from Edinburgh

My first piece of fortnight writing (see below). The Subject - Listening - was suggested to me by Sebastian Hau Walker. Sebastian is a London based artist and the man at the helm of the wonderful CLUSTER BOMB [collective]


I am one of those happy, lucky kids. The kids whose parents love them no matter what, will bail me out, support if not always endorse my decisions, even the bad ones I have made, and the bad ones I will make in the future. I am one of the kids who was read to.

Kids who get read to are lucky.

But at some point they stop reading to you. 1999, a tent in family friends’ back garden – there is a party going on in the garden but my friend Catriona, who is eight, and I, nine, have climbed into our sleeping bags and my mum is going to read us the first chapter of this ‘really great book’ that she has got.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had me hooked pretty much straight away, and when the end of it came and my mum rejoined the boozy adult world of the party and Catriona turned over on to her side and dozed off, I read the next three chapters. Greedily. And the next day more chapters on the way back to Edinburgh. And the book didn’t last me long, and I was disappointed when it ended. I love that: when you feel bereft at the end.

I was already a voracious reader, but Harry Potter is one of the first books I can remember devouring. And for me, and thousands of other kids all over the world, reading suddenly became something that was kind-of-cool. Up until that point we were the TV generation. Books didn’t factor for lots of kids in the nineties apart from at school, and for this reason alone I will always be wary of people who dismiss Harry Potter as pulp.

But, with this ‘devouring’ came, I think, the end of being read to. I can’t remember either of my parents reading to me after this (and it is, in fact, possible that they hadn’t read to me for some time before that either) – not because they wouldn’t but because I wanted to be in my own world when I read. To read fast and wild, because that’s how it felt. When as a kid, one begins to read in ones own head, there is an independence and power that comes with that – a being in control – that is unmatched by any reading experience up to that point.

I moved quickly from attentive listener to speed-reader. Listening to a school teacher reading a book aloud in class prompted nothing from me other than impatience – a knowledge that I could get through these pages to the Real Meat of the story much faster if only he/she would just shut-up-and-handover-the-book-right-now. Whilst I have always and still do love being read to, I somehow couldn’t cope with being able to see the book but not hold and read it for myself. I guess I like to be in control.

Storytapes/audiobooks and radio programmes are a different kettle of fish. I have always listened to and enjoyed these disembodied speaking voices coming to me, without visuals. It doesn’t frustrate me, doesn’t distract me, doesn’t make me want to rush ahead. Rather I am concentrated, focussed. It makes me happy. It is being read to no-pressure. I’m in charge of the play and pause and stop buttons and I love this space somewhere between reading and being read to.

I do not believe that as Mark Lawson argues, ‘audiobooks risk the infantilisation of literature’ and when I read these articles, of which there are many, I can’t help but wonder that what these writers fear is not infantilisation as they state, but democratisation. Listening being less daunting than reading allows for trying-things-out or dipping-your-toe-in. It makes literature accessible and manageable. I have recently listened to stories by Borges, Barthelme and Calvino – writers that have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but that I, a confident reader, moderately well read, with a degree, have always been (and yeah, I imagine irrationally) a bit scared of. For me audiobooks and radio manage to bypass and make digestible these ‘wrongly heavy’ texts – books we might believe to be difficult for reasons as trifling as the fact that the text is printed very small, or where the name of the author implies such great intellectuality that the book can’t possibly be simple.

Recently by way of radio podcasts listened to on bikes, buses, foot, in bed, whilst eating, or at my desk I have learnt about an Israeli satirist, sectarian tensions amongst young mothers in Belfast, Illegal immigrants in the US deliberately infiltrating detention centres and the implications of UK government waste. It seems I am loyal to voices far more than I ever have been to a newspaper or magazine.

I will always read books and relish the visual characteristics of text on the page, any page – even this one. But I cannot diss the power of someone having already done this for me, of being read to or relayed information aurally rather than visually. Listening. Moving from my parents to Ira Glass via Tony Robinson and Melvyn Bragg seems only natural.