Ex Libris

Bobby Seagull in East Ham Library

December 24, 2019

As a child, Bobby Seagull would be taken to his local library in East Ham, London, every Saturday afternoon. Without fail. He would get lost in the books there for hours on end, cross-legged on the floor.

These trips would prove life-changing.

In Bobby’s own words during this episode: ‘East Ham Library is the number one reason that I have this career today… it was absolutely pivotal, in terms of making me who I am.’

So much so that today he is officially ‘Libraries Champion’ for CILIP (Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals), following in the footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard.

Bobby is known otherwise for his immense range of general knowledge, having gained cult fame via University Challenge. This breadth of knowledge itself in good part stems from those hours spent absorbing the local library’s multitude of wonders.

Alongside libraries and quizzing, he is also evangelical about maths and numeracy, which he continues to teach to secondary school kids and also study part-time at doctorate level in Cambridge, specifically the issue of ‘Maths Anxiety’ (the vexation that so many of us feel when presented with arithmetic, however basic).

Bobby’s passion for these varying pursuits of knowledge is infectious. In this episode, he explains how we can use numbers to make sense of the world (from the use of stats during elections to Panini sticker books) - as well as touching on his beloved West Ham United, that precious childhood library routine, and how to win a pub quiz.

Joining Ben and Bobby for this episode is Library Development Officer, Deborah Peck. It was recorded in the quite new East Ham Library building in Newham but includes a short, touching visit to the nearby site of the former East Ham Library, which was such a seminal home-from-home for both guests during their childhoods.

 

 

 

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A transcript for this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Bobby Seagull, follows below:

 

Introduction

Ben Holden:

Bobby Seagull, - great name or what? -, recently co-presented a BBC Radio broadcast about polymaths, people who like to learn about everything.  It could be used to describe him too, this term.  Bobby is a part-time teacher here in East London.  He's studying for a doctorate in Cambridge.  He was the happiest contestant ever on University Challenge, according to social media.  He's also a TV presenter, alongside fellow University Challenge alumni, Eric Monkman, the author of the infectious ‘Life Changing Magic of Numbers’, and that's his real passion - numeracy.  He's an advocate for maths, and now, in keeping with his thirst for knowledge generally, currently a libraries champion.  Busy Man.  Oh, and last but certainly not least, he's a hardcore West Ham United supporter.

Today, though, we are in East Ham library.  We're going to be joined for our discussion by Deborah Peck, library development officer, here in Newham.  So let's go and meet them both now, Bobby and Deborah.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you both for joining us on Ex Libris.  Bobby, this library is very special to you personally, I know, and you immediately chose this venue for our location to meet today.  Could you tell our listeners about it, that relationship, why it's special to you, and perhaps describe it a little bit, give us a bit of background as to why East Ham library?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I am an East Ham person, born and bred.  I was born in Newham General Hospital, but I call it East Ham, and growing up, every Saturday, we’d spend in East Ham library.  We're actually in the new premises which have been open, Deborah, I'm thinking since 2014?  There are 42 computer terminals, which you all know is the answer to the question, what's the meaning of life?  So this library is the new incarnation of the library I visited from my childhood, which is actually just two minutes around the corner. 

I had a sort of ritualistic routine, that, I guess my father played an influential part, so, every Saturday, we would usually have a South Indian lunch, my mum would cook a delicious lunch, and then we’d be sort of shipped off into the world, or to East Ham, and the primary objective was, from my mother's perspective, was to do shopping.  So we’d take a shopping trolley, we'd come to the library for two, three hours, and we’d sit there, in East Ham library, the old one, and again, it's a really beautiful building. 

The old East Ham library was connected to East Ham's landmark clocktower, which was an early 1900s red brick building, really beautiful, and when I have friends visiting me in East Ham, as one does, they’ll often comment, “Wow, your town hall is stunning”, and that was connected to the old library, so that every Saturday, we'd end up there.  I’d sit on the library floor for hours, sprawled on the floor cross legged, I was going to do a rendition of it, but I'm sitting down on the chair, and we'd read anything, you know, books on Aztec civilization or Victorian engineering, or Roald Dahl as was particularly popular then, and as a teacher, there was no learning objective with reading, our dad just said, “Just absorb the library, you've got all these resources, all the world at your fingertips, just sit and read”.  And again, that's what, I think, developed my sense of love for learning about the world, but we’d always have like a cut-off point.  At about 4.30, we’d need to leave, because at 4.45 is when the final football score would come on BBC One, and we needed to make sure we got back in time for that, and usually, West Ham lost.  And that was my Saturday afternoon, and my mum would always complain that we'd come back with a shopping trolley full of books, we’d max out on everyone's card - my mum's card, my dad's card, my card, my siblings cards, but no food!  So my dad would often have to go back to the high street and do some shopping afterwards.

 

Ben Holden:

So you were pretty omnivorous in terms of what you were consuming there in the library, and that went on for a long time?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Pretty much.  When I was 16, I got a scholarship to Eton and so I was away for two years, but when I came back, I think pretty much my whole life, even as an adult, I'm now 35, I'm a 35 year old adult, even now, if I'm in East Ham on a Saturday, my routine is the same, apart from the fact that I'll go to the gym, a gym class at East Ham leisure centre, it's a man called Dave McQueen.  If you want to have a class that is exhausting, yet invigorating,

he's a local legend.  Sergeant pain!  So I’ll get my body invigorated from 11.45 to 1.15, and then normally I come in a bit of a sweaty heap to the library at 1.15 and spend maybe an hour, hour and a half.

 

Ben Holden:

And the scholarship to Eton came about partly through this, or would you attribute any of that in terms of your…, for instance, Jacqueline Wilson, who's joined us on the podcast, said that she learned more from her local library as a kid than she did at school, which is quite a statement.  But how did that scholarship come about?

 

Bobby Seagull:

My dad was a big reader of the Times newspaper, and once, I think this must have been late 1999, in the back section, and again, still to this day, I'm an avid reader, especially the sports section, I’m a big sports fan, towards the sports section of the times, there was a little ad that said, ‘Are you a bright boy from a state school?’  And then it says, ‘Would you like an amazing experience?’  I thought, ‘Sounds good.  I’d like an amazing experience!’.  And then finally, ‘Consider applying to Eton’.  I was like, ‘Ooh, I’ve heard of this school.’  I think Prince William was there at the time.  So I sent off a self-addressed envelope, no one does that these days, and then I sent it off, went to the postbox, got an application form, went for an open day, was absolutely stunned at the site, and then went, I think about February 2000, for interviews, and then found out I got the offer. 

But, I will say again, Newham in the 90s, I would say academically, isn't where it is now.  Nowadays, students from Newham have an opportunity to get to the very best universities, you hear of numerous tales of kids getting into to Russell Group and Oxbridge.  In the 90s, if there was one child that got into Oxbridge, it was like literally front page news of the Newham Recorder, our local paper.  But I would say that my school definitely had a really good environment to learn and our headteacher was a man called Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has ended up being the Head of Ofsted, quite a disciplinarian, quite tough character, but in an East London environment where perhaps kids can be unruly without authority, he really made sure that kids learn, so again, libraries elevated me to another level in terms of, in school, you got a curriculum, again, as a teacher, now I realise that there's a curriculum, you’ve got to get through the syllabus, you’ve got to hit certain points in the scheme of learning, but the library allowed me to expand my mind wherever it wanted.  So serendipity would take me anywhere, rather than just having a curriculum that you’ve got to sort of bash through.

 

Ben Holden:

And you enjoyed the experience when you got to Eton?  It must have been, you know, quite a change of scene, but you enjoyed?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Absolutely loved it.  Actually, the library there was quite stunning architecturally.  I remember the first time I turned up to the library, it looks a bit like a mini version of St. Paul's.  And again, the students there, they probably took it for granted, but I would just sit there sometimes and just admire, look at it and go, “Oh, my God, this is just outstanding architecturally”.

 

Ben Holden:

I have to say, this library, I haven't been here before today, but it's architecturally different to St Paul’s or Eton’s library.  It's a very pleasing building.  It's a modern, lot of concrete, nice lights; I imagine in summer, it's very light.  It's got a lot of space, and seems quite also flexible.  The shelves are on, I can see they’re on wheels.

 

Deborah Peck:

Absolutely, so the library can be used for lots of different events and activities that go on here.  Yeah, it's very modern and won some awards, actually, as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And what did you make of it Bobby when the library moved?  Was that a wrench for you?  Or did you appreciate the change?

 

Bobby Seagull:

It's a good question.  So I think I'd almost compare it to, perhaps not as extreme, but the move from when West Ham moved from the Boleyn ground.  I used to be a season ticket holder to the London stadium.  And initially, when people move from this sort of sentimental, historical...

 

Ben Holden:

But yes, that change is a necessary one, and do you think in terms of this library that was a beneficial thing for the community?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Absolutely, because again, the old library was brilliant and had the historical feel and centre to it, but if you're trying to progress, move forward, welcome new people, new communities expand, you need a purpose built site, and this is what East Ham library is.

 

Ben Holden:

And I can see it's a big library, and it’s very vibrant today, and I can see it's also multi purpose in the sense that, you know, it's a bit of a hub for community services, as well as books.

 

Deborah Peck:

Yeah, so we've got lots of purpose built rooms within the library that people can hire out and use for community activities, as well as a study space up there, a children's area, a reading area, a cafe, so there’s lots going on in here for different parts of the community.

 

Ben Holden:

As the original library is only down the road, it's about a minute away, and it's now a sixth form college, but I think they've kindly said that we can then have a quick look and you can have a trip down memory lane.  That would be fantastic.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Let's do that.

 

~ Interview continues outside old East Ham Library ~

 

Bobby Seagull:

We’ll walk through here, and here there’d have been lots of fiction, the Tamil books, the European language books, but when you come through here, this is the children’s section, and there's actually one bit of the old library still there.  Have a look at this beautiful fireplace - this would have been the sort of portal to the kid’s library over there.  This makes me feel a bit misty eyed.  Without this, I wouldn't be who I am at all.  You can see this archway here, that leads into the kid’s section.  Yes, so behind that office there, we’re about 10 feet away from ground zero.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a really nice space, isn't it?  Beautiful, big old high ceilings.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think now it’s a sixth form study area and upstairs like a workspace-stroke-exam centre.

 

Ben Holden:

At least it's not been turned into a block of flats.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, it’s still functioning.

 

Deborah Peck:

This was my childhood library, as well, and although it was in a different position from when Bobby was here, because when I was a child, you had to go up some stairs at the top and we had an actual children's library with a qualified children's librarian, and it was absolutely beautiful.  So my routine would be quite similar to yours as a child, and in the summer holidays, we’d go off to swimming, to the library, and then the rest of the afternoon in the park.  It was a wonderful time, and working here then as an adult, we had a beautiful oak counter at the corner there, so when you came in, there was just this beautiful counter there with the wooden shelves everywhere.  I feel very nostalgic being here as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And it made such an impression on you that you ended up working in libraries in the community?

 

Deborah Peck:

Oh, definitely.  I loved it so much, because it was a place as a child where you could go and you knew you were safe there, your parents knew you were safe there.  There were lots of activities going on all through the summer holidays, as we do now, and it was just a fantastic place to be, so it had a great bearing on what I did as an adult.

 

~ Interview resumes in the new East Ham Library ~

 

Ben Holden:

Wow, well now we get the full picture.  And we're back in the new library here, which is quite a big difference, but that was fantastic.  Bobby, I understand your love of maths, that was something that you had an epiphany about, or you just sort of discovered a passion more in the playground than in the library?  Is this correct?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, it is.  10 points, that is the correct answer.

 

Ben Holden:

I’ve read your book, so I’m cheating, but yes…

 

Bobby Seagull:

Research is allowed.  Sometimes my students think if someone's read ahead in the chapter that that’s cheating, it’s not, it's good research.  

 

Ben Holden:

Well I’m glad it’s correct and again involves football.  You were talking about, well back to Arsenal, Ian Wright and Matt Le Tissier, which, they're not obvious comparable players...

 

Bobby Seagull:

I remember back in the early to mid 90s, about 93 I think, 1994, lots of boys and some girls collected stickers and the sort of infamous phrases “GOT GOT GOT GOT, NEED!”, and when you need a sticker, your eyes pop out of your head and it would provoke much discussion, but what I found was that people, as well as trading stickers, they would discuss the merits of various players and teams.  And often it would just be the case of who’d shout the loudest and say, ‘Oh player A is better than Player B’.  Why?  “Because, Because, Because, Because”.  But that again, one particular conversation I remember was players that were talked about were Matt Le Tissier and Ian Wright.  I remember one of my friends saying, “Matthew Le Tisser is better than Ian Wright”, and I asked him, “Why do you think that?” and he said “Because he is”, and they wouldn't give any justification. 

So then I remember the sticker books were treasure troves of information and had the names, the ages, the heights, the goals, left foot, right foot appearance, substitutions, lots of data about the players.  And in the early 90s, computer technology was slowly coming into play.  And there's an early version of Excel, really early, rudimentary, and I remember I for weeks after school input, spent like an hour inputting in all the data on every player, so going from Arsenal, Blackburn, Chelsea, I presume Derby would have been back there, all the way through to the clubs right at the end - West Ham, and then that particular conversation, I did a simple comparison between the two players.  And I went back and told my friends, you know, “That conversation we had about Le Tissier and Ian Wright, actually, Le Tissier that season has scored 20% of his goals from the penalty spot, so Ian Wright is actually a more effective player on the field”.  And my friends are like “Actually Bobby, that's a good point you make”.  And I always tell people, this didn't make me popular, it didn't make me like the star of the playground, but what it did show me, and my friends, is that maths can be a way of objectively looking at things, because sometimes life can be messy, complicated, parental issues, lots of things going on, but maths can be that comfort like you always know, you always know.

So the Panini sticker incident demonstrated for me the power of mathematics because, you know, I'm a short guy and still only five foot four, and back then, I’d have probably been quite a lot less than 5’4.  But where people try to assert themselves with their physical dominance, actually maths is a way of objectively looking at things.  And that sparked my real love for mathematics and statistics, because it showed me that it's not just about loud voices, it's about who has information, data that can help their arguments, and since then, I've always loved maths, but football, it was the sort of thing that got me into it.

 

Ben Holden:

I loved in your book when you deconstructed how many packs of Panini stickers you'd have to buy to complete the album, and it was quite eye-watering, especially, I speak as someone who completed the ‘Back to the Future’ Panini sticker book, your book made me almost weep, I wish I'd kept it, but my son who's now 11, he collects match [-], not Panini stickers, interestingly, so times move on, but yeah, I wish, God I wish I kept those sticker books.

 

Bobby Seagull:

In our days, if you wanted to, you could gather your friends, and each of you does 50 stickers to your house, so between the group of you, you could actually game the system as it were, not that I'm encouraging that!  It’s for the joy of opening the packet and wondering what you’re going to get.

 

Ben Holden:

And so now you're studying for a doctorate in maths anxiety.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So my research is looking at two aspects.  One is maths anxiety, and I guess our individual relationship with the subject, but secondly, is also looking at the role that the media play in, I think, perpetuating negative stereotypes about the subject that I think further compounds mass anxiety and misery.  So firstly, as an academic, I’d always have to give a definition of what maths anxiety is, and it's termed as ‘the negative emotional response we encounter when dealing with mathematics’ and it can happen to young children in the classroom with, let's see, a long division problem or algebra. 

What can happen to us adults in the real world, we all have that moment when the restaurant bill comes around, and I was actually, as one does, I was in Paris over the weekend doing a talk to the Chartered Accountants of Paris, and I went and met a friend, actually from East Ham, who I used to go to the circuits class with, and I put a Facebook message saying, ‘I’m in Paris for the weekend’, and then someone from my East Ham circuits class who moved to Paris says, ‘I'm in Paris now.  Bobby let’s have dinner’.  Yeah, there you go.   And then, when the bill came, she said, “Oh, Bobby, I know you're a maths teacher, but I'm going to say I can't do maths.”  And I said, “Okay, because it's dinner, I'm not going to go on a tirade, but do not say that in my presence”. 

And I think in the UK, and in some parts of the West, it's culturally acceptable to say that you can't do maths in a way which no-one would say they can't read, you know, if you went to any pub or restaurant or anywhere, any public forum and ask people who was illiterate, no-one would put their hand up - even if they couldn't read, they would be very embarrassed to admit it.  Whereas with numbers, you ask who's innumerate, quite a few hands go up and would probably quite proudly go up, so I think it's cultural rather than competence.  Can I give you one question?

 

Ben Holden:

Please.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So the question is, this is asked by the charity called the National Numeracy Agency to test national levels of numeracy.  So they said, ‘Imagine you're earning £9.00 an hour, and then your boss gives you a 5% increase on £9 per hour.  What is a new amount’?

 

Ben Holden:

So, I know the answer, partly because it’s in your book, and it did take me a second or two to stop and think.

 

Deborah Beck:

And I've got no idea, and when you threw that out, it just threw me into a panic.

 

Ben Holden:

I’m going to say £9.45.

 

Bobby Seagull:

And what was your method to do that mentally?

 

Ben Holden:

10% = 90p, divide that by two, and then you get 5%.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yep, and in the UK, 50% of adults cannot get this correct, even with the calculator.  And again, if you talk through the method, most people explain £9.00 is 900p, and then 10% of 900p is 90p.  And then half of that is 45p.  Most people would say that's fairly reasonable, that's not an incredibly challenging question.  But yeah, when you mentioned maths to people, and again, the weird thing is, if you ask people to read that question, I'm sure nearly everyone in the UK can read it, but begin the question with the numbers, and people start…

 

Ben Holden:

Getting that sort of knotty feeling, and I totally understand and sympathise, because we all get it, I suppose, apart from, obviously, you Bobby.  A different sort of question then, why do you think it's important for us to reconnect with maths, say that we've been through school, and we're in the big, grown up world, and sort of left it behind, and whether we liked it or not, whether we were proficient or consider ourselves to have been or not?  Why do you think it's important to get this message out there?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think because people have negative experiences of maths in their classrooms - algebra, trigonometry, they think, ‘I hate maths and numbers all together’.  And again, before I delve into the detail of the maths itself, a comparison is PE at school.  A lot of people found PE at school not the best subject, remember the showers and the weird gymnasiums, and the angry PE teachers, and think, ‘Oh God, I hated PE’, but most adults enjoy hiking, walking, swimming, going to the gym, cycling, and these are physical activities.  And yet, they wouldn't say they hate sport, they hate being active, yet with maths, people do, but the reality is, most of us are using maths all the time. 

Again, my mum always says to me, “Bobby, I don't know how you got maths brain.  I don't have maths brain”.  I go, “Mum, when you cook for us, a family of six, you're working out how long things need to go in the oven for, coordinating the drinks, making sure that the start is at a particular time, which is getting things coordinated in a mathematical way”, or when she's going shopping, and looking at the discounts and checking which one makes more sense, or we're going on holiday and we're trying to make sure we got our Euros at the right time.  That's all mathematical usage.  And yet, people, when they think of maths, they often think back to their sort of school days, and when the teacher put them on the spot and said, “You're wrong, what's five times seven”?  Eight times seven is meant to be the hardest one.

 

Ben Holden:

Oh, here we go, 56.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes!

 

Ben Holden:

I always remember 7 x 7 = 49, and then add 7. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

The reason it’s meant to be the trickiest one is about 20 years ago, the school's minister was a man called Steven Byers.  And normally, as educational schools ministers are want to do, they will say, “I'm introducing a new policy”, and he said, “We're going to have times tables tests for all primary school children”.  And as one does, if you're introducing a policy, you get interviewed in the Today Programme on Radio Four, and he's interviewed by John Humphrys, John Humphrys is like, “Mr. Byers, let's look at your policies, but before that, I’m going to ask you question 8 x 7” , and Steven Byers, without a heartbeat hesitation, said 54. And you can imagine the headlines in all the papers, it was ‘Schools minister introducing times tables can't even get his own times tables right’.  So since that, actually, that's partly why ministers even now in the midst of the election, they don't like talking about numbers, because people then, if you make a numbers mistake, people just fixate on the mathematical error rather than the general policy. 

 

Ben Holden:

Although we're meeting during an election cycle, this will go out after it'll all be decided, or something will be decided by the time this is out there.  But right now, they're still campaigning, they're constantly throwing numbers at us.  And again, it's another example of how numbers are important, so that we can actually understand some of those numbers and how to sort of read into them or not, and how they affect us etc.  So there you go in terms of politicians using numbers, they may not want to be put on the spot, but they're happy to bandy around all manner of numbers. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

So you hear so many things like 50,000 units, 350 million on the side of a bus, 2 billion additional to the economy.  You hear all these numbers, and because a lot of people are not comfortable with the numbers, they will just hear the top line, ‘more nurses’, but they won’t investigate what does that actually mean?  What does the 50,000 actually mean?  Or what does it mean to have 350 million for the NHS on the side of a bus?  So these politicians could pick any number out of the air, and just say that, and that's the headline without the public feeling comfortable in scrutinising it.  So actually, I think, as a country, we need to make sure that people that are allowed to vote should have a comfortableness with numbers, because, otherwise, ultimately, a lot of political manifestos are based on policies and this is how we're going to deliver it financially.   And if we as voters are not financially confident, how are we to make a sensible decision between the various parties?

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, you're talking about the difference between numeracy and maths, and I think it is similar to perhaps a relation between literacy and literature, I would say in terms of your proficiency or your ability to read, and then your appreciation or your love of written words. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

For people who are coming to East Ham library, they'll be reading forms, trying to understand when their next council tax bill is and that's reading, and that's literacy, and the numeracy part might be the checking how much their council tax is and whether they can meet their monthly payments, so they are the practical things.  But beyond that, the maths and then the literature is the higher level.  So we want everyone to have that basic grasp, but once you've got that grasp and you can really appreciate reading and be able to make sensible comparisons between JK Rowling and maybe Dostoevsky, or you can make a comparison between Middle Eastern mathematics and modern mathematics, so like those can only happen if you get that comfortable level with the basic numeracy and literacy.  So without that, that is like the foundation stone of higher appreciation.

 

Ben Holden:

And you make all these arguments brilliantly in your book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Numbers’ which I commend to anyone listening, whether they consider themselves a maths whiz or not.  And you've got some great quotes in there as well to illustrate your arguments:

 

  • ‘When you've mastered numbers, you will, in fact, no longer be reading numbers any more than you read words when reading books, you will be reading meanings’ -,

 

which I love.  And that sort of speaks to how you probably regard the world I imagine as well, in terms of seeing those patterns and being able to make sense of the world through maths.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Do you remember the Matrix films?  Yeah so you know in the Matrix Neo sees the world in numbers? I don't quite see it like that, but things do light up, numbers are not just objects on a piece of paper to me when I see them, I see relationships that actually explain the way the world works.

 

Ben Holden:

And that quote, by the way, I should add was from W.E.B Dubois, just to give the attribution there.  Moving sideways slightly, you found fame off the back of University Challenge.  So after school, you went onto university, and I remember watching you and your Emmanuel College team, and you were defeated in the semi-finals?  Were you defeated by Mr Monkam’s team?  You were, weren’t you?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Funnily enough, people to this day, they still get, because that was the most viewed match, I think, in the 21st century, people still get confused.  So, I've been on Good Morning Britain where Jeremy Kyle said, “We've got the University Challenge winner”, and I said, “I'm not the winner, I’m the finalist”, and he said, “What are you doing here then?”  And even the BBC who are not my employers, but I do a lot of work with the BBC, they often say, you know, ‘a challenge finalist, a winner’, and now, initially I used to always correct people, but now, less so, because often, with media, you’ve got, let’s say, a two minute slot maximum, maybe 60 seconds, maybe 90 seconds, and if you're spending 30 seconds to explain that I didn't get to the final, then you've lost the, you know, if you're there talking about a new report on dementia, and how it can be reduced by doing puzzles, you don’t want to spend 30 seconds explaining “Sorry, I wasn't the winner. I was actually the semi finalist”, and then they get sidetracked, so, actually, I let people get away with that, and then afterwards, I'll do a tweet saying, “Just to let you know…”

 

Ben Holden:

But it must have been a great experience, and obviously you've become friends with Eric Monkman, and you've done these great road trip documentaries on BBC Two, you’ve got another series coming out I believe.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, the series one was called ‘Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain’, so imagine like a crossover between QI and Top Gear, so travelling around England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, exploring sites of scientific and quirky interest.  And series two is a bit more focused, series two is ‘Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures’.  This time it's three one hour episodes, you’ve got to make sure you get lots of extra biscuits.  And this time, we're looking at inventions and discoveries in Britain from 1750 to 1900, so things like the chronometer, which essentially became a version of a clock, the telegraph, discovery of the electron, so it's more scientific, but it's still got what I would call it banter, banter.

 

Ben Holden:

Because you taught Eric Monkman the West Ham song in Gladstone's library?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So this is actually funny.  I was talking to my dad this morning, and people often ask, “Is your series scripted?  Do you know what you're going to say?”, so we know roughly where we're going to, the sites, but when we’re there, it’s up to us to lead the scene.  So we are walking around, and I thought it’s cool being in a library and we are going to stay here overnight, and I just saw a book by Verdi, and I was like, “Oh, Eric!”, and I just started saying, “Have you heard of Paolo Di Ca-ni-o...Paolo Di Ca-ni-o?” [Sings].  And he said, “No Bobby, I have not heard of that”.  And I said to him, “There was an aria in Rigoletto called ‘La Donna E Mobile’” and I told him the Paolo Di Canio song is based on that and then just suddenly impromptu I was teaching that to Eric in Gladstone's library.  It was one of those moments.

 

Ben Holden:

Here’s something I’m curious about.  Do you do pub quizzes?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So not as much as I used to.

 

Ben Holden:

Because I'd be pretty intimidated if I looked around with my teammates and you were at the next table.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So the thing is, so normally, University Challenge contestants have got good conventional academic knowledge, so your science, your history, your geography, your classical music, and then you think, well, we can beat them in the popular stuff.  But actually, I'm a demon at the popular stuff, because I love popular culture - Love Island, Bake Off, Strictly, Top Gear, name me any popular show, I probably watch it.  Actually, one of the reasons I watch these shows, one, I enjoy it, but B, it’s a separate conversation, but television’s become much more fractured, people don't consume television media in the same way, you know, we don't accept linear programming.  My students, they are all on YouTube and Instagram, and programmes that have competition elements like Bake Off or University Challenge, or Strictly, they’re the few things that people will actually watch together at the same time to avoid spoilers.  So they are almost like national reference points.

 

Ben Holden:

But do you have any tips for quizzers out there?  We're kind of approaching Christmas, there’s going to be loads of quizzes going on.  Do you have any strategies that you would…?

 

Bobby Seagull:

An important strategy is know what type of quiz you're taking.  Actually, I filmed Celebrity Mastermind very recently.  It's coming out sometime around Christmas, New Year, and interestingly, it was Mr John Humphrys from the Today Programme that is the host, and my topic was England in World Cups.  I wanted to pick something broader otherwise anyone that's not a West Ham fan would be like, “Oh God, why is he talking about West Ham?”, but England in the World Cups…, but in my two minute chat, so normally in the Celebrity Master Mind, you need a specialist topic, and then before your general knowledge, you sit down for two minutes, the black chair is quite intimidating by the way, and they talk to you for two minutes on your, if you're like an actor, your next films, if you’re a politician, your next big move, or if you’re a musician, your next album, but for me, I was very keen and adamant we wouldn't talk about my TV, we would talk about maths and maths anxiety, and that might almost do more work than my PhD in terms of publicly disseminating my views on anxiety. 

So again, for that quiz, the question is I think you need to make sure you're prepared for the type of quiz, actually, genuinely, I don't get to go to many pub quizzes now because of time, but if I am going to pub quiz, I will call ahead to the pub and say, “Can you just tell me the type of rounds you have?”, because imagine a quiz always has a science round, always has a popular music round, then popular music, I would prepare by going on Spotify and checking Spotify, the top 50.  Or if it has a news round, that week before, I'll go on the BBC news site and look at all the top 10 stories, so you need to make sure that you're prepared for that type of quiz, not just general, because even University Challenge, certain things appear all the time.  They always ask about the periodic table.  They always have classical music, we always have western art in the 19th century, so you need to make sure that you're prepared for that specific quiz.  So yeah, otherwise you're just turning up, you wouldn't just turn up to a sports competition. You’d say what type, is it swimming? Is it triathlon? Is it bowls, is it darts? You'd want to know the type, a quiz is the same thing.

 

Ben Holden:

Okay, here's my next question, I'm enjoying getting to quiz you, how much do you attribute your success as a quizzer which has led to all sorts of other amazing opportunities and developments in your life, how much do you put that down to the library and how you spent those hours here hoovering up all that knowledge, all that sort of different kind of general knowledge, as well as expert sort of granular, specific knowledge?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I would say, it's not unreasonable for me to say, East Ham library and my experience there is the number one reason for me having done well on University Challenge, and ultimately, me having the career, so without East Ham library, I wouldn't even be talking to you today right now.  I’d probably, maybe hopefully, listen to your podcast somewhere.  I've always been interested in reading and knowledge, but it's the library that this sort of Saturday weekly ritual that really built the foundations for me wanting to understand again, anything, we talked about Aztecs, Victorians, there wasn't a specific, “I'm only going to learn about science, I’m only going to learn about languages...”, there was that breadth going into the library, you can sit there, and you can just see literally the world's collection of knowledge in front of you.  You can see the general knowledge, the fiction section, the teen fantasy.

 

Ben Holden:

So now you've combined your love of numbers, your talent for communicating, because you’re a teacher and you speak with great passion and sort of infectious enthusiasm….  The libraries, so you are a libraries champion for CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, and you're following in the very distinguished footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard, not bad.  Can you talk to us a bit about your role there?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, through my library experiences, CILIP said you'd be the sort of ideal person to be an ambassador for libraries, because one, libraries are an important part of your childhood and experiences of making you who you are, but, secondly, now as an educator and teacher, I am working with young people all the time.  Actually, I realised, for them, they need to learn about the world and read, and libraries are important, be it at school or public libraries, at least have an important part of fulfilling that function.

 

Ben Holden:

And what does the role entail?  I know you've written a manifesto.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, I've actually got a copy here.  We launched it at the House of Lords in early October, with the Big Issue, because the Big Issue founder, Lord John Bird, he strongly believes again, in the importance of reading and libraries, and how that can really help people really lift themselves up, because ultimately, it is knowledge that helps you navigate the world and books and reading and libraries and library services can help offer that way out.

 

Ben Holden:

And this is collectively sort of endeavour to support libraries, make the case for libraries, with data to backup your arguments and support those, I mean, it's a shame that it should come to this in a sense, but to influence policymakers, as well as public facing arguments, is that right?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think there's two faces to it.  One is, again, using my Twitter, social media, my TV appearances to talk about the importance of libraries, because I think, if you've got a public service sector that works, and is important for people, I think if people stop appreciating it, then that's how things get forgotten.  It was almost like, and I’m not going to get political, but the NHS, we take it for granted that you can get an injury, and you can go and get yourself checked out reasonably quickly and get yourself sorted without any fear at the point of service.  And again, with libraries, we mustn't take it for granted, we should appreciate what we have, because not everyone in the world has access to libraries and reading and books.  So part of my work is publicly getting people to realise how important libraries were to them, so, therefore, they should play a part in making sure that others have access to it.

And the second part is using sort of soft persuasion on politicians, so that they feel obliged to put it as part of the manifesto.  And again, I think in this election, for the first time in four elections, all the major English parties have mentioned libraries in their manifesto.  So I think it's like raising awareness with the public, but also with the politicians and decision makers.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, with differing, we should say, with differing sorts of levels of engagement or interest.  And today we're meeting, coincidentally, on the day that the annual report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, so it's a very serious body in terms of surveys.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I'm an ACA, I'm an Association of Chartered Accountants and CIPFA is another body, so you're qualified accountants.

 

Ben Holden:

So CIPFA have released their annual survey which is always a sobering day for anyone who cares about libraries, we could talk about that in a second, but I'm just curious, playing devil's advocate, what you make of the sort of counter argument that if we put numbers or impose sort of delivery type data or arguments onto libraries making the case for them, do we run the risk of inadvertently sort of pushing them into a quasi-commercial space or commodifying them when in reality, I know that, obviously policymakers don't think like this, and how many of those politicians have usually actually stepped into a public library themselves?  I think, actually, the last Libraries Minister in his constituency, there were libraries under threat and he was the bloody Libraries Minister, anyway, without getting too political, or politicised during this election cycle, do we overly numerate library services at our peril?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think it's a good question, of, against perhaps my education research background, between experience and evidence.  Experience is if you ask me about my life experiences growing up, it was absolutely pivotal, being here in East Ham in terms of making me who I am, and then the evidence part is what the numbers tell us - are people using it more or less?  What are the reasons for it?  So, I think you need to get a happy marriage of the two, because if no one's using a library service, they need to find out why, and then obviously the funding is not going to follow, but then you also need to speak to people about what the libraries mean to them, because libraries, I think, are more than just books, I think they represent something about society.  It's a place, one of the few places now that people can hang out without having to pay as a community, all sorts of, you know, social strata hanging out in one environment, and that means more than just saying, “Our numbers are down 3%”, so therefore, we're going to cut the budget by 3%.  I think people like politicians need to step above that and go, actually, libraries mean much more to society than just a place where books are there.

 

Ben Holden:

Absolutely.

 

Deborah Peck:

And obviously, Bobby you’re very vocal about the experience that you had with libraries, but there are probably countless stories out there of people who are having similar experiences, and that's what you're saying about, you know, judging things from experience rather than from the numbers of, you know, how many books are issued, and I think those stories are really important to our case, really.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Because they're really life changing stories, again, when I became the sort of CILIP UK library champion, and I posted about my story, I had so many people messaging on Twitter, social media saying, “Myself, me and my mum went”, or “Me and my grandmother went”, and so many people were saying about how the library has made them who they are.  So these are stories that, again, if you just look at evidence and numbers, it won't necessarily point that out, so I think you need to combine the two to give you the best way forward.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, totally, and actually, you know, this doomsday report as I sort of think of it, which comes out every year, you know, partly that prompted this podcast when it came out last year and I thought, “Right I'm not having this! I’m fed up of this”, but it was such eye-watering reading, and again, you know, the headline is that Britain has closed almost 800 libraries since 2010, and we should, of course, give a big shout out to all the librarians and the library workers whose jobs have been really decimated as well.  I think we've lost around 10,000, at least, in that period, and we've got this endless wave of volunteers and these people who are not, you know, it’s great that they're getting involved, but they're not trained professionals.  So that's another big, big part of this scourge, this problem.

 

Deborah Peck

Yeah, obviously.  I mean, we've been very lucky in Newham, because we've kept all of our libraries, so we've got 10 libraries, you know, and I can see from the CIPFA figures, you know, we're up 5%, you know, we talked about not just wanting to judge things solely on numbers, but we are making a lot of headway within the community, particularly with schools.  So we’re bringing schools in, so the children and our schools, and our relationship with the schools is really vibrant, but yes, it is very worrying in some respects that so many libraries are being closed, you know, and authorities are forced into positions aren't they?  It's not necessarily what they would want to do, but the funding isn't there, and they are dealing with the situation in the best way they can, but you're right, it's really awful that people can say that the libraries are the easiest thing to cut, that's where the money can go, where it's, as you've just demonstrated in your story, and we've talked about the thousands of other people out there who it's made a real difference to their lives, how vital they are.

But, you know, sometimes the people who are making those decisions, maybe they don't need that core service in the way that other members of society do.

 

Ben Holden:

Exactly.  Well said, it's exactly right.  And it's so myopic, short-sighted to think of them as, actually, the CIPFA Chief Executive has said today in reference to the report, but he has referred to libraries as ‘lower priority services’, which is crazy, it's just crazy.  It just drives me nuts.

 

Deborah Peck:

I think that's why we've worked really hard with the schools in the area.  So, you know, bringing them in regularly, so that children have an understanding of who we are, and that they can come to us at anytime, you know, I'm working with parents to engage the parents to bring the members up.  Often in Newham as well, we're in an area where for a lot of people English is a second language, so if we can work via the children, and engage the children who will bring the parents, that's how we can continue to exist and to thrive, hopefully within the community.

 

Ben Holden:

And you're knitting the community together, and you're getting these kids and their families a whole new lease of life potentially, fantastic.  And one way people can show their love of their local libraries is just by going there and taking a book out as well.  I was looking at the report today and just the issue figures, you know, just go in and get a book out!

 

Deborah Peck:

Definitely, again, you know, there's so much on offer and you can just choose anything.  So you're out there and you're not buying it, so if you don't like it, bring it back, you know, and you could discover who you are as a reader, especially for parents and the importance of reading from a very, very early age and the difference it makes to life outcomes and chances.  And that's another message that we're constantly working with, with our children's centres, and our, you know, younger community as well.  So it's a lot of hard work, but we're really working, that's why we're so grateful to Bobby and his campaign and working with us and loving East Ham.  I love East Ham, it’s my childhood library too.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think I’ll sort of reiterate what Deborah is saying.  So if you speak to a lot of people out there in the public, you know, you go on the London Underground at East Ham, and you say, “Are libraries important? Do you do you value them?”, “Yeah, I do”.  And you ask them “When's the last time you went there”?  They’ll be like, “Ah, yeah I should go more often” and then maybe “I haven't been for a while”, so my sort of plea to them is if you really love libraries, the way you can show it is go to the library, go and visit, and again, a lot of people use online retailers to buy books - you can get them for free, you save money, and you can also, one of the things about being in a physical place like a library is, again, people that use online websites to buy books it’s much more difficult to make choices, because it will give you the recommendations, but in a library, you can just wander around, walk around, you just wander and see things. You always make better decisions for reading virtually.

 

Ben Holden:

Totally, but yes, it takes you out of your comfort zone, it means that you will select something in a serendipitous way, but also not using those algorithms.  I don't know if you've had this, but because I've published a few books, Amazon, for instance, though I never buy books off them, if I go on there, they've suggested my own book!

 

Ben Holden:

I just have one or two last questions which I always like to ask, as a librarian and also as  someone who likes a sort of ordered or your formulae etc. in life, how do you order your own libraries or collections or books at home?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So at home, every person's room has a mini library, my dad, myself, my siblings, and every room has a different character based on their stage in their life.  So the books have always changed, so we have a loft upstairs in the attic, and when things are not in general uses, they sort of move their way upstairs, and eventually, if things are deemed not useful at all in the house, they end up in the charity shop.  So they sort of circulate through, for example, in my dad's room, so he's got a lot of self-help books, books on publishing, books on ‘How to’ studies, - he’s trying to write a book on my family, (four boys from East Ham, all went to Oxbridge);  he’s trying to write a book on how he managed to develop four kids, and he doesn’t talk about it being gifted kids, but just four normal kids and make them all love learning so much that they all end up at Oxbridge.  Again, his book shelf right now is full of how to study and again, that's his purpose.

Now my room, you come inside, you see lots of books; we've got two shelves, one beside my study table, and one which I always think one day could kill me, because the whole entire wall, we've got with books, and I’m always worried that one day I could be buried, but I'd be happy, that would be a great way to go!

 

Deborah Peck:

And me?  Well, I'm showing you a picture here, but obviously people can't see, and that's my living room, I'm very lucky that my partner works for the The Folio Society, if I'm allowed to say that here, but he works for the Folio Society, so I have got the most beautiful collection of books all in my living room, and I've got floor to ceiling shelves that I paid an extortionate amount of money for, because the books are my pride and joy, so I don't care about anything else apart from my books, and they're all fiction, yeah, I am a real fiction major.  I don't really do any non-fiction.  There aren't any maths books there, I’m afraid Bobby!

 

Ben Holden:

Well, thank you both very, very much for joining us and maybe we might now browse the shelves, and Bobby choose something, whether it's an old favourite or something new that's a departure.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think I'm going to browse the autobiographies, because there's a phrase by an American-Spanish philosopher called George Santayana, which says, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.  So I always think this, there are hundreds of great people out there that have amazing life experiences, - rather than me trying to recreate and make the same mistakes, reading autobiographies is one thing that I enjoy so I think that, again, we will let serendipity take us away, but I have a feeling that could be a section that could be interesting.

 

Ben Holden:

Fantastic.  Well, let's head there now.  Thank you.

 

~ Bobby Seagull is invited to browse the shelves of East Ham library ~

 

Bobby Seagull:

Okay, so now we're crossing the divide between the chasm, the non-fiction and fiction.  So we just quickly crossed over to the land of the non-fiction.  ‘A Million Years in a Day’.  That sounds interesting - Greg Jenner - this feels like the right pick.  He's involved with the ‘Horrible Histories’.

 

Ben Holden:

‘A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life’

 

Bobby Seagull:

 

Tracing through society from, everything from the morning, when we wake up, why we shave, why we bath, our breakfast, to our lunch, dinner, day by day.  It feels like we have a winner, winner, chicken dinner here!

 

 

[END]

 

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Keep an eye on Insta also to get a chance of winning a signed copy of Bobby’s transformative book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Numbers’.  Indeed, there’s a whole section in there about entering prize draws, it’s well worth checking out.

 

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

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