Bring on the empty horses – a call to reading!

One of the funniest stories from the world of film is told in David Niven’s autobiographical book, after which this post is entitled. Michael Curtiz, legendary American Hungarian Hollywood director, was having to cope with the antics of Niven and fellow star Errol Flynn, whilst directing them in the film “The charge of the light brigade”.  Clearly the filming of the carnage of injured men and general mayhem was not going well; shouting to his assistants, Curtiz shouted “Bring on the empty horses!” Niven and Flynn fell about laughing, and Curtiz rounded on them exclaiming in his thick accent “You think I know fxxx nothing, but I tell you I know fxxx all!”

When I first came across this joke, I fell about laughing, and felt emboldened to tell my Benedictine housemaster, Father Bernard.  I knew it was funny because he creased up too. Throughout my adolescence, much of it spent at boarding school where time hung heavy upon on my hands, the book was the ultimate retreat into a fantasy world of better times. Spike Milligan, John Lennon and Isaac Asimov led the way, but I can recall a heady mix of Robert Louis Stevenson, John Cleland and Anthony Burgess as well – probably none ever read these days. Trash fiction abounded, Ellery Queen the highlight of my sojourn across the pond in American crime.

During her academic research based work on the Child’s acquisition of language, my mother became a profound convert to the idea that all reading is good reading, but that if it was to be of any sustained value, reading needed to happen for a real length of time, perhaps 30 minutes.  Some 24 years after her death, and the reading landscape in some ways has been transformed.  There are of course so many other diversions other than reading for entertainment these days, but eReaders have helped recapture readers, and proper books are not going away anytime soon.

International studies show countries such as Singapore ahead of the UK in reading, but these studies largely highlight performance in tests, and it is interesting to note that whilst the schools minister, Elizabeth Truss and her boss Michael Gove are pushing hard for more rigorous testing, Singapore is moving in the opposite direction, giving more freedom in its curriculum to encourage its students to be more creative in their writing. Read more about that here –

There is much written about the gender difference between girls and boys, the latter being far too willing to substitute anything rather than read – the concept of a Good Book being a contradiction in terms.  In search of some encouragement for the males of the species I supervise, I was reminded of the playwright Alan Bennett’s teacher in  ‘The History Boys’. Here is what Hector had to say:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.

So whether it be fact, fiction, prose, play or verse, all reading improves not just the mind, but pretty much everything else as well. And in 2013, as text can come at you from so many directions, there really is no (expletive deleted) excuse!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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