Wednesday, 22 December 2010

why reading matters

EVERY time I shut the fridge door and one of the magnetic letters falls off, I'm tempted to sweep the whole lot clear. It's not as if they are really serving their intended purpose: my son is always game to help spell out the word 'bum' and then fall over in hysterics, but that's about as far as literacy goes.
Then I read this, possibly one of the saddest things I've read this side of Christmas. It was forwarded by a teacher who set her class the task of 'reviewing' a book at home. The child who wrote this didn't have any books at home, so did their level best with the only available thing: a Yellow Pages.
It's been circulated in defence of Bookstart, which most parents of under-fives will recognise as the programme that gives out fantastically well-chosen packs of free books on certain birthdays to encourage the habit of reading. Its government funding was cut by 100 per cent last week, and its future is now uncertain. For children growing up in homes where nobody ever reads them a goodnight story, one more little chink of light is extinguished.
There's a respectable argument that it doesn't really matter. At our local library, it was always the middle class parents (yes, me included) bossily demanding their Bookstart bags: how many of those free books ended up on already well-stuffed shelves, subsidising parents who frankly didn't need them and completely bypassing the parents who did? Maybe we're kidding ourselves to think it made any difference.
But if you look at the wider context, not all of it political, the loss of Bookstart is worrying. Take the round-the-clock temptation of television for preschoolers, which may be a godsend to frazzled parents (again, me included) but arguably doesn't teach language as well as interacting with real people. Add in cuts to local libraries, the one place hard-up parents can get books for free. Then scrap children's right to 'one to one' catch up tuition in school if they fall behind with literacy. Are too many steps on the road to reading now at risk?

Friday, 17 December 2010

on living with ghosts

We have ghosts in our attic. And actually in our cupboards, on top of wardrobes, under the beds, anywhere you could squeeze a cardboard box: swathed in bubble wrap and masking tape, they are the ghosts of lives past, present and perhaps yet to come.
We've just moved house, one reason blogging has been shamefully light for the last few weeks: I've done nothing for weeks but frantically shovel things into boxes, and then frantically shovel them out again at the other end. But it has been an unexpectedly revealing process.
We had the usual pre-move debate about what could legitimately be thrown out. My pack rat husband clung indignantly on to vast piles of junk: broken stereos, miles of unidentified cabling, mystery bits of plastic, old band tour Tshirts with holes in.
Whereas I clung indignantly on to vast piles of different junk: teenage diaries, pages of toddler scribbles, photographs of people I haven't spoken to in 20 years. And of course, almost everything we'd jointly refused to get rid of went straight from the loft at the old house to the loft in the new one, doubtless to stay there undisturbed until we move again.
Really, we should throw out anything that hasn't been opened in six months. But the trouble is those ghosts. Because this isn't just useless clutter: this is useless clutter with meaning. It represents the lives we haven't lived, and would either (in a parallel universe) quite like to live or are quietly grateful we didn't.
That's why I need three skirts that I could only wear if I lost half a stone, and a pile of love letters from someone I didn't marry, and a boxful of baby things just in case: it's why my husband needs his mouldering cricket pads, despite not having played cricket for at least 15 years, because apparently this summer he might.
Ours are for the most part friendly ghosts: they don't haunt us from behind closed doors. They're just other lives we might have led, which for the most part remind us that we quite like the life we chose. I think they're going to be happy in this house. I think we are too.