Edward Blishen on the pleasures of being read to aloud … equalled only by those of the reader.
The old lady was eager to show me something. Since I appeared to be mixed up with that radio programme, A Good Read, I could have no decent reason for not consenting to see it.
`There!’ she said. `It reads to me! I have it because I can’t see! But what I want to know is why I didn’t have one when I could see.’ And she frowned at me, spectacularly, clearly of the opinion that the fault was mine. Whereupon she had an old lady’s instant change of heart, and reached out for my hand. `You couldn’t help it,’ she said.
And, truly, I couldn’t help it that my friend didn’t have a Talking Book machine long ago. Also I bit back a response which would hardly have been kind. `Didn’t you have a husband?’ I wanted to ask, knowing in fact that she did, but he was less a husband than a golfer. A not unreasonable man: but I would have hesitated at laying before him my notion that he ought occasionally to give the links a miss in favour of reading aloud to his missus.
Two things have long been clear to me: that it’s a sadness so many people discover the delights of being read aloud to only when they are old and poor-sighted: and that everyone ought to be encouraged to be a Talking Book machine. That encouragement, of course, is best rooted in childhood. I don’t want to suggest that ours was an amazingly virtuous family, but for an important step in my own education I look back to a moment when a small (but significant) son of mine said one bedtime: `Tonight I’m going to read to you.’ `Good gracious, are you?’ I said. It took me a moment or two to realise that he’d understood, but I hadn’t, an essential point about reading aloud to one’s children at bedtime or at any other moment of the day – that there are two joys involved, being read aloud to and reading aloud. My audience had properly decided to make an audience of me. I am now so ancient that that original audience has bred audiences of its own and I am glad to say that all these additional audiences now treat me as an audience … of a remarkably captive kind. Grandfathers, having made the effort to be seated, tend to stay put. I am now read into the ground by grandchildren, and cheerfully admit I deserve it.
I’ve never forgotten my first great experience of being read aloud to, by Mrs Brown of Byng Road Council School, Barnet. I guess it was the winter term of 1928 or 1929. The book was Black Beauty: and we were appalled to find that it caused us to be in two minds about the impending Christmas. We longed for it, but grew increasingly alarmed that it would come before Mrs B got to the end of the book. She was too splendid a reader to hurry, except where the text demanded pace. If the horse was trotting, her voice trotted; if it ambled, which it seemed to do more of, her voice ambled. What I remember is seeing, because of that warm and splendidly clear reading, how you could harness words, as Black Beauty was harnessed: how they slowed and speeded, how they fitted together. If there were quotation marks, Mrs Brown was suddenly all quotation marks. I loved the conversation, each speech (I could see as she read) having its own space, flying flags of punctuation fore and aft:
“`Well, my dear, ” she said, “how do you like him?”
“He is exactly what John said, ” he replied; “a pleasanter creature I never wished to mount. What shall we call him?”‘
[Mrs Brown beautifully pausing, making room for the creasing of the lady’s brow.]
“`Would you like Ebony,” said she, “he is as black as ebony. ” “No, not Ebony. “‘
[Room made now for creasing of brows all round.]
“`Will you call him Blackbird, like your uncle’s old horse?” “No, he is far handsomer than old Blackbird ever was. “‘
[Mrs Brown taking her time. There was a sensation as if she’d got up and walked round the playground before resuming.]
“`Yes, ” she said, “he is really quite a beauty, and he has such a sweet-tempered face and such a fine intelligent eye – what do you say to calling him Black Beauty?”‘
[Mrs Brown’s reading here was so fine there came a sharp drawing in of breath from the whole class. Black Beauty! Of course! Surely the gentleman would agree! And Mrs Brown’s voice made the most of the quite flat firmness with which he did so.]
“`Black Beauty – why, yes, I think that is a very good name. If you like it shall be his name, ” and so it was.’
I wish I’d been read aloud to when I was smaller (I’m thinking perhaps of 1924). But there was no habit of it – and my mother, who’d have been most willing, was barely literate, and famously would be reading about Chile when she thought she was reading about China. What it does from the beginning, where the reader is hallways sensitive to the job, and relishes the words on the tongue and the changes of pace and the rest of it, is to give children a sense of the weight and colour of words, of the great variety of rhythms in language: and they’ll understand that words are to get your tongue round and not merely to run your eye along. They’ll have the beginnings of what you must have if you’re to make effective use of language: an idea (not the less strong for being perfectly subliminal) of how harmony and pleasure and fittingness of sound may be present according to the choice of words and the fashion in which they’ve been fitted together. It’s the ear that’s your true judge of all that (or the tongue, when children have been encouraged to do their own reading aloud). The eye, relatively, is a lousy critic.
I’m a judge of the W H Smith Young Writers’ Competition and there’s always a moment at the final judging when one of us reads aloud a poem we’ve all missed, and we see that it’s marvellous. Eyes have failed to pick it up: a voice has gathered it in.
So – the best, early training in language is the training of the ear:
`The gentleman raised his eyes above his newspaper and looked curiously at Jemima –
“Madam, have you lost your way?” said he. He had a long bushy tail which he was sitting upon, as the stump was somewhat damp.’
[The reader’s voice perfectly bland – nothing to worry about, nothing at all! – except for that slightly disturbing, oh most faint, emphasis on `the long bushy tail’. The child feels pleasantly supported, carried along, by this nobly equable tone the story has.]
‘Jemima thought him mighty civil and handsome. She explained that she had not lost her way, but was trying to find a convenient dry nesting-place.
“Ah!, is that so? Indeed!” said the gentleman with sandy whiskers, looking curiously at Jemima.’
[The existence of the exclamation marks and the question mark distinctly hinted at by the reader, who is being brilliantly briefed by Beatrix Potter. Her very punctuation amounts to stage-directions.]
`He folded up the newspaper, and put it in his coat-tail pocket.’
[‘Bushy tail’ … ‘coat-tail’, thinks the young audience, liking this neatness of echo: they’re similar terms, yet – given now a certain wariness in the reader’s voice – they are perhaps not similar enough. The civilised coat-tail is at odds with the potentially barbarous bushy one, and `sandy’ sounds the wrong colour for trustworthy whiskers.]
“As to a nest – there is no difficulty: I have a sackful of feathers in my wood-shed. “‘
[Here the audience intervenes. A valuable feeling for what characterisation might amount to, induced by earlier readings and now by the combined skills of Miss Potter and the reader – a notion of something in Jemima Puddle-duck that might be seen as unsuspicious to the point of silliness – and Lord, that reference to feathers! – causes the audience to shout warnings: repressed at once, since they know a story is inexorable.]
“`No, my dear madam, you will be in nobody’s way. You may sit there as long as you like, “said the bushy long-tailed gentleman.’
[That tail again!]
`And he led the way to a very retired, dismal-looking house amongst the fox-gloves.’
[And there, good grief, is description! `A very retired, dismal-looking house’! Would the reader mind uttering those words again, to double the pleasure of them! I remember Mrs Brown would spend much of the morning dealing not at all effectually with the adjective, called a describing word because it … described. In the late afternoon she read aloud to us and we saw with no recourse at all to the blackboard what an adjective was.]
Should it ever stop, this reading aloud and being reading aloud to? I see no decent reason for saying it should. Any teacher knows the child who’s been read to – there’s that confidence with language, willingness to experiment with it: that understanding of tones, speeds, densities, deftnesses. But there’s also what reading aloud and together has done for a family, giving them a whole rich shared range of references, drawn from worlds beyond themselves, the words of the imagination. Why ever bring this to a halt? I’ve often said, and greatly believe, that the writing of my friend Leon Garfield, writing that is young and old at one, is made for a universe of readers of mixed ages who share their reading. You may turn up at a bedside or in the early evening living-room with The Apprentices, perhaps. If you’re doing the reading aloud, you can’t stop doing the reading aloud: if you’re doing the listening, you can’t stop doing the listening. The author (I’d make a law against his ever being read silently) won’t release you.
`There they go, Moss and Blister, hurrying up Blackfriars Stairs and on through the dark streets, under a sky fairly peppered with stars as cold as frozen sparks. Up Colman’s Alley, across Bristol Street …
“‘Appy Christmas, marm – and a nappy Christmas to you, miss!” bellowed a bellman, coming out of an alehouse and wagging his bell like a swollen brass finger.’
[The faintest of pauses, for the image has to be dwelt upon – just long enough.]
“‘For unto us a Child is born, unto us a’ Son is given!” He hiccupped, and drew out a little Christmas poem of his own composing, while Moss and Blister stood stock-still and listened. Then he held out his hand, and Moss put a sixpence in it, for it was Christmas Eve, and Moss, who was a midwife, felt holy and important.’
Note that the bellman is a Talking Book – or a Talking Poem, anyway. And ask yourself how such stuff should be read otherwise than aloud: by child or adult, it doesn’t matter. And further, consider the question: Who wouldn’t want to add Moss and Blister to the family’s stock of reference? I have a sudden fantastic vision: of Leon’s story being read aloud to m old dim-sighted friend by her husband, that penitent sportsman. (‘See, I snap my clubs over my knee,’ said the bushy-tailed golfer.) As ever he might concede – memorable as enjoyed by the eye, like so much in books Moss and Blister are doubly memorable on the tongue and in the ear.
Edward Blishen, formerly a teacher, is a well-known writer and broadcaster. His work includes both autobiography and several anthologies of prose and poetry. Recently two books he wrote with Leon Garfield have been reissued by Gollancz in paperback at £7.99 each: The God Beneath the Sea (0 575 05256 2) and The Golden Shadow (0 575 05255 4). Both are illustrated by the late Charles Keeping.
Books quoted from are:
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, various editions
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, Beatrix Potter, Warne, 0 7232 3468X, £3.99
The Apprentices, Leon Garfield, Puffin, 014 031595 0, £3.50 pbk