Just Say “Pickaxe”

Peter Batten writes about core interests . . .

A few days ago the postman brought me a copy of the novel ‘Conversations with Friends’ by the Irish writer Sally Rooney (pictured). I had ordered the novel because I had heard it mentioned so many times over the previous few months.

Why should this be important for me? Because reading has been a fundamental part of my life. When I was about three years old my grandmother began to teach me to read. Relatives have told me that in order to boost my confidence she told me, “If you do not recognise a word just say, ‘pickaxe’ and carry on.” It seems to have worked because my first teacher at primary school found that I could read quite fluently.

So my grandmother gave me a love of reading which has lasted for 80 years. But I have mentioned this gift to raise a deeper issue. For many years while working in Adult Education I was shocked by the many people who had no core interest in their lives. That sounds rather pretentious, but what does it mean? Obviously, we all hope to be living our lives within a social group composed of our family, our close relatives, our friends and many acquaintances. That cannot be guaranteed, as my work with the Neighbourhood Care Scheme taught me several years ago. But if we are lucky enough to have that kind of social support, what more do we need? I believe we can all benefit from a ‘core interest’ which plays an important role in our identity. “What do you mean by identity?” I hear someone saying. The answer would require a very long essay. Some examples will have to suffice. For one of my former school friends cricket has been central to his life; he played till he was over 60; he followed the fortunes of his county and England; in his retirement he travelled abroad to support England; he even became the Scorer for his county. That is an extreme case. I could offer examples from Model Aircraft to Ceramics, from Languages to Woodwork, and so on.

Why do many people fail to find this kind of interest? The question worries me. I do not wish to turn this article into a sermon, but my work in Adult Education gave me a deep conviction that such interests, pursued as a balanced part of adult life, make a vital contribution to mental health and stability. Ideally, a core interest should begin early, probably in the teen age years, but it is never too late. Sadly, I have met many people who began to be aware of this gap in their lives only in retirement.

To my delight, quite a few of them found an interest even at this late stage in their lives. A chance meeting, a newspaper article, a television programme, a U3A class have all led to new interests and new satisfactions.

I was very lucky. My grandmother’s teaching created a lifelong reader. Then a chance meeting led to a love of jazz and 35 years as a semi-professional jazz musician alongside my regular jobs in education. But I also met Tony Tanner. We were students at the same college, studying English Literature. We became friends and spent many hours discussing our subject. We also played together in jazz bands. He was a very capable pianist and I was beginning to play the trumpet. After University we went our separate ways and soon lost touch. He went on to be a Professor at Cambridge and a specialist in American Literature, also writing prefaces to Jane Austen novels and all of Shakespeare’s plays. At that time I was very unsettled in my private life and had no idea how I would earn a living. Now that I look back I realise how influenced I was by Tony’s intense interest in literature.  He left me with a compulsion to study literature for the rest of my life, whatever else I did. Meeting him gave me the core interest which my grandmother’s kindness had sent me in search of at the very beginning of my life.


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