its budget, particularly because it started from the false premiss that library closures were an inevitability (thereby closing its mind to reasonable alternatives).  Brent only considered alternative options on the basis that they would involve no ongoing cost, and for this reason they were all ruled out.

She explained that there was a degree of urgency because Brent were determined to press on quickly with the closures but that a stay had been agreed (either to the end of July or possibly to 12th August - this was unclear).

In deciding how to fulfill its duties under section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 Brent had fixed on one means without first properly identifying the range of needs which it had to meet and without any proper open minded consideration of the full range of means which it had at its disposal (eg making an arrangement with a third party partner - like a community group) to perform that duty.  Brent had committed both errors of approach and errors of analysis.

The error of approach was that Brent council officers misdirected members as to the terms of the 1964 Act or the council unlawfully closed its mind to any other way of providing a library service than providing it itself.

The error of analysis was that Brent reached an irrational and unlawful decision because consideration was not given to several mandatory considerations (both general public law duties and specific duties under the legislation).  Brent failed to form a rational an informed view about who needed a library service and what were their needs (including failure to assess the needs of children and failure to have due regard to equality legislation).

Ms Mountfield also submitted that the consultation was inadequate (which was the first point which occurred to most of us, back in the winter when this sad saga first began).  The consultation didn't ask the right questions.

The Judge asked a few questions, including querying whether a library service could be provided over the internet ("at first blush one tends to think of libraries as buildings")

I could go on - I've got plenty more notes, but maybe that's enough for now.  Read Tim Lott talking about the legal challenge in today's  Evening Standard

And finally, when we popped into the pub for some quick lunctime sustenance there was a cat wearing a legal collar.  Sorry the photo's such poor quality, but 8 out of 10 cats hate flash, so I didn't use it!

and really finally don't forget the Philip Pullman event tomorrow - Wednesday 20th July when he's in conversation with novelist (and SOS supporter) Maggie Gee, 7pm at Queen's Park Community School.  Tickets £10 on the door or in advance from Queen's Park Books, the Lexi and L'Angolo on College Road. And whether you can come to the event or not, go to Philip's website and download the "Oxfordshire Libraries" pdf and read every word of it - it's excellent. The final words are
"Leave the libraries alone.  You don't know the value of what you're looking after.  It is far too precious to destroy"

Philip Pullman
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