By Pete Wolstencroft
Asking certain teenagers today to read a book and keep quiet for a few minutes is akin to asking them to submit to fifty lashes. The difference being, that the cat o’nine tails would be preferable to being seen with a book. Because, as everybody knows, reading is boring.
With apologies to teenagers everywhere, I would beg to differ. My reading career started just before my seventh birthday, when my mum took me to enrol in the local library. Disappointingly, she was told that I would have to wait the handful of days that separated me from that milestone event. At six years and fifty weeks old, I was too young to be admitted to the hallowed halls of literacy. I seem to remember that this did not go down too well with Mater and eventually the punctilious librarian was forced to back down. I was in.
Soviet idyll? No, just a small town outside Blackpool.
Who knew that there were rooms full of books that you could take home to read at your leisure? And all at no cost. Were we living in some sort of socialist, Soviet idyll? No, just a small town outside Blackpool.
I can’t remember the titles of any of the books I read during the earliest days of my library membership. But after about a year or so, I came across the works of one Willard Price. It seemed to me that Mr Price had been kind enough to write books solely for me. How did he know that titles like: Lion Adventure and Volcano Adventure were catnip to me? I was already starting to take a keen interest in wildlife and this now exploded into a deep and abiding passion – one I maintain to this day.
Then I heard about a club for young bibliophiles. The Puffin Club: where you not only got access to lots of exciting books, but you also received a handsome enamel badge upon which the eponymous bird featured prominently. By this time, I was about nine years old, and had heard adults tell of reading novels. The very word seemed so exciting, but I had an idea fixed in my head, that novels were not available to nine-year-olds. You had to be a certain age. I didn’t know which age, but I knew it was a long way off. Imagine my surprise then, when I found out a while later, that I had been reading these most mysterious of books for quite some time.
During my last year at primary school, one of our teachers would read to us every Friday afternoon. The book that stuck out most in my mind was: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. And so my bookwormy horizons widened out. It turns out that life did not need to be confined to a little town outside Blackpool. There was a big, wide world out there.
Laurie Lee was responsible for my migration to the south of Spain and eventually to a job on the Gibraltar dockyard. I have to say that those doe-eyed farmers’ daughters who had proved so keen to roll in the hay with Lee proved to be a good deal more elusive – not to say non-existent – for me. Spain seemed impossibly exotic to a young Lancastrian. For one thing, it was very often hot; heat not being a phenomenon with which I had had much experience until I migrated.
I learned Spanish, which in turn opened up a whole new wealth of experiences. Whilst my colleagues were enjoying roast beef and Yorkshire puddings in the hostelries of the Costa del Sol, armed with my new linguistic confidence, I was eating tapas of sea urchins and razor clams, washed down by rough red wine that came in 1-litre bottles with lethally sharp foil caps.
Spain seemed impossibly exotic to a young Lancastrian.
My love of languages led me back to education. I took a degree in Spanish studies at the University of Portsmouth, and from there a teaching qualification in EFL from the University of Cardiff. My first job posting was in Bulgaria which, I remember claiming during the interview, promised to be: “Culturally interesting.” It was that all right. On my first day in Bulgaria, I met the woman who is now my wife. On telling people about this turn of events, I am often asked if she can speak English. To which I invariably reply: “Well, sort of. She is from Doncaster.”
My love of reading was the catalyst for trying out many things: boxing, acting, journalism, and foreign travel to such places as Albania and Istanbul. My retentive memory – surely a product of so much reading – led me to auditioning for Mastermind. I got on the show, but came last. My passion for languages spurred me to learn a little bit of the language for each country I visited. This led to more free drinks than I can recall and the opportunity to experience the kindness of strangers. This hospitality is the continual, concrete proof that, those who can be bothered to learn a bit of the language of a country, will be rewarded in ways that those who simply speak English a bit louder and a bit slower will never be able to comprehend – or access.
I don’t know where the idea that reading is boring came from, but it needs to be sent back whence it came post haste. Given that the words on the page create a different, unique image for each reader, no other form of entertainment can be so adaptable. And books are – all things considered – cheap. Once read, a book can be passed on to family and friends for as long as it retains its physical integrity. So, if you know a teenager who thinks reading is boring, I have the cure: give them a clout round the ear with a really big dictionary!