Walsall Council leader Mike ‘Blofeld’ Bird, Councillor for Pheasey Park Farm, has been around Walsall politics for a very long time. Over the years, I’ve become inured to the utter absurdity of many of the things he says. From ludicrously and unselfconciously bigging up his monetary value to the denizens of Walsall, to suggesting that he only had peripheral control of what went on during his watch, our leader often displays what appears to be a very tenuous grip on reality. However, in Friday 8th October’s Express & Star, our very own loose cannon fired off a volley of grapeshot that has made me very angry indeed. If ever proof were needed that Walsall is in trouble, then this petulant, snotty, mewling little missive is it.
One can only assume that some hapless operative in the press office – who seem to keep Mike away from the press as much as possible these days, presumably with the use of threats and large sticks – left the cage door open and a reporter from the local rag wandered in looking for the loo. In the article, Blofeld grumbles half-heartedly about funding cuts which he knows full well are coming, but somehow never has the balls to protest about. It appears to have already been decided that what will be axed is leisure services – the arm of the authority that provides recreation centres, libraries, museums and the like. Having already culled Willenhall Leisure Centre, the axe is swinging over other saleable properties at Darlaston, Bentley and Walsall Wood. As the leader plants the seeds of doubt – good facilities are wasted on the poor, nobody uses them – he launches an attack on libraries. This cannot be allowed to pass.
Libraries are an essential service, considered by most people as being a primary resource, along with road maintenance and refuse. One of the minimum provisions we expect from Walsall is community libraries. Walsall was at the forefront of the free library revolution, with the first opening in Goodhall Street in 1859. Access to learning and knowledge – as well as literature, great and otherwise – has been a deep vein running through Walsall civic life for the last 150 years. Mike Bird has no right whatsoever to threaten that rich, honourable tradition. From a council that has wasted millions of pounds on vanity projects, schoolboy financial errors and failed commercial deals I find this statement arrogant, punitive and nasty. I object to being lectured by men who could clearly do with a bit of reading themselves, who are suggesting that books are not needed anymore.
The local library – in my case Brownhills, and often Walsall Wood – was formative in my development, just as it still is for hundreds of thousands of kids, if not millions. Walking through the doors of this warm, studious building I came upon new worlds – I found books on my future occupation and hobbies, tales of cycling greats, computers and technology. I pored over maps of faraway places. I learned of local democracy, local activist groups and about the political and democratic world around me. I found local history, and guides to fix things that were broken. In a house without any disposable income, these things were essential. I devoured books from the children’s section and worked my way through to adult literary greats. I progressed from Nina Bawden and Bernard Ashley to Charles Dickens and Tom Sharpe. I read Das Kapitals and Mein Kampf. The Crysalids came home tucked under my arm beside The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner. The one factor in my life that stopped me ending up in the nick was the library, and the broad horizons it contained. Not bad for a dingy prefab in Brickiln Street.
More than this, however, was the education it gave me, and the freedom to study. I retreated to the library when times were bad or, just like many other kids, for the peace and quiet in which to work. Now, of course, libraries are temples of information and not just literature, providing internet and media access as well as being focal points for their communities. If the likes of Mike Bird – surely a Josiah Bounderby for our age if ever there was – and his Gradgrind gang of cheese-paring, cabinet sops don’t understand the vital importance of this service, then it’s time to ship out and find some politicians with the class, vision, balls and education to understand that what is imparted by a library cannot be downloaded to a Kindle or iPhone, especially by the poor and disadvantaged unable to afford such dalliances. It is implanted by the reading of books, the engagement with creativity and the osmosis of the beautifully told story.
We find ourselves in Walsall living in one of the most financially and socially disadvantaged regions of the country. We have major health, education and employment challenges which our leaders, in their slavish devotion to the creed of cuts coming from a government set to be the most destructive since the war, seem happily ignorant of. We need to expand opportunities for learning, health and wellbeing, social mobility and self-improvement in order to get our communities through recession, yet these self-made, self-satisfied, well paid people at the helm seem happy in their ignorance. Ignorance of the history and worth of a noble institution, they shruggingly warn us will be lost. Well, I’ll tell you now, not without a fight. Not as long as I have breath in my body.
The history of Walsall politics suggests many literary warnings for the studious reader, but few more apposite than Shakespeare. Mike Bird was ousted before as leader, and anyone observing his inexorable slide from favour in the Tory group of 2002 will be more than a little reminded of Richard II. Perhaps there is again some Bollingbroke waiting for the ruler’s back to be turned before seizing the throne. It would surprise me were any of the supine ruling group to have sufficient spine, but it has happened before. We clearly can’t rely on the moribund, incompetent opposition who’ve sat on their hands for the entirety of the Tory reign, preferring to adopt the persona of the invisible man while Walsall is decimated by a thousand cuts.
If Councillor Bird isn’t familiar with the story, perhaps he should get a copy. Perhaps his local library could help – if it’s still open. I’m sure they’ll have it in an audio or large print version.