Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I guess that's what they call serendipity

It didn’t seem like a life-changing decision at the time. On the scale of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus it would barely have registered. I just thought I needed to get some discipline into my reading habits. I used to read like a kid in a candy store - there was always another book that looked more exciting than the one I was reading.
I remembered that, when I was at college 40 years earlier, my reading routine was governed by a study programme and not subject to passing whims. So the answer, I thought, would be to take the first year of an Open University arts course. The broad theme of that year was the Victorian Years: the art, the music, the philosophers, the architects, the engineers, the explorers and the writers of that highly inventive and productive age. No blinding revelation - just a slight change in direction – not so much a U-turn as an OU turn.
To someone unused to study, it was tough. But it needed to be: it meant studying at home after work; getting up in the middle of the night to watch television programmes; attending tutorials; studying video and audio tapes; researching a testing written assignment every month; an intensive summer school at Manchester (that most Victorian of cities) University; and reading, reading, reading.
At the end of the year I was mentally exhausted – but smitten. Still with no intention of completing the degree course, I signed up for another year. I chose another period in history: that quiet 18th century revolution in intellectual, scientific and artistic thought that became known as The Age of Enlightenment. I emoted to Mozart, raved over Reynolds and Gainsborough, and revelled in written works that, in my previous existence, I would not even have picked up: Gibbon’s irony-packed Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Voltaire’s unexpectedly bawdy Candide.
There was no stopping after that. The Enlightenment was followed by the plays of Shakespeare, two years of French, and a year of modern English literature. By this time I was finally learning to read: not more quickly, but more deeply
Somewhere along the way, a decision had been made by default - that I would finish the course. All this was against the background of a fairly testing job – setting up a business and travelling world-wide. So when the job started to interfere with my studies, I retired and became a student. The degree course ended with a year studying the art and architecture of 14th century Italy, which took me on study trips to Venice, Padua, Florence and Siena.
At no time did the adventure lessen, and my feelings at the end of the final examinations were not of relief, but of loss. Seven years after that fateful non-decision, I put on my rented cap and gown and, applauded by my family, walked on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall to be get my degree – the oldest student there.
If you thought that graduation was the end of the story you’d be wrong: it was only the beginning. In the seven years since then, the group with whom I toured northern Italy have become close friends, and we meet at least three times a year to visit London art exhibitions, and have extended our studies independently, with art trips to Spain, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and Latvia and, this year, Estonia.
A bonus was that the discipline of having to write an essay every month had improved my writing skills, so I started to turn my travel experiences into revenue. And when the OU opened its own library last year I gave them a copy of my first book – A Literary Guide to the French Riviera (shown above). It seemed a small return for all that they had given me.
As decisions go, it may not have ranked seismically alongside Cortes’s burning of his boats in the Yucatan, but it was a metaphorical boat-burning, because there is no going back.
And my reading: is it now planned, ordered and disciplined? Well, no: it’s as chaotic as ever. I still have five books on the go in the bedroom, half a dozen in the lounge and at least two in the loo. But I’m married to another book freak, who keeps me in bookmarks. I guess that’s what they call serendipity.

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