Byline: Alison Roberts
PHILIP Pullman arrives at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford wearing a jaunty beret and donnish cord trousers. At 64, he looks a little like fellow-author William Boyd, or a neat, unstained version of John Bayley. We are here to discuss World Book Night, which takes place tomorrow -- the first event of its kind and the brainchild of Canongate publisher Jamie Byng -- when one million books will be given away by and to members of the public in a great and almostspontaneous celebration of the written word. Twenty-five titles will flood the streets, including Pullman's Northern Lights, the first in his multi-million-selling His Dark Materials trilogy. He is, of course, delighted by the scheme. Pullman is courteous and obliging, mildseeming; essentially a reluctant sort of soapbox activist -- yet occasionally, when he talks about the axe that hovers over up to 800 libraries, he visibly shudders with anger.
Over the past few months Pullman has become the unofficial spokesman for the campaign to save the hundreds of libraries across England and Wales threatened by public spending cuts. An impassioned speech he gave at Oxford Town Hall, in which he mocked the Big Society, has recently "gone viral" online. More than 20,000 people have downloaded it, while the novelist Joanne Harris and the actor Samuel West both immediately tweeted their bravos.
"The decision to close so many libraries so quickly by so many councils must be ideological," he spits. "It's an act of gross stupidity carried out by people who don't read very much and don't understand the value of books -- and the evidence for that is that some councils have decided not to close any libraries at all -- but it also comes from central government, from high up. From people who have gone about their business with an ideological fervour which even eclipses Thatcher. And I'm particularly angered by the Lib-Dems for supporting it."
Pullman is not unfamiliar with the tumult of public debate. In the US, His Dark Materials was condemned by a particular strain of fundamentalist Christian as anti-religious and atheistic (which it is) and therefore a menace to the nation's children. The film adaptation of the first novel -- released as The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig -- was boycotted by The Catholic League and failed to make money in the US. Last year, Pullman went one better and published his re-imagining of The New Testament minus the supernatural miracles in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a compelling expression of his belief in stories, and not a higher power, as the font of a collective morality.
He describes his enemy as "zealotry" -- whether religious or political or ideological.
Plus the Lib-Dems. He really hates them. Pullman voted Lib-Dem in Oxford West because he thought the then sitting MP Evan Harris had done a decent job, "but it didn't enter my mind for a single second that his party would then support the Tories and that my vote would go to a coalition government bent on such destruction". Provocatively, he states that David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg have "probably never used a public library" in their lives. "They come from rich backgrounds and live in places where there are nice bookshops and they just buy books when they want them."
Inevitably there has been a backlash.
Some centre-Right commentators have pointed out, in explicit reply to Pullman, that library use by adults has been falling (almost 40 per cent of adults have used a library in the past year, down from 48 per cent four years ago, though among primary school children it has stayed constant at 78 per cent) and that they are least used as public facilities by "deprived" communities -- the very people whom Pullman identifies as in most need of them.
"And that's a reason for taking them away?" he counters, shaking his head vigorously. "It's a reason for keeping them, and making them more available and helping people to use them, and encouraging them. …