I despair increasingly of the democratising potential of Twitter. But it has achieved one good thing for me: it’s where I first heard about Gladstone’s Library.
Last summer I was looking for a good place to go and get some writing done. I had quite specific requirements: ‘Does anyone know a good writers' retreat in the UK where they cook your meals but otherwise leave you entirely alone? NOYOGA.’
I got plenty of suggestions, from B&Bs in Devon to monasteries in Kent. Someone even invited me to stay with them whilst they finished their PhD dissertation. But the most common response was a certain residential library in North Wales: ‘Gladstone’s Library. And a thousand times I say: Gladstone's Library’. ‘Gladstone’s Library? I don't know details but you get meals!’ ‘It is a paradise. With magic powers. I believe this quite fervently!’ It was good enough for me. I went online, got the phone number, rang up and booked a room for eight nights in August.
And so I spent what turned out to be an incredibly productive eight days of writing, walking, talking and thinking. The bizarre and wonderful thing about Gladstone’s is that it is exactly what it says it is: a residential library. A library where you can write or read until 10pm and then roll into the common room for a drink before bed. A library where you get served breakfast, lunch and dinner (and even a cream tea, if you have room for it). A library where you can be as sociable or as private as you like. A library which is built around William Gladstone’s personal collection but continues to grow as the fantastic staff acquire new books on topics from political philosophy to theology, and works of fiction, poetry and memoir.
I spent that week last summer working on a book about press freedom and freedom of expression. Whilst I was there, I was lucky enough to be shown Gladstone’s own copy of John Stuart Mill’s landmark essay On Liberty, which sets out one of the most important principles relating to freedom of expression and indeed democracy: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
At Gladstone’s, the only purpose for which power is exercised, is to encourage you to make the most of this eminently civilised community. I’ve had an extraordinary range of conversations there, on topics from St Augustine to the technical details of tattoo removal (you know who you are). After my first happy visit to Gladstone’s I went back earlier this year for another productive week. And I’m delighted to be returning again to take part in DemFest. If anywhere in Britain is the ideal place to host a festival of democracy, it’s Gladstone’s Library.
Jonathan Heawood is founding Director of The IMPRESS Project, which aims to develop an independent self-regulator for the press in the United Kingdom. He has worked as Director of Programmes at the Sigrid Rausing Trust, Europe’s largest private human rights foundation; as director of English PEN; and as deputy literary editor of The Observer and editor of the Fabian Review. He writes on cultural and political issues for a number of publications, including The Telegraph, the Independent, the Guardian, London Review of Books and The New Statesman.
Jonathan is part of 'Democratisation and the Media' at DemFest 13th - 14th May at Gladstone's Library. Tickets are priced at £6 / £2 concessions. To book, please contact Reception on 01244 532350, email email@example.com or book online.