Libraries were my band's lifeline, writes Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers. We must fight for them
It's hard not to feel utterly despondent at the current plight of public libraries. Along with the NHS and the BBC, our libraries are some of the few truly remarkable British institutions left. So often absolutely ordinary in appearance, a good library should offer escape routes down the most extraordinary avenues, pathways into different worlds from the one you've left outside. Ridding our villages, towns and cities of libraries, which are essential in shaping a nation's consciousness, seems like a direct attack on the soul of the country.
Libraries have always reassuringly been there when I've needed them. Blackwood library in Wales helped me through my O- and A- levels. They have given my parents decades of pleasure, satiating their desire to read and learn. This country's greatest ever poet and one of the biggest influences on my life and work, Philip Larkin, was - of course - a librarian. My wife Rachel worked as a librarian across all the branches in Newport. My brother Patrick worked in Blackwood library. I remember clearly my mother bringing home a biography of Under the Volcano author Malcolm Lowry during my teenage years. Here was a life that was truly beyond eccentricity, incredibly sad and fucked up. I was wholly drawn to the nihilistic, hyper-intelligent nature of Lowry's story. That was the turning point that made books so precious to me, part of the transformative process that would eventually make me almost fetishise books themselves. For these and countless other reasons, the public library was a key factor in shaping who I am today.
There's a tendency to resort to romantic cliche when talking about libraries; clearly in a digital age they aren't a "sexy" alternative. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I still believe that the core of libraries will always be printed words rather than screens or keyboards. In any town or city, you can walk in and pick up the works of TS Eliot or Brett Easton Ellis, extremes of taste that you can dip into and thumb through without having anyone nudging you to make a purchase. There really aren't many things in life that can enrich you for free yet ask for nothing in return.
As an utterly self-made band, in our formative stages we vociferously consumed high and low culture - magazines, literature and TV. Without money, libraries became something of a lifeline, offering a clear window on to a wider world. In the summer of 2009, the band were honoured to be asked to open the new Cardiff Central Library. For us, it seemed like a chance to give something back to Wales. Seeing one of our lyrics - "Libraries gave us power", from A Design for Life - inscribed on the opening plaque was in its own way as affecting as playing the Millennium Stadium.
That opening line was adapted from an engraving above the entrance to Pill library in Newport that read: "Knowledge is power." The weight of those almost Orwellian words became intertwined with an idea about what the miners had given back to society when they built municipal halls and centres across the country - beautiful looking institutes that they proudly left for future generations. The lyric was me railing against what I saw as a flippancy pervading the country with the rise of Britpop, a wholesale adoption - and bastardisation - of working-class culture.
The double life of that song's opening line is one of the most amazingly serendipitous things that's happened during the life of the band. I still feel intensely proud when I hear it cited out of the context of the song, like last week when Lauren Laverne dropped it into a brilliant piece of polemic on 10 O'Clock Live.
At the moment, it really does appear that the establishment is back in control of Britain. After 30 years of semi-pluralistic governance, the establishment is pushing hard its own agenda. When you look at the cabinet, the millionaire's row in the front benches of Parliament looks like a very public-school coup. One of the most amazing things about public libraries remains their utter classlessness. You don't have to have gone to Eton to make the most out of a library. They aren't inhabited by the kind of people currently damning them. The closure of libraries in conjunction with tuition fees, the sell-off of our forests and radical reorganisation of the NHS are symbolic of the blatant power grab of this fiasco of a government. There is a way of solving these problems - it's called higher taxation of the wealthiest 10% of the country. In the 90s, I'd have gladly included myself in that bracket.
We need to cherish these things while they still exist. Seek solace, seek knowledge. Seek power.