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Bribes, brothers and books on the road: how I learnt to love reading

Sometimes, it takes a surprising turn of events – or even the promise of a reward – to start someone off reading.

Anna Leszkiewicz on learning to read the words meant for her brother

As a young child, I was surrounded by words. Quite literally – big labels with thick, rounded letters peered down at me from most rooms. “Window” read a sticker on the window, “door” read one on the door. The walls were labelled “wall”, a table “table” – everything bore its own name. Those stickers are the only fuzzy memory I have of our first house.

This is apparently how I first started learning to read (I feel like I can remember the dizzy revelation when it clicked that the stickers carried meaning, but maybe I’ve just been told the story too many times). My mum labelled everything not for my benefit, but for my brother’s – he is three years older than me, and has cerebral palsy. At five, there was still a possibility that he might learn to read or even speak, and my mother and his carers spent hours sat with him and a packet of flashcards. “Does this say cat or dog? Cat?” My mum would ask, holding one up, waiting for him to look her in the eye as an affirmation of the correct answer. “Dog?” She was utterly taken aback when I started chiding her for not knowing the difference herself.

Because my mum’s attentions were often with my brother, I spent a fair amount of time alone as a young child, reading stories. But I also remember my family being tremendously supportive of that interest. Aunts and uncles thrust books on me that my older cousins had enjoyed; one of my brother’s carers  loved chatting with me about what I was reading, as did my mum’s oldest friend; my mum spent hours with me rewriting “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” as a play based on the life of my Irish grandmother (“Clover Green and her Nine Children”). I don’t think learning to read bestowed any greater humanity on me – my brother never was able to, and he has far more spirit than most. But I have all these people to thank for encouraging me to study English, and generally indulging the nerdy habits I still use at work today.

A young Anna displaying an uncharacteristic lack of interest in books.

Philip Maughan on how he came to love books late – then couldn't stop. . . 

The ability to read is a wonderful thing. As with most wonderful things, you can have too much of it. Before I was 16 I didn’t have any of it. The town I grew up in had one uninspiring bookshop. The famous one. I used to pass it on the way to buy guitar strings from a man with beautiful black false nails. Up to that point, my only interests were video games, forming bands to try and impress girls and making my way through endless bars of terrible quality hash.

Which is one reason why reading was so transformative, when I finally got round to trying it. I don’t remember reading a single book before Sixth Form College but when one of my bands started playing gigs away from home, a friend bought me Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I didn’t understand much of what was going on but I wanted to. I was intrigued. I bought James Joyce’s Dubliners, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and J D Salinger from charity shops while on the road, not because a teacher told me to, but because nobody I knew seemed interested in books and I figured I could make reading My Thing. By the time I got round to applying for university, age 20, books were an immovable part of my life.

But then I read too much. After graduating (in English), I got a job in a theatre, working only in the evenings so that I could read and laze about all day. I didn’t socialise much, which is a big danger for young people who get bogged down in literature: you spend so much time inhabiting the lives of others, you forget to start living your own. I’m over that now. Reviewing books has become a fun though economically disastrous element of my “career” as a journalist, and even though the “books are my bag” crew leave me cold, as do the recurring self-important essays about how reading makes you a better person (maybe, but so does working in a fucking food bank), there is one thing that niggles.

Endless data confirms what I know from experience: that if you are a white boy in a semi-urban coastal town in the UK you have about as much chance of succeeding academically as you have of scoring decent weed. This is a shame. Literacy is important for all sorts of reasons, but beyond serving the economy or enabling you to empathise with others, it shares that magic quality that belongs to all art. It can change your life.

Phil on the road.

Barbara Speed: American Girls, proper books and me

In early 1997, when I was five years old, my family moved almost 5,000 miles across the world to the US. In my memory, this wasn’t as disruptive as it sounds – I’d started school once a few months before, so being asked to do it again seemed par for the course. 

There were perks, too. Soon after arriving, we visited a colleague of my dad’s, whose daughter had something called an American Girl Doll. They are about one foot tall, with beautiful hair, and come with sets of period-appropriate clothes and a book telling the character’s story. Here was the American dream: a toy like the ones I’d loved at home, only bigger, brighter, and with infinite reams of accessories available for purchase from American Girl shops

For my parents, this new obsession no doubt posed a quandary. The dolls were pricey – they currently retail at $95  and my birthday was still nearly a year away.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I lucked out when my mum researched the company’s founder, the improbably named Pleasant Rowland, who runs a reading foundation and had said (contrary to her own business interests) that no girl should have an American Girl doll until they were able to read the accompanying book unaided.

The book, it should be mentioned, was far out of my range.  It was a “chapter book” (the kind I’d pompously pick up and pretend to read) which is currently recommended for reading ages 9+. Meanwhile, I was a disinterested reader, who would cry to get out of it. I remember bawling at the sight of a particularly hated Noddy book. To be fair to my younger self, moving across the world may also have been a bit of a distraction.

And so the challenge was set: I could have the doll if I read a certain number of “proper” (i.e. non-picture) books, which would be marked by stickers on a chart on the fridge. It’s telling that I seem to remember the total as 50, while my mum reckons it was closer to 20.

The author unwrapped her doll.

It took me around two months to get through the list, which included the book for my chosen doll. We ploughed through the adventures of Samantha, a Victorian-era orphan living with her posh grandmother, together  my mum, who now writes about books daily, recalls it as “turgid, and not particularly well written” (sorry, Pleasant). I can vividly remember the day my doll arrived in a crisp white box, wearing a smart Victorian smock and bow in her hair. I played with her obsessively for closer to a decade than I should really admit.

And, crucially, I kept reading. My mum says my ability changed completely over those months: “I honestly think you just suddenly realized that if you could read fast, you could read great stories for yourself. You wouldn’t have to read boring simple books or persuade people to read to you.” I would go on to collect armfuls of library books every couple of weeks throughout my childhood.

In the end, this story doesn’t prove much beyond the fact that I was a materialistic, and probably pretty lazy child. I clearly had reading ability, but couldn’t be bothered to develop it, and experienced none of the barriers which stand between many children and lieracy. Meanwhile, the ethics of rewarding children for developing basic skills are doubtless complex.

But I also think there’s something to be said for figuring out what captivates individual children – whether it be a catalogue of expensive doll clothes, or animals, or Ancient Egypt – and gently showing them that reading can be a window onto that and all sorts of other worlds. I suppose my parents were just unlucky that my particular obsession cost almost as much as raising another, real child.   

Pleasant Rowland runs the Rowland reading foundation.

Barbara and Samantha.

This post is part of the New Statesman's Literacy Week.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution