I grew up in a house with few books, yet had a voracious appetite for the written word. My parents were not great readers. They might buy a book apiece to see them through the annual summer holiday, and our home took a newspaper every day, but most of the books that would eventually grace our secondhand shelves were the ones I bought.
Before that, however, there was the local Carnegie library, which I haunted, taking out the maximum allowance (three books per visit, I think). On visits to friends and relations, I headed straight to the bookcase. If there was no bookcase, I’d be scouting for magazines and newspapers.
Children’s comics were an affordable luxury and also my gateway drug to other forms of storytelling. At one point, I think I had about seven or eight weekly comics on order at my local newsagent. At school my best subject was English and I was blessed to be taught by a succession of great and passionate teachers, themselves advocates of the written word. Not that bookishness was something to advertise – I came from a working-class coal-mining village in Fife. It was a tribal place, an environment where you didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.
Though I spent quiet hours in my small bedroom scribbling song lyrics, poems and stories, I never told anyone. But when I was 17, I entered a national poetry competition and came second.
This was reported in the local Courier newspaper and suddenly my parents realised they had a poet in the family. They were supportive, if a touch bemused. The same went for my high school, where the rector asked to see my poem. It was titled ‘Euthanasia’ and I’m not sure he was entirely complimentary – a feeling shared by most of my elderly uncles and aunts. Not that I cared overly, I had written something of merit after years of reading –soaking up authors’ words, feelings and world views.
My village was small and tightly-knit but a universe of stories was available to me at all times. I felt like a traveller through space and time. This is why I’ve always been a keen supporter of initiatives to get people reading. Books can be a form of escape and of therapy, a way of learning about the world and its cultures and inhabitants, a means of making sense of the seeming chaos around us and of the problems we can sometimes face.
I’ve visited prisons where literate prisoners sit with their non-literate brethren and help them understand the jumbled sequences of letters placed in front of them. I have talked to homeless people who regard books as their friends, hanging out with them to pass the time more companionably.
The Give A Book charity connects books to those most in need of them and should be celebrated for that.