Stuart Simpson/Penguin

My Mum likes to tell a story about how, on my fifth birthday, I had all my friends over for a party and in the middle of it, I hid under the table with a book and refused to come out. When I was a child, I did that a lot: hide myself away to read.

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl was one of the first books I discovered as I was coming out of my Enid Blyton phase, and a new world of reading was opening up. I loved the sense of adventure, and cheering Danny and his dad on. It’s also the story of ordinary people fighting against the rich and powerful, so I guess there was, even back in Primary School, something about it that appealed to my sense of social justice.

Did I have an inkling of myself as a potential leader back then? Not at all. But I do remember having a sense of not wanting to follow an obvious or a normal path. Reading showed me there was a massive world of different possibilities and experiences out there. 

By the time I got to university I was a bit of a pretentious teenager, obsessed with reading the classics in the hope it would impress people. I think the reason Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte stayed with me so strongly was that it was not the novel I was expecting. It was a love story, but also much, much more than that: an almost spiritual journey about a young woman trying to work out who she was and find her place in the world. I was just starting to get involved in politics, which was taking me out of my very bookish, solitary mindset, and at that particular moment in my life Jane Eyre really resonated. I read it back again recently and found it a different novel. Rochester annoyed me much more than the first time.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932) is the first novel I remember reading where it was the beauty of the prose and the language that moved me as much as the story of the characters. It introduced me to a part of my country I didn’t really know about. It’s set in the North East of Scotland around the outbreak of the First World War. The main character, Chris, grows up on a farm. It’s an impoverished environment, and her father is abusive. She has a passion for education and wants to go the college but because of her family circumstances she can’t. It’s often said Chris is a personification of Scotland itself, and reading Sunset Song definitely played a part in shaping my worldview and my feelings about independence.

I was in the later stages of university when I discovered Beloved by Toni Morrison. I remember sitting in the cafeteria in the library, probably trying to dodge studying for my law exams, and just being captivated by it. I struggled at first: it was very different to much of what I was reading at the time. But once I got used to the voice and style I was captivated. 

It’s the beauty of her writing, but also the depth of the emotions and experiences she describes. I am one of these people who would much rather learn history through literature, and although I’d read a fair bit of nonfiction about the American civil war and slavery, this book deepening my understanding of the brutality of it, the deep scarring it left behind. I’ve loved everything else she’s written, although I never got to meet her, which is a source of great regret

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) is the novel that introduced me to the wonderful Muriel Spark. Her novels are masterpieces. You can read them on quite a superficial level as quirky romances or mysteries, but they also have huge depth to them as they explore things like morality, religion or surrealism. I think she was an absolute genius. I loved studying law, but I spent a lot of time reading literature to take myself away from dry, dusty legal textbook and in my mid-20s, I read most of Muriel Sparks’ novels. In her centenary year I set myself the challenge of rereading them all. I got half way through.

I can imagine life without lots of things I currently take for granted, but I can’t imagine any life worth living where I don’t get to read novels. I think anyone in a position of political leadership would benefit hugely from reading fiction. It helps develop a sense of empathy for people. 

I’ve got plenty of writing aspirations, I’m just not sure I’ve got any writing talent! I think initially if I wrote a book it would probably be of the nonfiction variety, but I would love to think I could write a novel that people would want to read. I’m certainly not saying I’ll never try.


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