In 1982 I was in Carmarthen following a Foundation Course in Art & Design. I don’t know if it was my age or the wholly new experience of leaving home but college made me feel renewed in a way I have rarely felt since. I’d had a fair bit of freedom for a couple of years before moving away but I had a steady girlfriend and the pressure to go home to see her every weekend was equalled by the attractions of my mum’s washing machine and Sunday dinners.
The bus journey home on a Friday afternoon became a valued respite of enforced inactivity which I filled with reading. I got into the habit of visiting a bookshop in the high street and choosing a novel for the trip home, ideally of a length I could finish in the three hours it took to get there (including a pint while I waited for a connection in Ammanford!). The first, and most memorable for that, was Hearts of Gold by Clive Sinclair, a fragrant collection of dark, quirky short stories, the texture and tone of which left a lasting impression on my plasticine mind.
Reading is not an aerobic activity. At least not physically. You can sit still for hours reading while your mind performs a guided set of mental gymnastics that would make Olga Korbut seem like a mud wallowing hippo. If I was observed while reading it might be supposed that I was in a semi comatose state. But all the while my thoughts are leaping and dancing along to the author’s reel. Cartwheeling through time and space and forming pirhouettes and arabesques of my own, inspired like a crazed jazz musician riffing around the tune.
I learned to read on my mother’s lap. One of the greatest gifts you can receive as a child is the ability to read and one of the greatest things you can bestow on your children is to teach them. By the time I went to junior school at the age of four I could already read and was immediately advanced from Sali Mali (a red book) to Y Pry Bach Tew (a green one). Tomos Caradog (in blue) came next and as the pictures got smaller and the text became denser, reading took over from merely looking at the pictures.
Having said that, I was also a big fan of the comics that were delivered on a Sunday morning. I was allowed to choose one of either The Dandy, The Beano or the Beezer to supplement my dad’s comic, The Sunday People.
I was soon reading books for pleasure and was fortunate to be supplied with regular additions to the family’s, and my own, library. These were often educational - atlases, encyclopedias and nature books but were also interspersed with novels, annuals and ‘summer specials’.
We had a nice little library in my home village located in a room at Brynamman Public Hall, alongside the cinema. It was a source of wonder to me that you could just waltz in, choose a book and take it away with you for a week or so. A public library system is one of the most certain indicators of a civilised society and it frustrates me immensely that they are on the wane in this country due to the uncaring, moronic bunch of gangsters that are bafflingly still in charge.
I had a wide taste in novels as a child from the ubiquitous Roald Dahl stories to books about horses, adventurers and Greek gods. I loved animals and was particularly fond of the My Friend Foxy series — in fact there was something about a series of stories that really captured my imagination. I enjoyed several of the Hardy Boys mysteries and Agaton Sax (a Swedish detective) novels. I read Enid Blyton, Norton Juster and Alan Garner, and loved The King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry and Trillions by Nicolas Fisk. My taste was often informed by watching Jackanory at teatimes, an absolute treasure trove of inspiration on seventies TV.
Every weekday my parents, for some reason, bought the Daily Express. It neither reflected nor influenced their political leanings and I can only surmise they had it because my mother’s parents had. The one advantage from my point of view was that it was the home of Rupert the Bear, a daily comic strip written in rhyming couplets that first interested me in newspapers. My father redeemed himself a little by buying the Daily Mirror to read at work during his elevenses. When I was a bit older we started getting Look and Learn every Saturday. This was an incredibly diverse and entertaining educational magazine that inspired in me a love of information graphics that inform my sensibilities as a graphic designer to this day. It didn’t just teach a child things, it taught them in style.
One Sunday a month my dad would drive me up the Swansea valley to visit his elderly sisters. He’d walk in to a hero’s welcome, sit in the comfiest armchair and grab their newspaper, invariably the News of the World (or the Cock and Crime as an ex girlfriend’s mother used to call it). He’d sit with the paper up as his sisters barraged him with their news, questions and musings. He’d grunt the occasional Yes or No, to no obvious effect, drain the mug of tea they put in front of him and eventually fold the paper and say Right off we go then, see you next month. I could never understand why they were so delighted with the visit and slightly resented the deflected fuss that landed on me as it bounced off the wall of newsprint.
I always loved a ‘paper though. As soon as I was old enough to start buying my own I plumped for the Guardian. I went over to the Independent for a few years and flirted with Today but went back after the Guardian went to a Berliner format. I always fell for the graphics, see. I have now stopped buying a physical newspaper except very occasionally, having fallen out with our only local newsagents over their ever later delivery times. I read online instead but it’s not the same really. It doesn’t keep your knees warm in winter for a start.
As a lad I was keen on music and, from 1978 on, I was an avid reader of Sounds or the NME. It was, I thought, the epitome of cool to have a copy of one of these poking out of your school blazer pocket. Twit. As the glitzy early eighties gave way to the more style conscious late eighties I graduated from music papers to lifestyle magazines like The Face and Arena. Thankfully, I matured soon enough to avoid the lads mags of the nineties.
My taste in books has varied widely over the years. On the whole I read fiction but some history and science — especially since my pragmatic sons supply me with their choices at Christmas and birthdays. I’ve had a long affair with modern American novels from the beat generation, and Robert M Pirsig through to Bret Easton Ellis and Annie Proulx, but also read the quirkier European writers like Albert Camus, Milan Kundera and Ian McEwen. I had a long period of reading science fiction, and still think that I’ll find the urge to read it again despite some serious disappointments the last few times.
I miss reading to my children. Having four kids, I was fortunate that the time I spent reading to them in total stretched for several years. But it was still over far too quickly. It is a marvellous shared experience, the cozy words of familiar stories, the child learning the narrative structure, anticipating the plot, relishing the punch lines, the parent’s focus on entertaining and educating. I persisted with reading to them into their early teens as it was such a rewarding exercise to share those special times. We got into the habit of reading communally so everyone, including me, got their fix.
I kick myself now for the many occasions I professed to be too tired, too busy or too whatever to read to them. I would take all of those occasions back in a heartbeat and read and read and read. Reading to your children is one of the great unbounded joys in life. You should never, ever, say no to a story.
I fell for the convenience and simplicity of the e-reader a few years ago. At first I enjoyed the ease with which you could leave off reading the tablet in bed the night before and pick up from the same point on your phone the next day while stting in the car waiting for the kids at rugby training. I read many books this way but always felt the experience was lacking something.
What I was missing was the physical presence of a book. The scale and heft of it. The feel of it in your hand as you rest a finger between the pages. The warmth of the paper and the subtle aroma of the printer’s ink. The soft thump as it falls onto your face if you nod off while reading. I also missed browsing in bookshops. I could, and often do, spend hours wandering at snail’s pace past shelf after shelf of seductively designed book jackets (the graphic designer’s motto — Always judge a book by it’s cover). It takes great self discipline to limit myself to a strict quota as I’d be bankrupt if I bought all the books I wanted to.
A couple of years ago my cousin bought me a lovely silver boookmark with a gardener’s boot on it that covered two of my favourite things. That settled it. I went back to printed books and will probably stick with them for good.