Why South Lambeth needs the Tate Library

My local library, Tate South Lambeth, is set to close in 37 days time. Lambeth Council would tell you it’s not closing, it’s merely becoming a book-gymnasium, one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard in a borough – my home borough – that is historically silly. The library is having to compete against two other libraries in the borough, Spartacus-style, to see which library survives the cut. The details of this are covered far better than anything I could do here, whether it’s on Brixton Buzz, who’ve done sterling work to highlight the plight of the library cuts over the last few months, or even Private Eye. What I can tell you is that no library should be having to fight the other for the right to remain open. No library should be closing. And I hope that there are members of those other libraries doing what I and others are trying to do for the library we love. I’m sorry that we are in this situation.

In SW8, I found the community I’d lost twenty years ago when Clapham where I’d essentially grown up, gentrified. I didn’t understand back then what was happening in Clapham, only that I didn’t feel comfortable with it or the new people that I arrived and I knew I didn’t want any part of it. So I headed north up to South Lambeth Road, just past the Stockwell streets I’d also grown up in. And in a sense, I was coming back home.

My mum came to London in the mid-sixties in her early –twenties – we’re an old family, one which I’m taking into extinction as the last male on my side of the family, but that’s another story – and settled in Tradescant Road, minutes from the library. My mum then moved south into SW9 in the late sixties. So there are strong family ties to the area and in South Lambeth Road, I found echoes of the old immigrant community (I know we’re saying ‘migrants’ now but I’m going with immigrant – that’s what my parents were) I’d grown up in, where only the kids spoke good English and everyone smoked and drank coffee. The sounds took me back to a world I’d loved and lost, and now this world, as the money-obsessed glass heavy age of Vauxhall kicks in, as the climbing centres and street food markets arrive, is also slowly dying out. I don’t want a climbing centre. I don’t want a street market. I don’t want another SainscoLocalMetro whatever or the CostaStarNeros inching closer to South Lambeth Road. But I accept they’re here and I don’t know why this area, with all its grand ambitions, with all the professionals flooding in, would not want a library. The area is now well served for gyms. It does not need another gym. I for one am not going to be comfortable flicking through a book in the library whilst some steroid case lifts three times my body weight right next to me.

Further south in Stockwell, Brenda and her fruit stall were moved to a less visible place by Stockwell Station last year after being outside the station for sixteen years. It has hit her business. The independent café inside Stockwell Station was closed down to make way for a CostaStarNero. Further south, outside my old road in fact where I grew up and lived my first quarter of a century out, the last fourteen years with a centre parting I should add, a giant bed showroom was built, the irony of which was not lost on me after spending eleven years sleeping in a z-bed in our bedsit.

Change happens. You accept it. I just don’t know why given we have such a beautiful library with so much history, a library that serves the community better than ever, why we should lose it. It’s over twenty years since I lost my original library on Jeffreys Road in Stockwell. There was no social media back then. It went quietly. It was sad and I still remember the hours I spent in there as a kid and my half-hearted attempts at studying in there for my A Levels.

Just before Christmas, I went into South Lambeth Library on a Thursday night, its strongest events night. I’ve been going in there for two decades now. I’ve been in there late on Thursdays before, and I know just how much they do in there and how busy it gets. That particular night however, and I say this as someone who regards himself as having become something of a cold fish over the years, I was deeply moved by what I saw. There were English classes for all the non-English speaking locals, something that was not available to the big and sadly insular Spanish community that existed in SW8 and 9 from the mid-sixties through to the late nineties, before they made way for their more successful Portuguese cousins. There was a knitting group. There were several reading groups. There were people on the laptops, maybe downloading shows like I downloaded series 1 of Dallas back in 2008 from the library, who knows – let’s not jump to conclusions, and there were banks of silver surfers getting to grips with the internet. In an area that is losing its diversity and shutting so many things down, South Lambeth Library was a hive of activity, and the reason I was moved was because I knew there was every chance that this was one of the last occasions the community might be together in such a way. I looked around at every group that night and took the moment in. ‘This is what this library is,” I told myself. “This is what it gives the community.”

There is no logical reason to lose Tate South Lambeth. I know the area very well. I recognise many of the people. I know some of them have been through hard times or are still going through a difficult period in their life. The recession wrecked a lot of people. The library gives these people a place to be. We see these people in there and we still know that they exist. They are functioning at the very least. With services being cut everywhere, the library is a place where many can hole themselves up and read, learn, improve themselves, increase their chances of turning things around. These people will not be able to afford to sit in the CostaStarNeros, paying £3 for a disastrous froth-heavy coffee, These people need the library. THEIR library.

In 37 days’ time, there is every chance this beautiful library, Tate South Lambeth, will no longer exist in the way that it should. And if that happens, it will always be wrong.