For World Book Day, rather than dressing up as a very poor and overgrown version of Ron Weasley I thought I might write something about the relationship I’ve had with literature. Some of my earliest memories are of books. I remember my mum reading me the most basic books at a very young age and then trying to learn the words myself with her and in my nursery, attached to the side of Our Lady of Good Counsel Primary School in Leeds; Mrs Walsh going through the famous A is for Apple book with me, with her customary saint like patience. When I went to the school itself we were encouraged to go to the tiny library and every now and then there was a classroom based booksale funded either by charity or the Catholic Church via local donations.
At home, we didn’t have any kind of book collection and they didn’t keep pride of place like some people will recall of their parents houses. We put more stock by music and videos than the written word. My parents had books, usually in an upstairs bookcase and almost exclusively factual material; encyclopaedia, dictionaries, cricket books and some epic folder-bound multi-volume sets on war, lovingly collected weekly by my dad when he was a young man. I don’t know what newspaper my parents “took” but I always remember a local paper knocking around, either the Yorkshire Evening Post, or the local free sheet (Skyrack / Leeds Weekly News) usually open at the TV pages. Events of the day were rarely discussed with my brother and I; we knew the Tories were bastards, Maggie Thatcher chiefly, and that’s where it ended.
Fortnightly my mother took me to Seacroft library with my little orange ticket so I could get up to four books out at a time. I discovered Spot the Dog was an early favourite as a young boy and no doubt several other simple and likeable stories which I can no longer recall. As a junior I fell in love with the TinTin graphic books; unaware of their colonialism, they were just ripping good stories to my formative eyes. The first wholly text based books I read were the interactive adventure books that let you have some control over the narrative; turn to page 76 if you would turn left, turn to page 84 if you would turn right and so on; an early sign of my desire for adventure-based computer games perhaps.
On occasion I would venture out of the sheltered area of the children’s section into the adult books; curiosity guiding me to wonder what these shelves contained. My mother was keen to usher me back to the kids area; behaviour that I recognise now as not wanting me to grow up; something she was always reluctant to allow, but through a sense of love and protection rather than anything else. There wasn’t any time I can recall that we didn’t go to the library other than on a week’s holiday in Butlins my mum and I were upset we were missing our scheduled trip; and that we would owe a fine for the books we’d not be able to return.
At school I will have read what are termed young adult books I suppose; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe perhaps but I have little recollection of any of this. School was not a great time for me, and high school was much worse. At Cardinal Heenan in Leeds, you were sorted straight away in to what I can only describe as a class system; the kids from poor areas all seemed to be shoved in to the lowest level academic groups and most of us remained in them. The teachers gave us books to read but offered little in terms of explanation or getting us to think; it wasn’t all down to them, I was becoming a tearaway and happy to be given the opportunity not to learn. Other than devouring atlases with my brother and naming capital cities, I fell completely out of love with books until Christmas 1996.
I had just turned 16 and my mum and I were Christmas shopping. I had some paper round money to buy presents and mum realised I was better off picking something rather than her guessing what I wanted; I suspect I wanted to get a video game of some description. We called into WH Smith, probably to look at board games and stationery and I saw a book on special display, new in paperback and just £3; half price. The book was The Lost World by Michael Crichton, his sequel to Jurassic Park which I had recently seen and fell in love with. I pointed at it and said “can I have that for Christmas”, mum was taken aback, not able to understand why I suddenly wanted a book, and presumably unaware of how much I wasn’t reading at school (one day the teacher said, bring something of your own to read for next lesson, so on the way to work I had bought a copy of the Sun, and with it a ticket to detention). She acquiesced and I opened it among other, more usual things, on Christmas morning.
I don’t think I’d ever read an adult book; although classed as a mass market thriller it took me a long time to read, around six months I think and I found my attention span not ready for it but I persevered and enjoyed it. I’d like to say I then went on a literature binge having fallen back in love; but I didn’t. I read more Michael Crichton books, knowing I was in safe territory, not knowing how right-wing the author was becoming but then I had little knowledge of politics in those days. I read some books based on my favourite films, or that those films were based upon and a few biographies, specifically on John Lennon. So I was slowly reading again, easing myself in perhaps but gaining little in truth.
Cue, early 2000, struggling with a break up just after Christmas I somehow got a job in the Civil Service. I made friends with people who were from backgrounds I was unfamiliar with; more middle class to put a basic term on it. When we went on work nights out, which in those days was a regular thing, I realised I was hopelessly disarmed when the subjects turned to anything beyond what appeared in the tabloid newspapers. I knew nothing of politics and history; sport and lewdness were my stock-in-trade. Most of my colleagues had been to university and I realised I needed to book up.
Perhaps with reluctance, perhaps with enthusiasm, I forget which, I began reading, not only reading but studying. I was lost in my pursuit, not of knowledge initially but just so I didn’t look or sound stupid in front of these people I respected. I didn’t know where to begin or what to read so I reached for all sorts of stuff, a lot of it rubbish. What changed things was when I read my first serious history book; The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Lady Antonia Fraser; I got a cheap copy from an antiquarian bookseller in Helmsley on a day trip from his modern history section. I was utterly, utterly fascinated and realised that the truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it’s often more dramatic too.
Via a newly found love of history, I started to ruminate on how events impacted on us today; something as long ago and seemingly esoteric as England’s break from Rome, had it not happened, would render our nation unrecognisable from the one we live in today. Through this I developed an interest in current affairs, read with the eye of an amateur (very amateur) historian. I read a book on slavery and followed it up with No Logo by Naomi Klein, and was taught that slavery belongs firmly in current affairs and not history. Every new book was a new learning experience and I was finally hooked again.
It took a friend to inform me that as much can be learned from fiction as it can from books of fact; food for the brain yes, but we need food for the soul as well. At the time I was sceptical, while reading a book on the history of the Monopoly Board but I took her recommendation to read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes; it was the right book at the right time for me and I’ve not looked back. Poetry I’ve always been distantly keen on, always written it but rarely understood it. I remain a keen reader of it but as an analyser I’m no Terry Eagleton.
So, I love books now. I didn’t for a long time and always thought I was playing catch up to large extent with my more formally educated friends. I left school at 16 having spent 10 years under Conservative government run, catholic education, being told that the likes of me weren’t for higher learning, aesthetics or intellectualism; we were the road sweepers, the bin men and the assembly line staff of the future. The latter group is fine, but why not both? It is only through a mixture of inspiration and self-doubt that I decided to up my game. People who know me now seem to think I am well read, autodidact though I am. I think they mean it as a compliment and I take it as such.
There is no healthier activity for the mind than reading. The growth we make as individuals, within our chosen circles of society and our spiritually is enhanced immeasurably by standing on the shoulders of those giants who have committed their wonderful, bizarre, eccentric, insightful and whimsical thoughts to the page. Beginning a new book for me now is like that moment at the start of the rollercoaster, after the first big climb up to a great height and being tipped gently forward before the first major drop; what I feel at that exact moment is the same as what I feel when I hear the spine flex or the binding crack slightly on a brand new tome. Bliss is a hazily lit corner of a pub, a dark hardwood table with wrought iron legs, a comfy armchair, a pint of something friendly infront of you and nothing else but you and your book, and the barman sitting quietly awaiting your next request.