Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

How do you recruit a new wave of passionate practitioners and enthusiasts for a great art form that often seems destined to a genteel decline, while fostering social confidence and cohesion along the way? At the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday night, I heard the definitive answer. Conducted at the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel, the breathtaking Simó* Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela more or less blew the dome off in one of the most exhilarating gigs I have ever seen. This magnificent band, whose indecently thrilling ways with Bernstein, Shostakovich and Ginastera sent us skipping into the Kensington rain, stands at the pinnacle of the Venezuelan "Sistema" set up by José Antonio Abreu in 1975. With 240,000 young musicians and 125 orchestras, it ranks, Simon Rattle says, as "the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world".

Back, reluctantly, on earth, I wondered if a scintilla of that rejuvenating magic might ever touch the more private sphere in which serious fiction is made and read. Of course, in Britain we have already had a decade-long "Sistema" for the renewal of literary audiences and authorship. His name was Harry Potter. But he has gone, while figures hint that he may not have spread his stardust all that far. Sales in July for leading children's titles not written by JK Rowling rose a mere 1.2 per cent.

With too many library services stuck in a cycle of decline, and retail outlets enslaved to the whims of the marketplace, schools remain the prime location where a love of reading may catch fire. And we do at least have a prime minister who wants to strike that match. After the Brown-driven "Bookstart" initiative to provide toddlers and babies with packages of books, "Booked Up" (again administered by the charity Booktrust) will aim to ensure that every 11-year-old in England receives a free book at the start of the coming school year.

Funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (with a £2.8m. grant), the scheme has won support from 98 per cent of English secondary schools. Some 600,000 Year 7 entrants will be able to choose a book from a dozen-strong selection that includes Hilary McKay (Saffy's Angel) and Malorie Blackman (Cloud Busting), Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines) and Frank Cottrell Boyce (Framed), Bali Rai (Dream On) and Eva Ibbotson (Journey to the River Sea). Specialists may tussle over the propriety of a list that, on the whole, benefits a spread of well-established UK names. Political pundits will note that this financially small gesture marks a wide chasm between Labour and Tory conceptions of what the state should do. Like a literary slice of child benefit, this is an old-fashioned universalist measure.

And anyone who simply worries about the future of reading, and writing, will hope for a sturdy network of follow-up promotions. The supporting website (bookedup.org.uk) looks effective enough, and has already attracted 300,000 users.

All this will hardly bring the house – or the Albert Hall – down. The whiff of official approval still feels a tad too strong. Yet Booked Up seeks to rescue readers at just the age when - especially for boys – interest in books can drop off a sheer cliff. For that, it deserves applause. In Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story (whose spin-off orchestral suite the Venezuelans played with blinding brilliance on Sunday), Action mockingly says that "I'm depraved on account I'm deprived". Many kinds of deprivation lie behind the kind of low-level teen depravity that now obsesses politicians. I don't think we should be shy in naming cultural poverty as one of them, or in welcoming any bid to bring a richer harmony into children's lives.

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