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18 April 2016

From Enid Blyton to Richard Hoggart: The use of literacy

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

By Stephanie Boland

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.)

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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.

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