My first lucid memory of a book relates to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, on my first day of infants’ school. I remember being enthralled, enraptured and a little bit frightened as our Miss-Honey-from-Matilda-esque teaching assistant read the words aloud to a small group of us, while we sat cross-legged on the floor, invited to peek at each page in turn. (Frightened because it had lurid 3D illustrations and I didn’t know what was going to pop out next). In fact, so captivated was I that I forgot to close my mouth for several long minutes and ended up dribbling all over myself. In my defence, I was four.
I’ve pretty much had my nose in a book ever since. I read books with fury and enthusiasm, always willing myself – but unable – to slow down, so that I can eke out the pleasure of this new world I’m exploring a little longer. I’ll carry whatever tome I’m currently devouring everywhere, so it becomes bashed, bent and loved-looking. I’ll fold over the pages and spill tea on them, before finally attaching a Post-it note reading “ENJOY!” on the book and leaving it on a train. (If you have found one such volume: yes, that was me. Probably.)
Roald Dahl, The Worst Witch and The Chronicles of Narnia saw me through my primary years. I had a brief love affair with YA fiction (it had rude bits) when I arrived at secondary school, before deciding that the novels of DH Lawrence were even ruder – with the added advantage that you could fool people into thinking they were highly intellectual (slash old).
In Year 9, we were introduced to Shakespeare and I was (according to my family) really annoying, marching about self-importantly reading bits of A Midsummer Night’s Dream aloud and thinking I’d discovered it (“Have you HEARD about this bloke Shakespeare? He’s SO GOOD! Oh CAN’T we go to the theee-a-taaar, Mother?”).
My infatuation with George Orwell commenced in Year 10. I distinctly remember refusing to leave my room because I “couldn’t stop” reading 1984 and I wasn’t allowed books at the dinner table. No wonder my Mum started calling me “Saffy” – in reference to the character in Absolutely Fabulous.
In Year 11, it all got a bit lost in a haze of exam stress and coming of age. In sixth form, the real fun started, with Jane Eyre, more Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley, A Streetcar Named Desire…God, it was brilliant. I still have dreams where I’m back in my English class in sixth form and, in contrast to most people’s school-based anxiety dreams, mine are wish-fulfilment.
Underskirts, footballers and escapism
So, obviously, the natural choice for my degree subject was English, and it was at university that my relationship with fiction changed. I started to see the type of books we studied (endlessly analysed – reading whole books containing theories as to what the book might be about and then further books with theories about the theories) as distinct from the sort that I’d read for pleasure. It’s no coincidence that this was around the same time that my mental illness began to manifest. During the day I’d be reading something text-heavy and concentrate-y for class, and by night you’d find me curled up with Harry Potter (when I wasn’t in the union bar, obviously).
After I’d graduated, I was rarely to be found reading anything other than so-called chick-lit – trashy novels where the central narrative involved a girl getting married and having a crisis over which type of tulle she should use for her underskirt – or “shocking” anonymous memoirs written by glamour models and pop stars.
Looking back, what those books provided me with was a much-needed escape from my own brain. Depression and anxiety make it really difficult to concentrate. You’d chop off your right arm if it meant you could immerse yourself in something as educational as it is absorbing for a couple of hours, but your mind won’t let you. The dilemmas of a two-dimensional character whose biggest worry in life was that her footballing boyfriend had bought her a diamond-encrusted Cartier watch inscribed with another woman’s name were what, at the time, diverted me enough to allow me some respite from the emotional turbulence that plagued the rest of my head.
I should note here that there are authors who have bridged the gap between frothy and intellectual, between entertaining and thought-provoking – brilliant people like Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes, Caitlin Moran and Matt Haig: the Jane Austens and Charlotte Brontës of our time – who make the world of books a better place for everyone and the contents of my skull a nicer place for me. But, pre-internet, my knowledge of the landscape of literature was more limited and therefore my choices seemed starker.
Books. They aren’t just an intellectual or a recreational pursuit: they can be medicine. Books (and, as I have previously written, Bowie) helped to save my sanity. At a time when my so-called logical brain was trying to kill me, my creative brain provided a place of refuge and respite.
This week, the Reading Agency launched its first-ever books-on-prescription list for young people. I was honoured that our Self-Esteem Team guide was among the shortlist of tomes now stocked in every library and therefore available, for free, to be recommended as and when appropriate by GPs and therapists. And I was pleased to note that, alongside books like ours – which are, I suppose, I must reluctantly admit, self-help – there was a selection of fiction.
Creative pursuits have long been shown to aid recovery from mental illness, but they’re also essential as part of every human being’s life-survival kit. Whether it’s sport, music or even a maths problem (if you have a mathsy brain, apparently these can be a marvellous distraction from everyday stress), we all need to carve some moments in which we can truly express ourselves and thereby exorcise toxic emotions in a positive way. For me, books were the conduit by which I created those moments.
Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE
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