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“A little knowledge goes a long way”

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Hello! Welcome back! And a happy new year to you all. I like the new year, especially now that I’ve given up on making traditional resolutions.

There are only so many times you can fail to not eat chocolate before you acknowledge the futility of the endeavour. But the underlying notion of self-improvement is a good one, so last year I formulated the annual question a little differently: instead of asking myself what vice I should give up, I asked what virtue I felt I most lacked. And the answer came back – education. I’m clearly not alone in feeling inadequate – the most recent figures say that 60% of the people undertaking further education courses to give themselves qualifications equal to A-levels or a degree are women. (Or at least, they are until the impending FE funding cuts come in to add to the slashing of public spending that is already disproportionately affecting women in and out of employment – but that’s a column for another time.)

I’ve got a degree, but it’s in English, which in essence means only that I can speed-read. Among all my areas of ignorance, the absence of any historical knowledge looms maybe not largest (that spot would go to anything involving numbers) but certainly most consequentially. It means I don’t know who came after whom (whom! There’s your three years of English degree, right there! Boom!), who was killing Catholics or Protestants when or why, what the Chartists were on about, whether the Mary Rose had anything to do with the Wars of the Roses, who the Princes in the Tower were, or whether the Prince Regent really existed or Ben Elton and Richard Curtis just made him up to give Hugh Laurie something to do that played to his daft, bulgy-eyed strengths until House came along. And without the basic framework, without a fundamentally accurate grasp of how Britain or any other country got from there to here, nothing else feels properly understood or anchored. You can’t really learn the history of English literature, for one personally experienced example, without knowing anything about history.

Anything is possible with enough books and Google

So, I set myself the goal of learning more. I don’t work regular enough hours to be able to do a course or night class, so I took myself off to the library (its hours have been halved thanks to the aforementioned cuts, but again, a column for another time). I tried at first with proper factual books but found that my mind has calcified so thoroughly since I last tried to absorb a fact (which I estimate to have been sometime towards the end of my first year of university. After that I just joined everyone else in having ‘feelings’ and ‘insights’ into ‘texts’. Oh well. You live and don’t learn) that nothing would go in. So I turned to fiction instead. Philippa Gregory (The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance – I had Boleyns up the wazoo), Jean Plaidy (she wrote hundreds. There is nothing that woman didn’t know), Margaret Irwin, various delightful tiny tomes from the mad, mad world of Shire Books, other odds and sods like Anya Seton’s Katherine and Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. When I was feeling a bit braver, things like Our Island Story by HE Marshall and A Child’s History Of England by Charles Dickens which were written for children a century or so ago and so nicely bridged the gap between unabsorbable fact and unreliable fiction for me.

And do you know what? It worked! I don’t mean I could reel off an entire list of monarchs and their dates from the year dot like some people I am married to can but, y’know, I have an idea. An overview. A clue, at last.

And the effect has been just what I hoped. Everything else – newspaper articles, essays, novels, clever people’s conversations – have become a little clearer. I have more weapons in my mental armoury, more pegs on which to hang the usual clutter of my thoughts. So this year I’m choosing another area to read my way through. The history of the English language maybe (build on the theme, why not? Plus I seem to have collected over the years a lot of books on the subject; most recently David Crystal’s Spell It Out: The Singular Story Of English Spelling, a history of English through 100 words, Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon and The Etymologicon, which sound a lot more scary than they look), or economics perhaps. I’m fed up not knowing how money works and why it’s not working any more.

Anyway. I just wanted to spread the good word that even the most fossilised mind can be made malleable again if you apply the right stuff and let it soak in for long enough. Anything is possible with enough books and a bit of advice from Google and any teachery-type friends about where to start. Except giving up chocolate, of course. The brain can only do so much.”

Do you agree with Lucy? Share your views on her column by commenting below, or let us know your thoughts @StylistMagazine on twitter.

Picture credits: Rex Features

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