Narrative verdicts

This is National Book Week, somewhere in the world, I should imagine. So what better time to reflect on the importance of reading in shaping people’s lives while taking the chance to tell everybody that I’ve read every word of War and Peace, which shows that literature both broadens the mind and offers unrivalled opportunities for smugness.

It also, I think, compensates me for not knowing any foreign languages or my times-tables and having poor dress-sense and social skills – all things I couldn’t be expected to deal with while enveloped in Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, various Brontes and other 19th century masters and mistresses, which is what I was mostly doing during my formative years. It’s called prioritisation and it’s got me where I am today. Discuss.

I often think about books and their worth because I’m a reading volunteer at the City of Leeds Academy in Woodhouse, Leeds, where many of the pupils are recently-arrived from eastern Europe and other foreign parts and need all the help they can get to adjust to life and language in Yorkshire, including understanding the cultural importance of Chinese takeaways, the need to thank the driver when alighting from a bus and rugby league (I don’t attempt trying to explain cricket).

Since they’ve probably had no say in how they got here, they might find it irksome that they are expected to learn, for example, that the ‘k’ in knock is not pronounced and disappointed to find that their reading volunteer has no more idea about why it’s there than they have. They might also have noted that their reading volunteer tends to fall to pieces when presented with the word ‘cough’.

Still, these are resilient, if unintentional, globe-trotters. They are generally, amongst those I read with, in the early years of secondary school and learn alarmingly faster than I ever did. The aim is to produce , by the age of 16, fluent English readers ready to go on to further education, which is quite a jump for some of the children who were not previously fluent readers in any language, including their own.

The books they are given to help them achieve this near-miracle are very often brilliantly illustrated because British illustrators are, well, brilliant, despite the tendency of the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, to dismiss all school activities other than imitating Chinese swats as inadequate.

Her view is that children shouldn’t spend too much time doing arts and humanities, which include some of the disciplines Britain makes a fortune from - graphic design, computer gaming and making up stories for example.

The vision for British education is that children should know their grammar and be only a little less competent than a calculator when it comes to simple arithmetic. This will allow British state-schooled (or, now, academiesed) pupils to input data in call centres and work, under the constant threat of being replaced by robots, at various middling-to-highly skilled tasks, such as carpet-fitting, nursing, joinery, encouraging insurance claims and journalism . Meanwhile, cleaners can be sourced from abroad, the highest-paid professionals from the private school system and actors from Eton.

This is despite the obvious (to me, though probably not to Nicky Morgan) fact that the biggest call on labour for the future will involve looking after frail, demented or disabled people, assuming there’s not an Armageddon - a word mainly understood by those educated in the humanities, although one day we might all have to absorb it.

I have several friends who now work as carers, even though they have industrially-skilled backgrounds and once did more lucrative jobs. They are attracted to caring because they are interested in people and want to do some good in the world while also enjoying the eccentricities, the highs and the lows, of helping unusual humans survive under pressure.

The children I read with at the City of Leeds Academy are often (although not always, as is the case with all children) hard working and as bright as buttons, although they can’t be expected to understand the phrase ‘bright as buttons’ because it doesn’t make much sense in any language and the possibility of them mastering idiomatic English before they leave school is not high.

Still, it would be very satisfying if they were to end up able to enjoy stories – particularly novels but also tales from science, computer games, soap-operas, films, broadcasting or comic strips – because the most limiting of jobs can be ameliorated by giving some rein to the imagination and people who can read fluently might be better placed to enjoy life, which in dull jobs means the space between shifts, better than those who can’t.

The caring professions, even though some of them are too low-paid to be generally regarded as professions, depend on an understanding of how people work, which I think would be better achieved by absorbing Dickens or Dostoyevsky than by absorbing instructions from the DWP – and of course instructive stories don’t entirely depend on reading; films and TV can also do the trick, but language, particularly the local one, is all-important.

Which justifies my volunteer job and if it were to lead to even one of the children I work with reading War and Peace, or any other life-changing story, I would have to say, probably to the confusion of recent immigrants, that although you could have knocked me down with a feather, I wouldn’t have toiled in vain.

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