I was one of those kids – “oh I always had my nose in a book” “all I wanted to do was read” “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child”. But I once had a brief period where I fell out of love with literature and reading, and it was entirely down to the English department at my university. Don’t ask me which one, because I think it would have happened regardless of which university I’d gone to.
Right up to A level, studying English Literature had allowed a little love in the classroom. I had some of those almost mythical brilliant teachers, in love with words, writing, and passing that love on. They gave me their enthusiasms for Shakespeare, Orwell and Austen, and introduced us to the pleasure of crafting our own stories. As the obvious wordgeek in the class my teachers encouraged my story writing, gave me books, and loaned me video adaptations of Pride and Prejudice while trying not to swoon about the bit where Darcy appears from behind a bush*. True story. Suddenly at university we were suddenly reading a ‘text’ a week (oh how I loathed the term ‘text’) and dissecting, rebuilding, inspecting. It was discussed and pushed aside.
What happened to enjoying the damn book? I wondered.
And so I jumped ship, because I really wasn’t enjoying it, and my university had a clever system that allowed you to do this sort of thing. I jumped sideways, and got a degree in Philosophy instead, which I’d taken as a required minor simply because it was in the same building, one corridor down. Not exactly a true story, but not so far from it.
I didn’t read much in the final years of my degree. I’d lost the love. (I know!) I still hung around second hand bookshops, but you have to feel settled in a place to consider bulking it out with books. Instead I got drunk, and danced a lot, and watched a lot of good films. When my degree spat me out of the other side, capable of rational thought but qualified for little else (though I defy anyone who says that learning to think isn’t a worthwhile pursuit), I panicked. I spent the summer in a flat in my university town, unwilling to acknowledge that it was over and I was going to have to find a job.
One day I went to the discount bookshop and found that Wordsworth editions had published the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon, in several books, for a pound each. I bought them all, went back to my flat and spent the next two months lying about listening to the Glen Miller Band and reading Holmes.
My god, but I was happy.
Here he was, perfect in his imperfections, so very flawed, but the only man worth talking to in the whole of London. I couldn’t wait to get to the next story, turn the page, and discover how he’d solve the mystery. I gasped at Reichenbach, though I obviously had another volume to read, so he clearly wasn’t dead. I wished I could go to Baker Street, I wished I could time travel, I wished I was brilliant, I wished we had our own Sherlock, and the promise that there could be someone out there who could see through all the mess and sort it out. I was in love, with Holmes and with reading again.
When summer ended, I went back home for a while. I joined the library. I stayed up late reading all kinds of books again, read the Lord of the Rings and fell in love with that, at the same time thinking ‘wow, this is badly written’. I read. I read and read and read. And I realised I couldn’t stay in the place I’d grown up in.
I packed up my books and moved south, and soon found I had a job in a bookshop, which is where so many aspiring writers end up. It was down Cecil Court, not far from the Charing Cross Road, and sold first editions mostly, but it was also known for specialising in two things: P G Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes. Without that bookshop nothing over the last fifteen years would have happened.
So Conan-Doyle saved my life twice. Thanks, Arthur.
*this was as good as it got pre Firth. It was actually pretty good. (P&P 1980)