Howard Croft column: Philistines are taking on the world we once knew

Norton library is kept going thanks to the efforts of volunteers.
Norton library is kept going thanks to the efforts of volunteers.

Recently a contemporary and I were mulling over in a desultory way the changes that have happened in our lifetimes, some good, some not so good. The FAX machine has come and pretty much gone, similarly Telex machines. State grammar schools came in big-time following the 1944 Education Act but are now pretty much extinct. The house sparrow population has plummeted alarmingly. The list goes on.

On the list must go the disappearance of surgical shops, once plentiful and a source of wonderment to small boys. In Hull where I grew up there were certainly two – one just round the corner from the VD clinic next to Hammond’s department store, another in the arcade in the old town. The proximity of the shop to the VD clinic reinforced the belief held by every schoolboy that trusses and other “appliances” on offer in surgical shops were designed to remedy the consequences of unimaginable sexual mishaps. We gazed through the windows with a mixture of amusement and dread. The word “rupture” was worse than any swear word known to us at the time. When I left Hull and went to university in Bristol I at once felt at home when I spotted a surgical shop on the route from my student digs.

Perhaps these essential retail outlets have been made redundant by advances in medical science or, more likely, access to the apparatus designed to shore up dilapidated maleness, as we supposed, can now be more discreetly enabled by internet shopping. All of which prompts thoughts in my mind at least of what happened to those corsetieres who made home visits to measure up clients for bespoke articles of containment? With obesity being all the rage these days, so much so that it is discussed in Cabinet (who knows, maybe in COBRA if the problem is deemed hefty enough) these discreet ladies should be raking it in, but we never hear of them. I fancy there’s a mystery in it.

What we do hear about is library closures, of great concern all round. Libraries played an important part in my own life from early childhood well into my working life. My own home contained no books and my sister and I would once a week walk to the Preston Road library, I suppose two miles distant, to collect our choices. We were allowed to borrow four books at a time on the junior ticket, but only two fiction were permitted. This is the kind of petty restriction never explained, but beloved of officials and firmly enforced. You would think that librarians of all people would be delighted by children reading anything at all, even frivolous fiction. I can still remember the prim pursing of the lips and the cruel tone whenever I attempted to slip in an extra novel, or story book as we would have said. Too enjoyable, perhaps, for the guardians of civic provision who believe that if it isn’t an effort it isn’t virtuous, rather along the lines of “only nasty medicine works”.

When I went to secondary school I transferred my allegiance to the Hull Central Library where, by the simple expedient of lying about my age I acquired a senior ticket and a larger allocation, with no restriction on fiction. The local libraries were an excellent thing for children, particularly in cities where the main libraries were centrally located and too distant.

It is these local libraries that have been targeted by the town hall cutters, who point to the undisputed excellence of central libraries (hubs, I suppose they are called) and ignore the practical needs of the young users of local libraries. Here in Malton/Norton we are fortunate in not being a city, but Norton Library is kept going thanks only to the efforts of volunteers and Malton may be feeling a bit creaky. How long before we are directed to a “hub” in York or Northallerton? Who can say?

A generation ago, when I was encouraging my own children to visit and make use of our local library, the opening hours became increasingly inconvenient for users and clearly suited to the convenience of the staff. And the staff had allowed themselves to be distracted by long-playing gramophone records and videos (to attract the young).

You had to fight your way past vinyl and videotape to get the books, the selection of which had been sub-contracted out to dull school teachers who made dull choices.

Today’s librarians are fighting back, but it might be too late - the Philistines are through the gate, and busy on the benches of county halls everywhere. No-one is fighting for the surgical truss, alas.