No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy –
Memoirs Of A Working-Class Reader
By Mark Hodkinson
Canongate – £16.99
History has not recorded how A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines was added to the school syllabus in the early 1970s, but it had a remarkable and lasting impact and was the bridge by which these young teachers and teenagers could cross and meet. It changed my life. Billy Casper, the book’s protagonist, was the definitive emblem of a ragged generation. Everyone knew a Casper – half-boy, half-pigeon, disowned by his family and school, left to hobble through life in a ten-bob anorak and half-mast trousers. Viewed from a modern perspective and an improved standard of living, Casper can appear an exaggerated literary creation, but he was real and he was was everywhere.
I’m not sure how, but Italians do philosophical and ridiculous so well, often within a few pages or scenes in a film. They are always either thinking or talking or eating, sometimes all three at the same time […].
As an avid reader and musician myself, there’s rather a lot I can appreciate and relate to within the 351 pages of this book.
Be it the variant choice of material proffered, such as the literary dissertation and thought(s) of the above two opening quotations; or the musical appreciation of ye agonisingly suave-cool-Mancunian band, The Smiths: ‘’The heavy boot of conformity was crushing in the early 1980s. Unemployment was high and self-worth low, especially among young people. Accept what you’re offered, boy, no matter how measly. How lucky you are, was the message. And then Morrissey appeared, fully formed, this lanky, lisping hero, dressed in a big girl’s blouse, wearing National Health glasses, beads around his neck, warbling and grunting and singing quite beautifully on Top of the Pops‘’ (Chapter Ten).
But where No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy – Memoirs Of A Working-Class Reader kind of leaves me a tad off kilter (tad, in and of itself, being a word the author makes a point of not necessarily warming to), is it’s adjacent tract of diary in direct relation to the author’s grandfather.
A clearly colourful character admittedly, whose occasionally poignant presence, I personally found got in the way of that which the book’s title suggests.
That aside, there are numerous nuggets of daring demeanour, wherein the trajectory of Mark Hodkinson’s elongated control of meandering thought are a delight to both behold and embrace.
A particularly pertinent example being when he himself quotes one Terence McKenna in chapter fifteen: ‘’If we as a community believe in anything, we believe in feeling good in the moment. The felt presence of immediate experience. This is what has been stolen from you. By capitalism, by religion, by linear thinking, by strategising. We’re always about to be happy. Or we’re about to be free. And while we’re about to be free and about to be happy, life passes us by. This is because western ideologies are always ideologies of delayed gratification. It comes after death, after retirement, after coitus. It’s always after something that it comes. Well, I’ve got news for you, this kind of thing is chasing your own tail. The felt presence of immediate experience is the only world you will ever know. Everything beyond that is conjecture and supposition.’’
Philosophical food for thought or what?
And how about the sheer (personal) honesty of the following: ‘’I have a particular dislike of poetry when spoken aloud. As soon as I hear the first gathering breath of a poet I snap off the radio. If I’m caught by surprise at an event and a poet is summoned to the stage wafting pieces of paper, I feign illness to escape the room – get me out of here, a poet is on the loose. I am wary of anyone self-identifying as a ‘poet’; it feels such an indulgence, a job or role made up on the spot, the same as claiming to be a talker or a watcher. Poetry is the easiest art form to undertake but the most difficult to master. Only poetry can be both conceited and corny at the same time’’ (Chapter Twelve).
As Benjamin Myers has since been quoted as saying: ‘’With verve, insight and perfectly-captured period detail, Mark Hodkinson reminds us that not only are books sacred objects that should be available to everyone, but also that working-class voices remain more marginalised and under-represented than ever.’’
In relation to such books as the aforementioned A Kestrel for a Knave, this is resoundingly true; whereas the excerpts concerning his grandfather ought to have perhaps made for a book in its own right.