#MondayBlogs Alan Gibbons on National Libraries’ Demonstration 5 Nov 2016

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Alan Gibbons was our featured writer back in Issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread when he brought Robin Hood and his Merrie Men back to life for a tub-thumping protest at the demolition of library services. Now he’s urging us all to stand up and walk in protest at cuts faced by public institutions that are integral to learning.   

“Public Libraries and Museums remain the lynchpin of communities, offering access to learning, reading, history, art, information and enjoyment. Libraries are, or should be, trusted public spaces for everyone. They play a crucial role in improving literacy, in combating the digital divide and in widening democratic involvement. BUT, in the UK since 2010, we’ve LOST:

  • 8,000 paid and trained library workers (a quarter of all staff);
  • 343 libraries (600-plus including ones handed to volunteers); and
  • One in five regional museums at least partially closed.

We’ve also seen:

  • Libraries’ and museums’ opening hours cut;
  • Budgets, education programmes and mobile/ housebound/specialist services slashed;
  • An escalation in commercialisation and privatisation;
  • A 93% increase in the use of volunteers in libraries;
  • Income generation become the priority for almost 80% of museums.”

So say the organisers of the National Museums, Libraries and Galleries demonstration on 5 November  in London, PCS Culture Sector, Unite the Union, Barnet UNISON & Save Barnet Libraries, and Campaign for the Book have initiated a national demonstration to save some of our most treasured public services.

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Words: Alan Gibbons. Art: Steve Larder. From Issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread ‘Books and Bowstrings’

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Labour Party says: “I give my 100% support to this demonstration. The Tories have devastated our public services using austerity policies as justification. I promise that a Labour Government will act to ‘in-source’ our public and local council services and increase access to leisure, arts and sports across the country. We will reverse the damage the Tories have done to our communities in the cities, towns and villages.”

I will be there, marching alongside service users, staff and campaigners from around the country. Will you please join me?

When: Saturday, November 5th, noon.
Where: British Library, Euston Road, London.
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DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

 

War and Trease

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11

Geoffrey Trease changed the landscape of children’s fiction by treating his younger readers as mature and thoughtful individuals. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. As Margaret Meek commented in her analysis of his work “the successful author presents children with an organised illusion which fits their stage of development, a world in which the experience is relevant”.

In his debut novel Bows Against The Barons (1934) Trease showed that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merrie in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ Left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of P.G Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

trease and orwell

Given the social context of the first half of the 20th century it was impossible to cocoon children in a bubble of innocence. WWI meant that everyone knew at least one relative who had been killed, the influenza pandemic of 1918-9, at a conservative estimate, wiped out at least 20 million people, and then the 1930s delivered the Wall Street Crash that meant mass unemployment and uncertainty. Trease’s self-proclaimed desire “to correct the old Henty bias with a partisan counterbalance on the Left” meant that Robin Hood could only be a role model to people if he was truly of the people; starvation affects us all.

It may have been the right time to prod the bubble of innocence but bursting it was a different matter. The novel was published by a left-wing press and contained an inside illustration of a mutilated corpse that inevitably caused offence and resulted in many parents refusing to buy it. Those that did purchase a copy ripped the illustration out before handing the book over to their kids.

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Trease’s means of coping with harsh realities was to head out into the countryside and lose himself in the landscape. This would inevitably result in a book, Walking in England (1935). For a while he ran a guest house at Castle Cottage in Somerset. At the time he was making a decent living from freelance but this was taking up so much of his time he didn’t have time to write his own novels and so employed a part-time secretary who took down his words in shorthand and then typed them up. It was a logical solution for a man bursting with ideas but not enough time to transfer them to paper, but it does seem to go against the very essence of writing. Be it pen to paper or fingers to keys, writing is a tactile process, a relationship between body, mind and technology. The absence of any of these elements feels like a completely different mode of expression. But I digress…

Freelancing brought about another problem: isolation from people. A writer requires stimulus and so Trease joined two organisations; the Abingdon Labour Party and an amateur dramatic society. Despite being a political person, he found the Labour Party difficult in that no party could ever be right on every issue. There was also something disingenuous about politicians whose job was to “safeguard themselves in ambiguity whereas a writer uses words to express truths”.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.

Drama offered socialisation as well as another platform for his writing. In The Land of The Mogul (1938) detailed the adventures of the East India Company and made it abundantly clear that Britain had gone to India not for Empire or God but to trade profitably. Another harsh truth. But it was a one-acter called After the Tempest which would gain him national recognition in J.W. Marriott’s annual volume, The Best One-Act Plays of 1938.

Things were going well for Trease as he hit thirty, but they were about to change. WWII was just around the corner and this would put an end to, or delay, many of his projects. Another script set for success was Colony, set on an imaginary island (a familiar staple of his work) and inhabited by disgruntled sugar workers, it highlighted the problems of colonialism through the abuse of labour. It received critical acclaim, with the theatre weekly Era enthusing it as “a piece of really effective theatre written by a young man who obviously has a political cause at heart; but who, nevertheless, is concerned with creating real characters”.

On the 30 August 1939 Trease signed a preliminary agreement with Unity Theatre (West End) Ltd but 48 hours later Hitler attacked Poland. The contract was cancelled. Nobody was going to put on a controversial play during wartime. Trease’s most successful book Cue for Treason (1940) would suffer a more radical form of censorship. Within two weeks of publication the Nazi’s bombed a warehouse containing all of the books. Soon after, another publication Only Natural (1940) suffered an identical fate. Echoing the sentiments of one of the many stoic characters of his books, Trease remained as determined as ever: “I knew I had to go on writing. All my life I had to write. Even a world war could not stop that itch”.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books And Bowstrings by Alan Gibbons and Steve Larder

RELATED READING

 

Geoffrey Trease

geoffrey-treaseGeoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998) was one of the most prolific writers of all time. He published a staggering 113 books between 1934 (Bows Against the Barons) and 1997 (Cloak for a Spy). His work has been translated into 20 languages. He was Chair of the Society of Authors and a member of the Royal Society of Literature.

Trease was a meticulous writer, best known for writing children’s historical novels. He strived to ensure these portraits were historically accurate, perhaps because it was in his genes – his grandfather was a historian. He wanted children’s literature to be taken seriously and to function as a site for serious study and debate. This meant he was a pioneer in creating authentic leading characters of both sexes.

He’s certainly a figure to consider for Dawn of the Unread as he was born in Nottingham. The son of wine merchants, he shunned the family business and opted for a writing career. During his formative years at Nottingham High School he wrote stories, poems and a three-act play. This led to him winning a scholarship in Classics at Oxford University. For most people this would have been enough but Trease resigned after a year and headed for the big smoke to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer.

220px-Bows_Against_the_Barons_(Boland)His stories would range from Ancient Greece (The Crown of Violet), the Middle Ages: (The Red Towers of Granada); Elizabethan England: (Cue for Treason); Restoration: London (Fire on the Wind); the French Revolution: (Thunder of Valmy); the Bolshevik Revolution (The White Nights of St Petersburg); and World War II: (Tomorrow Is a Stranger). But for Nottingham, the defining novel would be Bows Against the Barons.

Based on the legend of Robin Hood, Bows against the Barons tells the story of a young adolescent who joins a band of outlaws and rebels against the feudal elite. In contrast to traditional portrayals of Robin as a nobleman and loyal subject of the king, Trease positions our favourite man in tights as a populist figure of the radical left. This is the story of class struggle, of guerrilla rebels rather than ‘merry men’. Illustrations in the original publication feature rioters holding up hammer and sickle imagery.

Alan Gibbons will be bringing Trease back to life and has been selected as he, too, is a children’s writer and also published by Five Leaves who republished Trease’s debut novel. I have approached Nottingham High School to look at ways that we could collaborate, potentially by incorporating the project into school work or holding a reading there.