Monday, September 28, 2009

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?

I had a free morning and was planning to do something I’d never done before, but I ran headlong into an angry mob. I assumed from the Lewes Pound badges that it was a protest about our town not transitioning quickly enough, but a belligerent woman in a Stella McCartney boiler suit prevented me passing through the picket line. So I stood back to read their banners.

‘Support small shops!’ said one. ‘High Street Assassin!’ said another. ‘Kinnock must go!’ said a third, confusingly. I think it was held the wrong way round.

‘Are you objecting to the encroaching hegemony of Tescos?’ I asked a man clutching a Tom Paine bag. I was so blown away by my use of big words that it took me a while to understand what he was saying.

‘We’re fighting a far greater menace’, he said, pointing to the building behind us. ‘It’s devoured swathes of local businesses.’

‘The library?’ I asked, with some surprise.

‘Whatddawewant?’ yelled a man with a loudhailer.

‘A freeze on library tickets!’ replied the crowd.


‘Pretty soon, please, if possible’, they chorused.

‘Look at the facts!’ said boiler-suit woman, thrusting a pamphlet at me. ‘The library starts lending DVDs, next minute, all the video stores have closed.’

Tom Paine bag man nodded and said, ‘Yes, and there’s no internet café in Lewes, because the library brazenly offers free access.’

There was a brief kerfuffle as one of the group quietly tried to post an overdue DVD in the library letterbox and was ejected as a scab; they rolled her down the ramp.

‘Worst of all is this ridiculous business of lending books for free’, said loudhailer man. ‘The Lewes book-selling industry has collapsed. Bags of Books is on borrowed time.’

When the picketers settled down for elevenses, I snuck into the empty library. The staff were sitting around, smoking and giggling.

The thing I had never done before was enter any part of the building other than the children’s section. Always I am dragged there and forced to read out such stories as ‘Timmy Tiger Jumps into a Box’ (plot twist, he jumps out again). I wanted to see the rest of the place, even if it was a cultural oppressor throttling the life out of the High Street. To my surprise, there was an upstairs, and I went to have a look.

Straight away I realised the protestors had a point. Free newspapers and a coffee machine - surely it was only a matter of time before even WH Smiths and Café Nero went to the wall?

I returned a pile of overdue books borrowed by Man of the House. To my horror, the chuckling staff extracted a five-pound fine.

‘You needn’t worry’, I told the protestors, who looked bemused when I appeared from the wrong side of the cordon. ‘It’s not free in there at all. It’ll never catch on.’

Beth Miller. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

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