An illustration showing a young boy listening to a cassette tape audiobook of The Iron Man by Ted Hughes via headphones. Seen against a pale yellow background with a soundwave pattern either side of the illustration of the boy.
An illustration showing a young boy listening to a cassette tape audiobook of The Iron Man by Ted Hughes via headphones. Seen against a pale yellow background with a soundwave pattern either side of the illustration of the boy.

“Can you hear me? Do you understand?”

It pains me to imagine how many times my mother might have heard these words, perhaps in condescending tones, when she first arrived in England from China. Officials, landlords, shopkeepers, strangers – all might have said it. Perhaps some in a kindly, patient way. Others might have said it with annoyance or irritation. Tone can be hard to read and hard to judge when one is new to a culture.

English was not our language. We had to acquire it – my mother through diligent study and by necessity. And I, arriving in Britain at age five, more smoothly, although it perhaps would not have been as smooth if not for a few key decisions.

The first time I heard an English person reading a book to me was in assembly. It was our headteacher in primary school. I must’ve been five or six years old. I cannot remember his name, nor even, in truth, the name of the school. I was living with my dad at the time, in a council flat in Roehampton, the infamous Alton Estate, while my mum had moved to the seaside town of Hastings to establish her shop.

The book our headteacher decided to read to the entire school was The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. A good choice. This children’s book is vivid and epic in scope despite its short length. Our headmaster took great care in reading it, employing gestures, different voices, alternating his rhythm and tone.

I do not know how many assemblies it took but I remember he got through the whole book. Although I could not understand all the words I could somehow follow the narrative. And I was entranced! There’s that wonderful moment when our protagonist faces the great space-bat-angel-dragon (which is the size of Australia) and issues his challenge of who can endure fire and heat. The dragon asks the Iron Man how can there be a furnace large enough to contain him?

The Iron Man points up to the sun. “Up there,” the headteacher said, enunciating with enormous drama. Thinking now, he must’ve paraphrased the book, but no matter. I can still remember his white shirt, the gesture of his hand, pointing, and the quiet loud rasp of his voice as he said those two words. The image, the feeling, was impressed upon me.    

As a child my parents did not read English books to me. Neither dad or mum (they divorced) had the time or capability to read to me. I moved to live with my mum in Hastings, and the primary school there found my English to be lacking: my dominant language remained a local dialect of Mandarin Chinese, and my writing was rudimentary.

It was at this time – either 1996 or ‘97 – that a door-to-door salesman was walking around the street where my mum had her shop. He was selling children’s stories: thin, expansive books with colourful illustrations, containing fairy tales and legends, wrapped in a plastic sleeve, and which also included a cassette tape that featured a narrator reading the stories. Mum bought a couple and we borrowed a cassette player with headphones from the local children’s library (which is sadly long gone), and I would listen to them, following the pages. The production standard of these audio-booklet packages was excellent and I was delighted when mum would bring back more, adding to my collection of stories.

I wonder how much impact listening to those tapes, and that reading headmaster, have had on me. Did listening to those stories, as I did, over and over again, tune some inner ear? Did those audio stories prepare my brain to listen extra carefully to the felicities of language, and which laid the groundwork for my becoming a writer in adulthood?

Over the course of lockdown, with my appetite and ability to focus on paper books diminished, I got back into listening to audiobooks. And I found my tastes for audiobooks are different to my taste for plain, old non-verbal books.

I found I prized writing that was lyrical, melodious and rhapsodic. Sure, some may prefer to be gripped by a thrilling plot, or to learn things via an educative non-fiction title. But during the unpredictability of lockdown life, I wanted to switch my brain off, and just let the words tumble over me. So I cued up works like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and a collection of John Updike’s short stories. Unfortunately, I searched in vain for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s numinous Wind, Sand, and Stars – the French aviator’s meditation on flying and deserts.

But no matter. Instead of having to read, I could be read to. It was a delight to be reminded of such pleasures that I had not experienced since I was a child. For some reason I had neglected audiobooks for a long time, considering it not on a par with “real” reading. What a dolt I was. Embracing the auditory, I would lie in a bath, or in bed, and would let myself sink into the sheer ecstatic beauty of language and a smile would flicker across my face as I remembered my benevolent headmaster – his arm gesturing upwards, towards the sun – again.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin

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