After lunch every Saturday afternoon, my father would take my brothers and me on our weekly pilgrimage to a beautiful early Edwardian redbrick building that housed East Ham library. We boys spent several hours sprawled on the floor, voraciously absorbing books on topics spanning from the Aztec Empire to Victorian engineering to the fiction of Roald Dahl. We would return home with a shopping trolley full of borrowed books, just in time for the BBC’s final football scores (and sometimes a disappointing West Ham result!)
When people meet me now, they often associate me with my exploits as captain of Emmanuel Cambridge’s team on University Challenge. However it was my years of being engrossed in books at East Ham library that had (unexpectedly) prepared me to square up to quizmaster Jeremy Paxman.
Since University Challenge, I have used my (unexpected) public platform as a school teacher to promote education and in particular numeracy (as national numeracy ambassador alongside Countdown’s Rachel Riley and Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis) and literacy.
Nick Poole, the CEO of CILIP (the UK library association) heard out about my powerful personal story with libraries and reached out to me to see if we could collab (as my school students might say). Following in the footsteps of previous incumbents of the role, Mary Beard and Stephen Fry, I was honoured to become CILIP’s libraries champion to use my voice to promote the cause.
Working with CILIP, The Big Issue and Lord Bird, in October we presented my 10-point Manifesto for Libraries at the House of Lords, pushing the case for long-term funding for libraries.
In our manifesto, we explained that with the UK having 35,000 libraries in 20 sectors from health to public libraries, prisons to schools, libraries change lives for the better every single day.
We all have to fight for our libraries every single day.
We were proud that it was the first time in at least four general elections that all three major parties in England mentioned libraries in their 2019 manifesto. We also welcomed the news of the government’s commitment to a new £250m injection into the Culture Investment Fund, of which half is to be allocated to library and museum sector development. However the hard work starts now, we all have to fight for our libraries every single day.
Author and Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams has also publicly supported libraries, saying: “I rarely owned books as a child, instead I went to my local library. All libraries need to be saved. When they go, they go forever.” We cannot rest on our laurels.
In recent BBC documentary The Choir, Aylesbury Prison, the nation’s favourite bespectacled choirmaster Gareth Malone formed a choir in the jail. He highlighted the positive impact of bringing the joy of singing to prisons. Likewise, we have to do what we can to ensure that the joy of literacy and reading is available to everyone, whether you’re in a school, a high street or a prison. Reading truly opens your mind and gives you the knowledge and confidence to think for yourself.
With my University Challenge friend and social media sensation Eric Monkman, the BBC sent us around the country searching for hidden gems of British scientific and technological ingenuity. My personal highlight during Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain was visiting 19th century prime minister William Gladstone’s library in north Wales. I even temporarily broke the library rules of silence by teaching Eric the West Ham Paolo Di Canio chant based on serendipitously finding a book on Verdi’s opera Rigoletto on the dusty shelves! We have our new series out on BBC Two later this year, which promises more books, banter and biscuits on our car journey.
Libraries are more than just books, they represent what it means to be truly human. They contain the minds of our ancestors as well as the latest thinking of contemporary minds. We need our libraries, as they are shining beacons of knowledge, sharing and inclusive communities.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
The best way to show your support for libraries is to use them. Don’t forget, public libraries are free at the point of use for us civilians! The more they are used, the more funding towards them can be justified.
Where can you find me most Saturday afternoons? After a sweaty cardio gym class, I’ll be at East Ham library reading and borrowing books for the following week. Now as an adult, I beam with pride seeing my own books The Monkman and Seagull Quiz Book and The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers smiling back at me from the shelves. Libraries have moulded my past and will continue to shape my future.
And that is why I am proud to continue supporting and fighting for our libraries!
Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide To Britain returns to BBC Two in the spring.