Sunday, 27 October 2013

A Decidedly Truncated Education - Andrew Crofts

“You must have been here a hundred times,” the young woman from the Society of Authors said as our guide ushered us up to the boardroom of the British Library for a privileged peak behind the scenes of one of the biggest municipal building projects ever undertaken in the world. Priceless literary treasures had been brought up and laid out for us to wonder at. “Never been here before,” I said, surprised to see how shocked she was by this confession. “What, never?” “No,” I said, “honestly. It’s never occurred to me.” “But what about research?” “I think I must just write very superficial books.” She rejected this suggestion with all the politeness one would expect and when I later made the same confession to another member of the party, an extraordinarily distinguished biographer, he kindly pretended to be impressed that I had managed to write so many books without recourse to the many subterranean floors of material that lie beneath the building. There is close to two hundred miles of shelving under the library’s piazza, and almost the same again somewhere up north in Yorkshire. Was it arrogance that had led me to think I didn’t need the help of these people in tracking down stories and following threads of truth? Our guide took us out onto a balcony high above the floor of the reading room. The room had the proportions of a cathedral, the rows of desks filled with hundreds of readers and researchers poring silently over books and screens, lost in labyrinths of thought and information. When persuading our son that he should go on to further education, despite the fact that he had no particular vocational path in mind, my wife and I had always glossed over the fact that neither of us had been to university, telling him that “not so many people did in those days”. My wife tells me she regrets that she went straight from school to the world of work, but I have never regretted it for a second and that puzzles me because I love reading and I love thinking and I love writing, all of which should be available in spades during a university education. Seeing behind the scenes of possibly the greatest library in the world was fascinating, but it still did not make me want to join the hordes on the reading room floor. It actually made me want to escape back into my own world and to go in search of a restaurant where I could maybe read a book but more likely just watch the world go by and daydream. Daydreaming was the thing I got into the most trouble for in school classrooms. It was my greatest pleasure but also my downfall. I think daydreaming finally gained the upper hand over educational endeavour when I was about fourteen and from then on I found being confined to a classroom or the effort of being forced to read a book which did not catch my imagination almost intolerable. I had agreed to stay at school until I had at least taken some A levels and so I kept myself distracted by spending hours in the art room and the drama department. Being able to draw and paint pictures, perform and create scenery absorbed me because they allowed my mind to wander most of the time. I started tapping away at my first novel when I was fifteen and I was writing sketches for school reviews as well as appearing in them. Most of the time during those years, however, I sat around for hours on end smoking cigarettes, talking nonsense, listening to music and staring into space. I was waiting impatiently for the moment when the whole ordeal would be over and I could take full control of my life and head for London and from there to the rest of the world, breathlessly reading “Room at the Top”, “Of Human Bondage” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as I tried to work out what the coming years were going to be like. The thought of having to spend three more years in an institution where I could not daydream as much as I wanted was not attractive. By the time the envelope containing my pitiful exam results arrived at my parents’ house I was already renting a room in a shared flat in Earls Court and was starting the long struggle to support myself from my writing. I earned my daily bread in any way I could, including running a modelling agency in Bond Street and learning the dark arts of marketing and public relations. Never for a second was I tempted back into any classroom until people started inviting me to be the one on the podium doing the talking.

9 comments:

Karen Myers said...

My kingdom for a paragraph break...

julia jones said...

And I don't think you're alone. So glad you said all that.I'll TRY to stop worrying about my youngest who is adamant that the end of A levels is The End of study (or very likely before then)but from a parent's POV it isn't easy ...

Andrew Crofts said...

Sorry about the lack of paragraphs. They were there when I loaded it. Not sure what is happening with my computer's blogging abilities.

JO said...

Different ways work for different people. I loved uni - I think that was when i really understood what learning was about, as opposed to being spoonfed information.

Dennis Hamley said...

Actually, Andrew, I don't think it needed paragraphs. It came out as a sort of stream of consciousness and not only did I not miss paragraphing, I thought you'd done it on purpose! It's a lovely piece. I recognised it all - and experienced some. Not all by any means, but some. I think you're a bit hard on both research and universities - at least, universities which know what they're doing, which is often just to leave you alone. But your general drift was very persuasive.

Nick Green said...

I've never been to the British Library either, despite passing it every week. I think I'm just intimidated... Not sure if I'm "allowed in" and on what pretext this would be. Do you need some sort of "permission" or did I dream it?

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I've never been to the British Library. Well, not as a reader. I have, however, been to The National Library of Scotland and various university libraries, including Glasgow University Library, to see a VERY precious book, which was, in fact, only a facsimile, but one which was worth a small fortune. It was an intriguing experience because it involved a series of hurdles and gatekeepers (all very friendly though!) before I actually got my hands on THE BOOK itself which it was clear that nobody had looked at for several years. It was worth the effort. I have to say, though, that - although I pretty much loathed school where I was mercilessly bullied for being a shy incomer with the wrong accent - my time at university was one of the very happiest times of my life (although there have been others!) Although there were a few tough times, it essentially involved four years in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (Edinburgh) with like minded people, learning and learning and learning in a sort of daze of pleasure at just how much I didn't know and had still to learn. And I turned out not to be shy at all, which was a revelation. We had some great tutors back then. (And some not so great - nothing's perfect.) I made a few friendships which have lasted my whole life. I don't think I'd be the writer I am today without it. But it was a long time ago, and I suspect that universities are not quite what they once were ...

Dennis Hamley said...

No need to be intimidated by the BL, Nick. I spent days and days there once upon a time - and, even from Hertford, got there in time for one of their great breakfasts in the readers' cafe. Though I liked the old BM Reading Room more, for its atmosphere, history, architecture and the wonderful echo. Many found the echo distracting. I thought it was marvellous. Actually, the BL is a welcoming place with some brilliant exhibitions. Try it. There's always a later train.

Lydia Bennet said...

Julia, I loved university, but I think many aren't ready for it after years of school, perhaps even more so nowadays, when they have had sats and tests non-stop, see other postgrads on minimum wage, and will have to work at starbucks right through univ anyway. not much time for 'et in arcadia ego'. My daughter did the same subject (ish) at the same univ where I did my first degree, but it was a very different experience, she was mainly working flat out in cafes, or spending the results, no sitting up all night making jokes about Paradise Lost... but people go when they are ready for more learning, and may well need a prolonged break from academe after school exams.