The news has been dreadful for the last couple of weeks, the weather has taken a wintry turn and I confess that I approached my “outreach” work on Wednesday and Friday with the same mind-set I sometimes employ for theatre-going when I assume that the show’s going to be somewhere between so-so and terrible so that I can be warmly surprised when it’s not that bad.
I confess that when I was asked to talk last Wednesday to all the children in Blackfield Primary school in the New Forest, I was expecting something run-of-the-mill that might be leavened a bit by the unusual opportunity afterwards to declare open a “Discovery Centre” – what I took to be a fancy name for a spare room with a bookshelf or two that had undergone a lurid paint-job. I also took with a pinch of salt the assurance that one or two parents might turn up after school for the occasion and that I should be ready to have a word with them about the power of books and reading.
It never crossed my mind that there were in fact FOUR completely refurbished libraries for me to declare open for business. They were scattered across the considerable campus, each suited to a different age-group; each smelling deliciously of shiny new books; each full of enticingly colourful, expertly-produced displays, hands-on surprises, things to touch and explore; each promisingly parcelled by a purple ribbon tied in a bonny bow.
A good half an hour after most parents might have been expected to be warming their weary smalls with a beaker of something in front of the telly, an eager and expectant CROWD appeared, urged on by bright-eyed offspring . They listened patiently to my reassurances that this school was something special in the pains it took to make reading a thrill and then we were off, surging along the corridors, buzzing with excitement, cheering away as I and the librarian and I scissored open one wonder after the other: The Globe; Wonderland; Krypton; the Harry Potter Centre – a galaxy of brave new worlds that they, their inexhaustible librarian, a talented art-director, a determined Head and a band of dedicated teachers had fashioned with love and pride.
Then, yesterday (Friday) morning – another lovely smack in the gob. Ann and I are patrons of Megan Baker House in Leominster, Herefordshire, a very special little charity dedicated to improving the mobility and confidence of children with motor disabilities, particularly cerebral palsy. Almeley Primary is a village school whose intake has recently expanded from the low 50s to 72. It serves 45 families, including the family of Rhys, a bouncy, evidently happy little lad who also regularly attends MBH for therapy. Matthew Maund, the Head, was keen to combine an author-visit with the presentation of a cheque to the director of MBH, Lee Gough, to come as the climax to a term’s fundraising – and I was delighted to help.
I expected the 45 families in this rural community to have raised … a couple of hundred pounds, perhaps. In fact they gathered an astonishing One thousand, five hundred and fifty three pounds.
Think! says Betjeman in “In Westminster Abbey”…
Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
He might have added:
And very often, if one looks,
You’ll find good schools with proper books.