Friday, April 14, 2006



Mr Neil Fawcett has shared with me that he learned to read on Doctor Who books. So did I. I may have grown up the child of two librarians, in a house with seventeen bookshelves, but it was of course Doctor Who that did it. I still read a lot now, though I’m not sure either this blog or various Lib Dem policy papers count as writing books (though if any reader happens to have a spare / saleable copy of It’s About Freedom, could you drop me a line? It’s out of print, but there are a couple of people I’d like to give it to).

Even before I went to school, my Dad would sometimes take me around libraries he was working in, and I’ve always felt deeply at home in places with lots of books. The trouble is, on getting to school the books I was ‘encouraged’ to learn to read with were hugely uninspiring, so I made no progress at all. I can still remember with a shudder of horror one called Wet Wednesday, in which a little boy was walking to school with his mum, in the rain. That was it. I spent weeks on that sodding book, driving my teacher and my parents to distraction. I just couldn’t see any reason why anyone would want to read such a monumentally tedious story – I could tell what was happening from the pictures, and nothing about them made me want to read the words. So, aged five, I was jammed into a solid lack of progress.

Fortunately, I fell seriously ill and was hospitalised. No, that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. I’d just bought my first book – Doctor Who and the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis – at the school bookshop, and my Mum brought it into the hospital. She’d been trying to help me to read with the ‘aid’ of another lifeless schoolbook, this time featuring ‘Simon and Elizabeth’ (Mum claims ‘Simon and Sarah’, but with no greater enthusiasm; I think that was a different series, perhaps equally banal), who were enthrallingly, yes, making their way to school, only this time by bus, and possibly with a dog. In any case, they didn’t get me to make any more progress, so Mum read Doctor Who to me instead. She doesn’t like the programme. Never has, never will. And, with an adult’s critical ‘reading head’ on, these days even I’ll concede that that particular novel isn’t one of those where the prose really flies by. So she did what any mother might have done when she was bored beyond the call of duty, and about half-way through the book she told me to read it myself.

I did.

When I eventually got back to school, I was told – probably as a joke, I’m never quite sure – that if I could somehow learn to read entirely from ‘proper’ books, I’d never have to go back to all the early and intermediate stages of unremitting tedium. So while at the age of five I had a reading age probably too low to be measured, by five and a half I had a reading age of twelve, and am forever grateful to all the different teachers at St Simon’s Primary School, Hazel Grove, none of whom ever made me read through all those ghastly excuses for books that I was ‘supposed’ to wade through before I was allowed something interesting.

As well as taking a trip down memory lane at Neil’s prompting, there are policy issues I take from this, too, and not just the way I was always the one who stuck up for public libraries most passionately in Federal Policy Committee meetings when we were deciding how little money we could get away with committing to ‘the arts’. Nor is it to do with recently reading Roy Jenkins’ biography of Gladstone (and Millennium has beaten me to blogging what I thought of Huw Edwards’ hagiographic Monday programme about David Lloyd George, who may have been a brilliant Chancellor but who managed to win third place as both best and worst Liberal Leader in a vote at a Lib Dem History Group meeting. I didn’t vote for him as the best).

The policy issue I think of when I remember learning to read is that when this government sneers at all education for the sake of learning, based on people studying what really interests and enthuses them, and only wants money to go into things that will make money and be fitted for ‘work’, they’re not just wrong in principle. Give kids only things that are lifelessly practical and carefully calculated to make exactly the right sort of progress – and what child with a scraping of imagination is going to bother learning anyway?

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I don't have a copy of It's About Freedom, but your friends can download it from:

I hope that's useful
Hello Rob!

Thanks - I do frequently pass that link around (it's possible it may have been my request that got it there), but I'm secretly very old-fashioned and prefer proper, bound books that you can, y'know, stroke. Or clutter up your flat with.

I'd definitely encourage people to read it online if they don't have a copy, though.
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