Aldous Huxley, one of my heroes, once said, “Has it ever struck you, what a lot of our finest romantic literature is the result of bad doctoring?” He also said that he would never drive a motor car in France, because the temptation to run over a priest would be too great. But that is for another day…
The desire or need to write, in all of us stems from different triggers. But I’ve never met a successful writer who had not been a passionate reader as a child. I was fortunate enough to have had an unhappy childhood – although it didn’t seem fortunate at the time! As a reluctant boarder from the age of 7, I escaped from both loneliness, and a bullying, sadistic headmaster, by immersing myself into the worlds of my heroes in books, from Just William, to Biggles, to the Saint, to Sapper and then, deliciously and wickedly, to Bond – with regular quick erotic detours into certain well-thumbed pages of Lady Chatterley. To paraphrase Paul Theroux, I learned at an early age what all of us who are privileged to love books know – that reading good fiction gives all of us a second life.
A few years ago I was travelling on a train from London to York to do a Waterstones event, immersed in a book, while an elderly couple opposite me stared into space. They weren’t even looking at the view. Every ten minutes or so one would say, ‘I’m bored’ and the other would nod. After a while I wanted to scream at them, ‘Read a book! A magazine! A paper! Anything!!!!’ And I realized how lucky I was to take my love of reading for granted. They were either among the 5.1 million people in the UK who lack the literacy skills they need, or lacked parents or teachers who could have given them the priceless gift of loving books.
So often I meet people who tell me, often with pride, that they never read, ever. That upsets me hugely. I learned so much of what I know about life, and so much about what others think, through the pages of books I have read, and I continue to learn every time I open a novel or a non fiction tome. I do a lot of talks in prisons, every year, and it is always a joy to see 30 or 40 faces in a prison library. Some are there because simply because it relieves the monotony of their day, but many are there because they want to improve their reading skills, or even to learn to write fiction. Although I do remember one old lag telling me, with a broad grin, ‘Last time I was in here they taught me how to read and write – now I’m in for forgery!’
But joking aside, it is a tragic fact that 48% of our prison population has literacy skills below that of a good CSE. All those millions who struggle with reading cannot participate properly in education, employment cultural or community life, and I find it endlessly shocking that this should be the case in such as wealthy country as ours and with generally good standards of free education for all.
What I love so much about The Reading Agency, and why I am making it my principal nationwide charity, is that it is on a mission to create a fairer society by helping everyone become a confident and enthusiastic reader. I firmly believe it has the credibility, the passion, and above all calibre of people running it, to achieve this.
I love that TRA engages with children through its massive Summer Reading Challenge, that it engages with reading groups, which have become of such huge importance to authors in recent years, that it engages with people with poor literacy skills, and that it works so hard and closely with libraries. I’m not sure, if libraries had not been so accessible to me as a child, whether I would ever have become a writer. I loved to immerse myself in the world of literature in the libraries in my home area of Brighton and Hove, and to engage in conversations about books with the librarians, at a very early age. I learned so much from them about what to read – much more than from many of my teachers at school. In the brave new world in which we find ourselves, of diminishing book shops and libraries ever under threat, I can only see The Reading Agency’s role playing an increasingly important role in the future literacy of our nation.