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Words are all I have……

November 27, 2011

It’s a Thursday afternoon in November 1962, and I’m in my second last year at Primary School. The school is situated in an old house in a leafy suburb of Liverpool. Edinburgh born, I’ve been in the north of England for five years now – I’m 10 – and I’m starting to feel less homesick.

By any standards, this is a comfortable setting. Our class is situated in what would have been the drawing room of this old house; outside is a lawn, still littered with autumn leaves, and a newly created flagged playground – with real goals, for playtime football. In my memory there is the sharp smell of burning leafsmoke, but maybe that’s illusory. It’s an all boys school, and when we hear the lunchtime squeals from the girls school over the wall, we’re pleased about that.

All in all, it’s just about perfect – especially on Thursday afternoons. For this is the time when we get our reading lesson.

Classroom afternoons in November could be grim affairs – awkward light, the teacher difficult to see against the windows, rattle of rain against the glass and the thought of a train ride in the dark, watching other people already at home, through the windows of trackside houses. But when Bill McCann read ‘Wind in the Willows’, all this vanished in a comfortable cocoon of summer river banks, cosy underground dwellings, and the gurgle of a fast flowing river.

It’s easy to diss ‘Wind in the Willows’ now, as an outdated, Edwardian paeon to a youth that never actually existed, an extended fairy tale for soppy, middle class developmentally arrested adults. Certainly, looking at the somewhat tragic and stilted life of Edinburgh born Kenneth Grahame, you can see the comfort he must have experienced from writing this tale. And , on another level, it’s also a fairly cutting political satire, as befits its authorship by the man, who as Secretary, had his signature on Bank of England notes.

However, we knew nothing of this in our classroom as the mellow tones of our teacher, with his twinkling eyes, and mock serious demeanour, wrapped themselves around us.

As a widow’s son, I suppose I was always going to be vulnerable to a strong male figure in my childhood, and I’m hugely fortunate that Bill played that role. probably in his fifties, when he taught us, he was just right for the task, a tweed suited, ex RAF fighter pilot, who had also played rugby, but had seen enough of life to recognize that gentle is stronger than forceful.

He brought the characters – Ratty, Mole, Badger, Toad and all – to life so skillfully and vividly that I still hear his voice when I re-read the book today, still have a distrust of stoats and weasels, and can’t see a vintage car without thinking ‘Poop poop’.

The joy I got from those sessions was the best sort of contentment, not really recognized until much later. I just knew I looked forward to the lessons, and was captivated by the characters and their world, and the words Grahame used to draw them and bring them to life.

It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the written word, with books, with stories and with the power of description.

Of course, such an obsession, unconsciously, set me up for the requirements of our education system, leading to a degree in English, and a career as an English teacher that has never failed to give me joy.

However, it did more.

It was a kind of liberation from being an only child, an entry to a world of friends, heroes and otherness. I could go anywhere, do anything, think great thoughts and accomplish great feats – simply by turning the pages of a book and getting lost in its created world, realizing the power of words, and the skill of writing.

I believe that timing was everything in this. As a nine and ten year old I was impressionable, as are all children. Bill McCann instigated a thirst I never even knew I had, and my family, thank God, encouraged me in quenching it. Friday night visits to the local library became an integral part of my weekend routine, one looked forward to with anticipation. I can remember running home so I could start reading the latest borrowings.

Whatever the future holds for a child, he needs to learn how to access it, and be comfortable in doing so. Whether he gets his information and learns about the world from an encyclopoedia, Wikipedia or an iPad and whether he reads his books on paper or by kindle, it’s the words that count, the reading that makes it possible. And joy in the written page leads to articulacy and communication skills socially as well.

All of this explains why children who grow up comfortable with books, surrounded by them, and seeing them as part of their everyday life, tend to flourish, academically and socially. Even if it’s hard to overcome social exclusion and economic inequality, we can make a difference by providing access to books – and access to all, so reading, like so many other advantageous habits, does not come to be seen as an entitlement of the middle class or a privilege for a few.

For that reason, I would draw attention to the Christmas fund promoted by Kate Higgins, of Children First, xmasbooksfrkids

It’s a wonderful cause and can really make a difference. If you’re reading this, chances are, when you were young, somebody gave you a book; now you can do the same.

The chance to read is the chance to grow!
Have a happy Christmas.

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