An Open Letter to Paul Matthews, Chief Executive of Monmouth County Council

by Dennis on October 9, 2013

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Dear Mr Matthews,

My name’s Dennis Price and I was born & bred in Usk, the town whose library is currently under threat of closure. I learned of this shameful possibility by way of the social media that you champion, so I thought it appropriate that I should make my views on the matter clear by using the same methods.

I’ll begin by bringing to your attention Adam of Usk [1352 - 1430], a man who was born in my hometown almost exactly 600 years before I came along. He has some competition, but there’s a case to be made that he’s the most famous person ever to come out of Usk and this is mainly on account of the Chronicle of Adam of Usk that he bequeathed to us. However, you don’t have to rely on my opinion alone, because you’re welcome to read the description given by Oxford Mediaeval texts, which I’ll reproduce here for your convenience:

“Adam of Usk, the full details of whose remarkable life are here revealed for the first time, was born in Usk around the middle of the fourteenth century. Through the patronage of the Mortimer family – the earls of March – he studied law at Oxford, eventually rising to hold a chair in civil law there, before entering the service of Archbishop Arundel and, ultimately, of King Henry IV of England. He was an eye-witness to the revolution of 1399, but soon after this, having left England for Rome, he fell out with Henry IV and spent several years in exile, accused of collaborating with the Welsh rebel leader, Owain Glyn Dwr. Eventually, having returned to Wales secretly, he managed to gain a pardon from the king in 1411, and thus spent his remaining years, until his death in 1430, in relative peace.

His chronicle, which is a first-hand source for the fall of Richard II, for the turbulent politics of Rome between 1402 and 1406, and for the Glyn Dwr revolt, also provides a fascinating insight – with its mixture of autobiography, political intrigue, and the supernatural – into the mind of a highly educated medieval author.”

So, here’s a man born in Usk, a “highly educated medieval author” who met with Kings and Popes and who furthermore recorded details of the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, the Welsh national hero. As I understand it, he’s buried in Usk church, so I would put good money on you being able to go in there on your next visit to hear him turning in his grave at the prospect of his town’s library, just a few hundred yards from where he’s buried, being closed.

On this point, it’s worth quoting The Dictionary of National Biography, which tells us that when Adam of Usk accompanied an army into Wales in 1399, “By his influence his native place escaped the punishment with which it was threatened for the resistance of its inhabitants.” Would Adam of Usk vigorously oppose the threatened closure of Usk’s library by the County Council for whom you act as Chief Executive? Unquestionably, but there are still others.

Another person to be born in Usk was Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who’s most famous for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection, along with Charles Darwin. Do you suppose for a moment that this giant of learning would support the closure of the library in the town in which he was born? I think not.

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I find it amazing that such a small town could have been the birthplace of two such men of such literary prowess. Adam of Usk left us a huge, detailed and fascinating history of his times, while Alfred Russel Wallace’s output of papers and private correspondence was even more prolific and beneficial to the rest of the world. However, others have followed in their wake, one of whom was the late Bernard Toms, a fascinating man I had the privilege of knowing when I was younger.

Bernard was the author of a novel entitled The Strange Affair, which was so popular that it was turned into a film in 1968 starring Michael York and Susan George, which is no mean feat as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Would Bernard Toms have supported the closure of Usk’s library? Again, I think not, but yet another Usk resident renowned for his learning was the late Isaac Evans, a man I worked for in the late 1970s on his farm just outside Usk. Of all the people I’ve ever met, Ike was perhaps the one most passionately in favour of everyone’s right to have access to free books and free learning, so I’d be doing this great man’s memory a terrible disservice if I didn’t state this in the clearest possible terms.

Long before we learned of PRISM, Boundless Informant and all the rest of it, Ike was fearlessly appearing on television to speak out against bureaucratic secrecy. If he were still with us now, he would be speaking in terms of utter contempt [and worse] of any proposals to close Usk’s library and thereby deny the people of the town access to free information and other community services.

For my part, I’ve enjoyed success as a published author, something that I doubt would have come about had I not been able to spend endless hours in the library when I was a child, but Usk’s Julie McGowan is another author and I’d be very surprised indeed if we – along with the other names I’ve mentioned here – were the only ones. However, you don’t need to have appeared in print to bitterly resent and oppose any idea of Usk’s library closing, as you can see from the growing amount of names on the official petition, which I will of course urge everyone reading this to sign.

A list of compelling reasons why Usk’s library should never even have been threatened with closure reads a bit like the famous exchange in the Life of Brian, where some of the characters ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?” You don’t just go to Usk library to borrow a book, because you’re also able to ask the librarians for information, while it’s there for all people of all ages. It’s a meeting place, it’s a place where you can find company, it’s a place where you can find computer or internet access if you don’t have it at home, and a great deal else besides.

From a personal point of view, I would say that the single most vital function provided by Usk’s library and its staff is to offer a place where toddlers and young mums can enjoy themselves. I write this as the father of two children who were raised in a small village on Salisbury Plain that’s almost exactly the same size as Usk, and which had a library that my two kids still speak about to this day in the warmest terms.

There was a time when libraries were hushed, silent places occupied mainly by serious types intent on their studies, but those days are now largely gone and I’m inclined to think this is a good thing. Toddlers may be noisy and their concentration might wander, but in a place such as Usk library, they can potentially find all manner of wonders to entertain, inform and delight them. If in the process, they grow to value learning over ignorance, what more could any of us possibly ask?

None of us are born aware of the almost infinite amount of wonders in this world and in the Universe that surrounds us. There can be no better place than a well-stocked, convivial library for young children to begin their education, so that their questing minds can gradually become aware of what our civilisation has to offer, after which they can follow their own chosen path, whatever that path may be and wherever it may lead them.

This is the way of things. I personally benefited from the existence of Usk library and from the presence of the patient, well-informed librarians there, so it follows that I should want everyone else to have the same opportunity that I enjoyed. I don’t see that there’s any middle ground here, because you either consider that Usk’s library is an invaluable resource for everyone in the area, or you do not.

I would hazard a guess that a library or libraries played some significant part in your formative years, thereby enabling you to rise to the eminent and responsible position you now occupy as the Chief Executive of Monmouthshire County Council. I see that you believe “in doing better things, rather than just doing things better”, so I look forward to learning that you’ve found a way not only of eliminating the possibility of Usk’s library closing, but of positively championing the place as an example of how a council’s money is best spent, for the immediate and lasting benefit of all.

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Yours sincerely

Dennis Price

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ony October 9, 2013 at 3:31 am

Great article Dennis, well written and you made your point perfectly. More people like yourself need to speak out.

Chris Johnson October 10, 2013 at 11:29 am

Very eloquently said. I hope they listen.

Mary Wade October 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I was appalled to think there is any thought of closing Usk library. I lived in the town from 1968 to 1981 both my children developed their love of books from being able to borrow from the library they did homework from school using books they borrowed from the library not everyone can afford to buy these books for their children and how can their minds be stimulated if books are denied to them. We have gone through a similar saga in Gloucester closing libraries to save money the criteria they used was footfall and whether other libraries could be reached by short ride on public transport or using own vehicles. Where will the residents in Usk be expected to go Newport, Caerleon, Monmouth, Raglan. Doesn’t sound short ride by public transport or own vehicles if you can afford to run them. What about the elderly what arrangements are being made for them to borrow books as I remember a lot of footfall in Library was that of retired people calling in for company or to borrow books. What price are you expecting the residents to pay. seems rubbish to me

Claire October 10, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Excellent.

Paul Frampton October 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

A good argument eloquently written but I think that it is important when defending services that should not be cut that suggestions are also offered as to where budgetary savings should be considered.
Nobody in Monmouthshire wants fewer services but with a budget cut of ??9m next year either savings are made additional funding has to be found. Increase Council Tax??

Aled Evans October 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm

My argument of the library roof being a fine place to hide from the police pales into insignificance.

A good, interesting and educational piece.

Dennis October 10, 2013 at 10:16 pm

First of all, thank you all for your very kind words about my open letter to Mr Paul Matthews; I was more than happy to write and publish it, come what may, but I can’t deny it’s very gratifying to receive such an enthusiastic and positive response.

However, I feel I must respond to what Paul has written and to the points he has raised. As I see it, the council members who are involved in making this decision actively sought their posts, so while there may be aspects of life as a member of Monmouthshire County Council that they enjoy, they must also occasionally deal with scenarios that open them up to sharp criticism. It goes with the territory, just as I try to make the most of being a writer while simultaneously dealing with the many down sides of such a calling.

I don’t live in Usk anymore and I’ll freely admit that I don’t have a solution to the problems and hardships involved with the budget cuts. If I thought I could make a meaningful contribution, I would certainly do so, but sadly that is not the case.

So, all I can realistically do – for the benefit of all – is to offer my wholehearted and continued support to the ongoing campaign to Save Usk Library. As I hope I made clear in my letter, this place is clearly of the utmost importance to many people, not just in Usk, but in the surrounding villages and towns.

And I’ll repeat my personal view that if the only people to use Usk library were the mums and the toddlers, then it would be worth increasing the budget for this reason alone. Watching our children as they grow to love learning is to me self-evidently as valuable a thing as the air that we breath -I personally benefited tremendously from Usk Library, so it follows that I want everyone else to benefit as well.

And on this note, I’m pleased that Usk library once offered you a refuge, Aled, but I simply cannot conceive of why a model citizen such as your good self should ever have been on the run from the Thin Blue Line!

dunfieldhatman October 11, 2013 at 8:12 pm

An excellent defence of a very important institution.

Libraries have been much on my mind recently: here in Birmingham a multi-million pound new library has just opened and no expense has been spared. More importantly, when Ray Bradbury died last year, all the obits mentioned that he loved libraries more than universities because you had more freedom to follow your own intellectual interests in a library and as I’ve retired recently, I have been putting this into practice.

On Ray Bradbury:
“The author praised the library staff and its friends, who he said staunchly fended off attempts to remove blacklisted books including his own Fahrenheit 451. He capped his piece by advising citizens to ‘tell City Hall NO to the threatened closure’ and said that residents ‘deserve nothing less than access to a downtown library with ready access to books and programs to help them achieve their goals and aspirations.’ ” Hear, hear….

http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/06/people/ray-bradbury-science-fiction-writer-and-library-fan-dies-at-91/
Post Scriptum: my plan to borrow from Birmingham Library every book I read this year has just ground to a halt as the two library copies of “The Man who knew too much”, a biography of Robert Hooke by Stephen Inwood, have both been stolen. Both copies. Stolen.
Why are there people out there who don’t want me to read this book? Grrrrrr….

Dennis October 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Let’s face it – we adults could spend literally years talking about the joys of libraries, the benefits they’ve bought to us and to everyone else, and about accounts of great men and women connected with libraries all the way back to the visionary Ashurbanipal.

I still maintain that the single most important function of a library – and Usk’s library – is to provide a comfortable and welcoming place for young mums and toddlers. These children are literally taking their first steps towards understanding and appreciating the world around us, and who knows what Nobel Prize winner or other towering cultural figure might be there in waiting, needing in the meantime the support and encouragement of all right-thinking people?

This is where it all starts – it’s the place where we grow to value learning over ignorance and the place where untold treasures await discovery. To take this library away would constitute cultural vandalism and worse, so as I benefited from it, then so I will vigorously support the right of each and every other person – young and old – to do the same in perpetuity.

Chris Powell October 12, 2013 at 11:10 am

Very well put together and very interesting. Hope they take some notice.

Edward Bainbridge October 28, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Pure delight. Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel.

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