“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? Well, goddamnit, you stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons but the main one is so I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress.”
I was reading when I was three years old. I wasn’t a prodigy: I didn’t teach myself or anything. My mother taught me to read as soon as it was physically possible for me to prop myself and a book up simultaneously. She regrets it. I know that because she often told me. She’d say, “Why are you always reading? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you go and do something?”
And I’d reply, “What? Do you want me to end up a fucking waffle waitress?”
I didn’t say that for two reasons: first because Bill Hicks hadn’t said that in my earshot by that point and I didn’t have the wit to come up with such a statement by myself, and second because I was scared of her. What I’d actually do would be to go out and sneak a book with me and read it somewhere else. Webbo’s dad’s garage, under a tree, up a tree, in a field, at a bus stop, anywhere. Rock ‘n’ Roll, eh? Well, no: unlike Suzie Quatro, I hate Rock ‘n’ Roll. I hate everything about it, still that’s another story.
This is the story of how and why I learned to read. Heady stuff, eh? I hope you’re sitting down…
My mother’s always been quite highly strung. Probably as a result of being brought up in the slums of Hull’s fishing quarters during World War II in a pretty big family. Her mother wasn’t very nice to her, although I think her dad was more or less alright. I’ve mentioned before how she found out that they were eating her pet rabbit for tea one night when she leapt from the table and checked on him, to find the cage empty and the pelt on the kitchen worktop. Pretty grim stuff, so I have sympathy for her.
Later, when she’d left home, married my old man and moved into 107 Compass Road, she found herself pregnant with me. By all accounts the pregnancy went as well as these things can, apart from a few months of eating piccalilli by the jar.
However, when I was born, there were complications. I was born with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck and I was blue. They had a chart in maternity hospitals with colours on it to hold next to oxygen starved babies so they could ascertain how bad the damage was likely to be – apparently, I don’t remember, even though I was there. Anyway, I was the worst one, meaning severe brain damage was highly likely. Which we now know, of course, was absolutely accurate.
In those days, dads weren’t encouraged to be present at the birth, so my old man wasn’t. When I was born and rushed off to the incubator without my mother getting chance to hold me, the midwives asked her if she wanted anything. Through tears, she asked to please hold me and was refused. She then asked for my old man and they told her that it was a bit early in the morning and they’d wait before ringing the house and waking a working man.
So, she was left in a ward surrounded by other new mums who all had their babies in plastic cots at the foot of their beds, with her not yet having been allowed to hold her baby or had chance to be comforted by her husband. I don’t know what that feels like really; it must be almost as bad as it gets. Never mind if you are a bit neurotic before that – even if you’re not, you soon will be in that situation.
They say that not knowing is easy and that expecting’s okay, but I don’t agree with that. I think people like to know where they stand and what is likely to happen. Being kept in the dark doesn’t help anyone.
Finally, a doctor told my mum that the chances were that I would be badly brain damaged. She asked if there was a chance that I wasn’t and he said that there was. My mother, evidently feeling the same way that I do about not knowing, asked how she could find out and the doctor told her, “If he can learn how to read, he’ll probably be alright. That’s how you can find out the soonest,”
You can’t teach babies how to read.
So, my mother then had to spend the next few years not knowing whether or not she would likely have to spend the rest of her life caring for her brain damaged child, or if he’d be capable of looking after himself.
The other thing that didn’t help was that I cried for the first three years of my life – not even necessarily at the cinema – and that’s what babies with brain damage do: cry constantly.
So that didn’t look promising either.
As I was developing and capable of sitting up and holding a book, she did what the doctor had told her to do: she taught me how to read. In between my frequent fits of crying, of course.
The first books I read by myself were Disney tie ins for Winnie-The-Pooh. I’d been given them by a couple that my dad knew: the McAskeys. My dad worked with Anne McAskey, who passed them onto me after her kids were too old for them. Each character had their own book: Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, you know.
Diversion – Mike McAskey
Anne’s husband remains the cleverest person I’ve ever met. He got me into psychology and gave me the compliment I’m still most proud of. I asked him to have a look at my Literature Survey and my dissertation while I was at university. He made a few suggestions, which I followed. My old man told me that he’d asked him if they were any good and he said, “Yeah. He’s got an excellent brain, your kid. I was impressed Col.” I was thrilled because he was, if anyone was, a genius.
Like other geniuses, he tended towards the eccentric.
He worked – occasionally – as a psychologist. What he did was go through research papers and examine the contents to ascertain whether or not there’d been any fiddling going on. He was briefly famous – in the psychology world – for finding out that some supposedly groundbreaking research had been a big pile of shit.
More often than not though, he didn’t work. He didn’t work much because he had other things that he thought were more interesting and important. Anne, as I’ve said, worked. She’d given up trying to make him get a job – he wasn’t short of offers – because he just procrastinated to the extent that she couldn’t be bothered.
What she did to encourage him was this: she kept an eye on the money he’d brought in and, when it ran out, she’d feed herself and the kids as normal and just gave him tins of beans until he got sick of beans and decided to get a job for a bit. Mind you, once he’d found himself gainful employment, he didn’t eat anything that Anne gave him because he only ate cheese.
His hobby was making remote controlled aeroplanes. From scratch. Once he’d made them, he then made – again, from scratch, – dovetailed wooden boxes for them onto which he’d write the name and details of the plane within – in pokerwork. They were absolutely gorgeous things.
One Christmas morning when his two daughters were still very young, Anne woke up early in order to start getting everything ready and found that Mike wasn’t next to her in bed. She assumed he was already up and about and went downstairs. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the garage either, or anywhere else.
When he finally rolled in around teatime on Christmas Day, Anne read him the riot act and asked where the hell he’d been on Christmas Day while she’d been doing absolutely everything with a pair of young kids whose daddy had buggered off without so much as a by your leave.
Mike, by all accounts rather taken aback at his wife’s response, explained that he’d been on Beverley Westwood, flying his model planes.
“Why the bloody hell do you have to go on Christmas Day though?” she asked, not unreasonably – to most people.
“Well, it’s really busy all the rest of the time,” he said, in all innocence…
End of Diversion
And so it was that I learned to read and my mother didn’t have to worry anymore about her kid having brain damage that would result in her having to wipe his arse for the rest of one of our lives.
After that, she moved onto regretting it because I always had my head in a book.
I’m an only child. Man. An only man. I don’t know if the reason why my parents never had any more kids was because of the stress I caused them with my pre-natal suicide attempt. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t have some in utero epiphany about what planet Earth was going to be like and decided to end it all before I’d even begun.
Still, as one of those readers and not one of those potential waffle waitresses, I developed a need to read which was fed by Friday evening visits to the library, where I had my own card and was allowed to get out whatever I wanted.
Diversion – You’re not coming in, you’re not 18.
Even when I was old enough to get into the pictures to see 15s or 18s, I could never get in. Well, I could get into 18s because by then I had a driving licence. At 15, how the hell are you supposed to prove it? I was very young looking. The same for the video library and the same for the off licence. Ignominiously, I had to get my mate Paul to buy me booze and to rent videos. It was ignominious because he was a year younger than I was. Pah.
What I realised though was this: while films had age certificates, books didn’t.
The result was that instead of watching films that I was old enough to watch even if I didn’t look it, instead I read books that I was too young to read. If I couldn’t watch films that people were getting upset about, I’d read books that seemed to have had a bit of a hoo-hah surrounding them instead.
So, I read A Clockwork Orange (fucking ace), the Marquis De Sade (boring, even with pages of lists about people being flogged with bull’s pizzles), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (alright, surprisingly), Tropic of Cancer (a bit wank. Not literally), The Well of Loneliness (turned out that lesbianism wasn’t as exciting as I’d been led to believe) and things like that.
I enjoyed doing that but because all my mates were too busy watching Child’s Play, Hallowe’en, Friday The 13th and stuff like that, I had nobody to talk to about them.
I still don’t.
End of Diversion
Like other kids who go to the library regularly, I had a favourite book that I would try to take out most weeks.
Ironhead was about this general, I suppose, who was called Ironhead because he had a big iron helmet that he never took off. He also had a massive axe – it’s him on the cover of the book, above.
What Ironhead spent his days doing was dragging his army of armoured knights around the country, sacking castles, burning towns and chopping people up with his big axe. At some point in the story, they’re riding through a forest and they come across this weedy looking woodcutter who had a crappy little blunt axe that was made out of paper or something.
Ironhead, being a bit of a nobhead, started throwing his weight around and laughing at the woodcutter’s axe. The woodcutter couldn’t really defend himself, what with Ironhead and his men all being on horseback and having plate armour and big, sharp swords and axes, so he used his brains instead.
He said to Ironhead that he might think he’s big and hard, but he, the woodcutter, knew of a castle that Ironhead would never be able to storm in a million years.
Ironhead just laughed at him some more and told the woodcutter that he was going to go and sack this so-called-impenetrable castle and then, when he’d done that, he was going to come back and show the woodcutter how hard he was but if he failed (fat chance, eh readers?) then the woodcutter could have Ironhead’s axe.
They set off for this castle and it’s a funny looking place. The reason it’s a funny looking place is because it was a vast anthill. Ironhead and his violence seeking bum chums started to attack it, but the ants crawled in their armour and bit them, which meant they were all frantically taking their armour off, running away and scratching their bites.
When Ironhead took his armour off, it turned out he was a dead weedy looking geek.
The woodcutter left it a couple of days, then headed to the anthill where he picked out Ironhead’s colossal axe and happily whistled his way home to, presumably, a much more pleasant tree felling experience.
I know why I liked Ironhead so much and it’s not hard to work out why it was designed to appeal to little boys: The big kids who bully people get their comeuppance and are revealed to be weedy little twats. And the little man wins. Through using his brains.
And that’s quite an appealing message to a little lad who probably should have had brain damage and who was only taught to read in order to put his mother’s mind at ease, isn’t it?