If you’d asked me when I was ten, I would have said, ‘A sports commentator’. And my mother would have added, ‘Yes, he’s always talking the hind leg off a donkey.’
By the time I was twelve, enamoured of the wonderful artefacts my father and I had assembled in my museum–shed at the top of the garden, beyond the gooseberry bushes, I wanted to be an archaeologist.
At fourteen, I was quite sure that I’d become a priest and –in a hurry as I always was – before long a bishop.
Indeed, I went up to Oxford as an ordinand, but by then I’d also started to write poems and scraps of stories. Not that I was much of a reader throughout my childhood and teens. Not that I had really grasped that in order to write well it’s crucial to read, read, read, not only for pleasure but to learn skills.
I’m very sorry to say I only once borrowed a book from our gloomy little library – right opposite Rumer Godden’s cottage in a little village in the Chiltern Hills. But I’ve already documented that in my memoir of a charmed childhood, The Hidden Roads (Quercus).
No longer convinced of my religious calling, still writing, I came down from Oxford knowing that I wanted to work with words. But how? And where? I got lucky. My first job was in the publicity department of the House of Macmillan, publishers of Lewis Carroll, W. B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling.
By day I learned the publishing trade, and by night I wrote: two unpublished novels; then retellings of folk-tales my father (accompanying himself on his Welsh harp) had said-and-sung to my sister and me as we lay on our bunk beds; complete reworkings of the medieval romances, Havelok the Dane (my first book, published in 1964) and King Horn; poems; translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry; and a version of the epic poem Beowulf, illustrated by the great Charles Keeping… so it went on.
True, by now I was reading with all the zeal of the convert, borrowing armfuls of books from the London Library and at time virtually inhabiting the glorious Reading Room of the British Museum, and I was making an increasing number of visits to schools and meeting many school librarians. And, true enough, the defining motif of my Arthur trilogy is language, literacy and the power of story because, as one critic wrote, ‘they’re central to the process of discovering and building one’s identity as an individual, and as a member of a historical, of any community’.
But if you’d told me when I was a boy, young adult, adult, that one day I’d be offered the Presidency of the School Library Association, I would have been mystified and thought you were having me on.
People (school librarians, public librarians, non-librarians) keep asking me what my job will be. the truth is, I don’t know. Not yet. I do know I have big shoes to fill (Aidan Chambers, then Gervase Phinn, then Miranda McKearney). I do know that I have three years to find out, to dream dreams and, singing in tune with Tricia Adams and her wonderful SLA board, fight tooth and nail to try to improve the lot of school-librarians.
It seems very strange to me that, at this late date in our civilisation and culture, we should still be having to fight for our children, for literacy, and for school librarians as custodians of the storyhoard, the river of poems, the building blocks of information. And not only that, but as brokers of the relationship between book as physical artefact and the Digital Age.
Yet for the moment politicians of all stripes, are responding to the increasing concern about diminishing budgets and reduced school (and of course public) libraries with denial, evasion, guff, at best half-answers.
Why? What can we do about it, you and I? How are we to ensure the school library is the very heart of the matter, well furbished, well stocked – and buzzing? As a place children delight in, return to, and regard as cool? Can you believe it, not many but most OFSTED inspectors don’t even step into the school library. Of course there should be statutory evaluations of school libraries – but how is that going to happen when many school heads don’t really know what their librarians do, and thus do not (or cannot because of budgetary considerations) adequately value them?
So you see, my head is whirling with impressions, questions, and what I discern is that part of my work must be to help raise morale, and part to engage my fellow authors, publishers, parliamentarians, educationists, and the public at large.
I will report back further down the line. This cause is our common one, a statement about what it actually means to be civilised, and an investment in our children.