Every day the BBC radio traffic reporters annoy the hell out of me because, when discussing road closures, they insist on saying that roads are shut! They’re not – doors are shut, roads are closed, and I got to wondering why such fundamental English usage is seemingly a mystery to the Beeb. I think the answer lies in comics.
This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds, so sit up straight and pay attention. When I was very young (pre-school), we had comics, then as now, like the Dandy and Beano, which relied mostly on pictures to convey their message, with minimal text mainly in speech balloons (there were a number of other publications, now defunct, which had a similar structure). As our reading skills improved we’d move on to comics which were less cartoonish, with realistic illustrations, still with speech balloons, but also with a text box, at the bottom of each picture, which carried the narrative, so as our reading and comprehension skills improved, we had more of a challenge, and the publications were in a smaller format than the little kids’ comics – the Sun and the Comet were foremost among this style of publication. Of course, these are now history, too, which is a criminal shame, as by the age of four I could read fluently, thanks to this logical progression in my reading matter (scarily, today, comics like the Dandy and Beano are the preserve not of 3-year-olds, as they were in my day, but of 6-8 year-olds).
Of course, the time came when the Sun and Comet no longer presented a challenge. There were books, of course, but also magazine-style “comics” which were almost entirely text-based, with just a scene-setting picture for each story – these were the Hotspur, Adventure, and Wizard which, alas, are also no longer with us. Can you see a pattern here – less progressive reading material for kids = reduced levels of literacy? I was glad to see that the Harry Potter books encouraged a new generation to read, but that was before I read one and realised what egregious, derivative crap it was. Still, they got kids reading, and that’s always a good thing – just a shame they had no taste.
Once we’d outgrown these latter three, say by the age of 10, then we were ready to take on books full-time, our reading skills honed to perfection over 5 years or so by starting simply and working up in increasingly more difficult steps (I had an adult library card at 11, having seriously outgrown the children’s section). Out reading improved totally painlessly, and not only did we read “proper” English, we spoke it too. OK, among our peers we took liberties with the language, as kids and teens have always done, but we were perfectly capable, at need, of speaking properly. And many of us carried our love of reading into adulthood, though sadly many more didn’t – you ask an average sexagenarian how many books he or she read in the past year, and you’re likely to get a blank look – I know one guy of my age who has read one work of fiction in his entire life; terribly ironic, as he worked for the library service, with access to more books than you could shake a stick at!
So, that was how my generation learned to read, and that learning took place mostly outside school, as teaching kids to read then was apparently as hit and miss as it seems to be now, but now, of course, the extra-curricular reading materials that were available to my generation are gone forever (even if they’d survived they’d be absurdly expensive now. When I started school proper – I’d been at the pre-school Care Club – where the children of working parents could go, to receive a modicum of education prior to moving on to the infants’ school. Of course, we Care Club kids had already passed through the Janet and John phase, and mastered the basics of reading and writing, so we were actually looking forward to the new challenge of proper school. And what did we get – back to square one with Janet and bloody John all over again – which is why I said that most progress in reading took place outside school. I was helped, too, by the fact that the girl next door was a year ahead of me, and we’d read to each other – bouncing mistakes and corrections off each other, too, which, I suspect, benefited me rather more than her.
And guess what – we instinctively knew the difference between shut and closed – it’s not sodding rocket science, BBC!
We also learned, by reading reasonably well-written material, and by being taught well (particularly in secondary school – I had a brilliant English teacher), to write well, too – which is what got me into blogging in the first place. There are, apparently, about 95 million blogs, and I suspect – based on those I’ve read – that most are terribly ill-written, and I was convinced I could do better. False modesty aside, I think I’ve accomplished that. OK, I don’t have the massive output of the all-one-long-sentence-with-no-punctuation brigade, who think quantity is all that matters, but I think what I do is as well written as I can make it and, I hope, mostly interesting/entertaining. Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree!