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.