“Books are the best way we have of feeling the world.” – Me, today.
This is a reflection on my reading life triggered by a tweet by @EdRoundtables.
I’d like to dedicate it to all people whose love of books and reading was stifled, or not enabled, by the process of school education. I am one of them.
I would also like to dedicate it to all the teachers in primary and secondary schools (not just English teachers) who succeed in nurturing a love of reading and books in children not naturally inclined to gorge voraciously on books. You are, I think, a rare breed. I aspire and try to be one of you.
Finally, and most importantly, I dedicate it to all the writers who write books that demand to be read. Who write books that make you think. Who write books that make you feel. Who write books that change the way people engage with this crazy, complex, culture we all have the power to shape, change and improve. I’m trying to be one of you too.
I remember my reading life starting with Peter and Jane, circa 1978, when I was six years old. I had to read out loud in class. Standing at the front. I didn’t like that. Funny now, because I absolutely love reading out loud. I’d quite like to be a performance poet; perhaps get a little over the top with some Edward Lear at the Edinburgh Fringe: ‘O lovely pussy, O pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are.’ I digress. Mum gave me a load of Enid Blyton. No, thanks. I preferred building camps in the semi-derelict barns or ogling some hot tractor action on the farm next door. I quite liked the Mr Men books: Mr Noisy, Mr Nonsense and Mr Chatterbox could have been written for me. Dad didn’t really read books. Worked hard in the garden. Or watched the news. The Telegraph (for him) and the Daily Mail (for Mum) were delivered to our rural farmhouse daily. Mum read the Thornbirds. I don’t remember her reading anything else. There were a lot of books in the house, gathering dust.
Peter and Jane put me off reading for a while. I was more mathematical back then. I remember mastering long multiplication with Mrs New. She was cool. All in black. Black Mini Cooper too. Must have been a Stranglers fan. Then I left my class full of Sarahs, including Sarah Norburn the sparky local dentist’s daughter. I went to an independent prep school in September 1980, aged just eight. Five miles down the road. I was one of very few day pupils. Most boarded. Lovely, rural outdoorsy place. Long day. Woodwork club. There were eight classes in total, from age 8 to age 13. I was put into class 2. Three weeks later bumped up into class 3. Ruler on the back of the hand if you didn’t get ten out of ten in your times table test. Never got the ruler. Never got the cane either. My weedy arse wasn’t going to see that pesky thing. My friend Nicky Skinner didn’t care: six of the best most days. September 1981, a year later: class 5 of 8, aged 9. Classes grouped by ability, not age. I was one of the youngest in the class. Timid little thing. Scared of the sporty jocks. Great visual memory, so great at spelling. I remember achieving 100/100 in the annual Hamilton spelling competition. Phenomenon. Autumn. Zephyr. Assimilate. Necessary. Mississippi. Abominable.
I was ‘good’ at French and Latin too (or just good at remembering stuff). Etymology. I liked words but didn’t like reading. The first class 5 book I remember in English with Mr Schott, great big bearded and friendly guy, was Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson. Devon book in a Devonshire school for a Devonian boy. Boring. My Mum read it for me. Next was Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien. I liked that. It was the first book I read cover to cover. Mr Schott probably should have picked up on that. Instead he tried to persuade me to read The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Now that is meant to be a great book but I wasn’t really into the idea of historical fiction back then, or now. Though, I do feel compelled to attempt the Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) trilogy. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee followed. I quite liked that but, like Tarka, Mum read more than me.
Then it was 1982, I was turning 10; an innocent, ignorant, white, middle class boy growing up in the isolated, bucolic bliss of rural North Devon and I was thrust into George Orwell’s 1984. I’d like to read it again now. It may resonate. Back then, well, it put me off reading for a long, long time. I was living in a Utopian enclave, so such a bleak, urban Dystopia was simply too alien. Intellectually, I withdrew into my own imaginary world. My father wasn’t farming anymore but we were surrounded by boggy, lush pasture dispersed with cows. I was fascinated by tractors. As well as drifting through my Devonian dreamworld, I had an insatiable thirst for information, statistics and data. The roots of my scientific mind were nurtured by collecting tractor specification leaflets from agricultural merchants at country shows. I can still remember the early and mid 1980s model numbers and their respective horsepower. I remember gorging on factbooks and a children’s encyclopaedia I was given for Christmas around that time. It was around then that I fell in love with maps, my Philips World Atlas and geographical data (land area and population of countries). I wanted to be fed with facts. I made up my own stories. My Dad told some crackers too. We talked endlessly about everything around the kitchen table. We ate TV dinners in front of Top of the Pops and Tomorrow’s World. When I tried reading fiction, I remember not being able to read the words fast enough to feed my brain with the information it craved. I was a curious dreamer. I wish now that I’d gorged on books. But I didn’t.
I was about thirteen and three quarters when Adrian Mole turned thirteen and three quarters. I fancied Pandora too. I enjoyed Sue Townsend’s first two Mole books (and a much later one – the Cappuccino years – on honeymoon in 2000). Once my adolescence struck, and now at an all boys boarding school in Dorset, there wasn’t much of a reading culture amongst my peers. I was an academic scholar at a not very scholarly place, so to satiate my confusing surges of testosterone, I flicked through Vogue and Tatler magazines (I was very posh back then) and stuck innumerable black and white photographs of Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Paulina Porizkova on my wall and in my mind.
My housemaster taught English but never taught me. He was dramatic, eccentric and a role model outside the classroom. My English teacher – for three years to GCSE in June 1989 was Mr “Nanny” Arthur. He was a proper old school schoolmaster. An angry, red faced bachelor with a very accurate board duster pelting arm. I liked him. Was he a good teacher? Episodically, yes. Semantically, no, I think. We read Macbeth. I remember it well. Great lines. Great drama. Our first mandatory book for English literature was The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I hated it. Too macho, too masculine. Like 1984, five years earlier, this did nothing to inspire me to read for pleasure. I appreciated our second book much more, revelling in its descriptive, flowing prose. It was Thomas Hardy’s, Under the Greenwood Tree (or the Mellstock Quire). I still remember Tranter Reuben and the flighty Fancy Day. While, I appreciated it, it wasn’t enough to spur on a gorging of the pastoral classics. I know the story of Tess (thanks to the BBC and the beautiful Gemma Arterton) which is too bleak to dive into, but I have dabbled in the beginning of Far for the Madding Crowd in recent years and will stick with it one day. I like the way Hardy writes about real places but renames and fictionalises them. That has inspired my own writing. I’ve created the Hexworthy peninsula in North Devon which is essentially the Hartland peninsula with some south Pembrokeshire coast between Manorbier and Stackpole Quay infused.
My first personal choice for GCSE English Literature was the aforementioned Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. I could relate to the rural, pastoral nostalgia of the book and the quality of Lee’s descriptive writing about childhood and rural scenery was beguiling. My second choice was the shortest novel I could find on the dusty bookshelves at home by a famous author: The Virgin and the Gypsy by D.H Lawrence. Lady Chatterly’s Lover looked a bit too long! I don’t remember much about it, though I recall it being a slow burner, yet quite compelling. I was very much reading it out of necessity rather than pleasure.
Outside the classroom and a hundred miles away, back at home in Devon, Dad was slowly rotting from cancer. So, my adolescent years were unconventional and perturbed. He died in November 1988 when I was just sixteen. Music and countryside walks became my refuge. From 15 in 1987 to 23 in 1995 I obsessively gorged on the music press: Q magazine, Select magazine, the NME and then Uncut. That was my sole reading material. I read a lot of it.
Dad’s demise propelled me towards the idea of medicine for a career. So I chose Maths, Biology and Chemistry for A level. With the possible exception of Biology, none of those subjects required or nurtured reading as a hobby. Thirty years on, while I enjoy the logic and can see the beauty in Maths, I wish I’d studied History instead. To learn to read and research deeply, to learn to construct the perfect essay: those skills (or procedural knowledge) would have greatly benefitted my scientific career and possibly set me on a writing path earlier in life. I think it a travesty that those with significantly above average cognitive ability, or blessed with curiosity and interests across a broad palette of subjects and ideas specialise so narrowly at 16+ in this country. For those who choose to use their mind professionally or leisurely, to pigeonhole people as scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers, linguists or artists aged sixteen, before they have the feintest idea who they are or what they could become aged thirty, forty or fifty is bonkers. To be a great scientific thinker, I think we both need to understand the science of art and the art of science, for example. If someone had harnessed my late found love of the written word earlier in my life, aged 17, introduced me to philosophy and broadened my mind in general rather than funnelling me into an avenue of economically driven societal control then my life would have been culturally and literary richer for longer. I remember my first supervisor in science industry in 1993/94 (the late, great Duncan Bryant of RoySocChem molecular spectroscopy fame), who was particularly well read and deeply intellectual saying that the majority of scientists (NOT ALL) are cultural philistines. I can confirm this by the amount of them whom I’ve met with appalling taste in music!
In the sixth form at school, I won the chapel reading prize. This was, of course, a prize devised for someone who wasn’t brilliant at any of the usual school accolades: sport, music, art, drama, academics. I am blessed with a loud voice, great projection, variety of tone and love of the Olde English language in the King James Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
By the time I was twenty-four, in 1996, I was employed as a product development chemist (medicine didn’t work out) in industry. I have a fond memory of Christmas at home in Devon in the mid to late nineties. I was into books by then. Not gorging on them, but referring to them; to feeling them; to sitting next to a roaring fire and flicking through them. The Rough Guide to Rock and a wonderful book of photographs taken, mostly in black and white, by James Ravilious (son of Eric), documenting a now bygone rural way of life in Mid North Devon from 1972 to 1989 called A Corner of England, were two of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. The Rough Guide to Rock led to the Rough Guide to Classical and, latterly, the Rough Guide to Jazz too. A Corner of England may even be my single Desert Island Book, so rich are its images and so evocative of a simpler, more real and honest, tougher no doubt but probably happier too, way of life. My love for and soul infusion with rural North Devon and its wild rugged coastline led me to reading the seminal work by W.G. Hoskins, ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ and then delving into Oliver Rackham’s Illustrated History of the Countryside.
In 1997 (aged 25) I went on a hellish holiday to Cyprus with friends. The high point of the holiday was escaping the Limassol strip in the south and chilling out in Latchi on the edge of the Akamas peninsula in the North West. Soon afterwards a friend discovered Stuart Browne’s novel ‘Dangerous Parking’ which started in Latchi. I loved it. It was the first full novel I’d read since school – full of debauchery, great music, humour and sadness. The main protagonist was a wild, self-destructive soul dying from cancer and, for the first time, I discovered the power of literature. When we read, we read with our knowledge and experience of the world. I could relate to much of the subtext of the book and this made the reading of it a far richer experience than anything I’d hitherto experienced.
Dangerous Parking didn’t really lure me into the pleasures of reading. The books I tried to read were either too heavy, requiring too much concentration and leading to a wandering mind or too lightweight, not stimulating enough thought and leading, also, to a wandering mind. I was mostly working as a scientist, gaining intellectual stimulus at work, listening to music, reading about music or going to gigs or festivals. There was no mental or time void in my life to fill with books, though I did manage to squeeze in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity around this time, the ultimate novel for a list making musical obsessive.
In summer 1999, I met Amanda and we married in September 2000. Amanda read books. Not my kind of books but twenty minutes in bed before turning the light out, lightweight, escapist fiction books. As I write this in late 2020 we are freshly separated; pending divorce wrangling. Amanda’s ability to read what is in my view trite, vacuous romantic fiction (and watch trite, vacuous, romantic comedies) is one of too many differences between us. As I reflect on our twenty one years together, I am intrigued how someone so unromantic and emotionally detached only ever reads romantic fiction. Anyway, back when we were new and exciting, I decided to adapt to Amanda’s bedtime reading ritual. I weaned myself off the increasingly tiresome music monthlies (how many articles can one read about R.E.M, Blur, Oasis, U2, Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones anyway)? The appearance of Coldplay on the scene was another catalyst to stopping this repetitive, noodling obsession. I started experimenting with books.
Non-fiction to start with. I read the meaty scientific tome ‘Left Hand, Right Hand – the origins of asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Culture’ by Chris McManus. It was a fascinating book but rather too scientific when my day job was full of colloid, materials and formulation science anyway. With my thoughts turning towards the prospect of parenthood, I read They F*** You Up by the clinical psychologist Oliver James in the very early noughties. As James instructed, I read it from the perspective of a child not as a prospective parent. The book explains how the experience of the first six years of our life (particularly the first two) shapes who we become and how it can induce later mental health problems and personality disorders.
[My father (who had seven children, I’m number 6) always maintained that the most important phase of parenting was before school started; merely a supporting and guiding role after that. I’d echo that. A problem with the modern middle-class family is too many parents maintaining too much control (and over-protection) for too long. Neglect is obviously not good but mollycoddling is not a pretty antidote. A strong counselling ear and warm, tolerant heart is required in the adolescent years but pretty much any fool can parent an eight year old…]
They F*** You Up opened my mind to psychology which was starting to fascinate me, particularly with an increasingly complex, lonely and occasionally depressive widowed mother rattling around her ramshackle farmhouse in Devon.
Some years later, I countered its bias towards the argument that “nurture is all” by reading Genome by Matt Ridley (The Autobiography of a Species in 23 chapters) which argues more along the lines of genetic determinism in the shaping of our characters, intelligence and behaviour. It is a clever book, predominantly in the Nature camp, counter to James’ Nurture camp. The fusing of both books in my mind means that I swing wildly between both poles. My conclusion is that we are surely vastly more complicated than both these books infer. With hindsight both are agenda driven, as of course are the great majority of factual or scientific non-fiction books, which is why I am now much more drawn to philosophical writing in the non-fiction canon, rooted as it is in shades of grey rather than the irksome modern trend towards polarised, false dichotomies. I have recently started dabbling with Innate by Kevin Mitchell, a much more up to date and scientifically authorative take on genetics, subtitled ‘How the wiring of our Brains Shapes who we are.’
They F*** you up obviously led me to explore the Collected poems of Philip Larkin, which I have only dabbled in but I feel now, as I write, that – finally – appreciation of and indulgence in poetry is bubbling up within me.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
My life experience (interest in farming, Dad’s death from cancer in my teens and lack of affinity for literature in my schooling) and accidentally chosen career path into science skewed my initial twentysomething and thirtysomething reading bug towards non-fiction and books of a scientific or psychological bent. So it was that I read Simon Winchester’s biography of William Smith titled, The Map that Changed the World. This is one of the most beautiful and transformative books I have read. William Smith was a canal engineer who mostly worked on the Kennett and Avon canal, cutting through fossil rich Jurassic rock. He published the first geological map of England in 1815, which is remarkably similar to the modern day British Geological survey. He died a pauper and the significance of his work was largely undervalued in his lifetime. His discovery of the near timeless age of rocks challenged the (creationist) religious orthodoxy of the time, way before Darwin’s origin of species was published in 1859.
I had quite a strong Christian faith when at school, particularly in the wake of my father’s death. Daily worship in the beautiful, imposing Milton Abbey in Dorset was also a factor; hypnotised as I was by its huge, vibrating, uplifting organ. Simon Winchester and later Alice Roberts, coupled with the explicit nature of some born again Christian evangelism in my family contributed to my waning faith and burgeoning agnosticism. If I do religion I want it to be implicit, mysterious, doubtful, meditative and spiritual.
Professionally, around this time in the early noughties, I had moved from the more creative, trial and error, proprietary nature of the formulation chemistry of developing colloidal dispersions of agricultural fungicides into the more citation and scientific literature driven world of pharmaceutics, drug delivery and materials science. At work I was reading a lot more scientific journals with the following journal articles particularly prevalent in my thinking and research:
Orogenic Displacement of Protein from the Oil/Water Interface Alan R. Mackie, A. Patrick Gunning, Peter J. Wilde and Victor J. Morris in Langmuir.
JF Carpenter, MJ Pikal, BS Chang, TW Randolph
Pharmaceutical research 14 (8), 969-975
C Bhugra, MJ Pikal
Journal of pharmaceutical sciences 97 (4), 1329-1349
My fascination with the amorphous state (supercooled liquids and glasses) led me to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster inquiry and the late great Richard Feynman’s finding about O rings that were too brittle (glassy) on a cold day rather than their required rubbery viscosity above their glass transition temperature. The nobel laureate physicist’s ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ is a bible for pure scientists.
I really liked the way Mackie et al adapted the geological term, orogenesis (meaning ‘mountain folding’) to the buckling of protein stabilised foams (e.g. when other surface active agents in egg yolk destabilise egg white (albumin) foam) as observed by atomic force microscopy. Their work was relevant to my formulation work, when trying to prevent foaming in reconstituted protein lyophiles (freeze dried protein medicines). As fascinating as this field of physical chemistry was it really was time to start losing myself in fiction at home! Popular Science writing, as read by a few of my fellow science graduate friends not working as scientists, was too much of a bus man’s holiday at the time.
I enjoyed the unique and utterly brilliant, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, later enjoying reading The Red House about a vaguely recognisable dysfunctional family holiday house. And I look forward to reading his most recent book, The Porpoise, around Christmas this year. I loved Headlong by Michael Frayn, essentially a farce but also containing some deep scholarship about the iconology and iconography of the paintings of the Dutch master, Brueghel. This was my kind of fiction: funny with highly skilled word craft and deliciously erudite too. I was drawn to Frayn as one of the few writers equally comfortable and skilled in the writing of plays and novels. My brain started to shift. To shift away from scientific thinking towards a greater fascination with the arts. I enjoyed losing myself inside an art gallery far more than a science museum; or staring at the raw beauty of nature rather than constantly trying to understand it and explain it.
Spies by Michael Frayn was even better. I loved this book and read it quickly. Less intellectual than Headlong but less farcical too. A more evocative and enticingly crafted story. A wonderful book.
I read more Frayn and bought his huge, philosophical tome, The Human Touch around this time. More on that later. Other memorable works of fiction I enjoyed as holiday or bedtime reads, when tiredness from early parenting permitted, included The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. This was set in British India and Burma in 1886 and involved a London based piano tuner being recruited by a senior, despotic, leader of the British Empire to tune his Erard grand piano. Great story. I learnt a lot too. The novel as an educational medium. Like Headlong but not quite as heavy and with greater romantic intrigue.
Another novel which I lost myself in was the delightful Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers. Salley is a wonderful writer and this particular book is set in Devon but has a very clever and intriguing twist at the end. I vowed to read some more of her books and finally fitted in The Librarian in Covid lockdown one. It is set in the 1950s and is based around a children’s library. It is a must read for anyone who loves children’s literature. I read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan which was devastating and brilliant. It is incredible how much our lives have changed in just fifty years.
Just as I was starting to find some fiction I could endure and be transformed by I veered away from it again. I really enjoyed Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and aspire to write wry, observant, alternative travelogues like he does in the future. Another writer with a great eye for the quirks of the English is former music journalist and BBC6 music DJ Stuart Maconie. He wrote lovingly about my favourite nineties band, Blur, so I really enjoyed his cleverly titled memoir, Cider with Roadies (2004) and Adventures on the High Teas (in search of Middle England, 2009) and Never mind the Quantocks (2012).
I have a penchant for the ridiculous and short shrift with fads and media generated hyperbole so I loved reading Francis Wheen’s polemic, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. My religious scepticism was satiated by John Humphrey’s In God We Doubt.
In a parallel parenting universe, I was enjoying reading picture story books to my three young children: we all loved Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Guess how much I love you by Sam McBratney and Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo. A slightly later favourite of mine was Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, an endearing story about loneliness and friendship.
Being an absolutely huge Neil Young fan I absolutely gorged on Jimmy McDonagh’s biography of him called Shakey, which was a more enlightening read than Neil Young’s later autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. Keith Richard’s, Life was probably the best rock and roll autobiography I’ve read, which contains two (hopefully) useless but fascinating pieces of heroin addiction advice: 1) Only buy quality shit from a trusted supplier and 2) You can’t get higher than high (so don’t carry more than you need to get high). Another great rock and roll memoir that I’ve read more recently is Kim Gordon’s (bassist and founding member in New York punk noise-mongers Sonic Youth) Girl in a Band. While I love Elvis Costello’s song-writing, acerbic wit and lyricism, I found his Unfaithful Music rather heavy going but stuck it out to the end.
Three weeks before Anna, my youngest was born (she is now nearly 14), Amanda’s father died out of the blue from a sudden pulmonary embolism. Her mother was in complete shock and spent a lot of time with us. With three children under five, 2007 was a very stressful year, particularly following Amanda’s five day long spell in hospital with pneumonia, heavily pregnant with Anna, over Christmas 2006. I was ante-commuting, eastbound to Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent with two one hour long train journeys a day. I started writing a novel. I wrote 140,000 words but it descended into escapist and rather lewd fantasy. The essence of the book has found itself into Beautiful People (working title) which I am stop start writing at present (90,000 words in and well over half way). The original stream of consciousness was about a rock star randomly inheriting a crumbling Regency country pile in Devon with a lot of flashbacks to its original heyday so I researched using two excellent nuggets of social history: Women in England 1760 – 1914 by Susie Steinbach and High Society in the Regency Period, 1788 – 1830 by Venetia Murray.
By September 2013, aged 41, I had become a reader but not voraciously or consistently. My children were then ten, eight and six so family life was at the peak of immersive parenting joy. Then everything changed. I had been made compulsorily redundant by Pfizer in 2011, due to corporate restructuring, downsizing and post merger synergies. I tried leading a small (government target box ticking) STEM brokerage and enrichment educational charity, had some time out and finally, after years of dabbling with the idea, enrolled on a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) to train to teach in the 7-14 age range, specialising in Science. I am now a teacher. My PGCE and to some extent my NQT (newly qualified teacher) years were psychologically humbling as I moved from unconscious competence in a seventeen year industrial science career to conscious incompetence in a new teaching career. (Admittedly, most of the conscious incompetence stemmed from nonsense ideas like making good use of ICT in EVERY lesson, consistently banging a vacuously and misappropriated GROWTH MINDSET drum, having to TWO STARS AND A WISH every piece of marking, finding out that book scrutineers can only read writing if it is in a PURPLE or GREEN pen and ensuring every miniscule FIFTY MINUTE LONG NUGGET of LEARNING had a STARTER, MAIN and PLENARY).
Practicing Scientists owe their success as much to their scepticism, their data analysis knowledge and skills, their questing intellectual curiosity as they do their foundational scientific knowledge. History, Maths and Art in school are, in my view, equally foundational to future scientific prowess as the clunky beasts of school biology, chemistry and physics. So, I decided very early on that I didn’t want to teach secondary science, despite the obvious merits of my real world insights into pharmaceutical chemistry, chemical engineering and biopharmaceutics. I see very little merit in our current mandatory content heavy GCSE science curricula. It is no way to inspire the scientists of the future and a sure fire way to turn half the populous off science for good from the age of fourteen, at a time in our history when our complex culture, technology, medical, health, dietary and environmental issues demand a solid grounding in scientific literacy.
So, I was more drawn towards primary teaching and the parts of the course I loved the most were teaching English to a sparky Year 6 primary class and the handful of English lectures and coursework at Canterbury Christchurch University. Sue Forgotten-Surname was my English tutor and I loved the lectures from Tracy Parvin. She was awesome. Tracy read The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt (illustrated by Oliver Jeffers) in our opening primary lecture, reading each coloured crayon in a different accent and inviting the audience to join in. It was a wonderful and magical book. Once I started teaching (Year 5 – 8 Science and some Maths) in an independent prep school (aged 3-13) this book became a stalwart of my Friday lunchtime Jackanory (Bernard Cribbens is a childhood hero) for Year 3 – 5 (7-10 year olds). I also used it to inspire some entertaining and brilliant letters written by Year 6 leavers from their pens, pencils, rulers, pencil cases, protractors, dictionaries and intensely irritating ink erasers (why, why, oh why?) on teaching practice placement. Sue modelled how we could use Anthony Browne’s multi-layered and provocative Voices in the Park, a children’s picture story book which is versatile in the classroom. I’ve used it in a Year 5 PHSE lessons on prejudice and stereotypes.
We had to write a teaching study on three children’s books and how we could use them in the classroom. My middle daughter, Jemma, then eight, had loved Clarice Bean, What Planet Are You From? by the absolutely wonderful Lauren Child of Charlie and Lola fame. I thought it represented the dynamics of a busy, multigenerational family really well. The top reading group in Year 6 were reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which I gorged upon in two days on Easter holiday in a National Trust holiday cottage in Lanhydrock, Cornwall. I’ve never cried more reading any other book in my life. It was raw and powerful and redolent of my teenage bereavement of my father from cancer. It opened wounds I didn’t know I had. The monster is a metaphor for Connor’s – a thirteen year old boy – anger and despair at his mother’s demise from cancer. It is an incredibly powerful book, possibly a bit emotionally heavy for ten year olds although it is multi-layered and could work on a shallower level than the deep, cathartic transcendence that I read it with. My third choice was fairly random: Lemony Snickett’s, The Dark.
When on teaching practice in Year 6 at Goudhurst and Kilndown primary our class book was the brilliant Journey to Jo’burg by Beverly Naidoo set in an Apartheid ravaged South Africa. It was important to explore the issues of racism, prejudice, oppression and poverty with a predominantly white privileged middle-class cohort, as part of a wider Africa topic covering History, Geography, Music and Art. We read it in Year 5 at my current school too.
After the psychological upheaval and intense, all-consuming nature of my first two years teaching, I found there was a bit of an intellectual void in my life. Particularly in the long school holidays. The void was filled with books. It was only about six years ago, aged 42, where I could start to list reading and books as a hobby, as an escape, as a transcendent life enhancing joy. My children were getting older and my dormant scientific mind meant that I had more time and a newfound insatiable thirst for knowledge, for ideas and for challenging my own thinking and that of those around me.
Books became my hobby and a major part of my life.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was the catalyst for a new way of seeing the world. The magic number of one hundred of fifty for a manageable and harmonious community; the importance of gossip in the human psyche, of storytelling and how the three imagined realities of religion, nations, money (and more latterly corporations) have enabled human civilisation to prosper out of control. I know that some prominent scientists are sceptical about Harari’s lack of anthropological and genetic scholarship but this was undoubtedly a landmark book; a book which changed me. I revisited and gorged on Michael Frayn’s erudite and deeply researched The Human Touch, based on the premise ‘would the universe even exist if we, humans, were not here to explain it?’ His agnosticism and probing analysis is compelling and it contains two of the best chapter titles ever conceived: why the marmalade? and how the marmalade? I love his writing on how our lives are shaped by decisions:
“Your life has been shaped by decisions – by all the dozens of conscious major decisions you have made yourself, by all the millions of minor ones, and by all the billions and billions of entirely unconsidered ones. It has also been shaped by the decisions of others, as you may be gratefully or only too painfully aware.” Michael Frayn, The Human Touch, 2006.
This has inspired me to write ‘Fifty Decisions’ on the decisions which have shaped my first fifty years on the planet. I have twenty months to complete it. (I must complete Beautiful People first) and I want to assure Matt Haig that I came up with the idea influenced by Frayn, Alain de Botton and the film It’s a wonderful life before becoming aware of, or reading, your intriguing The Midnight Library, which is next on my reading list. After Sapiens and the Human Touch, I read The Organised Mind by Dan Levitin, an American neuroscientist. It was an excellent end of year present from the teacher parent of a year 5 pupil in my form during my NQT (newly qualified teacher) year at my current school. I’d suggest this book is an important read for any teacher interested in how the mind works; it is full of Eureka moments and makes an important case for daydreaming and case against multitasking.
Suddenly my mind was voraciously consuming books about the mind, linked to education but not edubooks. David Eagleman’s The Brain; Beau Lotto’s Deviate; Jordan Ellenberg’s, How not to be wrong, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and a wonderful chapter on Education in the modern philosopher and writer Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. De Botton’s involvement with the School of Life (an emotional education) has also part catalysed my Fifty Decisions treatise:
“Aristocratic genealogy may seem a quaint preoccupation, but the idea behind it rests upon a universally relevant concern: irrespective of the status details of our families, each of us is the recipient of a large and complex emotional inheritance that is decisive in who we are and how we will behave. Furthermore, and at huge cost, we mostly lack any real sense of what this powerful inheritance might be doing to our judgement.” – Alain de Botton, the School of Life, 2019.
Alain de Botton is a wonderful writer and a wonderful thinker. I have several of his books cued up on my never-ending reading list : Art and therapy and Status Anxiety are probably top of the list. The latter was found in a National Trust (NT) second-hand bookshop. Is there a better thing than a second hand bookshop? My local is at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent and I’ve enjoyed joyous hauls in some of their bigger treasure troves at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, Killerton House in Devon and Nymans in West Sussex. Another philosopher I discovered second hand via the NT was A.C Grayling and his The Meaning of Things, a great dip in dip out collection of philosophical ideas. These led to Nigel Warburton’s A little history of philosophy, the DK “The Philosophy Book” and me running an on/off philosophy club for 9-12 year olds at school. While I love the possibilities of science, I now feel a much deeper affinity with the shades of grey of philosophy than the black and white of pure science. If I could start again, I’d love to teach philosophy or English, but not to have to adhere to a rigid curriculum, no SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar; no pesky fronted adverbials and lots more on the empiricism of Aristotle and the British Enlightenment than the rationalism of Plato and Descartes. Lots of Pascal, Voltaire, Rousseau and Schopenhauer too.
My newfound philosophical bent allowed me to stumble across a transcript of the Munk debates, ‘Do humankind’s best days lie ahead?’ with Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley suggesting they do on the basis of life expectancy, improved healthcare, lowering poverty and greater choice. I’m with Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell that our modern, materialist culture and greed has extracted us from nature and any sense of belonging or meaning in our lives. ‘We have’, to nick a line from the Confession in the book of common prayer, ‘erred and strayed like lost sheep.’
Philosophy was bubbling up inside me, so much so that a colleague and friend accused me of being an existentialist in a passing staff room conversation back in 2016. So, I bought a wonderful book by Sarah Bakewell called ‘At the existentialist café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails.’ I was transported to Paris in the 1930s, late 40s and fifties. I’d like to stay there to be honest. It left an indelible mark on my subconscious and I’m currently dabbling in some Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir as a consequence. This is partly interest and partly research as Mary, the mysterious old recluse in my debut novel (Beautiful People) – come on someone give me a publishing deal – has a penchant for feminist, existentialist revolution. Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful scholarship and evocation put Albert Camus’ book The Outsider (L’Etranger) on the map for me, which I’ve read within the last month in a couple of addictive sittings. I loved it, especially recognising the influence of the book on the controversially titled and always intriguing song ‘Killing An Arab’ by The Cure.
One day I will open my coffee shop and philosophical bookshop called ‘Philosocoffee.’
And the world will be good.
Other philosophical indulgences include the rather brilliant The Amateur by Andy Merrifield. I was attracted to this erudite and well reasoned championing of the Amateur over the tide of self professed professionalism. As a scientist in industry for 17 years, I don’t think I ever heard anyone describe themselves as a professional, yet in my 7 years in teaching I hear the pesky word almost daily. Teachers are an insecure bunch, devalued by successive governments; our role as educators of the nation hijacked by careerist edudata bodgers hung up on ‘demonstrating progress’ and measuring kids, schools and whether the (effing) L.O. is written top left; next to the long date, top right and both underlined twice. Christ knows how I ever learnt anything in school without a purple pen and a thrice daily ever changing set of learning objectives. Yes, I’m a professional but my professionalism is diminished if I harp on about it all the time. The Amateur is a manifesto for those of us who work for pleasure rather than promotion; for free thinkers who aren’t driven by power but are driven by their quest for variety, experience, meaning and, integrity.
Last Christmas, I spent Boxing Day gorging on the fascinating Stop Being Reasonable by Eleanor Gordon-Smith but I think my favourite philosophical writing has been in a book of essays by Siri Hustvedt called A woman looking at men looking at women (essays on art, sex and the mind). She is an intellectual force, seriously well read and an absolutely wonderful writer. I’ve dabbled in other writing of hers (The Shaking Woman, or a short history of my nerves) and I have one of her novels, What I Loved cued up and ready to go after I finish Matt Haig’s Midnight Library. ‘Looking at men’ is the kind of book one can dip in and out of, that you can get lost in for hours on end, that you can return to, be enlightened by and have your life improved by. Simply wonderful, especially the excellently titled long essay, ‘The Delusions of Certainty.’
I am deeply interested in philosophy, the human condition and how we find meaning in our lives but while you can take the boy out of science, you can’t take science out of the boy. When I was a scientist, the last thing I wanted to read for pleasure were popular science books but since training to teach and playing my own tiny part in shaping the futures of some utterly brilliant, oft infuriating, young people aged nine to thirteen, I’ve delved deeper into fields of science that I’m not expert in. Many of the following books have informed my curriculum design and deepened my subject knowledge in ways no textbook, exam specification or national curriculum ever could. The absolutely wonderful Professor Alice Roberts book, the Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, is a wonderfully enlightening canter through evolution. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg’s history of science entitled To Explain the World greatly deepened my knowledge about the big guns of Physics and Natural Philosophy. Seven Elements that changed the world by John Browne explores the economic and technological shapeshifting of Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Titanium, Uranium and Silicon (or what do you call a prisoner who is messing around)? While we’re on Element jokes, what is ‘Ah’ the chemical symbol for? The Answer is…an element of surprise…Ah)!
Probably my favourite Science book is The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, a biography of the naturalist, explorer and polymath Alexander von Humbolt. The tales of his journeys through the Andes at the start of the 19th century are awe inspiring. He was a great hero of Darwin’s and the first scientist to place the interdependence of species and nature on the map. Ben Goldacre’s ranty Bad Science is worth a read but I think the food and diet version, debunking any number of fads and misconceptions about food and obesity is better and arguably more important for the lay person to read: the Angry Chef by Anthony Warner. A parent at school (and mother of a good friend of my youngest daughter) gave me her brother’s (Christopher Preston) book, The Synthetic Age which is a fantastic trawl through the ethics of modern science and technology: forget genetic modification, we can now synthesise genes from scratch. While I’m largely pro scientific progress and of the view that the claims of ‘it is unnatural’ therefore we shouldn’t do it, eat it, make it etc are poorly reasoned; I’m also of the view that humans ceased to be ‘natural’ or part of nature as soon as we started farming about 12,000 years ago. Selective breeding is unnatural (but could happen in nature), Genetic modification is merely a more efficient form of selective breeding by design but gene synthesis does feel like it is veering into the realm of some seriously scarry shit…because once you can synthesise genes you can synthesise life…fascinating stuff.
The Science book, published in 2001, edited by Peter Tallack and including essays by Richard Dawkins, Susan Greenfield and Marcus du Sautoy is probably the book that has informed my science teaching and scientific knowledge more than any other. It is a beautiful book too, full of art and history as well as informative, succinct, accessible prose on two hundred and fifty of the most important moments in the history of science from approximately 35,000 BC (earliest evidence of counting, probably the cycle of the moon, – 29 etchings on an animal bone) up to the human genome project in 2000.
Science is fascinating and awe inspiring and wonderful. From personal experience, doing science is way more stimulating than learning science. The joy of watching expected or unexpected results unfold on some complex data processing software from an experiment never knowingly conducted before can be thrilling. When we learn science at school (or university) we are merely repeating experiments or unpicking theories and step change leaps of imagination carried out or discussed millions of times before. Too many of those who teach the sciences are too fixated on the quest for the truth. But what if there is no truth? That is why I love the aforementioned Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch so much. The truth is only a human reasoned version of the truth. It is this mindset which attracted me to uber-mathematician Marcus du Sautoy’s wonderful book What We Cannot Know. The amount of knowledge amassed (collectively) by humans in the last fifty years (largely thanks to computing power and data storage capability) vastly exceeds all previously acquired knowledge over the last 5000 years, since the Sumerians showed us the way with the dawn of written language. But there are still a great many things we really don’t understand, and possibly never will. One of the best examples is consciousness. We have a reasonable idea of how our brains learn but why humans can think about thinking and why we can think therefore I am and why we are (probably) the only species which realises it exists: well, we have very little idea of this. Some speculate that it is merely the consequence of billions of neurons firing at once. Others speculate that consciousness exists at the quantum level, that to some extent anything containing atoms and therefore electrons can have some level of consciousness, which of course then comes down to how we define consciousness. Which is rather difficult if we have no idea of what actually causes it. I would argue that the teaching profession are rather prone to extrapolating a definitive version of how we learn from tiny nuggets of subjective, circumstantial evidence and that all teachers should read du Sautoy’s informative, erudite yet accessible book. His follow up book The Creativity Code is equally revelatory.
So, if Science can’t answer our deepest questions about humanity, culture and the joys, pleasures and curses of the human condition then what are we left with? Art is the answer. I would argue that Art is more important to living a life than Science. Obviously Science explains life in ways art cannot but without art, there is no meaning, no purpose and frankly no point. During the COVID-19 pandemic it has not only become apparent to me how far modern humans have drifted from nature and as a consequence how far we have drifted from accepting the inevitability of death. We have become fixated with survival and longevity; with life rather than with living. Living without art (including live music and live theatre) is not impossible but it is definitely suboptimal and damaging to our social instincts and our desire to make meaning where there is, arguably, none.
So it is with that in mind that I really enjoyed reading the BBC arts correspondent Will Gompertz lovely little book, Think like an Artist. As a scientist and scientific thinker with a deep interest in the arts, music, philosophy and the written word I have a theory I’d like to share:
The more biology we study the more chemistry we need to understand. The more chemistry we study the more physics we need to understand. The more physics we study the more maths we need to understand. So everything is Maths, right? Well yes, and no. Because the more maths one studies the more and more abstract it becomes. Greater are the imaginary leaps required to grapple with it. And it is beautiful too. So deep, complex, wonderful maths is art. The more maths you study the more like art it becomes. So everything is art. EVERYTHING is ART. (After all maths is a human construct, just like art).
And it is this troubled mindset I find myself in as an educator. I believe in education. The endless possibilities and opportunities. The curated wisdom. The curiosity. The questions. The sheer unbridled joy of learning. I also believe in Science. I believe in maths. I believe in art. I believe in humans. I believe in teaching. I believe in the passing on and the imparting of knowledge. I also believe in the guiding and nurturing of humans to be the best possible version of themselves (whatever that means). I believe in manners and civility. I believe in character. I believe in love. I believe in life’s rich tapestry. I believe in the power, meaning and connectedness of community. I believe in socialisation. I believe in fun. In laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. And laughing at the ridiculousness of ourselves.
But the trouble is I don’t really believe in school, or certainly not in what school has become. Of how we have to track, measure and evidence every tiny little thing. Of the system. Of teachers developing their careers on the back of unverifiable, utterly meaningless data. Of their inevitable gaming of the system. Of so little scholarship and thought being put into why we are teaching something, why we are measuring it and why we are reporting it the way we do (with the utterly crap, reactive and short-termist answer of it’s what the inspectors or what parents or what the media want to see). Of one third of the populous being labelled failures at 16. Of a grade aged 16 being a meaningful statement of who you are or what you can achieve. Of social conditioning and population control. Of the stifling of free, creative thinkers just not cut out for over twelve years of classroom conformity.
I think there are a lot of people in education who think quite similarly to me. I think there are a lot more outside of education who think like this. And many more who think this way who have left education, or been squeezed out of it, for some of the above reasons. Of course we are all outweighed by those who don’t think at all and never stop to read verbose, self-satisfied, pseudo-intellectual guff like this. And outweighed by those who are so deeply invested in the system, in their careers, in their entrenched belief systems, in their unconscious bias, in their status quo (because, frankly, life is easier but not necessarily better that way), in the relentless and tiresome short-termist flip-flop politics of education (and everything else). Of course, I am not above all this. I am not better than you. And you are not better than me. I am a victim of a having an over thinking, easily influenced human mind too.
There are so many of them. And so many say virtually the same thing. I am, as you can tell from the above, deeply interested in education. Not just school or science education but the principle, process and purpose of education more broadly. Since becoming a teacher seven years ago (and a school governor four years prior to that), a parent nearly eighteen years ago and a voracious edutweeter on Twitter in the last two years, I’ve been surprised quite how many teachers aren’t actually that interested in education at all.
As a scientist used to some meat in his journal articles, reading educational research can sometimes feel like chewing on a stale bean sprout of near meaningless words. There are exceptions of course. In the Times Education Supplement, the wisdom of articles by teachers of wildly contrasting views and educational experiences oft shines through most notably Alistair McConville, Christian Bokhove, Mark Enser and Emma Kell. Since becoming mildly addicted to “#edutwitter” I’ve enjoyed the blogging, books and writing of Tom Sherrington, David Didau and Martin Robinson. The latter’s book Trivium is well worth a deep dive, to use some eduspeak. Martin is great orator too and wryly humorous with it.
But the problem with edubooks is how agenda driven they are. Opinion, insight and experience are frequently presented as science, as fact. Be wary. The first three edubooks (or edulinked books) I read were The Element by Ken Robinson, The Seven Myths of Education by Daisy Christodoulou and The Road to Character by New York Times writer David Brooks. Sir Ken’s animated you tube talk titled, ‘are schools killing creativity’ had me hooked in my PGCE year but I found the Element too simplistic and rather lightweight. He presents a problem but no coherent solution. I like Daisy. She is intellectual and mostly right about the inefficiency of project based learning, about the over use of google as some sort of educational saviour. But there are crossed wires here. What if doing a piece of project based learning isn’t really about learning facts by self-discovery but practising taking pride in your work, in developing communication skills, in honing curiosity and independent learning. If children can’t read well or summarise facts in their own words, or the subject material is too abstract then the process can be educationally inefficient if the sole measure of education is acquiring knowledge. But surely there must be some space for individual expression and interests in our fourteen years at school? David Brook’s book on character is, for me, the bible of ‘Character Education’ focussing on the ‘eulogy’ virtues which make us valuable to others versus the ‘resume’ virtues which really only make us valuable to our own egocentric desires for self-promotion.
Another book linked to education but not about education which I think every teacher should read is, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ by Michael Foley. It is a wonderful polemic against the cult of ‘fun’, not against fun itself but against overuse of the word and the shallow desire for fun. This is of course particularly pertinent to the classroom where some teachers think children only learn when they are having fun, or, conversely that the words learning and fun don’t mix. In Foley’s research of the history of fun the book gets fairly deep into philosophy and the human condition. A good book.
Before the virus, in summer 2019, I greatly enjoyed attending several education conferences and meetings. I listened to the provocative extrapolations of esteemed geneticist Robert Plomin talking of his book Blueprint, arguing that intelligence is pre-determined in our genes. I prefer to think of intelligence in all its multifaceted forms being present as a propensity which has to be triggered by good parenting, varied cultural experience, conversation and inspirational teaching. I listened to Anthony Seldon speak eloquently and provocatively about his fourth industrial revolution. I listened to and participated in a great pictorial talk about Dual Coding by Oliver Caviglioli but the freshest and most wonderful of all education based lectures I heard was by Ian Warwick (London Gifted & Talented) with Ray Speakman about their book Learning with Leonardo. It blew me away and was full of such rich scholarship about the ultimate polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, on the 500th anniversary of his death.
The talk and subsequent reading of the book sent me on a research mission into Leonardo’s polymathy. It took me to an exhibition of some of his notebooks at the British Library and then to an evening discussion chaired by the insatiably curious Bobby Seagull of Monkman and Seagull fame titled The Science and Art of the Polymath. Ian’s book made such a compelling case for the interconnection of subjects and the ability to explore science, nature and architecture with the eye of an artist and explore art with the eye of a mathematician or scientist. Yet, we raise our children in world of over-specialised, falsely segregated subject boundaries. Subjects are like the nations, corporations and religions in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. They don’t exist. We’ve created them and curated their niches and easily testable content to skew the errant, entropic, multifarious, nebulous and kinetic human mind into a series of little, neat, ordered, thermodynamically stable schemas. Waqas Ahmed eloquently explores the madness of this in The Polymath book. Though he does quote Ken Robinson too much.
My curiosity, thirst for knowledge and love of an obtuse, contrary debate can be exhausting. Yet, by April 2017 (aged 44) it was clear I had become bookish, despite the late start to my reading life and general childhood and adolescent ambivalence. I needed to escape my slightly fixed mindset regarding philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, education and the countryside. I needed to break free from the echo chamber of my mind.
When sharing a twin room in a family hotel Hasparren, in the Basque region of southern France, while on under 14 rugby tour with our sons, I got talking to Ian about books. We spoke about Sapiens and a couple of other books we’d both read. He invited me to join his book club. The wives of this all male book club, which had been running for about eighteen months by this point, had formed an all female book club upon some of their children finishing at the school in which I teach, as a means of keeping in touch with each other. And sometimes talking about books. So, their husbands decided to do the same.
Through 2020 this book club has been a Godsend. First the weekly zoom quizzes; book, music and Covid-19 discussions and some wine fuelled banter from mid March until June, then some sub group socially distanced rule of six garden meet ups through the summer and early Autumn and now back to zoom. My book club buddies have mopped up my mental health issues, humoured the verbose oral summaries of my attempted novel writing and more recently been empathetic about the emotion and politics of my pre-divorce separation. They’ve also made me laugh a lot and we’ve read and talked about some great books.
Before anyone knew what Zoom or social distancing meant, we met monthly, only fully quorate on two occasions, I think. There are twelve of us in total but rarely more than eight or nine. It is more of a gentleman’s feasting and wine club than a book club, with a mixture of old, medium and new friendships. We rotate around the lovely rural homes of our affluent, intellectual, white, male middle class cognoscenti. Our politics, characters, professions and wealth are varied; our social class less so. I was a little wary at first, not being quite so moneyed but now they have become my brethren, my friends and I really love their eclectic company. Among us we have an employment lawyer, a journalist who now runs his own public relations company, a senior IT consultant in the retail sector, an operations manager, an antiques expert and valuer, an investment banker, a carpenter who designs and builds bespoke kitchens and furniture, another IT consultant, a city trader, a coal broker who offsets his green guilt with the most magnificent garden, a senior NHS director and yours truly: a former scientist, teacher and aspiring writer.
Selecting a monthly book that satiates all twelve of our reading habits is a challenge. Since the pandemic broke we’ve sort of split into those who love books, wine, food and good conversation and those who just love food and wine.
When I first joined there was a prevalence of non-fiction books but as they can only ever have niche appeal we started picking off classic works of fiction from either the Guardian or Telegraph 100 books you should read before you die lists. I think we only managed four. We’ve struck gold a few times but more frequently struck iron or copper and sometimes we’ve drilled fairly deep into some heavily water-logged clay. Our reading list is sometimes a bit masculine for me, and sometimes I wished we had a unisex group to gain a slightly softer and more emotional perspective on things, but generally book club life is a force for good and a very important part of my life and friendships.
So what about the books?
My first was Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. Fascinating how the land mass, location and climate determines its economic destiny. I’ve endured a book by Joshua Green called the Devil’s Bargain about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump (frankly I’d rather not know), a beautifully written but rather dull book about sailing to the Summer Isles by Philip Marsden, and suffered the intense psychobabble of Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life. Sometimes I’ve not read the book because I’m reading (or writing) something else more interesting instead.
We’ve enjoyed some PG Wodehouse; I loved (but it divided the book club) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I love how it starts all foppish and dandyish and descends into darkness. It is a wonderful exploration of vanity. I liked but didn’t love Raymond Chandler’s the Big Sleep. I’d wanted to read London Fields by Martin Amis ever since Damon Albarn namechecked it’s influence over his writing of the Parklife album. Keith Talent, Guy Clinch and Nicola Six are fantastic characters and the writing is sublime. I enjoyed it. The twist at the end slightly ruined it for me. I really enjoyed The Wall by John Lanchester. I read it as a dark metaphor for the lasting impact of Brexit and Climate Change. I must read more of his stuff. I liked Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive your plow over the bones of the dead. I was slightly disappointed by Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn.
I really liked How to Stop Time by Matt Haig which led me to his mental health helpbook, Notes on a Nervous Planet and we’re currently racing through his Mr Benn meets It’s a Wonderful Life meets existentialist philosophy, The Midnight Library.
One of our members is an avid atheist and big fan of Christopher Hitchens polemical writing so we read Hitch-22 which I liked but found rather heavy going. He is/was definitely the best of the Hitchens brothers. I met Hitch was I was 13 in 1986, when a nascent Channel 4 were making a programme about him. He was an alumni of my prep school – Mount House in Tavistock, Devon (now Mount Kelly). Isabel Hardman’s ‘Why we get the wrong politicians’ was enlightening amidst the dark times of Brexit.
This summer we almost all universally enjoyed Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. The writing is wonderful, the character development superb and the evocation of the late 1960s brilliantly and lovingly researched. Recommend. A few of us also enjoyed the play on words of Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary.
In strange Covid times we spend more time talking about books we love, music we love or dissecting the politics and culture of our time but occasionally book club throws up something you’d never chose to read but enlightens, enlivens or enables some much needed escape.
Beyond the three and a half years of book club (I’ve still not passed the induction!) I’ve discovered and enjoyed the following fictional writers: Ali Smith; Salley Rooney (I loved Normal People); Sally Vickers and the painter with words, Max Porter whose Grief is the thing with feathers ripped me open, blew my mind and took me to another plane altogether. I also loved the writing of Michael Chabon in Pops, short eassays on fatherhood.
Finally, there are two books that I stumbled across in National Trust secondhand bookshops which have both led to a complete re-evaluation of my life and its purpose. Both are channelled into Beautiful People, my first novel and both have influenced my desire for freedom and free thinking above all else. They may have even catalysed my current personal circumstances alluded to and mentioned earlier.
The first is the transcendent The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. Any book about walking the South West coast path would lure me in, as the North Devon coast is in my bones, my soul and my mind every day of my life but its not really about the walk, or the coast. It is about survival. And love. And making something of your life when you have nothing, when you’ve lost everything. It is simply wonderful. If ever you feel that materialism and me-tooism is destroying your perspective and not making you happy, reads this book; it will change you.
The second is A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and praised by Hilary Mantel. Jean was born in 1909 and wrote secret diaries from 1925 until her death in 1986. She never married and never made it as a writer. She lived through the second world war and was an interminable romantic and amateur philosopher. Her writing and insight is electric at times. How a woman born sixty-three years before I was can reflect so eloquently my views on politics, love, relationships, marriage, people, books and the countryside completely took me away.
So what next?
As my book club friend Steve says, any proper reader and fan of books will always have at least twenty five books waiting to be read. And some of those books may never be read because another twenty five will come along. At the end I include a short list of books that are screaming at me from their sedentary position on a bookshelf nearby.
But first, how to conclude this sprawl through my life in books?
Like so many other readers and writers I’ve tried reading Middlemarch by George Eliot, widely regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction, storytelling and human insight of all time by the writers I respect. I’ve made it to page 250 of 800ish. And stalled. It is too rich in prose and character and complex detail. It is demanding. I WILL finish it one day.
I will write my books. I’ve got about nine swirling around my mind, mostly non-fiction and travelogue or semi-autobiographical in nature but at least three works of fiction.
And I will revisit 1984. The book which put me off reading for so long at school. I owe it to Mr Schott.
As an adult with a love of reading for escape, enlightenment and understanding I sometimes wonder whether our collective approach to the teaching of reading, writing and comprehension in school is all wrong. We can only really enjoy reading books which resonate with our experience of the world. When we are young we have so little experience of the world. So I think it is vital that teaching a love of reading (which we know will develop the mind and improve educational outcomes) is interwoven with oracy and storytelling in Art, History, Geography, Science and beyond.
I don’t think we should get hung up on all those children who never read a book. Yes, the varied and voracious early readers will fly through school but trying to make every pupil into one of them is virtually impossible. I think we should talk to children about the richness, the joy, and yes the darkness too, of the world around them: nature, culture, relationships. I think we should show them.
When we are young we haven’t a clue who or what we are. We should help them discover this. And when they do, they will want to read. And their life will be richer for it.
Books are the best way of helping us to feel the world.
My Future(?) reading list:
Second hand book shop finds
Man, beast, zombie: what science can and cannot tell us about human nature by the erudite and brilliant Observer writer, Kenan Malik.
White Heat: a history of Britain in the swinging sixties by Dominic Sandbrook.
The Lunar Men: five friends whose curiosity changed the world by Jenny Uglow
The last journey of William Huskisson by Simon Garfield
Summer by Ali Smith
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith
Lanny by Max Porter
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
What I loved by Siri Hustvedt
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
A room of one’s own by Virginia Wolf
Far from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Philosophy and ideas
Sway (unravelling unconscious bias) by Pragya Agarwal
The Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins