As Biblicists know, eating an apple can get you into all kinds of trouble. I’m not writing about the work that first hooked me into reading, because that was Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man, and I’ve already written about it. The work that took my reading to a new level was T. S. Eliot’s group of short poems ‘Preludes’. I’d been a voracious reader at primary school, but lost interest between 11 and 16 because no-one could recommend anything suitable for me. Then a couple of works grabbed my interest during my O-level years.
The first was Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’, which we covered as a poem in our anthology, Rhyme and Reason. I wrote an essay on it, had a spine-tingling moment when I realised that it was a kind of parallel creation myth, and the teacher was lavish in her praise. (She didn’t even grade it; just wrote ‘Superb’. You could overdo that kind of praise, but it was an important endorsement and confirmation.)
The other encounter happened by accident in the last lesson one Friday afternoon; spring or early summer, I’d guess. The teacher, Mrs Harris, was off sick, and the lesson was being covered by a youthful, likeable Geography teacher, Mr Koenig. I was hungry (my packed lunches were never big enough), and realised I still had an apple in my bag, so figured that I might as well eat it. The chairs were arranged in double horseshoe configuration, so even though I was on the outer row, there wasn’t a great deal of cover. I was spotted, and as a punishment, Mr Koenig took an old anthology from the cupboard, found a poem by a poet I’d never heard of and told me to write an essay on it: write about the urban imagery in ‘Preludes’ by T. S. Eliot. He must have done English Lit at A-level, to be able to identify a suitable topic with such speed. At first I was resentful, as eating when you’re hungry didn’t seem such a terrible thing to do, and I’d never before been set a punitive essay or subjected to any ‘demerit’ or detention. But at home, when I began to read the poems, and still more when I began to write about them, I was really blown away: the tone and manner were completely different from anything else we’d done.
My guess is this must have been the spring of my O-level year. I can’t remember whether there were any other Eliot poems in the anthology, but somehow I must have found out more about him. At the point when I left secondary school I was signed up to do science A-levels at sixth-form college (Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics), with a vague plan of going on to do a medicine degree; but over the summer I started to feel that I needed some expressive, artistic dimension to my studies, so after the O-level results came I phoned the sixth-form and swapped one of the science subjects for English Literature. At some point in September of that year, I bought Eliot’s Collected Poems; I wrote the date September 1984 in it, but nothing more precise. I remember distinctly buying it in Wallingford, a small market town ten miles from home where we didn’t shop very often; or rather, I remember beginning to read it in the car on the way home. Within a year I’d dropped another science subject, and set myself on studying English at University, now with the unusual subject combination of Chemistry, Maths, and English.