I could talk about books for hours. Reading threads through my life: how I make sense of pretty much every big life event is through reading.
I quite often take three books on the Tube with me just in case I run out or need to switch. And I need a backup copy of The New Yorker just in case. Maybe the Kindle should go in there as well? Never want to run out of stuff to read on a journey, do you?
I am very sociable; I don’t need to be alone but reading is just the best time. Before Christmas, when work was really overwhelming, I just sat on the sofa and read Jamaica Inn. I actually thought the book was a bit creaky but looking back on that it was the best of times. I see people, I go out but reading makes me content. Jane Austen I always associate with Christmas. I love Christmas, but I’ve got quite a big family and it invariably gets a bit rabid, so what I normally do is go to bed in the day – which I’d never usually allow myself to do – and read whichever Jane Austen I feel like, and it’s just a glorious moment of quiet and stillness.
I never think of reading as this ethereal activity: it locks into life for me. I’m always slightly uneasy when reading is portrayed as escapism. I love being alive, so I don’t want to escape from life, but reading enhances it. It enriches it. But maybe I’m lucky as well because I don’t need an escape.
I grew up in a house where there were always a lot of books. My mother spent a lot of time teaching me to read with flash cards. I also had a little reading book that my mother had drawn with a picture of me jumping in a puddle and the words, ‘Lucy is outside’, and then there was a cat and it said ‘cat’. I learned to read by recognising the symbols, but not by sounding out words. So now if I meet unfamiliar words I register them no problem. I’ll know what they mean or I’ll look them up but I quite often won’t be able to say them out loud, which is really embarrassing.
I have no memory of reading as something I couldn’t do; it just feels absolutely a part of me and something I have always done. One of my defining moments was my little brother learning to read. He’s three and a half years younger than me and it took him a while to read. He was about seven and we were on holiday in Greece and I remember him painfully slogging through The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and getting this huge amount of praise and I was raging because I was reading Stray by A.N. Wilson and I was a bit like, ’Look at me! I’m reading this book by A.N. Wilson and you’re praising him as he struggles’. Subsequently it’s been amazing seeing a friend’s little boys learning to read and realising what an arbitrary and odd process this is. Seeing them struggle really made me realise just how many hours of reading you have to put in to accumulate that breadth of words.
My first real memory of reading is probably, shamefully, racist Enid Blyton. I used to love The Secret Seven. I had this black hardcover and it had all the books in one volume. And in our kitchen – because my dad is not generous with the heating – I’d get down and sit with my back against the radiator and just read those. I remember not really having enough light but I was obsessed. I used to love Malory Towers as well.
My parents would let me read anything, really. I remember getting Nicholas Nickleby out of the library when I was about eight or nine. Everyone was so amazed that I had chosen it that even after maybe fifty pages when I got a bit bored I had to plug on because I was getting so much praise and admiration. I think I eventually abandoned it.
I do remember reading Goodnight Mr Tom. That used to really dark me out. After I’d finished I would put it outside my bedroom door and shut the door so that it couldn’t get me. I had an attic bedroom so if I really didn’t like stuff I’d put it at the bottom of the stairs to be doubly sure. William’s mother in Goodnight Mr Tom is just so horrible to him that it used to break my heart. I felt so strongly for this lad that I couldn’t have the book in the room at night, which was really inconvenient when I wanted to read it in the morning.
Some of the books that have been significant in my life
I often used to stay up reading late. My dad had these books that were about being in the RAF in the Second World War. I’m fascinated by masculinity and I find it poignant engaging with the things that are unsaid and that a type of masculinity doesn’t say. So these RAF books – they’re called A Wing and A Prayer or something like that – I used to read them when I was fifteen or sixteen, and I remember watching the clock go from two to three to four. I just couldn’t stop reading. It’s a lovely feeling when you know you should be asleep but you just go on reading anyway. Everyone is quiet. It’s the same kind of thing that Coleridge is talking about in ‘Frost at Midnight’ when he is staying up late to write. Stolen time. Everyone is asleep and I’m up, which is a bit of a thrill anyway, especially when you are younger. I’m up, and also in a Second World War fighter plane too. It was really magical.
But I wonder if reading spoils you? I had an idea a while ago that if you read a lot from a young age you are always going to be disappointed by life. We lived in south Manchester and in the eighties getting burgled was an annual occurrence. I vividly remember being about 8 or 9 and we got burgled, and they took the TV and the microwave and we were all pissed off. But I had read the Secret Seven and I thought: no, the fight back begins here! So I got James Hewison, who was one of my friends, and decided we just needed to look in the alley behind my house and there would be a footprint and we’d go from there. So me and James Hewison spent a lot of time in this back alley looking for a footprint. About two hours later we were forced to conclude that there wasn’t one and I was raging. That was not the promise of fiction! That’s not how it works! If fiction is your model then life is a drabber place that’s going to cheat you, basically.
And yet it’s weird because it does give you a worldliness. I’d read books about marijuana way before I came to such experiences in real life. I’d read about sex and drugs and adultery when I was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen. And then when you come to the experience it’s never quite as good. You know: reading is the thing, really. Not life.
I did maybe a couple of months of the last year at primary school, and then skipped the rest of the year and became the youngest in the class above in secondary school. So when I joined the class not only was I the youngest but everyone else had already made friends. I would read in the school library. And I was not unhappy about this at all. I used to go and read John Buchan who I still have a total weakness for. And that is actually one of my real ‘wow’ moments: there’s a bit at the end of one of them where some guy has gone through some great spy adventures but been wounded and is dying. He’s in the snow, and it goes back to his memory of the Orkney Islands, and the sun is shining and you can see the sea and you can see the seals in the water. It was just the most poignant thing I’d ever read. I’m a bit of a sucker for realism, but also for that transcendental moment, so that really hooked me. I remember that moment so vividly.
A lot of reading is linked to pleasure for me. My mother liked to read in the bath, and would occasionally drop books in – I remember seeing a few as a kid that looked like crinkly monsters. So that’s something I would do too. I’d get in with my bag of Minstrels after playing squash on Saturday. I’d have enough water to get a pretty full bath but because my dad is such a miser with the heating he would turn the immersion off and I’d have to get out and go and turn it back on again. Quite often I’d do that three or four times and keep adding hot water and be in there for hours.
Another big influence on the way I read is that I studied Latin and Greek at A-Level. I read Catullus in the original, and Thucydides, which is less enthralling but probably morally beneficial in some way, and having that first-hand access to how these writers had arranged their words and thoughts was great. I love the Romantics too and the Classics were hugely significant to them. If you don’t understand what goes before, you don’t understand how truly revolutionary the Romantic poets were. I loved feeling like I was a part of that continuity.
I had a year out before going to Cambridge University and lived in Israel, and then Greece for a bit. Cambridge gives you this absolutely whacking reading list which is only for the first term and I basically read every single book on it with my father leaning on me because I had a year and I was also excited. It was a real shock to me when I got to Cambridge and most people hadn’t read the reading list, and it was actually just a suggested reading list. So if anything I was slightly embarrassed because I’d been too keen. But that was nice as well. And looking back I think: how lucky were you, to sit in Greece and read, and know you had three more years of reading.
The thing that Cambridge does – call it tedious or not – is walk you chronologically through literature from Chaucer onwards (although literature does stop around 1920 at Cambridge, which is less than ideal, but you can generally deal with contemporary stuff on your own). So I read John Lyle, John Skelton and John Milton – who I do actually like – and John Dryden. It’s stuff I might not read again. I stayed on to do an M.Phil. and that was intense. It was all 18th century lit, and we only had one week to read Clarissa, which is frankly an impossible feat: there were ten of us with varying levels of diligence, and none of us managed it. But I came out with this amazing breadth and depth and grounding and also that cultural confidence, that kudos. I was recently talking to a woman who I’d just met and I was asking what she was reading and she was actually reading Dryden, which was bizarre. And I was able to have a conversation about him. I suppose I’m a bit of a bullshitter but generally if you name a writer I will at least have made their acquaintance because that’s what Cambridge does for you.
The libraries are fantastic as well: your college has a library so you can go there and that will be well stocked. Your faculty has a library which will be even better stocked. And you’ve got the University Library which is a copyright library. And that was the lovely thing as I got into the second and third year – I could spend all day in the UL and just chase books. I would see something in a footnote and think it would be quite interesting to have a look at it and it would be there on the shelves. It’s instant gratification.
I love literature. It is never a burden. I’m a fast reader, if something of a careless reader. And I’m a voracious reader. So my love of reading totally survived Cambridge. If anything, it fed it because you had loads of time, and massive vacations as well. Alongside Milton I’d read John Fowles. I’d go to the Amnesty bookshop on Mill Road, which was great, and buy whatever I fancied. So I’d read Salman Rushdie just because I fancied it, and Martin Amis as well. I like Raymond Chandler a lot and read him too. I still read Raymond Chandler.
Since I’ve moved to London I’ve found myself getting a lot more impatient. When I was younger and had a lot of time I would read two or three biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine in a row. I’d just read anything. And at Cambridge I’d just read anything: I’d buy a book in a bookshop, give it a go and probably finish it. Whereas now I probably won’t. I don’t have as much time and I suppose I’m more discerning as well.
I really like sardonic books. I like realism. Recently I’ve been obsessed with W. Somerset Maugham. He’s my new thing. I read The Moon and Sixpence about two years ago and thought it was incredible. I’ve just read The Razors Edge, which I’d never heard of until I saw it in the LRB bookshop. I read Mrs Craddock too which I thought was brilliant. He’s got this great combination of realism so you are engaged and it’s not escapism but you’re being offered another world. And his view of life is hedonistic and tragic, which is essentially my view, so for me that really locks in.
I have a real thing for the anti-hero, so Dorian Gray is a key character for me. I like the cynical rogue. I love Jay Gatsby – I think I’m going to call my firstborn son Jay! And I like the Gauguin figure in The Moon and Sixpence. It’s something I struggle with in my own writing because it’s hard to have engaging cynics tell their own stories. Quite often you need to step aside. Look at The Great Gatsby – that’s not narrated by Gatsby.
And I like what Ian McEwan does – I remember reading Atonement in bed quite late at night, and being emotionally affected by the fact that writing can and can’t heal what you’ve done in your life. He plays with the way you trust fiction and what you believe. I’m always fascinated by how fiction relates to life, and is like life, and is not like life.
I was doing a work event at The Society Club recently, but I’d just done a full day at a different job. It was a Monday evening and I was absolutely shattered. The Society Club is a bookshop as well as a bar, and I went downstairs to the loo, and in the Ladies they have a couple of bookshelves with books on. So I had a pee, but then I thought I could use five minutes’ time out, so I picked up Sweet Tooth and started reading it, and actually read a fair bit before thinking I should go upstairs and do some work. I like that process of discovery.
I read Michael Faber’s Under the Skin recently, which was quite shocking. The conceit is that the central character has come from another planet, and is driving around seducing and capturing men, who are then castrated, force-fed, locked in pens, and eventually killed and shipped back to her home planet to be eaten as a delicacy. And because they are people you see her kidnapping serial killer-style, it is appalling. The victims are kept in this big spaceship compound pen, and you see these men suffering. It makes you think: Wait! That is what factory farming does, and that’s exactly what happens to cattle. I’m vegetarian, I think eating animals is not a great idea, but it really made me feel how hideous it is. That book blew my mind with its simplicity and brilliance. I was really drawn in by it, but it wasn’t joyous. It was a bottom of the stairs book.
I remember at school doing Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is a play that I still admire. And that seemed again – maybe it’s that age, in sixth form – like the revelation of a really amazing truth about the complications of the adult life that I was on the brink of. That complexity of human relations is something I’m fascinated by.
Reading for me is like an extension of social engagement. I’m really curious, I can’t resist stories and knowing more. How people work, I guess that’s what endlessly fascinates me: why people do what they do? That’s what happens in good fiction – more character is revealed, how people work is revealed.
I guess that’s why I like writing because you get to explore that. How do you get to the point where you go and rob a bank? Reading satisfies me because it allows me to receive a version of that, and writing satisfies me because it allows me to create a version of that. How do you look after a disabled child – what does that feel like? It doesn’t have to be particularly dramatic, just what do other experiences feel like?
Sometimes as a reader I want to get in there and change things. Is it Sense and Sensibility where Marianne Dashwood marries the sensible older suitor? And Charlotte Lucas marrying the terrible vicar in Pride and Prejudice. It’s then that I want to intervene with characters. But the heartbreak for Charlotte Lucas is that to marry him would have been a good match for her in the Eighteenth Century. You want to be like, ‘No, he’s a fucking idiot. Don’t marry him!’
I do see reading as practice for living. It’s that thing about maybe feeling like you have more experience than you have, or are wiser than you are. Mrs Craddock is a great book: what does it feel like to fall passionately in love with someone who then bores you? Luckily that hasn’t happened to me, but I feel like I can begin to understand what that might be like now. Hopefully that engages a bit when you talk to your friends or give advice, or need to advise yourself. You’ll read a book where people fall out of love and you’ll think, ‘I know a little of what that feels like,’ and so it’s a guide almost. It’s all quite practical, actually.