Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Big Society Microcosm #1 - The British Library

It seems a while - it is a while, now I check - since I wrote this piece on Andy Beckett's excellent history of the seventies for 3AM. As austerity/ Big Society bed themselves in further and further, it's interesting to note the ways in which an increasing variety of specific locations are beginning, structurally if not visually, to resemble the ideological microcosms (oil rigs; Saltley Gate) Beckett identified in the Heath-Callaghan years. Today I was handed a leaflet by a member of PCS outside the British Library, where I've spent a fair bit of time over the last four or five months. I hadn't realised that staff cuts have been and continue to be made at the BL, although such a situation is obviously absolutely harmonious with a world in which Jeremy Hunt - to whom the PCS advise protesting - can be the Secretary of State for Culture.

My observations suggest that the staff at the BL, particularly those who work in the reading rooms, are asked to put up with an unpleasant amount of rudeness, some of which is no doubt the venting of frustrations at a slightly absurd cataloguing and delivery system. The work is clearly difficult; the Mac-wielders (themselves symptomatic) who drift into the Humanities reading rooms to read two sentences of lecturer-prescribed Zizek and mess around on Facebook often make frustrating 'customers'. Immediately, there's an incommunicado between workers - particularly the security staff, I think - and a nominally liberal or leftish constituency of users, many of whom seem to be projecting a cultivated image of bookishness. I'm not sure if it was while I was living abroad that 'moderately dissident intellectual' became an off-the-peg look, and I know that going on about h*****s is basically the mark of the prematurely grumpy thirtysomething, but styling oneself after late-period (broke and tubercular) Orwell really seems to mark a new phase in the history of appropriation.

Anyhow, efforts to inhabit a vaguely-defined mid-twentieth-century thinkerishness are matched, with stunning predictability, by the BL's catering outlets, which are outsourced to Peyton and Byrne. Many people will already be aware of this, but P&B is a company dreamt up by a scriptwriter working on a satire of The Cameron Years twenty years from now, only it's somehow broken loose from its fictional moorings and travelled back in time as its owners thought we all needed a real-time encapsulation on the absolute cultural and political moribundity of the coalition years. It is echt Big Society in the same way as the pub in Goodnight Sweetheart was echt Myth of the Blitz, from the chummy 'X & Y'-formula name - a branding essential at the moment - to its gourmet fairy cakes and (of course) KC&CO font. This is what people who like books like to eat. People who like books like tea and cake. Books and tea and cake are bedfellows.

So, a downsized staff with concomitantly increased workplace stress levels catering to a politically-confused generation of depressive-hedonic studes while several outlets of a thirties-themed 'artisan' cafe rake in the profits that come with a semi-captive audience? That's Britain's 'intellectual heartbeat' in 2012. Please write to Jeremy Hunt about this, as if he'll pay any attention whatsoever.

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