My Life in 5 Books #2

Favourite Childhood Book?

& The National Curriculum

Many stories I liked in childhood were TV adaptations of novels, such as Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn or Kidnapped. I don’t recall reading many books per se, but I did work my way through quite a few of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Sorry if that makes me sound like a racist now!

I much preferred comics like the Beano, the Dandy, Oor Willie (pictured with Fat Boab and Wee Eck) and The Broons annuals. In short, stuff produced in my own country by DC Thompson of Dundee. I read football comics and annuals more than war ones – although I did get really into a lot of Commando books aged about 12 or 13. So I read mainly picture stories –  they helped me to enjoy my reading, which is still the case today.

I probably didn’t mind the odd children’s novel that I was obliged to read at school, but I’ve never been a fan of institutionalised reading – in other words, everybody reading and studying the same book at the same time. (I doubt if I will ever join a book club then!) I still think too much of this goes on: it seems as if most of the population are still channelled into reading the same half a dozen or so best-sellers that are de rigeur at any given moment. It’s great when you can move beyond that and have confidence in your own individual choices. I suppose this type of reading gives opportunity for discussion, but as children we often relate it to the compulsory written work we had to do and reading books becomes associated with chores rather than leisure and pleasure.

In retrospect, a defining moment for me occurred in the second year of high school. I had a teacher who often took us to the school library to select our own books. There may have been the odd set text, but as I recall it, most of the time we were all sitting in class reading different books. I think we did relatively little written work that year. I don’t know if this was the teacher’s personal vision of how learning English should be or whether it was simply because he was getting quite close to retirement and couldn’t be bothered with proper class work. But it certainly worked for me and I always remember that.

I can’t really remember which books that caught my attention then were part of the syllabus and which I just read. To be fair some of them were very good – A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines for instance. I don’t remember reading the book (I probably didn’t even if I was supposed to) but I do remember watching the film version Kes at school and it reamins one of my favourite films. I also liked Joan Lingard’s “Kevin and Sadie” series about a young couple set in the Troubles in Northern Ireland; The Twelfth Day of July and Across the Barricades are two I remember reading. I realise now that even at the tender age of 13,  I was becoming more drawn towards stories that contained social realism and political scenarios rather than adventure or crime mysteries or whatever.

The outstanding book that I remember from that time however, and it might have been a set text, was A Pair of Jesus Boots by Sylvia Sherry. I can’t remember a great deal about it now but apparently it was set in the post-war slums of Liverpool and it was about wayward teeneagers if I remember correctly. For me this was probably a stepping stone towards The Angry Young Men, Kitchen Sink dramas, Brendan Behan, Jimmy Boyle, Midnight Express, James Kelman, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and suchlike.

Funnily enough, this teacher I was talking about, studied English with George McKay Brown in Edinburgh. I think they were good friends. I was surprised to see Ian McArthur and Forres Academy (don’t be fooled by the name, it was an ordinary comprehensive school with all sorts) get a mention in Brown’s memoir For The Islands I Sing.


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