Saturday, 20 June 2009


Apart from going blind, the worst thing that I can imagine is happening to me now. I am losing the joy of reading. A large volume daunts where once it delighted.
I cannot remember a time when I couldn't read. I was an only child. I had three dolls, Mitzie, a collie dog and a Teddy Bear who were as real as my parents. But mostly the cover of a book was a door into another, better world. The best books, like Dickens and Rider Haggard, had a life before their stories began which you interrupted by opening a book and a life which went on after you closed its covers. Somewhere in a parallel universe Mr Pickwick picnics still and the Zulu warrior Umslopgas wrestles lions.
I read, marked and inwardly digested anything. A book, a comic, even the labels on tins. Every night there would be knock on our front door. It would be one of my friends with a pile of comics to swap. We changed The Dandy, The Hotspur, Film Fun, The Rover and Beano until they were threadbare.
I can still read, occasionally mark, but inwardly it is indigestion all the way. There was a time when I had difficulty remembering the surnames in Russian novels. Now I keep having to turn back to the cover to find what book I am reading.
My father and I fought a silent war over my reading. He forbade reading at the table and then discovered I was reading the labels on the sauce bottle. To prevent me reading in bed, he hid our torch. I smuggled a candle to bed and lit it under the blankets. Fortunately there was little air and it went out before I immolated.
I refused to be evacuated in the war and became one of a small group who were given an hour and a half of schooling a day so I never got into the habit of full time schooling. I did, however, have two magical teachers whose lessons I never missed. They had been brought out of retirement in the war. Miss Mort despised the curriculum and spent her lessons telling us stories. Mr Holland had a face like a Mars crater in constant eruption. He taught us Shakespeare by acting it for us and then encouraging us to act it ourselves. I was, in turn, Juliet, Macbeth, Mercutio (my favourite role) and Hamlet himself. I was never put off Shakespeare because I did not know it was a classic.
Later, in the army, we were given the opportunity when our service was ending of learning the trade we hoped to take up in civilian life. The RSM was only nonplussed for a moment when I insisted I was going to be a poet. Then he brightened when he discovered English courses at the University of Gottingen. An inspired NCO in the Army Education Corps there thought the best education for a writer was reading. I not only spent a month reading in the magnificent University library and on fine days in the town square under the statue of the goose girl who once saved the town: he wangled me a second unofficial month and found me tickets nightly for the local opera house. I even had time to fall in love with the daughter of a Japanese professor.
With neither grammar nor shorthand, I managed to make a living in journalism. I began as a printer's apprentice at what was then the Allied Newspaper building in Withy Grove, Manchester. Cruelly underpaid, I used to steal books from Morton's market stall in nearby Shudehill, just around the corner from the warehouse where the originals of Dickens' philanthropic Cheryble Brothers had worked. I also met Howard Spring, my favourite novelist, who advised me to keep a notebook and write in it any new word I came across and its meaning. He told me: “The act of writing it down will mean you will never forget it.”
One book would suggest another and gradually I became well-read.
After a spell on a variety of national newspapers, I went freelancing in Chester where I met Walter Payne, a literary barman. Walter inherited a fortune whilst still a student at Trinity College in Dublin and spent it by the time he graduated. When he invited a pretty student to the opera he meant the one in Milan and he was the only man I know who actually made love on a bed of roses. It took them two hours to cover a bed with rose petals. “Very slippery” was the verdict. He had read every worthwhile book in English, it seemed, and joyfully shared his love of them, particularly classics like Socrates' Phaedra, Sir Thomas Browne, Montaigne, Rabelais and poetry.
My brother-in-law Francis Lucas, a gifted teacher, developed my love of the classics. It is forty years ago but I still vividly remember an afternoon when I was stricken with 'flu and Francis sat on my bed for two hours, talking about the classical world and particularly Homer, about whom he lectured at the Open University. I think that was the most valuable two hours in my life. Homer has been the closest of all writers to my heart. I truly believe the Iliad and the Odyssey to be the finest works of literature in the history of mankind.
Now my reading is confined to my E Book on which I have loaded old favourites like “Vanity Fair”. Since I already know them, that part of the brain which evaluates new material can take a day off. I am also building a library of audio books and the first of these, predictably, was Robert Fagles' vivid translation and Derek Jacobi's magnificent reading of the Iliad.
I just hope I don't go deaf. As my oldest friend says “ Growing old is not for Cissies