Is reading idle? In my family, it was certainly suspect

My brothers were both warriors in Lycra, while what I did had no value whatsoever – and still doesn’t.

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I have two brothers, one older, one younger. Though I revere and adore them both, they view me with contempt. It was ever thus. In childhood, our character traits were carved out like slices of pie: my older brother collected butterflies, my younger brother climbed rocks, and I sat on the sofa reading books.

They were warriors, but what I did had no value whatsoever. Attempts on my part to share poems about butterflies or memoirs of mountain ascents were greeted with derision. “God, Fran,” went the refrain, “why do you refer everything back to literature? Why don’t you actually get out and do something?”

It was a battle between life and the representation of life. Wordsworth treated his sister in the same way. “With speed put on your woodland dress,” he urged her in a poem about the first day of spring; “And bring no book . . .” In another poem, he despaired: “Enough of Science and of Art;/Close up those barren leaves”.

Decades on, my brothers can’t greet me without irony, there being something infinitely amusing about writing for a living. My older brother, who has never read a word I’ve ever written, was once in Waterstones, where he found one of my books on the shelves. He called his two daughters over to look at it, as though it were a shrunken head. The book was, he told me – and here comes the joke – “in the transport section”. Oh, how he laughed.

Several years ago I visited my younger brother in New Zealand, where he now lives, and his friends, all trapeze artists, monocyclists and harpoon fishermen, greeted me with astonishment. “What! He’s got a sister?” exclaimed each and every one. “He’s literally never mentioned you. Not once.” Walking on the beach, my nephew – aged 14 – asked me what kind of books I wrote. “Biographies,” I replied. Long pause. “What’s a biography, Aunty Fran?” It was a good question, and I considered how best to reply. “Is it like geography?” he continued. “Dad says your books are really boring,” he concluded, skimming a stone into the sea.

Then two summers ago we all convened in a Scottish fishing lodge to celebrate our father’s eightieth birthday. Walled in by midges, I hunkered down with a copy of The Wind in the Willows while the others canoed around the loch. Fifty pages in, the front door crashed open and my younger brother, dressed head to toe in Lycra, was by my side.

“Close up those barren leaves,” he said (or something like that). “Otherwise you’ll have done nothing all day!”

And suddenly there we were, back in the 1970s, re-enacting the battle of life v art. Except that now I fought back. “How funny!” said I, rising to my full height. “My precise definition of doing nothing all day is messing about in boats, as Ratty puts it. Reading at least takes you somewhere.”

The moral of this tale? No two definitions of anything are the same. Or, one person’s idleness is another person’s adventure. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories

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