I’m beginning to regret mentioning education in the last podcast. I seem to be getting nothing but criticism from people who believe they understand my life better than I know it myself. The fact that I think reading is taught poorly in schools and that students should be introduced to a wide range of material, suited to their ability but (more importantly) their interests, seems especially controversial. I’m also being told by people who don’t read Shakespeare how it’s best to teach Shakespeare.
I suppose it’s because everybody (including myself) experienced school and therefore that makes us all an experts of what works or doesn’t work for us. Yet I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody follows my route. I thought I’d read Shakespeare at 17 but I realised after the podcast that it happened much later in my life. It happened after my realisation that I didn’t want to be a computer programmer for the rest of my life. That was after I’d already finished one degree and when I went back to college to start on the path towards another. People thought I was weird (“urgh, you’ve got a degree so why you going back to do another?”) but I knew what I wanted. I wanted the kind of education I’d not been given. My original degree course wasn’t at a good university and lacked depth. It hadn’t stretched me. I was bored most of the time and too much of the course was business studies which I HATED. And I mean HATED. I spent so much of my time sneaking off into Liverpool City Library where I’d hide in the literature section.
My relationship to literature was fraught. I’d grown up in a working-class town, going to a pretty rough school, where anything that looked “artistic” was sure to attract the attention of the school bullies. Despite all of our liberal attitudes towards sexuality, I’m still not sure if things have moved on. I wasn’t gay but my love of art did often make me wonder. It’s odd thinking back on my naivety. The fact that I was attracted to girls but never boys seemed almost irrelevant compared to the fact that I did love anything artistic. I also knew damn well that if I’d been seen reading a book or (god forbid) taking English seriously at 15 that I’d have been in for a tough time. Boys took the sciences. Girls the arts. That’s how it was.
It’s depressing to think how much of my life was ruined because of those cultural pressures and I suppose it makes me particularly sensitive to anybody facing the reality of discovering their sexuality in a hostile environment. I was lucky in that I only wanted to “come out” and admit that I was artistic.
In junior school, my best subjects were always the humanities and I particularly excelled at English. Then I entered the comprehensive system and went from being top of my class at English to sitting near the back of the class in the bottom set. I don’t recall how that happened or what metric I’d failed (or, more accurately, failed me). That meant we didn’t read Shakespeare but we were given a tedious succession of those socially aware classics that taught us about the troubles of unwanted pregnancies. The book I remember hating the most was “A Taste of Honey”. I still despise it.
I think much of this was down to the teaching. I was then (and still am) extremely shy and probably a bit sensitive (though I’ve learned to hide it well with a crap load of cynicism). My teacher was the opposite: tough, confident, extremely political, and a pretty strident feminist. Her idea of English was different to mine and it was unsurprising when I failed English at 16. And I mean I failed it spectacularly.
Those were the days when you’d need a ‘C’ at ‘O’ level/GCSE to go on and do anything meaningful with your life. So, I had to resit it in Sixth Form, where I met a different kind of teacher. She was wonderful. She also saw something in me and was puzzled why I’d failed. She encouraged me to write, which I did, comic stories which she loved. Just that bit of positive feedback would last me a decade. It set me on a different course. I got my GCSE but also began to write seriously for myself. I’d copy the style from novels I’d read. And they weren’t anything like I’d have been given at school. I copied Fleming or Tom Clancy. Later I suppose I’d copy more of the American modern masters: Chandler, Kerouac, or (later still) Hunter S. Thompson. However, I was teaching myself and making up for the lost years.
I also told nobody. I wrote ridiculous amounts, all long since lost as I transitioned from floppy disks to hard drives. I was soon doing a computer degree but hiding in the library and reading books I thought were forbidden. I remember reading Howl by Ginsberg, which today I’d probably ignore but at the time it felt like a gateway into something greater. I was already into Dylan, who I discovered via my love for Paul Simon, whose Graceland was the very first album I bought. I was always a fan of the more literate singer songwriters. Then I progressed into the Beats and then modern American fiction. I left university with a crap computer studies degree (I now realise I should have done a Computer Science degree) but, with retrospect, I’d probably already completed a big chunk of an English degree without realising it.
That’s when I began to program for a living. Hated it. Probably had a mild breakdown. I was crying all the time. Hating my life and hating even more what it could become if I didn’t stop it. I didn’t want to become one of *those* men who grow into sad middle age. They’re the Nigel Farages of the world, though, obviously, I didn’t know his name way back then. I just didn’t want to live in a suit, have to go to bars and talk shit for hours, and then progress into a dull corporate life because I was trapped with a mortgage, a wife, children, and everything else that would tie me to a 9-5 job.
So, I went back to college and my parents were happy for me. It was an exciting time. It was like I’d admitted to my deepest darkest guilt. I wanted to be a writer.
I remember setting off one day for Liverpool where I bought the Arden edition of Midsummer’s Night Dream. Sitting on the train in Lime Street Station, waiting to leave, I was fretting about the book in my bag. This was Shakespeare. It was meant to be difficult and boring. What if I’d made a huge mistake?
Because I was largely interested in American writing, I’d never read Shakespeare. Never watched it. Didn’t know a thing about it. I was scared. So, like pulling a bandage off, I thought I’d just read the damn thing so I opened it there and then and… found it easy!
It was like reading Ginsberg or Kerouac or pretty much anything you face in literature. There are always words you struggle with but I understood it fairly well. Certainly, enough to follow it. It was also funny and light. There’d be books I’d later hate/struggle to finish (Austen, Henry James) but that was never true of Shakespeare. I did my ‘A’ level in about seven months (I’d originally signed on to do it in two years) and was at a proper university nine months later, where we’d read a Shakespeare play a week for the first six months.
I never feared books again. In fact, I made a particular effort to tackle the books that had bad reputations. I read War & Peace (which I loved) and Ulysses (which I hated). I started Finnegan’s Wake and realised I had better things to do with my time. But the whole point was that I tackled literature by doing it organically, because I wanted to do it. And that’s really the only point I was making.
The government believes that all children should be taught our cultural history but they never for once stop to ask themselves if it’s suitable for all children. Nor do they seem to realise what damage it does. There’s a time and place to read Shelley and Keats and it’s certainly not before you’re ready. It’s why I think we have such an illiterate culture. We don’t want children to discover the pleasure of reading. We want to indoctrinate them with a world view through books. It’s shameful. It’s depressing. It’s the very opposite of what education should be about.