Reading habits: books for the holiday season

Julie Ward with Jonathon Coe in the European Parliament at the European Book Prize ceremony in 2019.

I was an avid reader as a child, even reading under the covers when my parents turned out the lights. I loved Arthur Ransoms’ Swallows and Amazons and waited excitedly for my regular weekly edition of Bunty to drop through the letterbox. During my adolescence I preferred poetry and plays, memorising long texts such as T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Mark Anthony’s speech of vengeful bloodlust uttered over the murdered corpse of Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s opus. I was fascinated by things I shouldn’t read and managed to get a copy of The Story of O which makes Fifty Shades of Grey seem like Noddy.

I studied A level English Literature, History and French but found the teaching lacklustre and uninspiring apart from the French teacher who was more interested in philosophy and poetry than teaching us how to conjugate verbs. My history teacher bored me to tears and I spent the whole class gazing out of the window at the river that ran out to the sea, wishing I could be lapped up and swept away. His wife was my English teacher and I both loathed her and was terrified of her. She hated D H Lawrence whom I loved, having a family connection to the Nottingham coalfield communities. I also loved Lawrence because he had dared to write about sex in an age of prurience. I should state here that I grew up in North Devon in the 60s and 70s and was a devotee of local band Hawkwind. I wore long flowing patchwork skirts and flowers in my hair. I even gave up wearing shoes for the most part. The Age of Aquarius was very much my thing.

So when the time came to sit a two hour exam with four questions, I made an existential literary protest by spending the whole time writing about D H Lawrence in defiance of my bullying teacher. Of course I knew I would fail the exam – you had to answer four questions in order to pass – but I was satisfied with my actions at the time, and, looking back, I am still proud of my rebelliousness and determination to speak my mind.

As no university would take me I went to work in a factory where I was so exhausted at the end of each day I fell asleep before I could even turn a page. A lot has happened in between then and now. There have been luxurious periods of book-worming including readings of the epic novels of Tolstoy and Steinbeck. But there have also been periods of literary desertification when I simply could not concentrate. One of these periods was when I became a parent. Although I was too tired for ‘big books’ I rediscovered the world of children’s literature through bedtime stories and I learnt not to beat myself up for what I could not do. I reasoned I would find time again to be a ‘proper’ reader. So with life in lockdown likely to go for on for some time, now is a great opportunity to catch up on my reading.

I give below a list of books that have come to into my sphere of knowledge but which I have not yet read properly. I hope you might join me in this pursuit so when we emerge in 2021 we can all be better armed with knowledge and bolstered by inspiring fiction to take on whatever new challenges await around the corner.

Mindfuck by Christopher Wylie – The Cambridge Analytica whistleblower tells the inside story of the data mining and psychological manipulation behind the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum, connecting Facebook, WikiLeaks, Russian intelligence, and international hackers. We can all thank Carole Cadwalladr for patient research and impeccable investigative journalism in helping Wylie speak out in the public interest. Published by Profile Books.

Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin – Bob Dylan’s former tour manager traces the history of tech giants Google, Amazon and Facebook, who make ever-larger profits by exposing us to a monoculture of online advertising. Meanwhile, those that create the content – the artists, writers and musicians – can no longer survive in this unforgiving economic landscape. With this reallocation of money comes a shift in power. These companies now enjoy political power on par with Big Oil and Big Pharma. And if you think that’s got nothing to do with you, their next move is to come after our jobs. This book is a call to arms, to say that is enough is enough and to demand that we do everything in our power to create a different future. Published by Pan Macmillan.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe – A state-of-the-nation novel that moves from the election of the coalition government in 2010, through the riots of 2011, the brief upswelling of multicultural national pride that was the 2012 Olympics, to the 2016 referendum and its subsequent fallout, ending in 2018. It is an excruciatingly funny portrait of a country bent on self-immolation which won Coe the 2019 Costa Novel Award and the European Book Prize, an award ceremony that was held in the European Parliament where Coe spoke honestly about the tragedy of Brexit at the hands of liar politicians. You can watch an interview with Coe here. Published by Penguin.

In Between, The Diary of a Farmer and Citizen by Tom Jones – Originally published in Welsh this is a detailed account of Tom’s busy life running his farm in remote rural Wales and serving on the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels where he experienced the co-operation and friendship that is at the heart of the European project. I met Tom and his wife at a rural arts conference on the border between Germany and Switzerland in 2019 and was immediately impressed by his depth of knowledge, his down to earth approach and his humanity. The last entry into the diary is December 31st, 2015. The referendum was in the making but Brexit was as yet unthinkable. Published by Tom Jones and available to order online.

In Limbo: Brexit Testimonies edited by Elena Remegi, Veronique Martin and Tim Sykes – These powerful and often distressing testimonies written by EU citizens in the UK have been collected over the past three years. They describe in moving details the trauma caused by the uncertainty their authors have been experiencing since the Brexit referendum. A second volume, In Limbo Too, gives voice to the equally anxious and abandoned British citizens in the EU. An expanded edition comes with thought-provoking and touching forewords by George Szirtes and Ian Dunt. The project aims to give an emblematic voice to the three million who are so often treated in the British political discourse and tabloid press as a depersonalised mass of ‘migrants’. In contrast, this anthology reveals them as citizens and as individuals of all ages from all walks of life, who have been plunged into a painful limbo by political events in which they have had no say. Their situation foreshadows a second Windrush a few years down the line. Published by Spokesman Books. Available here.

Led By Donkeys, How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit – The story of the biggest ever crowd-sourced political campaign which graphically exposed the lies of the leading Brexiteers on hoardings across the country. The campaign went viral and the four friends became more audacious, projecting images and sound onto public buildings such as the Houses of Parliament, Scar Top at Barnard Castle and the White Cliffs of Dover, as well as writing messages on beaches and in ploughed fields filmed from the air. Published by Atlantic Books.

Poems from a Runaway, A True Story by Ben Westwood – An autobiographical anthology that charts Ben’s life as a serial runaway, evading the care system and the law, sleeping rough in London before finding salvation in music and poetry, and eventually reuniting with his family. I had the privilege of meeting Ben when he was a keynote speaker at a conference in the European Parliament organised with Missing Children Europe and the Child Rights Intergroup (which I co-founded). You can find out more about Ben and buy his book here

A Hundred Thousand Welcomes by Tiffy Allen – The story of City of Sanctuary from its beginnings in 2005 to 2018, told through a tapestry of personal stories about welcoming refugees. The stories take us into the lives of ordinary people in cities and countryside, schools and universities, churches and mosques, trades unions, libraries, sports clubs, theatres and much more, and shine a spotlight on ways that refugees have found a home and a welcome in these places. Available from City of Sanctuary UK.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg – The history-making, ground-breaking speeches of the young activist who has become the voice of a generation since the day in August 2018 when she decided not to go to school but to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Her actions ended up sparking a global movement for action against the climate crisis, inspiring millions of pupils to go on strike for our planet, forcing governments to listen, and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. This book is a collection of her speeches that have made history across Europe, from the UN to mass street protests. No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference is a rallying cry for why we must all wake up and fight to protect the living planet, no matter how powerless we feel. Our future depends upon it. Published by Penguin.

For those with small children I recommend the excellent Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, in Byker, Newcastle. Like many other arts organisations, the centre is now offering online activities.

Also, do follow Durham-based Jack Drum Arts who have been releasing a series of filmed story-tellings leading up to Christmas with me reading my all-time childhood favourite on Christmas Eve – Bill Frog to the Rescue, a charming story of how animal friends fly to the North Pole on a broom to give Father Christmas some special medicine made by Milly Mole to cure him of a terrible infection. The picture book was given to me as a toddler more than 50 years ago but we could all do with some of Milly’s magic medicine now in the Age of Coronavirus.

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