Ode to the joy of being read to, long may it reign

27th August 2010 at 01:00

Who remembers Squashy Hat? I suppose I was just 11, in my last year at junior school, when I first met him. He is a character in Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post, a mysterious stranger imbued by the children in the story with all manner of potentially villainous and decidedly undeserved characteristics.

Our headteacher, Arthur Shirtliffe, read Pigeon Post to us - I was in his class in what was a small mining village school. Every day he gave us a good chunk of what is a truly wonderful book by a gifted and now unforgivably neglected children's writer. Arthur read it well, and we looked forward to it anxiously as the afternoon wore on and time began to run out. But we needn't have worried, for we never, ever missed out.

Arthur, fresh out of the wartime RAF and, with hindsight, high on the heady cocktail of safety and freedom, clearly saw it as his privilege and duty to introduce us to the rich joy of reading.

I was entranced by the book. At home, I demanded my own copy, and thereafter I gradually accumulated all of Ransome's 12 masterly children's stories, from Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930, to the last one, the quite elegiac Great Northern? of 1947. All are still on my bookshelf, within reach as I write this. And all, of course, are still in print.

I was completely taken over by the world that Ransome created, and the children who lived there - Callums, Walkers and Blacketts - the Swallows and Amazons. They couldn't have been more different from me, of course. They were upper middle-class boarding school kids, free to have adventures in the long summer holiday, and I lived in the shadow of the pit head gear and the spoil heap. But such was Ransome's genius that I always felt, somehow, that if only I could reach those children I could sail the Lakes or the Norfolk Broads with them and be their friend. I saw myself standing a bit uncertainly, watching, and one of them - most likely the no-nonsense and highly capable Nancy Blackett - would turn and beckon to me, "Come on, Gerald. What are you waiting for?"

It was an almost physically painful thing to me, a glimpse of something not so much lost as never found. It's a feeling that I can recapture with very little effort.

Later, Arthur Shirtliffe read other books to us, including, quite improbably, Longfellow's Hiawatha. I was entranced by the way he brought the distinctive rhythm to life - it's called "trochaic tetrameter" I discovered later: "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis."

Again, I demanded my own copy, but somehow it wasn't the same on the page as it had been when Arthur read it to us.

All of this comes back to me more and more frequently now, as the years go on. But what has brought my thoughts into sharper focus has been the realisation that there are now classes of children in primary schools who are rarely or never read to by their teachers. One old friend, a retired primary head with an abiding love of literature, was moved to a mixture of disbelief and fury by discovering that not one of his several grandchildren was being read to in class. Another writes to me to say: "The National Curriculum seems to have usurped the traditional end-of-day serialised reading in primary schools. My granddaugher certainly doesn't get it."

Now all that is anecdote and I know there are teachers who keep up the tradition. But for me, it is worrying to know that there are any children at all, of any age - particularly in primary - who miss out on what is a precious and deeply educative experience that works at every intellectual and emotional level.

Yes, the school day is packed, and teaching a class these days is a clock-watching affair. But that makes it all the more important for children to come to a quiet halt for half an hour every day and engage, in the purest, technology-free way, with their teacher and a good story. And if teachers feel they don't have time, then heads, who presumably carry the broader vision, should make sure that they do.

My memories of being read to are still vivid, and I think the experience affected me for the rest of my life. But I'm not unique in this. Ask around and you will hear the same kind of thing from others - memories of every book you can imagine from The Silver Sword to Larry the Lamb to Roald Dahl.

A good story evokes feelings as well as images. It's actually an adventure in itself, and Ransome knew this well when he wrote, near the beginning of Swallows and Amazons, of the children's encounter with what will be their place of adventure: "The island had come to seem one of those places seen from the train that belong to a life in which we shall never take part."

Engagement with another kind of reality, safely, with friends around, is, as Ransome well knew, something that all children deserve - indeed, have the right - to experience.

Gerald Haigh is an education writer and former teacher.

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