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From Enid Blyton to Richard Hoggart: The use of literacy

The questions about class and literacy which inspired the New Statesman's Literacy Week.

The first thing to say is that I don’t remember it being that bad, being poor. Let me caveat that straight away: I was not poor for long; I was a child at the time; I had a set of careful, caring, parents who bore the brunt of worrying. I understand now that it could easily have been very different.

It’s still worth noting how pleasant things were. So pleasant, actually, that I didn’t fully realise I’d been working class until I wasn’t anymore. Even then, the realisation came slowly. In fact, I don’t think I understood how deeply my alliances were split until I read The Uses of Literacy on a train, found myself unexpectedly tearing up over Richard Hoggart’s final chapter, “Unbent Springs: A Note on the Uprooted and the Anxious”, and realised that my family had not so much jumped the class barrier as vaulted over it without thinking too carefully about the landing.

I know, poor me. But I mention The Uses of Literacy for a reason (another reason, I mean, aside from cliché). I was at Hoggart’s memorial service at Goldsmiths in 2014, and the programme – I have it on my desk now – opens with a quotation of his, which reads:

“If you put the most important cultural elements in society into the hands of commercial people who want to make a profit they will bring it down to the lowest common denominator.”

Hoggart has been accused of snobbery for lines like this, but snobbery can be extremely generous, and his was; a way of seeing the best in people not afforded much worth, and making the case that they should, therefore, have the best, too. (Having something expected of you in this way is a double-edged sword, of course – but I believe on the whole better than the alternative.)

Growing up feeling safe was partially facilitated by this sense of responsibility. Because both the state and my mother believed that I ought to be reading, I did, and because every library was dry, and warm, and filled with all sorts of people looking at the same books, it was difficult to feel hard done by.

And so I was raised with a sense of entitlement to literature, whether it was Enid Blyton or, eventually, Vladimir Nabakov and James Joyce. I learnt financial literacy from books, as well as history, and politics, and language. When I got older, reading the work of feminist writers non-fiction and otherwise helped me understand that, just possibly, I was not in fact plainly repulsive, and too loud and argumentative (and even if I was, so were lots of other people, and some of them were best-selling writers beloved for being those things). Every moment from then on when I felt awkward  felt, like I think most people do sometimes, wrong in every way, actually  was always softened by that fact.

I’m still pretty rubbish with money. That’s on me. And I still sometimes feel too loud and not quite clever enough.

There’s a good chance a lot of us feel some or all of that sometimes, but the question of class is worth dwelling on. I was rather severe to a friend of mine once when he asked, apropos of my research interests, if I wished I’d been alive in the 1930s. He didn’t mean anything by it, of course. But the gulf between his aesthetic vision of the 1930s and sure, I too would like Stravinsky and Sylvia Townsend Warner and getting to watch Finnegans Wake detonate itself all over literature; even when I’m on my high horse, I know the sort of sucker I am and my social imagining felt insurmountable. When I picture the 1930s, I think of a world only twelve years after female suffrage, several decades before the pill or the Equal Pay Act; a place where someone born poor and female in the working class would most likely have not been let near a university, let alone been able to become the sort of person who pontificates on Finnegans Wake. (I’m ashamed to say I said all of these things to my friend at the time.)

If that’s a bit shameful, though, it’s hard to describe the sensation of imagining your childhood if you were born today, and wondering if you ought to feel the same wariness.

When I see library closures or school cuts when my colleague Stephen Bush tells me that it would cost £70,000 to keep the scheme that taught him to read running today – I feel my past dissolving behind me. I know if I wanted to make a population less informed, and therefore less able to mobilise themselves, I’d close down all the libraries and underfund the schools, and I wonder about us journalists who benefitted from the state.

I know, I know: closing-time conspiracy theories, to add to the self-mythologising. It's hard to be smart about this. There is a Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, a dispatch from Paris published on the Atlantic website a few years ago, where Coates says  of meeting his wife, but it could be about a lot of things that “we are all drawn towards each other because of myth”.

In that sense, I don't think it's a sin to mythologise your own story a little, to place it within the wider context of social democracy and change. That's another lesson from books: daydreaming can change lives. It can be hard to acknowledge the scale of the challenge when it comes to enabling access to literature for those who come after us. I’ve done interviews for this week which end in my subject and I sat opposite each other, wondering blankly what we can do. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, painful.

But we must think about it. And the question we must ask is this: if we were born 20, 30 years before we were – if I was born, say, in 1969, the year my parents were – what would we want to do for ourselves?

This week we have pieces on this question. Literacy week takes on “literacy” in the broadest sense: from libraries and campaigning to childhood reading schemes and global access to literature. It asks about women’s financial literacy and why publishing doesn’t cater for black teenage girls. It includes writing from the CEO of Lumos, J K Rowling’s charity, and from the authors whose books are now on library shelves.

We also have writing, a lot of it from New Statesman staff, about how it feels to grow up reading. You can speak logically about the importance of providing access to literacy, in terms of policy and library placement and PSHE classes. But you can also speak emotionally, and say there is some residue not fully accounted for by the statistics; a human feeling about stories which is no less important for being difficult to defend one’s right to. The empathetic weight of having access to innumerable different lives is not to be sniffed at, and it’s no exaggeration to say that books can teach us to feel as much as think.

Literacy isn’t the only way to humanity. (Aside from anything else, it’s evident plenty of great readers are bastards.) But I believe in my silly, chippy bones, even if I can’t prove it logically, that there’s no better way of learning how to be a person in the world than through books, if we can give enough people the chance.

It’s the chance I’d want to have created for myself, if I had had a hand in it.

I hope you enjoy our literacy week.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.