The book that changed my life

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Iain Veitch on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I have always been an avid reader, hungry to devour anything on offer of a literary or, indeed, non-literary nature - a rapacious habit I have extended to eating now that I am in my late thirties. From an early age I haunted the local library, perusing the collections for Enid Blyton and Richmal Compton or thumbing the pages of the Professor Brainstawm novels I had read to the point of perfect recall, while all the time gazing longingly at the packed shelves of the adult section. What mysteries were held there I could only guess at but visits to my mother's side had opened my eyes to vast quantities of works by Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Dennis Wheatley. With such prodigious output, it seemed to me that these must be the behemoths of literature, giants I must conquer if I was to be truly well read.

Thus it was that, aged 14, with scarcely a backward glance at my childhood friends Long John, Agerton Sax, The Three Investigators et al, I began my long trawl through the annals of machismo.

It was at this time that I began my O-level studies and was introduced to Charles Dickens and a novel that has become an almost a constant companion. To a boy who regarded MacLean's HMS Ulysses as a peerless work, the notion of Victorian fiction held great expectations indeed - boredom being the foremost. However, in the opening paragraph I, like Pip, was gripped. The author established a hold over me from which I have never escaped. I accept that it is not his greatest work; indeed, I blushingly admit that I had a dalliance wit David Copperfield during my late teens. But the novel has stayed with me, and taught me much in the process.

A working-class boy in a public school, I identified readily with Pip. His insecurity both in Satis House and his London surroundings was an emotion I recognised immediately. His shameful snobbery and casting off of those close to him mirrored my own callow behaviour at that age and the bitter self-recrimination that this led him to is something I came to know only too well. Since that time, my affinity with his experiences has increased. I have taught so many "pale young gentlemen", absurdly gauche characters whose goodness transcends their awkwardness, and recognised the worth of parents and friends whose constancy has been that of Joe and Biddy, willing to excuse even the most savage barbs and snubs.

Great Expectations is quite simply a magnificent book - a ripping yarn filled with humour and, above all, tenderness that never fails to entertain or move me. It led me to explore a world of classics I would never have touched otherwise and thus, indirectly, to a degree in literature and a job in teaching - although I am willing to forgive it the latter. Like Wordsworth's Michael, it evokes a deeply personal response and still speaks to me today, giving me a model of parental fidelity to aspire to now that I am a father. It is a treat I will share one day with my children, hoping that it will touch their lives in the way it has mine.

Iain Veitch is deputy head at Park View community school, County DurhamHas a book changed your life?

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