Today I had the strange but lovely experience of having to read my own book. When you get to the proofs stage, you are in the last bit of the book writing process. This is the proof, if you like, that you have worked together with your publishers and their team, and made a book. You want to be sure that your book is as good as you can possibly make it and I’m very lucky to have had the team at Crownhouse Publishing to work with. With illustrations by Elly Watson, and a great copy editor and art designer, Road School looks gorgeous. There are scraps of our children’s writing, and images from our trip. This kind of team work is really important, because making a book is not just about the writing, it is about an object that people will want to hold in their hands and read. My one remaining job during proofing is to ensure that there are no errors of fact, technique or expression that might get in the way of the reader and the text. But the book is basically complete. It’s not mine any more. It is about to belong to its readers.
Asking people to pay money for your book can feel like a slightly awkward proposition. It is the ultimate in ignoring Imposter Syndrome to say that your writing might be worth paying for. And yet, this is the very basis of making a living out of being a writer. If you don’t want to do (a) you can’t have (b). You can’t be squeamish about it. The main thing in being a writer, it seems to me, is to take account of your readers. Not to write for them as such, but to write with them in mind. To try and make a connection with them, so that they understand what you mean. As you read through your book one last time before it is published, you get the chance to see whether you have managed to do this. But to figure out whether you have done it, you have to try and read your book as though you’ve never read it before. And this is very hard.
One of the things that struck me as I read my book once more was how the knowledge that we gained from our learning journey seemed to connect up all over the place. Languages and art and history and geography all merged into one. English and maths and science were all around us, rather than separated out into curriculum subjects like they usually are in school. Perhaps this approach didn’t get the knowledge over as quickly as you could in a classroom, but the patterns of understanding offered a different kind of experience. The places that we went to and the music that we listened to as we got there had connections to memories from our past, ones we wanted to share with our children. Going to Goa, living in Portugal, hearing the fall of the Berlin Wall. Visiting Venice, living in Germany, meeting cousins. Everything meant something, because of its connection to something else.
Cultural literacy is not only made up of the stuff that we read at school. It is not a kind of wall of Shakespeare and Dickens that can shore us up against real life and make sure we exceed expectations. Cultural literacy is mostly (or mainly) made up of the things that we choose to do in our private lives. And politicians don’t get to tell us how to do that. It worries me that we don’t celebrate the positives about our breadth of cultural references, rather than constantly elevating some above others. My cultural literacy is about crime novels, music, shared interests, family, friends, and travel; my choices may or may not be high brow enough for Nick Gibb. Yours may very well be different. But if you’re a fan of the music of the late twentieth century, you might like to test your musical knowledge on my Road School Playlist. How long can you go without hitting ‘Google’?