Has anyone reading this ever heard of a strange, possibly legendary character called McEchrean? Many times during my career in education I’ve heard talks from teachers, lecturers and even a couple of professors mentioning this strange school-based will o’ the wisp, variously appearing as a sort of superannuated PE teacher or games master. Once he was specifically identified as a tennis coach, though I never heard mention of his appearance actually on a tennis court. He must have had a room of his own, possibly in the cricket pavilion, from which he would suddenly emanate like the devil in the old comedy. There also must have been in his lair a cupboard of Tardis-like internal proportions, because when he magically appeared in front of pupils he would always have in his hands a selection of books which he dealt out as they passed, shouting, ‘You’ve got to read this.’ And, of course, stunned by such a seemingly supernaturaI manifestation, they always did, from cover to cover. I have heard speakers talk of McEchrean’s extraordinary influence, how he altered lives, how he even laid the foundations for whole careers.
Well, McEchrean, if he ever really existed, must be dead these many years. But I liked to think of his ghost searching the world for another earthly home. And now he’s found it. I believe the spirit of McEchrean has alighted in Simon Cheshire.
I have, over the years, become a Grumpy Old Man and proud of it. And among the many gripes I have about present-day education is its superficial random selectivity. Pupils leave school thinking world history consists entirely of the Tudors and Hitler and that there’s no literature between Romeo and Juliet and Of Mice and Men. And when I was at school and first thinking seriously of reading English at university, the only books I could find which would give me a broad conspectus of the whole huge territory were dryasdust lists of dates, names and titles with hardly a hint that any of them might be worth reading. God knows why I carried on.
But now here comes Simon Cheshire and he hits both targets with unerring aim. Part 1 of You’ve Got To Read This is a potted but pointed history of writing and reading from pictograms to manga, including the development of the book as the best information retrieval system. It’s written with clarity, ease and grace. Cheshire elegantly and economically deals with the mechanics of story and how our brains decode it. This is among the best and certainly the clearest account that I have read of a very subtle process.
In part 2 he romps through the history of literature by selecting particular authors, knowing full well that such a selection will be arbitrary. Nevertheless, by putting each writer into a proper historical context, he enables his personal choice to present a comprehensive view. But most of all he transmits the sheer joy of reading, with an understanding that the books he mentions are all singular creations, with their own uniqueness, even oddity. They represent the almost limitless variousness of literature – and also its wonderful universality, its shared experience, its expression of the human mind at, as with all great art forms, its very best.
Cheshire transmits all this in beguilingly simple, flexible prose which shows his own enthusiasm for and sheer love of what he writes about. It also handles difficult concepts with the clarity of a sharp mind and delicate sensibility. His choice of authors is, he admits, very personal. There is little mention of poetry. Fair enough. Cheshire writes stories: they are what he knows best. He surveys the obvious – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy – but he spends a lot of time on detective stories. That’s fair enough too. An important literary genre – but Cheshire writes detective stories for kids and Saxby Smart is, to my mind, up there in the great Pantheon with Holmes and Adam Dalgleish, so he knows what he is talking about. There’s a lot about American literature: he’s very sharp on Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Steinbeck and Hemingway. And so much more.
FR Leavis might have a fit if he could read this book. So much for his Great Tradition. But who is to say that this is not the new Great Tradition? This book gave me immense pleasure. I came away feeling that I had learnt a lot and seen things afresh – and I’ve earned my living by knowing about literature so I‘m doubly impressed. I wish this book would be bought in its thousands by schools and that all pupils should have to read it. But it’s a book which celebrates the empowering freedom of the word and the right to expression, so perhaps to use the word ‘have’ is inappropriate.
Even so, I still wish they had to. McEchrean lives!
You’ve got to read this book is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Simon Cheshire here
Dennis Hamley will be ‘appearing’ at the first Edinburgh Ebook Festival in the Writer’s Pieces event at 12.30 on Weds 22nd August. He is also the subject of a Special Feature (Aug 22) and a Competition which will be announced during the festival.
Simon Cheshire will also ‘appear’ at the festival (details tbc)