YEARAS AGO IN The Guardian, Jack Trevor Story, Milton Keynes’s writer in residence, used to write the second greatest diary column ever printed. The greatest was, of course, Auberon Waugh’s in Private Eye, though purists might argue that Story’s was better for the simple reason that it happened to be true, whereas Bron’s was fantasy – or, at least, I think it was. Story was a natural writer, whose prose seemed to be at one with his life. His words were not grand, flashy or startling, they just flowed. I don’t know what his epitaph was (he died in 1991), but ‘He wrote’ would seem about right.
Writing and life were, for him, ethically entwined. And it was this that prompted him to make one of his most heartbreaking observations. There is nothing in life, he suggested, quite as distressing as the discovery that somebody for whom one has the highest regard, especially someone for whom one feels the pangs of love, cannot write. He did not mean, of course, that they were actually illiterate, simply that they were incapable of writing anything resembling decent prose.
The distress arises from the puncturing of an illusion. The illusion is that anybody good, admirable or adorable must also be able to write well. Plainly this is almost as absurd as believing that physically beautiful people must also be nice to meet. Naomi Campbell seems to knock that one pretty decisively on the head.
Nevertheless, anybody who writes more than casually feels the ethical and aesthetic pressure of words. It is not a huge leap from that sensation to the conviction that anybody who does not feel that pressure and reflect it in what they write must be either mad or stupid. Furthermore, if you are obliged to read a lot of what non-writers write, then it is an even smaller leap to the conviction that almost everybody outside one’s own small and cherished circle of elegant prose makers is a crazed halfwit.
Does this also mean that those who don’t write well can’t read? Not necessarily. F R Leavis was a reader of genius but his prose was horrific, at times barely intelligible. On the whole, however, I am fairly sure that if people can’t write, the likeliest explanation is that they can’t read. And the truth is that almost nobody can.
This sombre yet bracingly paranoid reflection was sparked by a news item on the BBC website headlined ‘Diabetes websites too complicated’. I read the story because I assumed it was a joke that I didn’t quite get, a failed attempt at a one-liner like Andy Ford’s marvellously crisp, ‘I’m not a dyslexic, thank dog.’ But it wasn’t a joke, it was the story of some academic’s discovery that diabetics could not understand the websites designed for them. This researcher ‘found people would need the reading ability of an educated 11- to 17-year-old to understand the sites’. However, the average reading ability of people in the UK was equivalent to that of an educated nine-year-old.
Now, before we all retire to our divans with a cup of beef tea, we should note the madness of what has just been said. The word ‘educated’ is plainly being used in a specialised sense here, for we are all supposed to be educated now. But, if our average reading age is so low, then what ‘educated’ must, in fact, mean is ‘better than average’. This doesn’t make things any more tolerable, however, for the bottom line is that, in reality, most people aren’t educated and most people are illiterate. Beef tea now?
In America things are slightly worse. There, only one in twelve white seventeen-year-olds can ‘read and gain information from specialized text, for example the science section of a local newspaper’. For Latinos the figure is one in fifty and for blacks one in a hundred. I was in Washington recently and noticed that the concrete monotony of the government education office had been enlivened by colourful models of traditional schoolhouses decorating each entrance. In the wooden porchways of these models was inscribed the slogan, ‘No child left behind’. This did not refer, presumably, to ninety-nine out of every hundred blacks.
My point is not that the UK and US education systems are appalling (though probably they are); it is that writers do not live in the society they think they live in. They think they live in a society in which everybody can read and, therefore, in which everybody can read them. This is evidently not the case for anybody who writes anything as demanding as a diabetes website. In fact, almost everything published above the level of pre-school books and the cheapest pulp must fly miles over the heads of the vast majority of the population. This is, or should be, almost as disturbing as the revelation that somebody one loves can’t write. Both are aspects of the awful possibility that the world which writers make in their heads is utterly fictional, its values and judgements immaterial, and all their insights, therefore. irrelevant. The ethical link that feel between their words and lives must, in fact, be an illusion.
Well, yes; but, then again, no. Jack Trevor Story may have been deluded but his columns weren’t, anymore, than were Bron’s. They were brilliant responses to the predicament of having to write about things – whether to fulfil the demands of an inner compulsion or to satisfy the need for money. Reading is, as Martin Amis once said, ‘a higher form of life’ – a distinct realm with its own rules and consolations. The last thing the literate should do, therefore, is chase those confused diabetics downmarket.