Magazine article The Spectator

Victims Unmindful of Their Doom

Magazine article The Spectator

Victims Unmindful of Their Doom

Article excerpt

'You're the kind of writer who'll be famous after you're dead,' said a friend the other day. Since she is old enough to have had lunch cooked for her by D. H. Lawrence (the main dish appears to have been a sort of simplified pollo alla cacciatora), I was not inclined to jib at such cold comfort. A smidgen or two of fame might indeed be nice, even if enjoyed from beyond the grave. Celebrity, however, scarcely guarantees devoted readers. We've all heard of Chaucer, but when did you last open The Boke of the Duches, and how well thumbed is your copy of The Parlement of Foules? Even the Knight, the Miller or the Wife of Bath seldom stray beyond the confines of an exam syllabus or an undergraduate course module. So, coddled by houris and cherubim, or from my vantage point amid the personified abstracts on a rococo ceiling - `The Apotheosis of Keates' by Sebastiano Ricci sounds just the ticket - I shall gaze down anxiously in search of even the smallest number of genuinely engaged readers. Vain speculation of this sort is encouraged by the official announcement of a National Year of Reading, designed, according to government publicity, `to engage the whole community in a national effort to raise standards of literacy and create a more literate nation'. Everyone from the scriptwriters of TV soaps and The Big Breakfast to the directors of Walker's Crisps and the apparatchiks at Mr Smith's Culture Club is being cajoled or dragooned into egging on the page-turners, assisted by the Department of Education's 750,000 douceur, known in civil-servantspeak as `pump-priming'.

Mockery of this initiative has already begun, in that ageless tradition of English cynicism which maintains that freedom from popery and wooden shoes is best expressed by hooting with derision at anything a government appears to take seriously. We snigger at the illustrations in the DOE promotional pamphlet for seeming to suggest that only primary-school pupils and grannies actually read books, and we guffaw outright at the notion of Grant Mitchell ostentatiously leaving a copy of Crime and Punishment on the Queen Vic bar or the errant Sally Webster of Coronation Street using Madame Bovary to plot her next moves with calculating loverboy Greg.

Pooh-poohing wizard wheezes for getting the British to read seems mean and shortsighted, even among those for whom in principle a Labour administration ought never to be acknowledged as capable of doing right. The idea that in a year's time a far wider and less predictable constituency of the bookish will emerge from the whole exercise is attractive, especially to us scribblers, whose noses are tickled as we lie asleep by dreams of royalty statements and public-lending rights. Cheering, too, is the prospect of the printed word being enabled, albeit with pump-priming from a mere beggarly 250 k, to fight back against the empire of Sega and Nintendo and the Internet's siren distractions.

It's not the enterprise itself that worries me, for all its wackier, Walker's Crispier aspects, but the concept it embodies of a suddenly erupting crisis, a sort of BSE of literacy, on which the government can be seen to be acting with the appropriate parade of bustle and decisiveness. The scenario we are required to envisage is that operatic nemesis of polite learning in which `universal darkness buries all' at the close of Pope's The Dunciad. Read or perish, implies the campaign. …

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