I learned to read before I went to school in a household with no TV. Once I had the bug I was unstoppable – going on my own to the town library once a week to get three or four books at a time. I think my idealism may well stem from the Ladybird world of T-bar sandals and rosy-cheeked adults with slightly sexist views.
In my youth I lapped up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series (without getting the religious allegory), the Swallows and Amazons books of Arthur Ransome, Hardy Boys, Jennings, Billy Bunter, and the like. I remember getting books speculatively which proved too difficult and others which I still remember now – The Death Of Grass. My father used to read to me and my brother on weekend mornings and I remember liking Goodbye Mr Chips but begging him to abandon a biography of the famous Methodist Robert Sangster (I think he had other agendas). I also had a marvellous Aunty Kath (not a real Aunt – in those days we all had loads of Aunts and Uncles) who loved Austen and Dickens and would regularly quote relevant phrases of poetry on seemingly any subject. Through Primary and Junior school the pace of reading was a drag because I was so much quicker than everyone else it seemed. The group reading sessions seemed to take for ages but I do remember some drawn out stories from Holland involving storks on rooftops.
And then secondary school kicked in and killed my reading through enforced analysis of set texts. I realised I only wanted to stroke the hamster, not dissect it. I quite enjoyed Shakespeare and that first exposure to poetry was an introduction to something I still appreciate. I remember now being read Diaries of A Foxhunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon in class by a colourful English teacher and being more interested in his anecdotes than the book. I have grim memories of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Richard Church’s Over The Bridge. I did both O-Level and A-Level English Literature without completing either Dombey and Son or Great Expectations but I did really enjoy the poetry of Robert Frost, Edward Thomas and John Betjeman. At A-Level in particular I remember a soulless battle with The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.
After leaving school I read nothing for pleasure for a couple of years. It was almost as if the enforced ritual had taken the love of books out of me. Interestingly when I returned to the Erdington public library I turned more to non-fiction, and history in particular, first. I tentatively made it back to reading novels but even now I have never read a “classic” novel and don’t particularly want to. Bizarrely I bought Over The Bridge and really enjoyed it and expect the same would be true of the Secret Agent.
These days, free of the threat of examinations or someone wanting a precis of character’s motivations, I always have a book on the go. Only one novel has stumped me in recent times – Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I managed to get through more of A Brief History of Time than that! Some are slower than others – I appreciated Midnight’s Children more than enjoyed it but I can still gulp down a great read with the relish of the ten year old schoolboy I once was. Reader, I think I’m cured.