My mother wanted me to learn to read because she thought it was important if you were going to get ahead. My father wanted me to learn to read because he thought it was the best thing in the world that you could do. So combining those two, I learned to read through the instruction of my mother who borrowed all these Beacon Books and had me read them to her, and my father who just read to me. He was a huge reader; as far back as I can possibly remember there were always things to do with reading and books in the house.
I spent my career teaching children to read and write. And I loved it. Best job in the world. One of the greatest gifts you can give to people is the ability to read and write. And based on forty years of teaching reading, my view is that my father was right – what makes a difference in creating young readers is letting children see adults who value reading. If you have teachers who are readers and who love reading for its own sake, they will pass that on to children. Talking about a love of reading is the best encouragement to literacy. That’s how I learnt to read, its how I still like to read, and it is how children over the generations learnt to read. And it always worked too.
If you can read, you can do almost anything. You’ve got a source of lifelong pleasure and enjoyment. You’ve got intellectual thoughts and analysis. And you’ve got all life skills – filling in forms, getting jobs, passing exams. But you’ve got something that’s bigger than all of that, it’s for life. You can turn to it anytime. It’s the best thing ever, really. At least, it has been for me.
I was very lucky because, as well as being very interested in reading, my father was also a very nice man. When I was little we had some refugees from Latvia knock on the door, and he gave them a room in our house. They really took to me and one of my earliest reading memories – I think I was only three-ish – was going up to the room they were staying in, sitting on Uncle Johnny’s knee, and pointing at the words in a Latvian paper. I had no idea what it said, of course, but I think I wanted to join in with the reading. And I was very interested in print.
We weren’t very rich, but every Christmas, every birthday we would get a book to read. And then, when my brother and I were a bit older, my father would take us to the children’s library every Saturday. It was a joy, because you could choose any books you wanted, and I think I read all of Enid Blyton, I just couldn’t get enough of them. I remember sitting in the kitchen and my brother fell over and banged his head on the fireplace while I was sitting there reading, and I was really irritated at him because he’d interrupted my reading!
At school, and sixth form, and university, it was all English, English, English. I didn’t want any other things in my life. But there wasn’t ever enough time. How can you study English Literature in three years? I studied an option in Dickens and had a fabulous tutor who didn’t think I was so fabulous and really made me work hard, and left me with a lifelong love of Dickens. There was also a little programme of poets reading – all very ad hoc and there was nothing terribly organised about it – which I always enjoyed.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after university, but my mother worked in a school and I’d gone in with her and got interested in this young boy who couldn’t read. I tried to work a bit with him. He was such a nice boy – about 14 or 15, and he was clearly never going to be a reader. But to see what he missed out on because he couldn’t read, it touched me and I decided to become a primary school teacher because that is where you teach children to read. I wanted to be right at the start of reading.
Some of the books that have been significant in my life
The first school that I taught in was a very old-fashioned school and lo and behold it used the Beacon Books that my mother had got me! They were a phonic reading scheme that had been phased out of nearly every school in the world apart from this school. They had lists and lists of words at the back of them, and you were supposed to prepare the children by doing the phonics, getting them to read the lists of words, and then move on to reading the stories. But I remembered how it was the stories that had caught me, and the fairy tales particularly, so I used to tell them the stories and we would talk about them together. Then we’d pick some of the words and learn them. So I went about it the wrong way really. But it seemed to work, the kids could read, and that was all that counted. I don’t think I had one failure at that school, actually. Or later, when I went to teach in Hackney, which was not easy. There were lots of different languages, some of the children had lots of different experiences in their lives that were unpleasant and made them quite difficult to settle in school, and yet they responded to this way of teaching too.
I’ve never been keen on phonics. You do have to use it a bit, but it is only one strategy. And for me, what really mattered was reading good things, and getting lots out of the experience. I always had reading times when the children came in to class, they could just get a book and read, and the most significant moments were seeing them all involved in their books, and the quiet in the classroom.
Eventually I moved over to training teachers, so again I got to do what I wanted to do: read! And all I needed to know about was books for children, how children learn to read, how they learn to write, how they learn to speak and listen, and that was it.
All this time I was reading for me too. I have got notebooks full of things I’ve read from about 1980 onwards. In Manchester, it was Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, plus the Jackie Collins books as well. One stand-out book for me which should always get a mention was Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which I think is the most underrated Booker Prize winner. Nobody ever speaks if it, but I could not put it down. I read it and re-read it. There was an honesty about how it was written, an honesty in that story about the child, the relationships, the layers upon layers. And it takes you through emotions too – it’s the whole package really.
For me, reading is very much a way that I think about myself and others. It is being outside yourself. I think reading has helped me do that quite a lot, be a bit more understanding of people. I think I can be a bit judgemental and reading often teaches me about different people, which helps me to be a lot nicer.
When I came to Norwich, UEA ran a part-time course at Wensum Lodge. I signed up and it was magic, because it got me back to all the classics like Virginia Woolf and George Elliot and Charles Dickens and TS Elliot again. It really woke me up again about my reading. And the great thing was that authors had changed, too. Particularly someone like George Elliot who I had always revered but now, God I hated her! She was always telling me things: you will think this as you read this, and you will make your mind up in this way about this character. I can make my own mind up thank you very much George Elliot!
Somebody in Norwich who I think has been forgotten, but who had a big impact on my reading is Enid, who ran the Hungate Bookshop with her husband. They used to have writer events there, and they had quite a lot of poets, too. They did so much for literature, were almost ahead of the game in their events. And they did a lot for children’s literature too.
Since I retired I just read more. I’ve been in quite a lot of reading groups. I’m increasingly less tolerant of book groups that are social gatherings. I can’t be doing with spending the equivalent of two days – maybe twelve hours – reading and thinking about a book and then only 15 minutes talking about it. But If it’s a focused group, the preparation makes me read more intently and think a bit more because I know I’m going to have to justify what I think, and I’m going to have to understand what other people say.
Which is why The Readers’ Circle, and Summer Reads has been such a wonderful thing for me. It came at just the right time. It was Teju Cole’s Open City, that first got my attention, and I thought this was going to be the thing. And it was, it was! The Readers’ Circle came in that year. How wonderful to read, to read very up-to-date new books, and to give an opinion that might shape the books that will be shared with everybody.
It makes me read more seriously. That is what I like, I want that. I like the activity of reading. It is a very active process for me. If you are only ever reading to escape or to turn off then you’re not doing justice to the activity. I like books that you’ve got to think about, where everything isn’t revealed immediately, necessarily, and you can come back to it and see more there. I will read anything, and I haven’t always read serious books, but I make a distinction between different books. There are some that fill a need, or serve a purpose and you get some enjoyment out of them. And then there are the ones I take into me and make my own. Because to me that seems to say – I mean, not only is that nice to read, or good to read, and you can take a delight in the words – but it goes beyond that it seems to say that this author cares about how he or she writes. And they have selected, they’ve worked hard to pick the right words. At the moment I’m reading Colm Toibin’s The Master. I’ve been meaning to read itor a while, he’s a man who can certainly choose his words. I’ve also recently loved Patrick Flanery’s books Absolution and Fallen Land, and Wreaking by James Scudamore, which I thought was brilliant. Deborah Levy is a writer that I’ve been back to again, that I have re-read. Those are ‘inside’ books, and that inside is important to me.