Ian McMillan: Time of miracles

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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I’m really excited about the fact that after Christmas (or just before, or possibly on Christmas Day) I’m going to be a grandad again, and I can’t wait. The bit I’m looking forward to most (apart from when my new granddaughter’s old enough to talk and her first words are, said in the clearest, most appealing, voice, ‘Grandad, you are the greatest human being who ever lived’) is getting one of those books with hardly any words in it and reading to her, and then being a witness to that commonplace but nonetheless unfathomable miracle when she learns to read and she reads the book back to me.

As a chap who loves reading and writing, I often try, in my cackhanded and not very scientific way, to work out just what reading actually is. The marks on the page look like tadpoles or stick insects or splashes of spilled soup on a slice of white bread. And yet somehow, through repetition and careful teaching, suddenly or gradually (I said I wasn’t too scientific) those tadpoles and broth-blobs become letters and words, and then the whole world is opened up to you.

Once you can read the universe unfolds like a flower, everything begins, some kind of journey is embarked upon; War and Peace is waiting for you, as are the ingredients on a tin of soup and the instructions for getting to the away game.

Once you can read the universe unfolds like a flower, everything begins, some kind of journey is embarked upon; War and Peace is waiting for you, as are the ingredients on a tin of soup and the instructions for getting to the away game. It’s like you’ve had your balaclava on back to front for ages, and then suddenly you turn it the right way round and you don’t bump into lamp-posts any more.

Of course, there are still lots of people for whom reading and writing don’t come very easily, and in some cases never arrive, and that makes me sad and angry because literacy should be a right not a privilege and it makes me want to be in charge of a public purse that can be opened so that gold coins can tumble out to fund endless and effective reading and writing classes.

Until that happens I’ll look forward to reading to my new granddaughter; I’ll look forward to going through those 26 magical bundles of possibility we call the alphabet, and teaching her how they make the strings of dazzling light that we call sentences, and oddly solid but flexible objects we call paragraphs.

Together, we’ll enjoy those books that resonate with beautiful simplicity, like the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach Pear Plum, or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and we’ll read them and read them until we know them off by heart, and then we’ll read them again. She’ll want me to get the favourite books off the shelf and she’ll pretend to be scared at the scary bits and she’ll still laugh at the funny bits.

All that’s in the future of course, and it’s a kind of preparation, because then, once she’s read the print from her favourite books, I’ll start her on this column. Just a line at a time, to start with, until she gets it right. It’s never too early to start with great literature, you see. War and Peace can wait until she’s read her Yorkshire Post Magazine. Let’s get her priorities right!