Saturday, 21 May 2011

Use it or lose it

I was surprised the other day to get an e-mail (albeit an auto-generated one) from the library, asking me to take part in their current consultation exercise. After I'd left work, I'd kept my old library card, although I haven't in fact used it in the intervening two-and-a-half years. It was pretty much a case of "I'll pop in and see you all again sometime"... but I never did. I did bump into a couple of people by chance, and heard some dark rumours about what had been going on after I'd left, but that was all it amounted to.

Driven I assume by the government's demands for public spending cuts, the proposals amount to the closure of 16 libraries, cuts in opening hours at all but one I think of the remaining ones, and consequent reductions in staff. The rationale behind it is declining levels of use, to the point at which those scheduled for the chop are "unsustainable in their current form" - including two which I remember being built from new during my last few years there.

Interestingly, one of the options on offer is to try and get the locals to take over the running of "their" library: what support there's going to be for this idea remains to be seen, but it was a concept that I recall was in fairly common use back in the 1950s - not that long before I started work. On the other hand, if no-one's willing to do it, then presumably the closures will go ahead, leaving large areas of the county without a library, although perhaps not - arguably - a "library service".

And that I think is the underlying question which this sort of consultation tends to fudge. In the 21st century, do we actually still need libraries? The successful ones which will remain are being turned into one-stop shops, advice centres, cybercafes, rock concert halls and police stations. The "virtual library" will be in competition with Amazon Kindle and any number of helplines, online forums and bulletin boards. And you can always have a few paperbacks delivered along with the week's groceries. Or maybe the good villagers of
Westbury-sub-Mendip had the right idea!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

White cliffs and dark clouds

One of the consequences of my father being in the army was that as a child I went to a number of different schools. For in contrast to my sister's experiences seven years earlier, times had changed and it had become a more usual practice for families to accompany servicemen on tours of duty abroad, rather than their offspring being packed off to boarding schools for the duration. I was quite lucky in that as I grew older, moves necessitating changes of school coincided with natural break-stages in my education - first from Infants to Junior, and then from Junior to Secondary school.

So when we returned from Hong Kong in September 1959, it was time for me to start my secondary education. We sailed back in the 'Oxfordshire', a former troopship still at the time used to ferry service families around the world in the days before the advent of widespread cheap air travel. According to my sister, who would've been almost 18 by then and thus probably with a better memory of it, children of school age attended classes during the voyage, although I have no recollection whatever of it and have no idea what, if anything, I might have learned. Be that as it may, we docked at Southampton on 20th September, and went to stay in some temporary Army accommodation at Dover while the details of my father's next posting were finalized.

Part of the old Dover Citadel, a fortress dating from Napoleonic times, had been converted into Married Families' Quarters, and we had our meals in the Officers' Mess - which I was surprised to discover is in fact still standing nowadays, though much of the rest of the area is in ruins. Somewhat to my dismay, I was told I had to attend Dover Grammar School for boys, even though it was unlikely to be for more than a few weeks. At the age of ten - I was still a couple of weeks short of my eleventh birthday - it was my first taste of grammar school, and I hated it. Undoubtedly part of the trouble was that unlike all the other schools I'd ever been to, I knew this one was only temporary and so I just didn't see the point of making the effort to settle in and make friends only to be uprooted again straightaway. I wasn't even in the same boat as all the other kids like I had been at Minden Row, which was a Service Childrens' School. With its grey stone walls and columned archways surrounding the archaically named "Quad", it seemed very forbidding, and in my fertile imagination a bit like a medieval monastery although I don't imagine it's nearly as old. The Headmaster, whose name I've long since forgotten, struck me as very stern and authoritarian, especially as in one of those trivial things that obstinately sticks in the mind for years and years after the event, I got into trouble in the first few days for not wearing a school cap: my mother simply hadn't been able to buy me one in the correct size.

As things turned out, I couldn't have been there much more than three or four weeks when I caught one of those common but highly infectious childhood illnesses that everyone got back in the days before MMR jabs became all the rage. My mother kept me off school, and in the meantime the details of my father's next posting came through. I tried to persuade her that it really wasn't worth my going back there just for a final week or so, and she rather uncharacteristically took the line of least resistance and agreed. Thus by November we were off on our way up to the Midlands.

Despite my initial inauspicious introduction to a grammar school education, I settled in very quickly and easily at Leamington College for Boys with my customary resilience and adaptability: I did very well and was very happy there - no doubt much to my mother's relief. In fact she confided in me many years later that she'd always known Dover had been the one school I'd never settled in at.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Schoolboy in a skirt

A story doing the rounds at the moment is that of 12-year old Chris Whitehead, who apparently turned up to school the other day wearing a skirt in protest against his school's ban on boys wearing shorts during the hot weather. There's no denying he's got a certain amount of guts - although personally I thought the skirt suited him and he looked kinda cute in it.

When I was his age, it was the norm for boys to wear short trousers all through Junior School, only graduating to long ones as first formers around the age of 12 - in something almost akin to a rite of passage. So I doubt if any of us would've wanted to revert back to being little boys in shorts, however hot the weather might've been. And skirts were not an item of uniform in an all-boys school!

I noted with interest that his teacher was quoted as commending his "independence" and "individuality", and it was rather innovative of him to have spotted the loophole in the school's uniform policy which didn't specify that skirts could only be worn by girls. Nevertheless, whatever she may have said to him in private, her public stance on it made a refreshing change from the clumsy ineptitude with which schools generally seem to handle pupil protests. On that note, it does occur to me to wonder who's been orchestrating the publicity which all this seems to have attracted?