Joey Simons is a writer and language teacher from Glasgow. He launched a publication on the poet Freddy Anderson in September, and is one half of 'Silences: The Tillie Olsen Project', alongside Bechaela Walker. He has previously been published by Gutter and the Margo Collective, and is active in the Living Rent Tenants’ Union.
The Mitchell Library was closed exactly one year ago, on January 22, 2018. The first anniversary of the closure coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the death of Francis Thornton Barrett, the first City Librarian (1838 – 1919). With the delivery of the communique reprinted below, it can be confirmed that the device which damaged the Glasgow Life offices earlier today was timed to mark both of these important events. While abhorring all violence, and wishing the speedy capture of the perpetrators, the Editors nonetheless feel that the document is worthy of consideration. Only by fearlessly addressing the root causes of such criminality can we hope to avoid its spread in these worrying times. We apologise in advance for the many arcane references, which we were unable to source due to well-publicised technical issues.
SLIP NR 12 / 1830 / JAN22 – 19 / GL HDQTRS / 76 BOMB
DAMAGE AND INJURIES AT THIS TIME – DETAILS LATER
Communique II: The Aporia of Francis Barrett
The foolish undertake a trifling act, and soon desist, discouraged; wise men engage in mighty works, and persevere.
A hundred years ago today, our esteemed authority, Francis Thornton Barrett, Chief Librarian of the Mitchell Library, was cremated in Glasgow amidst riot and insurrection. That his centenary be celebrated in similar fashion, with explosives planted in the heart of Collegelands, is but a modest objective in the great battle the lies ahead; not, this time, for the spoils of war or mere economics, but for the preservation of knowledge itself.
The epigram we have taken for our second action is one which William Clouston, Orcadian expert of the Orient, in his own time chose to dedicate to FTB. Those who doubted our seriousness should take heed of the ancient wisdom of the Hindu poets. Our capabilities are expanding in proportion to the growing senility of the city’s managers and their partner companies, and we shall act accordingly. The device successfully detonated today marks one year since the doors of our city’s libraries slammed shut. It has reverberated far beyond the hollow halls of 220 High Street, to awaken panic in the breasts of accountants everywhere. Long may the pen tremble in their hands!
Our first action – the liberation of George Paulin’s portrait panel of Barrett from the gated ruins of the Mitchell’s North Street entrance – was no empty gesture. We now write these words under the extravagant forehead and haunted eyes of a fanatic. Of that there is no doubt. But it was the fanaticism of a heroic age, and we meet Barrett’s gaze without flinching. Was not Panizzi, legend of the British Museum library, condemned as a revolutionary in his homeland, and dismissed as a crank for selling white mice in the streets of London? Did Sylburg, that humble son of a farmer, not work himself to death preparing the Etymologicum magnum? Or Seutonius not incur the wrath of Hadrian? So be it! We do not recoil from our heritage, and await history’s judgement.
There is, no doubt, an irony that the fires with which Caesar burned Alexandria and Khilji torched Nalanda should now be placed in the hands of the Library’s staunchest defenders. But as Vico taught us, only the simplest have no need of irony, and the age of innocence has long since passed. Careful observers of our city’s history shall not forget it was the fires set by our predecessors that razed to the ground the St Andrews Halls, that decadent palace of music which sat enthroned in Anderston, and dared throw its shadow across the Library. Yet when threatened with annihilation by our overzealous comrades, the Mitchell rose to ever greater heights on the ashes of its rival, and subsumed Granville Street’s classical magnificence under its rightful leadership. Through the fires we light today shall it do so once more!
Who amongst us did not spend a gilded youth in the recesses of that grand old building’s faded majesty? Heaving open the heavy doors on North Street, soaked in the fumes and fresh rain of Charing Cross, passing under Barrett’s distinguished eyebrows, careening down those corridors of black marble and rough carpet towards the familiar nooks of the piano rooms – for far less has blood been shed! It was a place where all humanity, in its quiet, inimitable way, could be seen, or heard, or smelt; asleep on benches near the works of Edwin Muir, or propping up editions of Audubon’s ornithological sketches, the bitter smell of alcohol lingering faintly on the pages of long forgotten manuscripts. It was a solace to the weary, a sanctuary to the refugee, a secular Vikramashila amidst tenements and motorways, a marvel of epistemological engineering that propelled the minds of students, dreamers, mechanics and thieves alike.
It is to them we dedicate J-22. All were Barrett’s children, as Tantalus to Zeus, dining at the table of the gods and sentenced to eternal punishment for daring to share the nectar of knowledge with the survivors of our ravaged industrial Sipylon. And all have been subject to the same torment by a hornet’s nest of angry gods, the administrators and pen-pushers who have dried up the lake of learning in plain sight of the thirsty. A lake in which they never once swam, as Kafka saw Poseidon buried in his accounts in the depths of the world’s waters, having barely once seen the oceans himself.
Barrett was a god of a different stamp, bestriding his field like the twelve Jin Ren of Qin Shi Huang. The son of a Congregational minister, he rose prodigiously from a printer’s apprenticeship to become Sub-Librarian of the Birmingham Free Libraries’ Reference Department. In the fateful year of 1877, he was elected to the post of Chief Librarian of the new Mitchell Library. His candidacy was supported by testimonials from Joseph Chamberlain, in his most radical phase, Dawson and Dale, preachers of the Civic Gospel, and Collings, that fearless reformer of land and education. Would that the very post exist in Glasgow today! That our guardians of culture be simple lovers of books and not bankers, real estate asset managers and bloated university executives! The minor injuries sustained by the directors of Glasgow Life today should give them pause for reflection on their historical position.
Yet we are under no more illusions about the calibre of those who founded our libraries than those who destroyed them, or the violence which accompanied their origins as well as their dissolution. Stephen Mitchell’s gift of £74,000 for the foundation of a public library in Glasgow upon his death in 1874 was tobacco money, grown on the slave fields of West Virginia. It was Carnegie who laid the foundation stone of the North Street building and gifted £100,000 to the Corporation for the founding of fourteen district libraries to serve the city. The same philanthropist who less than a decade earlier had drowned the American steel workers in blood at Homestead while singing siren songs of peace, helped by the Gorbals man, Alan Pinkerton, Chartist and Abolitionist turned traitor to his class. ‘What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of one?’ asked Brecht, and in such a relation does our own campaign stand to the monstrous history of the Library. Those who accuse us of violence would do well to read a book, if such a thing were still possible.
For the hammer and anvil were required to forge libraries as well as steamships. Crestadoro combined both in his genius, moulding the catalogue system of the British Museum while perfecting the mechanics of the Impulsoria in its basement. Barrett himself, according to Crawford’s authoritative judgement, established standards of complex organisation and quality of service never before witnessed in Scotland. And what was the true work of Empire if not the complex organisation of knowledge itself? The spines of sailors and slaves were as nothing to the spines of the books that justified such slavery. Serried ranks of typography were press-ganged into service by Barrett and his contemporaries with an intimacy and ruthlessness that would have made Captain Vere shudder. Indeed, in his monumental Memoirs of Libraries (1859), Edwards concluded that books had ‘as truly their right work to do in strengthening and deepening our patriotism.’ Yet their guardians were not reduced to mere hacks in the service of conquest. They embodied the contradictions of their time, as we do ours.
Barrett’s conception of the collection he so brilliantly hued from the rough stuff of Glasgow’s readership rested on four supporting columns: the furtherance of general education and literature; the provision of scientific information on defined lines or topics; the moral imperative of books which inspired and uplifted; and finally, innocent recreation. He regarded the last of these as no less important than the first. Panizzi’s injunction was etched into his very soul:
I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom…
As Montaigne reminds us, all we enjoy is corrupt and even gold must be alloyed to make it serviceable. But life must go on, heeding Livy’s insight that ‘minds wallowing in mutual contradictions are benumbed.’ The Left deviationists in our movement – who welcomed the closure of the libraries, who saw them as too stained by the past to contribute to the future – have sought only to keep their own hands clean, a useless appendage in the struggle. They are as Lenin’s ‘hopeless doctrinaires’ who condemned the Easter Rising: those who expect a pure revolution will never live to see one.
Neither do we fall victim to the errors of the Right opportunists who seek, through constitutional means, to reinstate the libraries in their previous, degenerate form, cloaked in the deathly language of stakeholders, partners and service users, with catalogues warped by a century or more of brutality. We alone follow the correct line, inspired by Barrett’s celebrated defence of the Magazine Room against those hidebound elitists who would bar readers from access to the popular press:
The fact remains that many people get a much more vivid conception of an incident or a scene from an engraving than from a page of letterpress, however graphic, and this education through the eye is often at once direct and effective. (Mitchell Library, Eleventh General Report, 1889 - 1891)
Education through the eye! Propaganda of the deed! Direct and effective! Barrett provides for clarity and initiative where others in the movement are paralysed by confusion. ‘Happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently,’ according to Clausewitz. Only war can educate a people in this necessary spirit, and counteract ‘the softness and desire for ease which debase them in times of growing prosperity.’ In times seized by austerity, our fellow citizens already hardened for battle, our action confirms in practice what others can barely comprehend in theory.
But in that field too we shall demonstrate our superiority to the forces assayed against us. The Fenians who dynamited Tradeston and Possil on another cold January night like tonight recognised that science must match itself against strength. Or in the words of their great defender Congressman Finerty: one skilled scientist is worth an army. It is scientists with which you now deal! For we are the technicians, engineers, archivists, indexers, bibliographers, researchers, tacticians and strategists, burrowers and borrowers, who honed our trades on both sides of the Glasgow Room’s counters, those now shorn of careers and catalogues who did not waste the time given them.
You possess none like Inspector Majendie to hunt and capture our rebels. Long may you scan our communiques or pick through the debris of Collegelands for clues. We have left no records on computers, no internet search histories to analyse and track. Only library slips falsified or burned, or fingerprints mingled with those of a thousand others like us. Our cells communicate in the language of books, a simple language, but one indecipherable to those who subject culture to a pricing calculus and have forgotten how to hear the voice of the people without a report from Taylor McKenzie. You are like the inquisitors in Borges’s Library of Babel, exhausted and desperate, searching for disgraceful and dishonourable words you never expect to discover. The same Borges whose intellect was cultivated as an assistant in the municipal libraries of Buenos Aires. A possibility, and thus a genius, you would deny us today.
What form the library which is reborn through our sacrifices shall take is not, as yet, our concern. When Provost Bain opened the first Mitchell Library to the public on Ingram Street in November 1877, barely 14,000 volumes were contained within its walls. Francis Thornton Barrett transformed this modest collection, the plaything of a wealthy fool, into a Bethsaida for the ages, a million books to feed a million hungry minds. When in his eighties, it was said of him by a contemporary:
to see the long array of years its honest work well done…it hues the birth of smiles and tears.
So let us continue this honest work and be remembered with like fondness! For now, we will be as MacDiarmid instructed: unremittin’, relentless, organised to the last degree. To our enemies searching for their spreadsheets in the wreckage of High Street, and in due time the City Chambers too, we offer the warning they failed to heed in 1990, from the pen of the poet Freddy Anderson:
All of you lot will easily afford to see Pavarotti & Co but in spite of your ringside seats you are still on the periphery of real culture and you will ever remain so. For the simple reason that you have always regarded culture, and still do, as a commodity that money can buy. It cannot, no more than love or friendship.