Thirty-two years ago, it was the summer of 1989. I’d just finished my GCSEs. Other people kept muttering that I should find a job for the summer, but Merseyside in the 1980s wasn’t exactly overflowing with summer jobs, and in any case I had other ideas. I was alternating between going for long solo walks – pacing around the hot summer streets of Newton-le-Willows, the air thick with the scent of goldenrod and willow herb – and reading. I was due to start my A levels in September and we’d been told that we should read as much as possible over the summer. We had an induction session where we had to write down the last three books we’d read, and cross off anything that was one of our GCSE set texts. I wasn’t completely sure what I should read, but I did know that teenage fiction and pony books wouldn’t pass muster. I’d read a review of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work in the paper, and thought it sounded interesting. I bought a copy of it from WH Smith in Warrington and read it over the course of about four days, and discovered from it that there was the possibility of doing English at university, something I’d never actually thought about before but which started to take hold in my mind, that long summer, in a way that nothing else ever had.
One of the central characters in Nice Work was a lecturer called Robyn Penrose. At one point in the novel, she mused on what it would be like to have never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then reflected that there must be many thousands of reasonably well-educated people who had never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, who had never shivered at Lowood with Jane or throbbed in the arms of Heathcliff with Cathy. I’d heard of the Brontës, but what I knew of them came largely from Kate Bush singing about the wily, windy moors. There was a gap in my knowledge and it seemed to me that reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre was something I needed to do. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on the edge of something big.
I bought a Penguin Classics copy of Wuthering Heights, with purple-streaked heather moors on the cover and an introduction by someone called David Daiches. I made myself read the introduction, even though it looked complicated. I found out about the Brontës, about the sisters who died so young and the ones who survived, and was intrigued by strange crabby Emily who strode across Yorkshire and didn’t give a toss about anyone. I devoured Wuthering Heights, and then I read Jane Eyre, and between them the Brontës opened up spaces in my head that I didn’t know existed before.
I raided the local library and pored over biographies, dusty-looking books from the non-fiction section that hadn’t been borrowed in years. These books made no concessions to teenage me. I needed to reach up and find my own footholds. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff I was learning about. It was a huge, absorbing mass of ideas and I couldn’t quite make it fit in with the rest of my life. I had a vague sense that my friends wouldn’t know what to make of any of this, and so I didn’t tell them. It felt like dangerous knowledge, all these things I was finding out about these three strange sisters and their slightly embarrassing brother, up there in the parsonage. It was leading me into alien territory, out there on the other side of the Pennines. Empty moorland acres and twittering skylarks and trees sculpted by the wind. I squared my shoulders and trudged on into the unknown.
By the time sixth form started, I was reading Villette. It felt like the biggest book I’d ever read. Not just in itself – six hundred densely printed pages – but in its honesty, its unwillingness to make concessions. I was possessed by Lucy Snowe’s lonely journey to Brussels, her awkward existence at Madame Beck’s pensionnat and her emerging friendship with the equally spiky Paul Emanuel. I tucked my copy into my schoolbag with my French textbook and my History notes, and read it in the library when I should have been learning about the Wars of the Roses. Walking home from school, I played out conversations in my head – imaginary university interviews with lecturers who’d read more than I could ever imagine – about why the Brontës were so important and why Villette was so much better than Jane Eyre.
Learning doesn’t just take place within a classroom. That summer, the summer of 1989, changed my life, and it happened because I had the freedom to spend three months lost in books, going for walks, and thinking.
Horses, when they are young, benefit from being turned out to graze and explore. There are things that they need to learn, but they also need time to just be a horse.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with Amanda Spielman’s announcement that students in Year 11 and 13 shouldn’t be given study leave this summer, but one of the most important is that it ignores the fact that young people – especially after a deeply traumatic year – need to be given time to be themselves. They need to mooch around and pursue their own interests; they need to hang out with friends and spend time on their own. Some will be out earning money; some will have other responsibilities. Some might still need the support of school, and it’s important that this support is there, for all manner of reasons. But what none of them need is to be in a hot stuffy classroom, pursuing someone else’s idea of catch-up. Let them be, and let them breathe.