Mostly concerning Books
I left school a terrible dunce. I got good grades in English and English Literature though. Partly down to a good teacher or two and partly down to the fact that I’d discovered the pleasures of reading at an early age. I just hadn’t discovered that many good books.
My mother read but I can’t recall a single conversation with her about the books she read. My father wasn’t a reader. He claimed to have only read one book and that it was green. At other times he’d claim his sole literary achievement was Lorna Doone. There was a flaw in the believability of his claim. He was just too good at quizzes. He could identify any Shakespeare play or Dickens’ character from the tiniest quote. He could manage most of Henry the Fifth’s St Crispin’s Day speech and was apt to confuse Polonius’ advice to Laertes with his own fatherly advice to his three boys.
Some time after leaving home I took him on a walking holiday in Swaledale and we spent several days recalling his Yorkshire childhood over fells, camp fires and pints of beer. He’d excelled at school but left at fourteen to learn a trade. Sport consumed most of his spare time but one day his bicycle hit a car sending him spiralling over the handlebars and going an awful long way to putting an end to himself, and by logical progression, an end to me as well.
Toothless from that day on, his recovery was slow, painful and boring enough to necessitate the drastic action of actually reading a book. In fact during the eight weeks he was laid up he read his way through the complete works of both Dickens and Shakespeare which constituted the entire library of his and his friends houses. A near photographic memory held onto an awful lot of those works until Alzeimer’s wrought its cruelty.
After that he read the occasional book on engineering or biography of a favourite rugby player. His stock of literature was from those two teenaged months. Oh, and he was a devoted reader of a decent newspaper throughout his life.
I’d been lucky. A primary school teacher read us some Victor Hugo. I’d come across Tom Sawyer through a children’s television version and had had to study Henry the Fourth part One and To Kill a Mockingbird for O level. It wasn’t very much in numerical terms but it was quite something as a set of keys to explore books from. A girl I knew gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and I read it cover to cover and thought it the most wonderful book imaginable. I’m still fond of it but it’s slipped down a peg or two in my rating over the years. Once I’d enthused about it, she gave me Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Suddenly I wasn’t an unqualified school-leaver but a rebel without a cause, a ‘beat’ off in search of George Shearing’s piano playing. I never got far with the search, forgot about the teenage anxt and search for the freedom of travelling for a while. I was too busy making very little money doing dead end jobs Monday to Friday and spending the surplus in Huddersfield pubs on Friday and Saturday. I did continue to read though.
I took an unlikely liking to Jane Austen and would sneak off for a toilet break with a copy of Emma in my warehouse coat pocket. When working for a bus company I’d travel to work while poring over the pages of Thomas Hardy while my fellow travellers digested the Daily Mirror and reached for a packet of Embassy for the first good cough of the day. Strange to think that people used to smoke on buses.
It was while serving petrol at a Leeds Road filling station that I encountered Franz Kafka. There was something quite fitting in his terrible tales of injustice and imprisonment either in a labyrinthine legal process or in the body of a beetle while I was trapped in a job that offered mindless subservience, repetition and a frightening level of urban pollution (my neighbours were a major trunk road, a huge chemical works and a dye works based on the Silesian model.)
Once I’d graduated to being a caretaker at Huddersfield Polytechnic I had access to a phenomenal library (it may not compare with the great libraries of the world but it was twenty times the size of any library I had ever seen). Also I had the brains of the lecturers to pick and that led onto my own discovery of Dickens. I mostly worked an 8-4 shift but would vary this with what were known as “earlies” and “afters”. I liked “afters”. I didn’t finish until 10.30 but from six o’clock onwards there was the occasional door to open or lock and several hours of undisturbed reading. It wasn’t unknown for late working fellows to pop in to see me with a bundle of suggested titles. I think I became something of a pet project for them. Let’s get the caretaker into College.
It couldn’t last. I detoured into Stoke and found that the worst part of production line work is that you simply cannot read. I was cheerful and chatty on the shop floor where time dragged like a penance. In the canteen I was left quietly in a corner where I discovered that the terrible grind of mindless work in the Potteries had given Arnold Bennett the material for some of the greatest books in the language.
I couldn’t take more than a few months of that and found a job up in North Yorkshire as a relief warden for the Youth Hostel Association. It was perfect. Half the time I was posted to big hostels where the staff were fantastic company. The other half found me looking after tiny out of the way buildings. I read and read. In Haworth I was the only person I knew who had read any Brontë novel, let alone most of them. In Selby I devoured Trilby and William Boyd and Tom Sharpe. In Malton I read Patrick White and Emile Zola. In York I forgot about books and went skating on the frozen river.
It had all been leading up to returning to full time education. I felt a huge need to be among people who read, and was lucky to end up in Manchester. There the student age was older. There were quite a number of us who wanted to find out those things we’d missed out on when we were at school, and were determined not to waste the opportunity. (We were also there to down a few pints courtesy of a grant provided by the British tax payer (a debt I believe I have now repaid though my own contributions to the exchequer)).
I left school at sixteen something of a dunce; few qualifications, little ambition and no drive. The only thing I had going for me was a love of reading. I read voraciously and every one of those books was a rung on the ladder from doing what I was told to do, to doing what I wanted to do. And what I want to do is read.