A COMMENT ON READING…
In October of 2010 I went to Alcatraz. On the way towards the ferry there was an epigram from some congressman or governor or somesuch: ‘If you break society’s rules, you go to prison. If you break prison rules, you come to Alcatraz’.
It was an overcast day. It was raining. It was the best way to see Alcatraz.
I took a lot of photos and uploaded them on facebook. I look at those images now, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere more terrifying. It is the most visited National Park in the USA. Why do people go? Morbid fascination for the horror of the place? Wanting to understand what it must have been like to be incarcerated there for years upon years? I don’t know. All I know is that it is the most chilling and unsettling place I have ever been in my life.
During the audio tour, both ex-convicts and ex-wardens speak. One convict simply said that New Year’s Eve was the worst night of the year on ‘the rock’. Why? Because the San Francisco Bay Yacht Club held their New Year’s Eve parties on boats in the bay, and if the wind was blowing in the ‘right’ direction, ‘You could hear the clink of glasses and the laughter of girls…’
It left me speechless.
During that same San Francisco trip I had dinner with Walter Mosley. It was like riffing with Kerouac and Mailer and Salinger and Martin Luther King to a soundtrack of Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Mingus and Gil Scott-Heron.
A day or so beforehand, I had drinks with Daniel Woodrell, author of ‘Winter’s Bone’, simply one of the best books I have ever read.
Earlier on my travels I saw Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Washington.
I saw Matt Skellor and Lurrie Bell play at Legends, Buddy Guy’s blues club in Chicago. I saw Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women at the Hi-Line Lounge, Ingrid Lucia and Gene Casey at the Rodeo Club, and then Gene Casey a second time at Hill Country, where I ate some of the best food I had ever eaten.
I hung out with Jack Lamplough and Emer Ferguson, two of the very best people I know, and we ate soft-shelled crabs and hanger steaks at the Bridge Café, the oldest licensed porter establishment in New York.
I went to France. I travelled through Paris, Rouen, Montpellier, Limoges, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille, Nantes, St. Malo (where I was stranded for a day and a half after pretty much every author had left for home, but found a great new friend in David Peace, the author of the incredible ‘Red Riding Quartet’), and on through Banon, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Besançon, Frontignan, Brussels and Geneva.
I did two tours in Canada, a tour in Australia, one in New Zealand, a trip to Amsterdam, another to Courmayeur in the Italian Alps, and most recently have attended the Istanbul Writers’ Parliament and the BC Negra Festival in Barcelona.
I visited forty-four cities in ten countries.
Half the year I spend writing books, and the other half I seem to be explaining why to strangers.
I remember reading an interview with BB King. He was asked about his life, about what was his most abiding memory after sixty years on the road, after more than one hundred albums, after playing with some of the finest musicians that ever lived. King paused, he smiled wryly, and then said ‘Airports and hotels rooms…’
I know precisely how he feels.
I do not mention this as some sort of couched complaint. Quite the contrary! It has been, and will continue to be, an enormous privilege and honour to be invited to international festivals, to meet readers, to speak about my books, to answer questions. I can never forget a line that came from John Lennon, I believe: Find something you love and you’ll never work another day. Well, writing has always been my great love, that and music, and my writing has now started to give me the time and space to pursue my musical interests. Writing has opened up doors for me where they would otherwise have been closed. I have met people – and in some instances become great friends with people – who would have otherwise been unknown to me. Without writing, I do not think I would have seen any of those forty-four cities.
My ninth book, ‘Bad Signs’ was due to be released in June 2011. It has long since been complete, as has a book for 2012, and I am currently working on the book for 2013. The paperback version of ‘Saints of New York’ was slated for release in April 2010. Well, that paperback release has now been postponed until September 2011, and the release of ‘Bad Signs’ – intended for a prominent hardback launch and a sensibly-discounted price, all in an effort to see if we couldn’t push it into the Sunday Times Top Ten list – has been postponed until October or November of 2011. This is of no great concern, at least not from the viewpoint of releasing a book each year, but it is of concern as a comment on the state of the British publishing industry. Booksales are down fifteen to twenty percent across the boards – fiction and non-fiction. Is it because of the ‘recession’, the ‘credit crunch’, the ‘economic slowdown’? No, it is not. It is because people aren’t reading. It is because we are now seemingly incapable of teaching our children to read, and bringing them up with the attitude that books are important.
My son is fourteen. When he started to learn to read at school my wife took it upon herself to do all she could to advance his reading ability. When he was 12 he was tested. We were proudly informed that he had the ‘reading age of a sixteen year-old’. No, he didn’t. He didn’t have anything of the sort! He had the reading age of a twelve year-old who had been encouraged to read. Last week he submitted a school essay about the Normandy landings. He wrote a sentence about an army captain tending to a wounded medic on Omaha Beach, and as he described this scene there was one sentence that stood out: ‘Get to cover!’ screamed the captain as he tended to a wounded medic, but things like irony bore no humour any longer.’ I honestly believe there are few fourteen year-olds who understand the concept of irony. In an earlier essay he used the word ‘travails’, and was assured – utterly and completely – by his English teacher that ‘there is no such word in the English language.’ My son showed her the word in the dictionary. She was suitably apologetic. For three weeks my son has had a copy of ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ on his bedside table. He wrote an essay about it. It was a good essay. I asked him how much he had enjoyed the book. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I didn’t read the book’. Puzzled, I asked him how he knew the story. ‘We watch the film in English class, and then we write our essay. We don’t have to read the book’. A couple of months ago I went to a local Sixth Form College to give some lessons on Text Transposition (taking text from a book and turning it into a different media – a play, a screenplay, a poem etc.), and I talked with one hundred and thirty-five students over three lessons. Out of those one hundred and thirty-five, only nineteen had ever read a complete book in their lives. These were seventeen and eighteen year-olds taking their AS Levels in English Literature! Their Literature module requirement was to read Chapter One of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy and Chapter one of ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker. Their examination question both cases was: Describe, in your own words, how this novel begins.
My brother, the person I rant and rave at when I get onto this subject, read an article in a leading UK newspaper. Apparently someone had done a survey of comparative exam requirements and results. He found that the percentile score that now awards you an ‘A’ grade at GCSE/O-Level was the same percentile score that would have given you a ‘C’ Grade five years ago, an ‘E’ Grade ten years ago, and fifteen years ago would have given you a ‘U’ Grade (Unclassified – basically so low that you didn’t even warrant a mark). The Labour Government’s plan to increase standards of education was – as were most of Blair’s policies – a thinly-veiled obscuring of the truth. If you drop the standard, then everyone wins. No-one gets left behind! Great…everyone has ten ‘A’ Grade O-Levels, but we have sixty percent of our adult population at a level of functional semi-literacy! Thanks once again, Tony!
When I did my English Literature O-Level (1981), I was required to read ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Chaucer, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare and ‘The Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. We read the books/plays. We went to Stratford to see the RSC perform ‘Merchant’. We saw the TV adaptation with Warren Mitchell as Shylock (amazing!), and then we read the play again. We alternated parts in class, we performed it as a whole play over three lessons. We talked about it, we studied it again, we watched the TV adaptation again. We loved the play by the time we were done. We appreciated what it was about. Oh, and we studied Chaucer first so when we got to Shakespeare he was easy in comparison! And seeing the play in Stratford and watching the TV adaptations were considered a real treat, a ‘reward. In fact, for paying so much attention and working so hard.
It sorrows me no end to see the closure of libraries due to lack of funding. It sorrows me more to see that very few people are fighting it, and those that are fighting it are of my generation and older. My grandmother – a WRAF WWII veteran who served as a secretary to Bomber Harris – used to say, ‘If you can read, you can live a thousand lifetimes.’ The younger generations have not been given the gift of reading, and – unfortunately – the responsibility lies at our own feet. Literacy promotes communication; literacy engenders self-confidence, tolerance, patience, a work-ethic, a pride in one’s own production and value in society. There is an incontrovertible link between literacy and honesty, an incontrovertible link between illiteracy and criminality.
So, what do we do?
We teach our kids to read again. We instil in them a love of reading. We teach them how to read. We raise a new generation of real readers, and with that we recover our ability to communicate, one with another, our desire for understanding, our desire for success.
It is a coincidence that the collapse of any society is directly paralleled by the rise in sex and violence as forms of ‘entertainment’, that in itself preceded by a noticeable decline in literacy and appreciation of the arts?
We have lost our heritage as some of the most well-educated and literate people on earth. We are still publishing vast numbers of books, and I do not even want to consider the number that are pulped!
Literacy is a gift, a legacy passed down generation to generation. In our desperate urgency to ‘raise educational standards’ we have completely forgotten why we are educating people. We are educating them to work, to produce, to become contributing and honest members of a society and a culture.
Why is it not possible to return to basics, to start teaching children to read again? It is not a difficult thing to do. It was accomplished with us.
Reading is where it all begins. Without the ability to really read, to understand what we are reading, to use dictionaries to increase our vocabularies, then we are lost as readers, and - more importantly – as a culture.
We have ‘dumbed-down’ our standards, our schools, our colleges and universities, simply because we have failed to observe that everything begins with basics. Teach nothing but Mathematics, Reading, Writing, basic Geography, History and Science until the child is eleven or twelve. Really establish the fundamentals of reading and literacy, and those will be the foundations upon which any and all further and more advanced studies will be stably built.
We test too much. We examine too much. We tie our educators’ hands with bureaucracy and administration. We do not let teachers teach, and teaching is perhaps one of the noblest professions that a society possess. Raise literate, productive children, and they will become literate productive adults, and there is the backbone of any society and culture.
And I know this little article about where I have been I the past year has turned into a monologue about educational standards, but I am in a tremendously fortunate position. I write for a living. It is my job. Unfortunately, as is being seen throughout every publishing company in the country, if not the world, authors are being ‘let go’ in their dozens, simply because it is proving commercially and financially impossible to continue to publish the number of books we do when people are not reading them.
I trust that the tide will turn. Part of this article has been written into a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I’ll let you know if he replies.
I wish the publishing industry was all good news and stories of success, but it is not. It is at an all-time low, and there doesn’t seem to be any real signs of short-term recovery. And while the vast majority of publishers are concerning themselves with the ever-increasing rise of literary consumption by electronic means, they are missing the point. If people are not reading, then it doesn’t matter what medium you use to deliver literature to them. They’re still not going to read it!
I shall step back, take a deep breath, and compose myself now. I shall endeavour to make the next post an awful lot more optimistic!
I trust all is well with you. Stay in touch. Your e-mails and letters mean a great deal to me.
Best wishes, as always,