Most of us have had the experience of running down a long and winding road, so worried about the fact that we have lost our homework that we scarcely notice that we have also forgotten to put our trousers on. We can hear the school bell ringing in the distance as we knock on the farmer's door and ask desperately if he seen a small leather satchel. He starts to answer, but the school bell is now ringing so loudly that we can't hear what he is saying. We ask again; now we can't hear what we are saying, either. We are still straining to hear, and wondering what Miss Griffiths will do about the third missed homework that week as we rub our eyes, lean over to the bedside table, switch the bell off, and get out of bed.
This daily nightmare has been made infinitely worse by the invention of the digital radio alarm clock. I have sometimes wandered about the office all day with the word 'Albania' running around my head, with no good idea of where it came from. When I get home, I hear on the Channel 4 news that there has been a revolution in the place. It isn't clairvoyance; merely the 7.43 item on the Today programme, subliminally lodged in my head before I fully woke up. When I arrive at school, Miss Griffiths starts talking about the sterling crisis or the problem of urban decay in the West of Scotland. When your brain solidifies, you can find yourself feeling, in an abstract way, that you are the Arab counter insurgents or the northern Irish peace process. I'm told the same thing happens in some forms of madness, or under hallucinogens — a strange dissolution of categories. Some years ago, I had a job putting beer cans into crates at John Smith's brewery before the invention of penguins. I could have coped with getting into work at 7.00AM, had it not involved being woken up by Farming Today. Dreams about combine harvesters and E.E.C herring quotas are not to be recommended.
But the greatest horror of all is the possibility that one might get woken up by 'Thought for the Day'. The other week I am fairly certain that I heard a lady clergyman explaining that the fact that The Lord of the Rings had been voted the greatest book of the last hundred years was a sign of England's spiritual renewal. The fact that Only Fools and Horses was the most successful TV show of all time proved the same thing, apparently. It sounds crazy when you come out and say it, I know. Perhaps I dreamt it.
Of course, deciding on the Greatest Book of the Century by a popular vote is a clever stunt, likely to increase the sales of cheap paperbacks at Waterstones and pretty unlikely to tell us much about the spiritual, let alone the literary state of the nation. It doesn't prove that we are a nation of fantasy fans; closet Roman Catholics, hobbits, or anything else. Does it tell us anything at all?
Cut back to my fourth year at secondary school; English Literature lessons. A heresy of the comprehensive system meant that all students of the same age were taught English together, regardless of ability. Hence future MAs were being educated alongside people who were going to struggle to obtain a U grade O level. This didn't apply to French, maths of science; only English.
One afternoon, some earnest students from the local Poly, probably studying to be teachers or librarians came into our room and asked us if we would mind filling out questionnaire about what we read, including a list of our five favourite books.
I forget what I listed, but Lord of the Rings was certainly number one. I think young teenagers, or maybe boys, or maybe just me, have a bad habit of being fanatical about things: Arsenal, or motorbikes, or their latest girlfriend. At this point, I'd read Tolkien about three times and started to read one or two rather better authors and a vast number of much worse ones in a vain attempt to find another source of the same 'hit'.
So anyway, I'm making my quaintly naive list: The Lord of the Rings, A Princess of Mars, Le Morte D'Arthur, Conan the Buccaneer. One of the class has raised its hand.
'Sir,' he says (the English teacher was a woman, but people tended to play safe) 'What if you haven't read five books you've liked?' Posterity, or at any rate my memory, does not record the answer. Meanwhile, a group of females in the back row were compiling the list by trying to think of the titles of five works that had been reading books (i.e. set texts) in the last twelve months.
Now, the point of Comprehensive education is to force you to mix with and occasionally get beaten up by the sort of people who your parents want nothing to do with, and who you won't want anything to do with once you leave school. 'Living in the real world' is, I believe, the polite term. And while I learnt nothing about our set text that week I did take away an important lesson about literature.
Most people do not read books. The only 'good books' that most people have read are the ones given as set texts as school. They may be culturally enriched by memorising studies of minor characters from Richard II out of Brodies Notes, but this does not even vaguely produce a tendency to read Shakespeare in their free time. Why do you think as minor a poet as Wilfred Owen scores so highly in polls about the Nations Favourite Poets? Answer: because, he is one of the least boring writers routinely set for exams. To most adolescents, froth corrupted lungs are more memorable than mellow fruitfulness and breaths of autumn's being.
It is, therefore, very suggestive that the second and third place in the Book of the Century Poll went to George Orwell, for the one about the TV screens and the one about the pigs. I mean, a damned fine author, doubtless, but in there twice, above James Joyce and the Delia Smith Summer Collection? Note also the presence of To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies: both standard O level texts set by lefty teachers in the 1970s.
The message of straw polls of this sort is that most people have not read many books since they left school. When asked 'What's you favourite book?', they think back to the fifth form. Some of them chose a book they were obsessed with at that time: not voting for it would be like betraying an old love affair. Others vote for school set texts which they did not actively dislike. Books which it is possible for an adolescent to fall in love with; and the less boring set O level texts will always do disproportiantely well.
Okay, I admit it. I'm bitter because me horse came in 4th. I voted for Ulysses. Ulysses is the greatest book of the 20th century, so of course it should have one. The fact that I have never read it is neither here nor there. I don't claim that literary snobbery is necessarily any better than literary ignorance.
I'll get around to Joyce one of these days. And Tolstoy, Hugo, Melville, Dostoyevsky and all the other doorstops. I'm currently doing Proust. He was my new years resolution. At the rate of 10 pages a day, I should be able to finish him somewhere around November.
I'm enjoying him, on the whole. He may ramble, he may be obsessed with hyper-real minutiae, and it may be impossible to find Mr Swann quite as interesting as he does, but every two or three pages he tells you something you knew but didn't know you knew. Within the first few pages he puts on the paper, for the first time in any book I've ever read, the exact sensation of waking up in the morning; the confusion of the threshold between the sleeping and the waking world, the way that the book you were reading before you dropped off can occupy your dreams, so that (he says) 'It seemed to me that I was the immediate subject of my book, the quarrel between Charles V and Francois I'
Posterity should be thankful that no-one ever bought Proust a clock radio.