John Bird: Let’s leave a legacy of libraries, not slums

It’s only through spreading knowledge, awareness and learning that you come anywhere near to healing the divides that exist in society

The Chapter Catcher had its soft launch at the Hay Festival two weeks ago, and this week it has its proper launch, with Stephen Fry in attendance, at the House of St. Barnabas in London’s Soho Square. A quarterly magazine full of chapters, its purpose is to get people to ‘test drive’ their reading with a magazine that’s crammed full of chapters. We capture chapters from contemporary times, from lost times, from forgotten books, and from authors old and new.

The publicity and press we’ve had has led to a very large amount of traffic on social channels and articles in the media. And it’s been great fun talking about how we all need to read deeper, wider and without prejudice. For the complex world that’s getting more complex needs us to be cleverer and more knowledgeable than perhaps any other time in history.

All this, in fact, fits in neatly with a debate I’m leading in the House of Lords on June 20. Come and listen if you so wish, it’ll start a little before 3 o’clock. It’s about the need for a new look at future generations: that is, what we need to do to protect the interests of those who aren’t born yet by lifting our sights to the long term. How we make sure we don’t leave the crap that’s been piled so high in this current world as a legacy to those who’ll follow. How we need to root in prevention at the heart of our decision-making, and shift upstream to pre-emption and early interventions.

When I say come along and listen, I truly mean that. All you have to do is turn up at Parliament’s Cromwell Green entrance and you’ll get in, but be prepared to queue (and remember to bring ID). It’s a two-and-a-half-hour debate and you’re welcome to watch from the public gallery. If you do come along, you’ll get a taste of democracy, and get to listen to perhaps a dozen peers offer their take on what needs doing to ensure the voices of future generations are better represented in our policymaking processes. Why? So we can prevent the human race from joining the growing list of species that are facing extinction, and avoid future generations having such a rotten time on Earth because we, and earlier generations, have loaded the planet down with the grief of pollution, ecocide and irreparable climate change, making the world a pig’s ear of a place to live in.

And of course it’s the poorest among us who won’t be able to rocket off to other planets once the muck and the air have gotten so thick with poisons that the planet’s impossible to live on. The poorer you are, the poorer will be your chances of surviving any global heating, sea rise or weather extremes.


Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

Our steer on the future generations debate, and my forthcoming Future Generations Bill, is inspired by the leadership of the Welsh Assembly in passing their Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act in 2015. This gave the permission – and a legal obligation – to improve people’s social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being in Wales. It requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with each other, and to prevent persistent problems from happening; including climate change. It also created the post of a Future Generations Commissioner, a job led superbly by Sophie Howe, to keep this biggest of issues at the forefront.

So my interest is stirred by what will happen to the poorest people when the toxic world becomes unlivable. As a person born into the pollution of slum poverty, where filth and poor thinking combined to make our rubbish-strewn life feel like we were born in a dump, I abhor the idea that that may become the norm.

Starting a reading revolution through a chapters magazine and challenging short-termism through debates in the Lords about future generations are – to me – part of the same struggle; the struggle to equip us with better education and knowledge to help bridge the gaps that exist between those with a reasonable and unreasonable life.

It’s been great fun talking about how we all need to read deeper, wider and without prejudice

It’s only through spreading knowledge, awareness and learning that you come anywhere near to healing the divides that exist in society; the widening gaps between the haves and the have nots.

I’m pleased to say that Chapter Catcher seems to have been taken up well with many compliments, although The Guardian article about its launch said that the choice of chapters looked like it’d been “compiled by an arbitrary drunk let loose in a municipal library”. I rather like that because it suggests randomness and discovery by happenstance (or mistake). Having been open to mistakes, happenstance and the random nature of chance meetings, I embrace this chaotic idea. And I promise you that we’ll be inviting in more chaos and disturbances of acceptable orthodoxies in the months ahead.

As a child, I was refused a library card by the lovable Paddington Children’s Library near our home in Porchester Hall, still there the last time I looked. When I say I was refused as a six-year-old with a pre-reading passion for books, I may not be telling the complete story. It was my father who refused to fill in the form. This was because, when he was 12 in 1930, he’d lost a book and incurred a fine that was never paid. Twenty-two years later, when I wanted to borrow books, he thought he might get done.

Alas, poverty often destroys rational thinking and exaggerates a sense of powerlessness. My dad obviously didn’t want to get nabbed, so therefore I was not to put him in the limelight for punishment by wanting a library card myself.

Slums and poverty close down the days and nights of our lives, as well as our minds. Let’s hope we don’t leave the next generation with a universal slum; hence, our need to do something big and brash to break out of the short-term, election cycle loop, and embrace the opportunity of acting for tomorrow, today.