Friday 25 March 2022

The Rochdale Reader

Years ago I was entranced by The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford [Reviewed by Robert McCrum]. It starts, as 6 yo Francis started, reading the Hobbit as his first book. The blizzard of glyphs gradually sorted themselves into signal and by the end of the book he had become a read-all, read-any person. Nobody taught the kidder to read, he learned the skill because he was motivated to find out what happened next.  The apple falleth not tooo far from the tree? There were plenty of books in the Spufford house because both the parents were Professors: Margaret was a rural development historian and Peter was an economic historian.

My most recent audiobook has been No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader (Hardback) by Mark Hodkinson [L in the 1970s]. His upbringing, born in Manchester and raised in Rochdale, was not so genteel. There were no books in his home; indeed his father worried that Mark reading books was a slippery slope to full chiffon gay. One of the 'handicaps' that was an asset to his development was the presence of a beloved but mentally unstable and potentially violent grandfather. The old chap died [slowly, alone, in the woods, having tumbled down a steep hill] when Mark was in his early 20s. In the dead-tree book, the story of their relationship and the swings of old chap's dementia, is italicised and interleaved with Mark's own journey to adulthood. On Borrowbox, which is read by the author, these interludes are cleverly indicated by a short piano arpeggio. From reading under the bedclothes and haunting 2nd hand bookshops (while ignoring school entirely as a source of education) he inched into journalism before papers were brutally shoved aside by the internet. 

He parlayed his journalism into long form and wrote a number books about soccer and punk which were two externals about which he developed some passion. After his grandad died and Mark was ploughing his own furrow, he found that people who spoke with a familiar voice [northern, white, working class] were like warts on the Literature Elephant: small, insignificant, faintly annoying. A one point he has an extended swipe at Robert McCrum [cited at top], official gate-keeper of what gets published by Faber & Faber and The Observer for a few decades. McCrum, like Spufford, had a Prof for a Pa and of course went to Cambridge. So it's easy for him to read and review Spufford's memoir which gets more eyes on those pages and more sales and the Patriarchy tightens its grip of public discourse.

With awesome courage and determination, Mark Hodkinson assaulted the Ivory Tower by creating Pomona as an independent publisher. Unfortunate timing! like his foray into print journalism, independent publishers were all in the process of being bought out or squeezed out by Harper Collins Printrun Penguin and Behemoth. These monster megacorps would hardly entertain a prospect unless 30,000 copies could expect to be sold. That was about 10x the longest print run Pomona ever got out to the bookshops. Nevertheless, for several years, Pomona took risks on publishing different voices to provide much needed variety and choice for readers; most of whom have never been to Cambridge even on a tour-bus. If you have a "library" at home, even a fish-box filled with Penguins, I think this book will speak to you.

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