To hear all the bickering at the moment in the educational world in England, mostly inspired by Gove’s insistence on a knowledge-based curriculum, you would wonder how anyone learned to read. His arguments are based largely on an American theorist’s views about what we should be teaching – E.D Hirsh. That man must be getting a lot of hits on t’interweb right now. And Gove’s views are expounded by several white, middle-class shiny-faced smug know-it-alls who have been frustrating me all week. They’re going with the ‘filling of a pail’ approach for education. i.e. you are only clever enough when you can win in the final of University Challenge or when you have a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
As usual, some other things kind of percolate through my brain over a couple of days and it makes me have an ‘ah!’ moment of enlightenment.
I read a few articles and blog posts this week with a real sense of anger and frustration, wondering how I ever learned to read at all when I never had the fortune of an Oxford education.
The ‘ah!’ moment came later, once I’d taken a chill pill and let everything kind of settle in my head.
Last night, I was listening to the divine Steven Pinker talking about his favourite person, place or thing. He was talking about wars and violence in connection with a book he was reading and he said this: “People are far more motivated by what people around them are doing than by any ideal or overt moral purpose.”
And that made me think.
Then a very sensible voice reminded me of something else. The Doors. People are Strange.
You are probably wondering what this has to do with anything.
At school (and I had the privilege of a grammar school education in the 1980s) we did some reading in English. I know we read The Odyssey. I know I found it hard to spell Odyssey and Odysseus and I know Elizabeth got 20/20 on her first homework and I got 7. After that, it’s a bit of a blur. I think we read The Red Pony. I’d say we read David Copperfield. We did a lot of poetry reading from Touchstones. The only thing I really learned was that the English book cupboard smelled weird.
So if I didn’t receive my early inspiration from school, where did I get it? What prompted me to keep reading?
Well, it wasn’t home. We were poor. I don’t mean dirt-poor, but books were Christmas presents, not every day things, and I still have the twenty or so books I had then. A Children’s Bible (from my agnostic grandparents…) a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy stories from my great grandmother. The box set of My Naughty Little Sister. The box set of Winnie The Pooh. The Wind in the Willows. That was about it. My parents didn’t read – I mean they do now, but I never saw my mum pick up a book that she didn’t read to us, and I never saw my dad read, though he does now. My Gramps read Wilbur Smith and The Daily Mail and my Nana read Danielle Steele, if their book shelves were anything to go off. They had three bookshelves of about two feet each – and mostly with hardbacks.
I did have a superb municipal library and my mum took me all the time. I picked what I wanted and I still remember the smell of Bury Library – children’s section.
I am pretty sure the person who planted the seed was Mr Parks, our Year 4 teacher. He let us put our heads on the desk and listen to him read Danny, the Champion of the World. Of course, Ofsted would fail him now, I’m pretty sure, for a lesson like that. He taught Jake though, so I know he’s still a bloody brilliant teacher. He planted the seed. Bury Library and my mum’s frequent visits there watered that seed.
So why did I keep reading in that wasteland of 11+?
Partly because there was a great bookstand of Young Adult fiction in Bury Library – Adult section. I read The Outsiders for the first time and cried. I read Brother In The Land and immediately decided that nuclear weapons were a thing of disgust. Then I read graduated to Ian Fleming and Virginia Andrews. By the time I was 13, I was chomping at the bit for something a little more inspirational.
Two things happened that year. Morrissey and The Lost Boys. You can understand Morrissey’s influence, I’m sure. A librarian’s son brandishing a copy of Oscar Wilde with a fervent and unusual passion for poetry. I went out and read Oscar Wilde. Didn’t really get it much, but the intention was there. The Lost Boys. Well, here’s how it gets convoluted. I liked People are Strange. I bought the single. I heard it was a cover of The Doors. I listened to The Doors. I liked it. I fell in love with Jim Morrison, even though he was dead. (Oh come on! I was young! Don’t tell me you haven’t had a crush on a hairy, weird rockstar?) and then that took me into a whole new world. Nietzsche. Aldous Huxley. He’s the reason I did French (so I could read Rimbaud and Baudelaire) and I read poetry because Morrissey and Jim Morrison made it all cool. Then it was all downhill. Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti. Is it any wonder I became an English teacher? I bet you are disgusted to know that a fey, vegetarian Salfordite and a crazy-eyed, heroin-taking pop star had more influence over my reading than anyone else?
It wasn’t all bad.
I read EM Forster because I saw Maurice and it made me sad. I read LP Hartley’s The Go-Between because by then I had found an inspirational English teacher who used to hand-write copies of Spike Milligan poems about abortion for me, and hand me copies of John Clare poems. I read because they were recommended by someone whose view I trusted. I ate out of her hand. I read Jean De Florette after seeing the film.
Bearing in mind I grew up in a time where word-of-mouth was the only method of learning outside school, where if you wanted to find cool, new things you had to turn to your friends, I copied what they did. Let’s be fair. Out of school, few of my friends read books. That’s fine. We listened to a lot of music – you can’t be from Manchester and not do that – and we did things like watch football and get drunk. But when my friends played some wicked solos from Jimi Hendrix, or someone passed us a new album, we ate it up. If any one of my friends thought something was worth a read or a listen, then it was worth a read or a listen. Mostly a listen, it has to be said.
And I made choices that were not at all related to school. When I chose which university I wanted to go to, Sheffield was number 1. Why? Because some long-haired boy named Robert had gone there the year before and I was absolutely and utterly convinced I would hook up with him in Sheffield, get married and have his babies.
I never saw him, of course.
But even at university, it was mostly a combination of access to books that fuelled my fire, and freedom to learn. I have no doubt that in today’s world, I would not have gone to university. That is something I would have foregone. There’s no way on earth a girl like me would have ever signed herself up to be a debtor, no matter how much difference it would make at the end. I’d have probably worked in a bank, I think. And I did think about it. I was on the tail-end of grants, and it was touch and go.
Still, I met other cool people who passed me cool things; a Venezuelan boy got me all excited about Marxism and Derrida, Sartre and Camus. In 1990s Brixton, The Communist Manifesto went round like a hot cake on Electric Avenue.
So… What does all this tell you? I read because a couple of inspiring teachers fed my fire, because I had a wonderful library with great books where I was free to rampage in whichever weird direction I chose, because I had friends who recommended stuff.
I still read the stuff my friends read.
I wonder if this is why Amazon’s most popular feature is ‘people also bought’?
And at the end of the day, well, it has made me wordy. But it’s not the kind of stuff I discuss with my friends. In fact, if I tried to have a conversation with my family about all of this ^^^^^, my Nana would probably smack my legs and rightly so. For being a smug, shiny-faced know-it-all is perfectly fine if your only aims in life are to win Mastermind or alienate people, but in the real world, most people don’t think that having an A at A level in General Studies (as I very proudly do) is anything to be admired and I can quite understand why sometimes people want to ask me what planet I’m on if I do a blog about Marx or Engels, God and Angels.
Anyway, this highly personal anecdote will never win over the Govites who think the only way forward is Oxford and academia, and that we should all by rights know how to parse a sentence, and that if I don’t know where the Kremlin is and what the Cold War is I can’t possibly understand the world I live in. But I thought you should know where I stand.
And yes, I have a head full of knowledge, can recite Macbeth mostly by heart, quoted Personal Helicon to Heaney and so what? It wasn’t very useful today when I was writing blurb for a website, or when I was marking exams, or when I was teaching students how to ask questions about Monkey Forest or when I was mowing the lawn or taking the dog for a walk. Let’s be honest… apart from a few of my readers, most of you will have long since disappeared, for it is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody really likes a cleverclogs who thinks that other people should be reading The Daily Telegraph, and that they are culturally deprived if they do not.
End of rant.
Anyone still out there??