That’s me as a young boy on holiday in Cornwall enjoying one of my favourite pastimes – reading a book whilst sitting next to my Grandad.
This series of Formative Experiences blogs are really about how I cam to become a composer and therefore are usually concerned with music stuff. However, a video posted by @documentally, who I follow on Twitter, and an Audioboo posted by Justine Potter about their grandmothers got me thinking about my Grandad who passed away four years ago.
Although I didn’t inherit my taste in music from Grandad, who was actually very fond of bagpipe music and Scottish variety singers, I did probably get something more from him, which was my love of reading and the sense of value he held for the learning books could provide. Grandad was a true autodidact, having left school at 14 to work as a clerk and from the age of 17 serving in the Royal Navy accompanying the convoys over the Atlantic, most of his seemingly endless knowledge came from books. We know from the number of prizes he was awarded for academic achievement at school that he had been a very intelligent child, but leaving so young he was forced to educate himself.
What was amazing about Grandad was that self-education never stopped and his reading knew no boundaries. He would consume history books, poetry, “forbidden” literature, such as Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Boroughs. He would even read my Terence Dicks Doctor Who novelisations that I used to bring him, like a bookish cat excited by the fact that I was in this special gang of readers.
Grandad taught me the power of storytelling. As a child, I would sit on his knee listening to stories of his childhood in Scotland and his summaries of the Scottish stories of Sir Walter Scott. For me, some of these tales would get mixed up in my head and it was only when I was in my thirties that I realised some of what I thought was my family history was in fact the wider history of Scotland as written by Scott in his Tales of a Grandfather. A very apt title from my point of view.
He would read aloud to me when he and gran would babysit every fortnight, or when we went down to visit them in Liverpool. He had a fabulous Glaswegian accent, that seemed to make everything sound so much more poetic than my own Lancashire drawl. I have never managed to recapture the immersive experience of him reading Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter aloud when I have read it to myself. In fact, the lowland Scots of Burns has only made real sense to me when read to me by Grandad. I wish I could have recorded those moments.
One of the thinks I loved about Christmas, as well as Grandad’s birthday – of which he had two for some reason – was shopping for books for him. Partly it was exciting because I would want to find him something that would surprise him and partly it was because I knew he would be happy whatever it was, as long as it was a book. I think Grandad felt the same and I’m sure he realised his doting grandson would devour any book he bought him. Another good thing about buying one another books we knew each others libraries intimately – in fact, before I was able to read them myself, I used to “play” with Grandad’s Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books – so there was never any danger of us buying one another anything we already had. Unless, of course, we did it deliberately because we had found an unusual or rare edition.
After he died and my Nan gave away the remainder of Grandad’s books, she kept one book – the last thing he was reading when he died. The book was a collection of poems by the Hungarian poet, Sándor Weöres, a favourite poet of mine and a book I had bought for him while I lived in Hungary. That made me so happy. I felt that he felt the same way about me as as I felt about him, that if I had bought him this book, then it must be worth reading.
As a kid, I would be perfectly and happy reading silently next to another silent reader and Grandad was perfect like that.