National Year of Reading 2008
This year is the National Year of Reading. (That’s reading as in reading books, not Reading as in the town outside London.
My dad lived in Reading once. He had been living in France and had just worked for several months grape picking. Because my father spoke French the vintner wouldn’t believe my father was English. He asked him a series of questions:
1. What is the capital of England?
2. Which town is Shakespeare from?
3. Who is the prime minister?
When my father got all three questions right the vintner broke into a big smile. “Ah, so you are English!”
After the grape picking season finished my dad headed south to Spain. He thought he would find work in Madrid. But as soon as he got off the train at the station he was deceived by a gang of street urchins who made off with his bag and all the money he had just made.
He lived rough on the streets for a few days, getting food from soup kitchens and then through the British Embassy got in touch with his brother who lived in Reading who wired him the money to come home. Having nowhere else to go my dad went to Reading. My uncle owned a pub and my dad worked there.
I went to visit and my grandfather and grandmother were there too. It was only one of two or three times I had met them. My dad had never got on with his dad. After the pub shut we put on some music and my grandfather and grandmother did some elaborate ballroom dancing around the empty tables and then, breathless, my grandmother came over to the bar where I was sitting.
Quite secretly she slipped a ten pound note into my hand.
“Don’t tell your grandfather,” she said.
I was eighteen. My grandfather is dead now - Alzheimer's. As is my father - cancer. Nancy, my grandmother, is still alive I believe and lives near Hull. She wears a wig.
I remember that night someone said to her, “Isn’t your hair lovely.”
My dad said, “It’s a wig.”
He was drunk and thought he was being charming. He loved his mother. I didn’t mind, it was at least something I knew about her. And my father had no hair so he couldn’t talk, not since he was twenty-one. He always said he had lost it in an accident with some bleach.
He was a fantastic swimmer, my father, but not so good at running. When he would go training with his friend, Colin (the friend) would always wear massive boots and layers of clothes to weigh him down so they would keep pace.
My dad and his friends all went to either Oxford or Cambridge. Dad said he was one of the first people from a poorer family to go there. He was from Middlesborough and he said that when he went there he still said ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and was criticised.
Colin went mad and on the run. We would get oblique post cards from all over the world. He thought people were after him. Who, we didn’t know. He established a kind of code. Other times there would be phone calls, late at night. We always knew it was him.
Eventually he ended up in Australia. He killed an Aborigine in a car accident. That’s the last I heard of him.
Another of dad’s friends went to Australia too, Corky. He came to visit once. I was seven. And it was like he had come from the moon. I remember how wonderful it was. Wow. A boomerang. Wow. A koala teddy. Australia seemed so far away then. We were living in Scarborough.
I loved it there. I can remember waking up early one morning. It must have been summer because it was light. But looking out of the window I could still see all the stars. How could that have been? I don’t know. But it’s a happy memory.
Dad never really knew what he wanted to do. Others went to Australia, or mad. Another friend owned an armaments factory and made a mint. Dad didn’t approve of all that money.
“Never get a mortgage,” he said. “Never fit in. Read books.”
Which is why he ended up, perhaps, for a time in Reading.)
The National Year of Reading 2008’s aim is to get more people to read. My dad loved reading and it’s something he passed on to me.
Currently reading Don Quixote
Currently listening to Kate Bush - The Red Shoes