Oh Deary

Terry Deary’s views on public libraries made alarming reading this week. Others have replied far more cogently than I could, so if you want a proper response, Julia Donaldson’s article in the Guardian is a good place to start.

Still, if Deary’s comments re-ignite the debate about public libraries, it won’t be a bad thing. We need to continue that debate while there is still a service to discuss. What we’re currently suffering is a haphazard dismantling of a fragmented service as small local battles are fought – and often lost – all over the country.

I worked in a public library for twelve years. I’ve seen the good that libraries do. If you can afford to buy all your books and have internet access, maybe you don’t need to go to one, but for goodness’ sake, why wouldn’t you? Libraries have far more books than most of us could ever afford, they’re (usually) warm, they’re friendly and safe, and they’re full of people who love to read! What’s not to like? (And yes, I know bookshops used to offer most of this. If you still have one that does, you’re very lucky.)

Conversely if you have no money of your own to buy reading material – and many people, especially children, haven’t – where else can you go? Even 50p at a charity shop is beyond some budgets. “The Internet!” is not an answer if you’re six years old, you have several brothers and sisters and everybody wants the computer at once.

Nobody’s saying the Library service doesn’t need to change in the light of the current upheaval in the book trade. But we only got to where we are by a long struggle. Abandoning all that hard-won ground now would be a dreadful mistake.

A while ago I did some digging around to find out the story of just one local library in my area. Some of the arguments may sound familiar:


The Public Libraries Act gives boroughs the power to open free public libraries


(No rush, as you see) –  a letter in the local paper gives twenty reasons why a library would be a Good Thing, including, “Because for young people of both sexes a Public Library affords some place to which they can go, instead of loitering aimlessly about the public streets.”


The Council vote against a Public Library, despite popular support which claims that, “The poor people here are very fond of reading,” and, “The people of this town… have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”

The local papers are divided:

“The speeches of the members proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.”

“The decision was a wise one… while there were so many costly necessities, in the shape of loans for drainage, water supply and street improvements looming.”

“The public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”


Mr Carnegie (founder of the Carnegie Trust) offers £3000 towards the cost of a library. This sparks a public meeting, at which –

“Mr Pile said they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town.”


“Mr Dadds said that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere.”

“Hear, Hear!”

“What did they read in these libraries?”

“Rubbish!” came the reply.

(There may be something in this. For a fee, the local subscription libraries were offering titles like, “Miranda of the Balcony,” “Maid with the Goggles,” “Further Adventures of Captain Kettle,” “Iris the Avenger,” and “Mrs Erricker’s Reputation”.)


The Great War interrupts everything,


There is a hold-up acquiring the land. The Carnegie Trustees want to see some action.


A local campaigner points out that “no one with a leaning towards culture would oppose a free library” and finally…


Hooray! The Library opens, after forty-one years of campaigning.

It’s still open now.

Long may it remain.

Stuffed thrush with rotted fish-guts, anyone?

(I’m guessing that if you’ve got past the title of this piece, you have the sort of constitution that will cope with the rest. You have been warned!)

Mosaic from Nimes  showing birds and wine amphora
Mosaic from Nimes

 “Say the word and he’ll produce a fish out of a sow’s belly, a pigeon out of the lard, a turtle dove out of the ham, and a fowl out of the knuckle.”*

In the light of Trimalchio’s boast about his cook, I’ve been consulting one or two ancient sources to see if the entrepreneurs who’ve sold us horsemeat masquerading as beef might find inspiration for some new offerings.

It’s fairly well known that a trip back to the classical world yields some unusual birds for the table –  ostrich, crane, flamingo, peacock… but there aren’t really enough of these in western  Europe to do anything on an industrial scale. The substitution of bear steaks for wild boar doesn’t work for similar reasons, even though they allegedly taste the same.

I don’t think we want to talk about eating dormice, or flower bulbs, or electric rays, even when deep-fried with chips, but snails might be a bulk option. They must be relatively easy to collect and fatten up in milk. Transport costs would be minimal because, thanks to the Romans, we already have the right variety living here. I’m not sure how they could be disguised as something with universal appeal – they certainly don’t appeal to me – but doubtless somebody out there can fix it.

Grape juice fermenting in large open jar
Fermentation, Roman-style

While we’re on the subject of reducing costs, owners of vineyards near the coast might like to add some seawater while making the wine. Lovely. And of course if it’s too dry, they can sweeten it with a little grape must, boiled up in lead pans.

Grapes on vine

Nowhere in Apicius’s famous cookbook did I find any mention of eating horses, but I did find evidence for the ongoing struggle between producers and consumers. Along with handy tips on how to restore fish sauce which is smelling even worse than usual**, how to clear cloudy wine and how to produce something that “everybody will think is Liburnican oil” is a tip for rescuing tainted honey. Apparently if you mix one part of tainted honey with two parts of good, you will make it “good for sale.” And how do you know whether you have tainted honey? Put a wick in it and light it. If it burns, all well and good. If it doesn’t… well, you know what to do.

Mosaic from Nimes showing fish,  fancy cups and flagon

All of which calls to mind the menu at one of our local restaurants, which proudly offered an exotic-sounding dish followed by the words,  “Enjoy it first – then ask how it is made.”

* The Satyricon, Book XV, 70

**Hard to imagine, as it was made from fermented fish-guts.