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News from the Front Line

Good event in Westbourne Library (Bournemouth) last night.  First of the autumn season with the usual demographic:  comforting outbreaks of beige in the fifty-plus audience (that’s numbers,  not age),  plus instructions from the lovely Jenny to finish in time to get everyone home before dark. 

This is amusing,  in its way,  but the truth is that she means it.  In this part of the world – and there are Westbournes everywhere - reading has become the preserve of the over-sixties (that’s age,  not numbers),  chiefly women.  I suspect many of them may be living alone because a husband or a partner has died and a life-long reading habit comes to the rescue as the nights draw in and the telly gets steadily more unwatchable. 

Jenny,  like many librarians,  is facing death by a thousand council cuts and is doing her best to entice young families into Westbourne Library’s children zone but this is a tough ask.  Kids love noise.  Tonight’s audience probably doesn’t.  And keeping the peace between the two generations isn’t easy.  But oldies are absolutely vital to any writer’s fortunes – and I should know because,  on the brink of drawing my state pension,  I am one.

The event goes well.  I talk for nearly an hour and a half,  share a story or two from the badlands of crime fiction,  reflect on the madness that is publishing,  and raise a few laughs.  When I compare a previous life in television to what I’ve been up to over the last twenty years,  I spot nods of approval.  It’s true.  Money isn’t everything.  TV paid me well.  A book a year might just about keep your head above water but you’re always at the mercy of the last set of sales figures and I can’t think of anything more precarious than relying on the written word to fill the fridge. 

At the same time,  writing gives you a rare freedom.  You spend your working days in the company of people of your own making.  They acquire lives of their own of course (you’re in deep trouble if they don’t) but this chemistry you’ve helped create,  this on-going fusion of character and plot,  remains an eternal fascination.  And when you pause to re-read a page,  or a paragraph,  or a passage of dialogue that you’ve got unaccountably right,  there’s nothing to beat that jolt of special excitement.  The thing works.  It’s mysteriously acquired a life of its own.  Where on earth did that come from?

Back to last night.  The questions over,  the audience are disappearing into the gathering dusk.  Some of them have bought books.  Others have shared their own writing dreams.  One way or another,  it seems to have been a success.  I visit the staff loo and afterwards wash my hands.  I’m thinking about the future of libraries like these,  for the whole business of writing,  for the prospects for young scribes who – like me forty years ago – wanted nothing more than to get into print.  Will book shops still exist?  Or will e-publishing and the internet have destroyed a business model that has survived in one way or another for centuries? 

This is a question I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking even ten years ago but today there’s no avoiding the sheer scale and pace of the changes we face.  There are some guys out there who know a great deal more than I do about retail dynamics and the overwhelming impact of the internet,  and one of them – recently featured in the Guardian -  thinks that we’re all engaged in a race to the bottom.  He’s convinced that all books will soon be offered free in netspace,  mere bait to fatten the on-line offer for potential advertisers.  Great for the readers,  maybe,  but surely killer news for people who dream of making any kind of half-decent living from the written word.  That includes publishers,  agents,  booksellers,  and – yes - writers.

It’s at this point,  still in the staff loo,  that I catch sight of the sticker on the hand-drier.  It’s been there a while,  a relic of the last funding push,  and in the way that writers like to look for one of life’s metaphors it seems to sound an awful warning.   National Incontinence Day,  it reads.  Give generously.