Ah, back to school. Strange what time does. As a child, probably the most revolting words in the English language are, ‘Well, off to school bright and early tomorrow morning’. For a parent, the unarguable awfulness of a return to getting up in the dark, finding socks and gym kit (which, it is a well-known fact, has its own private alternative universe where it is much happier than in your house) while simultaneously making a packed lunch out of the three things your child will eat and listening to a stumbling rendition of Biff Chip and Kipper (Oxford Reading Tree and highly recommended, by the way, on the scale of learning-to-read series that won’t make the parents cry with boredom), is more than made up for by the wonderful realisation that the little poppets are going to be out of the house for five days a week between now and Christmas. And even more oddly, when adults look back on their own childhoods, it is often through a fog of sentiment out of which phrases such as ‘best days of our lives’ loom.
Well, I loathed school on the whole. But I did enjoy reading about people who didn’t, especially in the really rather splendid Malory Towers series by (whisper her name) Enid Blyton. Actually, no, let’s not whisper her name: let’s shout it from the rooftops. Enid Blyton gets a lot of children reading. I think it’s the heady mixture of simple and repetitive text and the delicious aura of disapproval with which she is shrouded in the middle-class home. Aah, forbidden fruits. Anyway, Malory Towers made me (briefly and spasmodically) yearn to go to boarding-school. It also, equally briefly, led me to believe that Darrell was a cool name. Which, of course, if that is your name, it is. But for the rest of us ….
School tends to get a cheeringly bad press in fiction. Dotheboys Hall, anyone? Or, indeed, any of the refreshingly unsentimental establishments whose alumni include David Copperfield, Jane Eyre or Billy Bunter.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned H. Potter. This is partly because I suspect you may have heard of the saga already, but mostly because the Northern Reader household lost the will to live somewhere in the middle of volume 2. Much more fun, and – crucially in this part of the forest – much shorter, are Jill Murphy’s splendid Worst Witch books. Mildred Hubble is a considerably more down to earth (apart from the broomstick, obviously) character than Harry, and a lot less given to going everywhere with an implied soundtrack of dah-dah DAAH. This seems as good a place as any to come out as allergic to Tolkien while I’m at it. No, come back ….
After school, university. Dear first-year undergraduate, here is your reading list. You will learn – or you will if you are on a humanities course of any description and if it is any good – that reading lists are neither prescriptive nor proscriptive. But try some of these on for size:
Malcolm Bradbury The History Man. It really was like this, then. Exactly like this.
David Lodge Changing Places. The scene in which academics play ‘Humiliation’ by trading lists of books they haven’t read is painfully funny (especially if it could – so easily – be you).
Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited. It probably wasn’t much like this, even then. But it is wonderful. And, unusually, the TV adaptation is every bit as fabulous. Do not, under any circumstances, watch the film. You have better things to do. Knitting, for example. Or cleaning someone else’s oven.
The fictional university that sounds the most fun is in Ankh-Morpork. Unseen University has featured in some thirteen Discworld novels in Terry Pratchett’s startlingly long oeuvre. A splendid mix of anarchy and bureaucracy, it features the best university librarian you will ever encounter. Eat your heart out, Umberto Eco: this knocks spots off The Name of the Rose as a seat of learning (but read The Name of the Rose as well: and anything you can get your hands on by Umberto Eco. We’ll talk about reading books in translation another day. Try and stop me).
You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Zuleika Dobson. That’s because I haven’t read it. We’d better talk about books we haven’t read another day too. Anyway, ZD may be wonderful – do drop me a line and let me know – although I have to confess to a suspicion that she, and it, may be a trifle tiresome.
For an education of a different sort, read Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (yes I can, so I do, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t read it in English, in which case it is, of course, Sentimental Education). I offer you two reasons for reading this: one is that Henry James thought it a bore, and the other is that Woody Allen doesn’t. You decide.