Author Lee Child supports the Daily Express Give a Book campaign
Speaking exclusively to daily express, former journalist Sir Tom Stoppard wholeheartedly agrees. “Give A Book is a great charity. I’ve had books now for 75 years, that’s as long as I’ve had my own personal books, so the charity is one I totally understand,” he says. “To this day, reading is the last thing I do at night, and I really mean 365 days a year: putting a bookmark in my bedside book is the last thing I do before turning off the light.”
Playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom, 85, was born in the former Czechoslovakia, fled as a child refugee from Nazi occupation and came to Britain in 1946 with his mother and stepfather after living in the Indian Himalayas for three years.
“I’m not sure what I read before I came to England, but the first substantial book I can remember reading was Arthur Ransome when I was eight years old,” he tells me.
“My stepfather brought us to England and we stayed at my great-grandmother’s house for a while and I met Peter Duck. This was a proper 300-400 page book and I was completely captivated by it.
“I spent the next year looking for other Arthur Ransome books, I had no idea how to find one. It was a funny and ridiculous situation, but since I can remember coming here, I lived through books.
“I was not an early reader. I was in boarding school and we were always reading Biggles and that kind of stuff.”
Sir Tom Stoppard is a voracious reader
When I suggest that Peter Duck, part of Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons adventure series set in the Lake District, was the perfect introduction to an English childhood, Sir Tom agrees: “You’re absolutely right.
“It’s a rather exotic example of Ransome’s work, but I guess I then read Swallows And Amazons, which is a key document of English middle-class life between the wars – I lived in his world in my mind.”
Give A Book promotes the pleasure of reading in the most inaccessible places. His core belief is that passing on a good read, giving away a book, is a transaction of lasting value. Express readers have generously supported our 2022 appeal, which is now drawing to a close, despite the cost of living crisis.
Chief Executive Victoria Gray created the charity in tribute to her late husband, playwright and chronicler Simon Gray, author of The Smoking Diaries, to work in prisons, schools and with disadvantaged young people across the UK.
It’s a philosophy that Sir Tom, whose best-selling works include Travesties, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, and Leopoldstadt, fully understands. New to England, reading was not only entertainment, it was also an invaluable tool.
“I came to India when I was four years old and I came to England when I was eight and a half years old and had been in an American school in India,” continues Sir Tom, who also wrote the screenplays for Empire Of The Sol, The Russian House, Shakespeare In Love and Enigma.
“When I came to England, English was my first and only language, I had stopped speaking Czech with my mother and brother when I was a child.”
Reading, he explains, continued his education. Something that has remained constant to this day, even the father of four smiles, at the expense of his family.
“I have bookcases instead of walls in most of the house,” laughs Sir Tom.
“There is a big wall for photos and the rest is books. I think I’ve passed the tipping point where I realize there are books up there that I’m never going to be able to read and always meant to.
“I am reading new books and very old books simultaneously. I have two or three books on the go all the time. It’s not disrespectful to loved ones, but it’s that hour or two with one of the books I’m reading that really makes my day.”
Having started his career working for the Western Daily Press newspaper in Bristol, Sir Tom reveals that he almost joined the daily express in his Fleet Street days.
“There was a man named David Lewin, downstairs with Joan Collins, doing shows on the Express and I don’t know how a letter came up maybe at the right time, but I was invited for an interview,” he recalls.
“I introduced myself and walking into the Express building on Fleet Street was like walking into St Paul’s Cathedral as far as I was concerned.
“When I was working in Bristol I used to come to London and walk down Fleet Street looking in amazement at the Telegraph building and the Express building and all the other national newspapers in the side streets.
“They were temples if you loved words… I still believe a lot in newspapers. Most journalists want to try to leave things better than they found them.
Express Man David Lewin with Joan Collins
“Actually, having an interview was an amazing thing for me. David Lewin was a really nice guy and he wanted an extra body to have around. He explained to me that when someone had to get up at 3 a.m. to get to someone’s door, it would be me, and when there was a free ticket to Los Angeles, it would be him.”
Sadly, the job never got done but, as history confirms, life worked out well for Sir Tom nonetheless.
Having started writing radio plays and working as a drama critic, his first big hit was Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, which takes place behind the scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he made it an overnight success in 1966. .
Later works, Jumpers, 1972, Travesties, two years later, and Night And Day, 1978, strengthened his reputation as a man of letters. He was knighted in 1997 by the Queen for his contribution to the theatre. Yet today, Sir Tom fears that we have come out on top as a literate and numerate society.
Give A Book puts books in the hands of those who need them most. A £5 donation will provide a book; £10 will add a backpack; while £25 will get you a complete pack of books. Support
Daily Express Christmas Drive, send donations (checks only, payable to Give A Book) to:
DX Give A Book Campaign, 112-114 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 4UA
Or you can donate online through: giveabook.org.uk
UK Registered Charity No. 1149664
He points to the closure of libraries and the growing reliance on the internet, especially in terms of services like banks, energy companies and local governments.
“Although I have a smartphone, I don’t have a computer and I rarely listen to audio books because I really like to read. But there are still many people who cannot navigate life without printed paper.
“And I worry, above all, about older people who are increasingly being told to go to a website or some kind of link that they don’t understand.
“I’m in that group but luckily I have a wife who is a bit of a geek and understands most things about the internet. So I get by, but there are a lot of people who grew up on print and struggle without it.
“People who can’t, won’t, or aren’t ready to live with the ‘app’ are being marginalized.
“I guess it’s cheaper for the authorities.”
Queen Camilla, patron of the National Literacy Trust, with Tom Stoppard
He adds: “There was a time when there was a minister of libraries and literacy, they were very important. But everything is in motion all the time and you have to accept that.”
Sir Tom is particularly concerned about prisons, as most inmates have demonstrably lower literacy levels than the general population.
“I realized what a difference reading can make in the peace of mind of anyone who has their back against the wall, literally.” As we speak just before Christmas, Sir Tom, who married his third wife, brewery heiress Sabrina Guinness, in 2014 and lives in London, has just returned from walking his new dog Coco.
“We had never had a dog before,” he confesses. “Sabrina and I got this dog less than a fortnight ago. He is 18 months old and is a rescued dog from Greece. He is a mix of God knows what but very endearing. One of the great things about having a dog was that I had to take him for walks. I go for a walk, but now the dog will be an additional incentive”.
As for work, he’s a little embarrassed that he doesn’t have a big project on the go.
His most recent play, Leopoldstadt, which opened in London’s West End in January 2020, is currently captivating audiences on Broadway, but he admits: “I go to bed every night and wake up every morning with a strange guilt and dissatisfaction because I haven’t got into anything new.
“I have to do it, I need to do it, I really want to do it. But these things come out of nowhere. All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, thank God, I’ve got another play I can write,’ but right now I’m just trying to clear my desk so I can do some thinking.”
I enjoyed a normal British childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, which is to say safe, comfortable and boring. Postwar austerity was gray and horizons were narrow: he seemed destined to do what my father had done, which was what his father had done.
Reading saved me. With a book in hand, you could be anywhere in the world, at any time in history, or even in the future. You could be having adventures, making discoveries, saving the day. I learned about other people, other cultures, and other ways of doing things.
Most of all, I learned how I could use story structure to explain life to myself and comfort me when things didn’t work out. I was always able to find solace and inspiration in kind, alternate endings.
I also saw the same things happen to others, first my little brother Andrew (now grown up and writing the Jack Reacher books with me!) and then my own baby daughter Ruth.
Andrew’s first favorite book was Small Pig by American author Arnold Lobel. I must have read it to you hundreds of times. Little Pig loved to sink into good, smooth mud.
One day he wandered through the city and found an excellent patch of mud.
But it wasn’t mud! It was fresh concrete! Danger, danger, panic… but in the end it all worked out. Little Pig was rescued. And Andrew grew up confident, capable, carefree, not prone to panic, and I honestly think Small Pig played a small part in that.
Ruth’s early favorites were the Teddy Robinson books by Joan G Robinson. Teddy was a bear who had amazing adventures when no one was looking, and he always stopped almost, but not exactly, where he started. Ruth grew up understanding that we will never really know the lives of others.
It made her empathetic and kind. For them and for me, and for millions of other readers around the world, books created our lives and personalities. That’s why I’ll always support anything that helps get books into the hands of those who need them most, and why I’m happy to have added my name to the Daily Express’ Christmas fundraiser in support of Give A Book. Think of it like a food bank for the brain.
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