Literacy—Part 3: How we can teach ourselves to read again

You’ve built your Ark, and you’re saving your children from the inundation that is going to destroy most of the world.

James Delingpole to home-educating mother Zoë F. Willis (2021)


This is Part III of a three-part transcript of a conversation between Alex Thomson senior and Alex Thomson junior on the heritage of literacy in the English-speaking world.. Part I is here and Part II is here.


Alex jr: But [although universities such as St Andrews are now lost to academic freedom,] it didn’t take much to get St Andrews going in the mediaeval and Knox era; it was just a bunch of, shall we say, righteous men, in all the senses of the word, and it can easily be done off the books. And the Americans have a habit of doing this when things go sour, don’t they? Setting up their own institutions again.


Alex sr: But I think we’ll find it’s banned. We’ll get the state …


Alex jr: But it depends how you go about it. You might not need to have to take cash [for tuition]; you might be able to get a university education in kind.


Alex sr: Yes.


Alex jr: Think about all the Highlanders who went down to Glasgow to study Law and Medicine, and they took their food for the term on their backs, didn’t they? A sack of oatmeal and a fish or something, and they were completely independent financially while they were there.


Alex sr: I think it’s a disgrace—and I really use the word ‘disgrace’—I know the labourer is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7), I accept that, but I think it’s a disgrace that a man who is in university life, who is paid to do teaching and research, and who rightly is expected to produce something in the public arena—with not too much pressure; I don’t want a lot of pressure—then [finds to his cost that] somebody else makes a lot of money out of that. I’m not saying he does; maybe the publisher. I think it’s wrong.


Alex jr: Well, this again is a particular British Establishment specialism. You see it in different manifestations, such as the theft of intellectual property, particularly from America, where there’s a lot of IP coming out from individual brains, but the model in each case is: you own what you call the Crown rights, or the monopoly rights, either to sit in a university or at a patent office, and see all the great young people come past, and you pick some out and say, “I’m going to sell them on,” and [for] others, you say, “This would cause too much enlightenment and [would] remove my monopoly; I’m going to block the application of this.” We see many forms of that, but that model is very much the spirit behind this, isn’t it?


Alex sr: So I would conclude this part by saying: in my view—and if you’re a King James Only-ist, be a King James Only-ist; that’s fine …


Alex jr: … And if you think that the King James is a conspiracy Bible, then read something else …


Alex sr: … And don’t waste your energy by criticising somebody else, or defending your position; just get on with it.

Conversely, if you think, “I’ve got to deal with reality,” I would say to you, at the moment, there are three or four Bibles that you really should know and probably use, and that people will use. They are the King James; New King James; English Standard Version; and whatever else is coming out. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is finished, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

I must just say: the other Bibles—I won’t go into the details, but the other Bibles don’t register above five per cent each, apart from the New Living Translation (NLT), which is at 9% or 10% now.


Alex jr: It’s a long tail. It’s a Top Four and a long tail.


Alex sr: The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) has been revised; the NLT is the exception; but the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is only for academics and ecclesiastical pulpits.


Alex jr: It’s only really read at Oxbridge colleges, isn’t it?


Alex sr: The NASB, I’m afraid, has never been very high on the list.


Alex jr: Which is the very scholarly American revision of the King James, [originally done] in 1901.


Alex sr: And [which] was really my second choice of Bibles, if not my first choice sometimes. It’s now split itself into three. There’s the 1977 [edition of the NASB]; forget that. The 1995; the 2020; and the Legacy Standard, from John MacArthur. It’s shot itself in the foot, basically.


Alex jr: Yes. If you have too many competing versions of a text, the market won’t sustain it.


Alex sr: It won’t sustain it, so I would say that if you are evangelising in Britain, and I think America, if you meet serious people who want a Bible, give them the ESV. It’s not the perfect one, but it’s … I used to give [such people] a hardback, side-column NASB. They used to produce it for £15, $20.


Alex jr: But here it comes: it’s bulky. You have to keep it on a desk, or support it if you read it on your lap, with something under it, and publishers again—especially British ones—have been very cynical and said, “The plebs won’t cope with that. We have to produce a slender volume for them.” But, of course, if you produce something—ideally A4 format, and spiral-bound or otherwise able to lie flat in some other way—this promotes study, and if you end up with a sort of monastic-looking large folio volume, who cares? If it’s the Bible, it’s worth having it in that format!


Alex sr: I say to Christians who say, “Oh, I can’t carry this [large edition you’re offering me] around”: “How far do you carry your Bible? When you go to church, that’s [the only time] when you carry it, isn’t it?” “Yes.” I say, “How far is it from your car to the church door?”


Alex jr: A hundred yards!


Alex sr: And it dawns on them. I say, “You could take a big, fat volume into church with you if you wanted! For a hundred yards!”


Alex jr: Carry it in an attaché case, if you want.


Alex sr: Exactly. I say, “You’ve got slim attaché cases [available]! A bag!” “Oh, yeah,” [they suddenly realise]. I say, “Yeah!” And once you understand … Bible printing and publishing is way behind the times. A portable Bible, if you want to carry it around for any amount of time, should be small.


Alex jr: Well, [Bible publishing] has fallen behind its own times, hasn’t it? Because, you know, the Roundhead troops—and other examples exist from the seventeenth century—had very cleverly-designed slender volumes in their pockets, or they’d be slipped down their boots. And the layout of the page was more optimal [than it is now].


Alex sr: Cromwell’s Souldier’s Pocket Bible, 1643, is a good example of that, yes.


Alex jr: But this all went downhill, and now publishers—particularly in Britain, and particularly since about 1850—have been utterly cynical and have suggested that the plebs can only really cope with slender volumes.


Alex sr: I mean, all the study Bibles that we’ve got! If you don’t want to carry these about, what is the modern best size for a study Bible? Answer: A4! That is the modern page [dimension].


Alex jr: And ideally, spiral-bound or loose-leaf.


Alex sr: And [in A4 format,] it can be cheaply produced. It can be interleaved, loose-leaf, spiral-bound, copied … And, what’s more, you’ve got plenty to put on the page [at that size].


Alex jr: You can insert notes. If English isn’t your first language, [you can have facing pages of the text in your native language.]


Alex sr: You can make your own study Bible! And, what’s more, you can rationally plan the page. In the days when parchment was dear, you crammed everything together [in handwritten manuscripts], and everything ran together, and there were no [line breaks for new verses]. They used ligatures [two letters written in one letter-space], and all that sort of thing. And then, unfortunately, when printing came along, it copied that! And it’s [become such] that each page now “must” have the same shape [of text versus blank space], the same size margin.


Alex jr: Yes, there has to be all these acres of white!


Alex sr: And so you get down to [the bottom of a page]: “And he said to her, ‘Shut your …’” —

— and, on the next page, “‘… mouth!’” End of book.

You know the sort of thing. It’s stupid! It’s stupid. [To avoid this problem,] you could even have different-size print. But especially in the Gospels, these blocks [of text] …


Alex jr: Pericopes: a passage that you would read at one time …


Alex sr: Instead of having two and a half [of them], and one over the page, either put two big ones [on the page] or make the print smaller and put three. But a desk or study version should be A4, definitely. You can get decent maps [on the page in that format], charts, lots more notes in, and one of the things that’s badly lacking in English Bibles is to say, “Whatever version I’m using, can I know what at least the main variant readings in the manuscripts are, so that I can see if it makes a difference?”


Alex jr: Again, UK Column viewers and readers are among some of the best-informed here. People get a notion that Bible texts vary in some verses, and they start suspecting motives and feeling all at sea, but this can easily be addressed by adding some notes.


Alex sr: Yes. But if you have put the text in a decent font in a block on the right-hand page, say, and then you put down [on the left-hand page] references … Always put down decent Bible references, cross-reference margins. You shouldn’t have a study Bible that hasn’t got cross-references in it! Surprisingly enough, some of them—the NRSV academic ones—are produced without any cross-references. Incredible! People have to pay money for this!

Now, let’s say you’re using a King James, which is [translated from] the [New Testament Greek] Textus Receptus, the Received Text: you could have on the other page, “What does the modern Critical Text [of the Greek] say at these points, where there’s a variant? What does the Byzantine traditional text say?”


Alex jr: So the left-hand page you’re now gesticulating at would be mostly blank, in this model, but parallel with a line on the right-hand page where there was a dispute or a variant reading, it would have a note.


Alex sr: Yes. And also things like [the KJV archaism] bewrayeth: you would have a note there [giving the meaning] “betrays”. Now, [for the verb] bewray, even in the King James [era], they had an alternative [synonym used] in other places: betray. It was just an alternative form. You can either say, “Well, we can change the text of the KJV to betray,” [but] then you’re changing what the KJV men [wrote]. You might not want to do that, so [instead], you put a note in [on the facing page or in a margin]. But what you can have is [a running guide to] what are the main differences, so you can see [them].

And with textual [issues], you’ve got to encourage people not to waste their time too much, and say, “Don’t get tied up with textual criticism to the extent that it worries you, that you lose sleep over it.” Simply have something where you can see the differences—the translatable differences at least; you’re not bothered about untranslatable differences; they don’t worry you, it’s only translatable differences [that are debated]—and then you can see [them], and then take an “if … then” approach: “If the reading is X, then the meaning will be ‘xxxx’; if the reading is Y, then the meaning will be ‘yyyy’.” And you can see immediately [what the fuss is about if it is presented that way].

And somebody might say [as an objection to this format], “Well, I can’t make up my mind.” You don’t have to make up your mind! If you’re intelligent about your Bible reading, you’ll say, “At the moment, there’s some doubt as to what the reading is, and therefore I can deal with both of them.”


Alex jr: I am put in mind of a US senator on the Intelligence Committee who read an NSA report once—I of course heard about this through GCHQ—and it’s psychology at play, just as in what you were outlining there with ill-founded and groundless suspicions: he got a notion in his head that NSA had fiddled with the report somehow. So he sent a note to Fort Meade, Maryland, saying, “I demand to see the original raw intercept!” And they sent him it.

And then he said, “This is in Russian!” And they said, “Yes, Senator, this is an intercept from Russia.” And he said, “No, what I mean is your guys’ translation of the original raw intercept!” And they said, “Senator, that’s the report you were reading [the first time].”

That illustrates what you mean about the difference between untranslatable differences and translatable differences.


Alex sr: Yes. So that’s basically it. Let me at Bible design and I would show them how it’s done. I mean, you can make your own study Bible, putting in your own set of maps, your own helps and things of that sort. And, oh dear, this is why I shudder at the New King James. That red letter puts me off every time.


Alex jr: Well, a lot of Americans are quite attached to it, aren’t they?


Alex sr: It’s an American who invented it, under the guise that “here we have Jesus’ words”. My dear brethren and ‘sistern’: in John’s Gospel [chapter 3], who’s speaking? It’s deliberately [undetermined].


Alex jr: Hint—[Ancient] Greek doesn’t have quotation marks!


Alex sr: And it’s deliberate, so that you know that Nicodemus, Jesus, the Spirit and the Gospel writer are all saying the same thing anyway.

So that’s that, but just [to finish] on the history of the [English] Bible: in 1526, as mentioned before, Tyndale completes the whole of his English New Testament, and then in 1534 he completes part of the English Old Testament. He dies in 1534.


Alex jr: Well, he is burned, or rather, he is strangled at the stake as a courtesy [to his status as a scholar,] and then his body is burned.


Alex sr: His work is still banned, but it’s tolerated and even encouraged. In 1534, the year of his death, Parliament petitions the King for an authorised English Bible!


Alex jr: So it clearly wasn’t a top-down Reformation all told, then, was it?


Alex sr: No! It wasn’t. There was a point being made by Parliament! And in 1535, Coverdale uses Tyndale and completes [with his own version of the still-untranslated Old Testament books] the first whole English Bible. In 1535, Cromwell allows Coverdale’s version, pending the issue of an Authorised Version. So Cromwell is in this! And then, in 1536, Cromwell issues his first injunction—I’ll read that in a minute.

In 1537, Rogers uses Tyndale and Coverdale and issues the “Matthew Bible”, a pseudonym. In 1537, Coverdale improves Rogers’ work. In 1537, Cromwell allows this improved version, pending the Authorised Version. And then, in 1538, Cromwell issues his second injunction.


Now, in 1537, [this was] Cromwell’s first injunction:


that every Parson or Proprietary of any Parish Church within this Realm [that’s England], shall … provide a Book of the whole Bible both in Latin and also in English, and lay the same in the Quire [where the choir sing], for every man that will [meaning ‘wishes’] to look and read thereon, and shall discourage no man from the reading of any part of the Bible, either in Latin or English, but rather to comfort, exhort, and [ad]monish every man to read the same as the very Word of God, and the spiritual food of man’s Soul, whereby they may the better know their Duties to God, to their Sovereign Lord the King, and their Neighbour; ever gently and charitably exhorting them, that using a sober and modest behaviour in the reading and inquisition of the true sense of the same, they do in no wise stiffly or eagerly contend or strive one with another about the same, but refer the declaration of those places that be in controversie, to the judgment of them that be better learned.



And, in the 1538 Second Injunction, he even dispenses with Latin:


Ye shall provide [that’s the clergy] … one book of the whole bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church [it doesn’t have to be in the choir this time] that ye have cure [charge] of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it


Alex jr: So you really do get ploughmen, after their shift, coming in to read the Bible.


Alex sr:

Ye shall discourage no man privily or apertly [openly] from the reading or hearing of the said Bible, but shall expressly provoke, stir, and exhort every person to read the same, as that which is the very lively word of God, that every Christian man is bound to embrace, believe and follow if he look to be saved; admonishing them nevertheless to avoid all contention, altercation therein, and to use an honest sobriety in the inquisition of the true sense of the same, and refer the explanation of obscure places to men of higher judgement in Scripture.

— What a sound injunction!


Alex jr: So he’s actually not even being Protestant there; he’s being completely eclectic in saying, “We’re not doing this in order to promote a denominational view of the Bible.”


Alex sr: No. “Folks, you come, you read—together or [individually]—and if there’s any [dispute], don’t argue amongst yourselves about it; don’t fall out over it; go to somebody who’s a bit better educated and ask them.”


Alex jr: It bears repetition there: this was a civil servant making this direction, trying to knock bishops’ heads together, basically, or going over the bishops’ heads to to the clergy and saying, “Gentlemen, it’s time you did this, for the good of the realm.”


Alex sr: Now, in 1539, after all that, Coverdale issues his second whole English Bible, which is the first to be printed in England and the first to receive Royal Assent—and this is the key—and so, without any doubt, this is the first Authorised Version of the English Bible. It becomes known as the Great Bible.

In 1560, the exiles issue the Geneva Bible in English.


Alex jr: These are the Puritans in Switzerland.


Alex sr: Periodically improved and reprinted in England and Holland until 1633, and in part until 1643. In Scotland, since 1579, every householder able to afford a copy has to have one. And, unlike previous Bibles and later ones—including the 1611 first edition of the King James Bible—the Geneva Bible was printed in plain Roman type.


Alex jr: It was carried in great numbers to America, wasn’t it, by the Pilgrim Fathers?


Alex sr: It sold in various sizes and for [a range of] prices. The lowest-paid labourer can get one for no more than a week’s wages. This version could [have] become the English Bible, but the Crown dislikes its notes, so work is begun on a new authorised English Bible.


Alex jr: The notes said things like, famously, in Exodus 1:19, “It’s a good idea to disobey the king when he’s a tyrant.”


Alex sr: The Geneva Bible is, wholly or substantially, the Bible of Knox, the Pilgrim Fathers, Shakespeare, Donne, [Oliver] Cromwell, Milton and Bunyan. By 1688, the year of Bunyan’s death and the year of the Glorious Revolution, it may be said to have given way to the King James Version.


Alex jr: [The AV] took nearly a century, then, to displace [the Geneva Bible].


Alex sr: In 1568, the bishops, led by Archbishop Parker, issued their own revision, influenced by the Geneva Bible.


Alex jr: Another British Establishment trick—“Ah, the plebs seem to have got this notion in their heads, so we’d better copy their project”?


Alex sr: No. Known as the Bishops’ Bible, it receives Royal Assent and is therefore the second Authorised Version of the English Bible. The Bishops’ Bible was to be the official Bible of the realm, to be used at churches, et cetera, but it was widely accepted that the Geneva Bible—which was not banned, notice—would be used by many for private reading and study.

The Crown and its ministers knew exactly how to handle this, through all this. They hoped …


Alex jr: They were content with a de-facto monopoly of the public space, as they would now say, and ceremony; but they knew that the keener people would go home and read something even better.


Alex sr: And everybody would say, “That’s fine.” And that meant, I think, also, that the keener people, when they went to church, wouldn’t blow the lid off it; they would say, “Fair enough; they allow us to read our own one at home.”

So King and Puritans agree at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 that revision of the Bishops’ Bible is necessary. The King gives permission, so orders, and provides for the work. Now, that’s important: [the king is granting,] “You can even press-gang any man in the land to help you; set up your committees, and you can have any man.”

So—notwithstanding the arguments of some—the King James version is the third authorised version of the English Bible. You don’t have to have the words, “I hereby authorise this Bible”! If a king says, “Let it be done; make it so,” like Captain Picard on the USS Enterprise, it’s done! “The word of the King is law” (Ecclesiastes 8:4).


Alex jr: One of the things this [realisation] undoes is the idea that until that “nasty Scottish king” came down to London, there was no Crown involvement in Bible production. There certainly was, [in England,] before that; before the Union of Crowns.


Alex sr: Yes! This is the third Authorised Version! And then, of course, it becomes increasingly popular through private philanthropy, Bible societies, subsidies, printers’ cost-run sales. Printers, to be fair, do cost-run [no-profit] sales [of Bibles] as well. There’s a genuine desire to get the Bible out [in the sixteenth to twentieth centuries], and it reaches even the poorest.

Now, two extracts from 1667 to show the influence of the AV.


Hewer and I walked upon the [Epsom] Downes, where a flock of sheep was; and the most pleasant and innocent sight that ever I saw in my life—we find a shepherd and his little boy reading, far from any houses or sight of people, the Bible to him; so I made the boy read to me, which he did, with the forced tone that children do usually read, that was mighty pretty.

Samuel Pepys’ diary, Sunday, 14 July, 1667

—1667! They’re walking in the middle of nowhere, down in the [North] Downs, and they find a shepherd and his lad reading the Bible.


Alex jr: Do you know what? A boy of that age, more particularly in the West Country, [would have been among the cohort whose determination made James VII/II flee the country without a fight]: if you add twenty years, you get to 1688. He would have been of military age when William III landed. So that generation wasn’t just a bunch of rabble-roused yokels. They were well able to read the laws of the land, and the Bible, and great literature, in English, and they knew jolly well why they were opposing Stuart absolutism.


Alex sr: And [secondly, the leading scholar of American religion,] Mark A. Noll, says—this is [with regard to precisely] the same year, [1667]:


The Quaker faith to which Penn converted in 1667 broke from standard Protestant teaching by postulating an “Inner Light of Christ” […] The result would appear to be a subordination of Scripture as the norm for belief and practice. But for the early leaders of the Society of Friends, and for a substantial part of Quaker tradition thereafter, this result did not occur. Trust in the Bible […] functioned as a key component of William Penn’s reasoning […] Thus, the experiment in religious liberty that Penn attempted in his new colony was only slightly less a product of biblical reasoning than the colonial Christendom sought by the Puritans in New England.

In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1793, p. 145

—It’s interesting how one’s reading comes together.


Alex jr: And you’ve put that extract on the page for your American sponsors.


Alex sr: And then I started to go through when Bible publishing takes off. We won’t go through it all, but basically, you can say that from 1669 onwards, you began to get Bibles for the people. So, for example, you’ve got Oxford in 1669 publishing Scripture Measures: an index to the Bible, so you could find your way around it. You’ve got, in 1737, the first concordance, Cruden’s. It’s as early as that.


Alex jr: Isn’t that a fantastic story? A Scot in a mental asylum who spends years obsessively counting the occurrences of each word in each verse, and indexing them.


Alex sr: In 1762, you’ve got the Cambridge Paris Edition of the AV, with marginal notes and cross-references. In 1769, you’ve got the Blayney edition at Cambridge.


Alex jr: That’s the modern spelling of the King James that we’re used to; it comes from that year.


Alex sr: It’s used now, yes. And so, from there, you then get [this] in the Jude the Obscure era: Oxford and Cambridge [still] admit only Anglicans, so what happens in 1826 is that University College, London, is founded for non-Anglicans by dissidents. [The publishing firm Samuel] Bagster issues its Comprehensive Helps to Bible Study. There’s a complete new edition of Cruden’s [Concordance]. Bagster brings out his Polyglot Bible, with notes and cross-references.


Alex jr: This is for the free churches in particular, so that they can read the Hebrew and the Greek set against the English.


Alex sr: In 1835, the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is published. In 1836, the Anglicans found King’s College, London, as a counterpoint against UCL.


Alex jr: So, just on the eve of the Victorian era, London is becoming a world city, as it were …


Alex sr: But somebody knocks heads together, because in the same year, the two college, the dissident and the Anglican, are federated as the University of London!


Alex jr: This is interesting. The free churches said, “Chaps, we’ve been disadvantaged long enough; let’s do education ourselves, and train our ministers.” A few years later, the C of E says, “Gentlemen, we’re going to have to do something and fight a rearguard action here, so we too are going to start training spiffing laymen in a college in London.” And then the Civil Service says, “Get your act together!”


Alex sr: “Get your act together!” [Evidently,] somebody’s [said that.] And then, in 1837, Victoria becomes Queen. In 1854, there’s Angus’ Bible Handbook.

In 1858, London University begins to offer external qualifications. Now, just to explain to the listeners, what that means is that for the first time, you can study anywhere in the British Empire, or perhaps in the Americas, even …


Alex jr: … You could be bedridden in Northumberland, you could be a promising Indian lad who’s never set foot in Britain …


Alex sr: … You could be deep in the erstwhile [American] colonies; you could be in the jungles wherever …


Alex jr: … You could be an intelligent mother whose duties don’t allow her to go up to London …


Alex sr: … You could even be, yourself, the High Commissioner at Delhi, or you could be the scullery-maid at Delhi, if you wanted [to study].


Alex jr: And you sent off your correspondence by steamboat.


Alex sr: Yes, and you studied on your own, or with anybody who could help you, and then it came time for your exam. You paid your examination fee, and if you couldn’t get to London to sit it, or to [any one of] various exam centres, what you did was, you got your papers sent [out] to your local ambassador, wherever you were, and he opened the paper, and one of his minions would sit in the room invigilating you, and then they would seal it up and again, and send your answers back to London.


Alex jr: You know, as late as 1999, I was in a former Soviet republic, and the British Ambassador wanted to do his Diplomatic German oral exam, and the Embassy scoured its network and found me through the English school I was teaching at, and said, “Would you mind awfully going over this morning and being the German oral examiner for His Excellency?” And that was put on a cassette tape and sent back to London. So the diplomats kept it longer than the commoners.


Alex sr: In the diplomatic bag, yes. And that’s how it went. And now, I have to tell you …


Alex jr: But nobody can earn much from that model!


Alex sr: No, [that’s what put an end to it]. That would [only] cost you a few hundred pounds [in the late twentieth century].


Alex jr: It’s a self-selection; only people who are seriously interested in knowing the material [will go for the exam].


Alex sr: And it’s important that from the start, the level of the external degrees of the University of London was not below the internal. It was the same standard.


Alex jr: What’s excluded by this model is the unfulfilled desire, “It’ll enrich your life!” You know, like the bogus [encouragement of] encyclopaedia sales that I know you were invited to take part in and eschewed; it’s the same kind of fake sell—“It will enrich your life to be a graduate.” Such people—dilettantism—is excluded, because in this model, you have to jolly well do the reading yourself.


Alex sr: Yes. Now, I got a shock. If you now go to the External Department of London University [now known as “University of London Worldwide”] …


Alex jr: … Which was [the university] always in the lead for these things, which is why you looked there …


Alex sr: … you have to register with them; it costs you one thousand pounds per module; that means, at four modules a year, £4,000. Over three years, that means £12,000, plus fees. So you’ve got to pay between £12,000 and £13,000 to get an external degree from London now.


Alex jr: This is with no residential component, no tutoring?


Alex sr: No, they do the tutoring, I think. That’s what they’ve done [to justify the expense], because the universities are desperate for money now. So, effectively, they are denying the poor student outside. And they’re denying any external …


Alex jr: But certainly Oxbridge, St Andrews, the redbricks [the prestigious nineteenth-century universities] in England, are sitting on massive land endowments; they’ve got these world-renowned publishing outfits that have a virtual monopoly on fishing out the best theses and publishing them for money; why are they short of a bob or two?


Alex sr: Well, there you are.


Alex jr: I know that they are; I know that they’re desperate to …


Alex sr: But why are they taking away [the opportunities for poor external students]? The Open University was founded by [Harold] Wilson—one of the best things he did [as Prime Minister]—so that anybody could a degree there. Their fees have shot up! You cannot now get a cheap degree. Now, you should be able to, because, basically, London dedicated [themselves to that end]; academics from Cambridge were involved in this. These redbricks—London and the other redbricks—were set up by Oxbridge men, largely Cambridge men, so that working-class people could get access to learning.


Alex jr: In closing, you’ve spent more than half a century dealing with serious Jews and serious Muslims. Particularly, very near us is Luton; known, I think, internationally now as a big centre of Pakistani Islam. In fact, they had you teaching in their schools for a while. the serious Muslims down there. They’re streets ahead of us in teaching literacy, aren’t they, both Jews and Muslims. What’s the secret of their success?


Alex sr: They require their children to learn. They set aside time for them to learn. I’m not saying their methods are always of the best—sometimes, they can be a bit [uninspiring]; but they do say to their children—they don’t give them a choice—“You will go to Torah school”; “You will go to Qur’ān school.” “Even if it’s after school, you’ll do it.” So they set aside time, definite time, to learn.


Alex jr: In fact, in the Dutch Bible Belt, I think I’ve caught the tail end of this in Christendom, because we have Monday night catechism in the Dutch Reformed system. Part of that is that from about the age of seven until they become young adults and are invited to be confirmed, if they wish to embrace their faith, all of those pre-teen and teenage years, it’s an absolute obligation, a social expectation from the parents, that “since you go to this church on Sunday, you will go to listen to this deacon on Monday night, and he will listen to you read a verse of the Bible in a circle, one each.”


Alex sr: Well, I’ll illustrate it by [this personal account]. Many years ago, a boy came to me—I didn’t know the mother; I can’t remember how exactly I met them—but the upshot was that the boy was very upset, because they reckoned that what [he was] we called in those days “educationally subnormal”, ESN. And in an evangelical church, he had asked the pastor if he could read, because young people used to read [the Bible passage in the service]. And the pastor said, “Oh, no, you won’t be able to handle it.” And I think it was probably badly handled.

Anyway, he was upset, and, in conversation, I think I volunteered to say, “Well, let me listen to him reading.” And then I said to him, “I’m not promising anything, [but I’ll help.]” What I used to do was, he came to me for six months, or I went to him, with his mother always present, and I taught him to read the Authorised Version. That’s the version that was used in that particular church. I didn’t tell the pastor or anybody. His mother and I [and the boy,] we all kept it secret.

At the end of six months, I rang his pastor up, and I told him what we’d been doing. He said, “Oh!” I said, “I’d like you to hear him reading.” “Well,” [he hemmed and hawed]. I said, “That’s the least you can do. But I would like it to be in the church.”


Alex jr: To give it a sense of occasion?


Alex sr: “So if you could just spare half an hour or an hour some time—it could be an empty church, it doesn’t really matter, or you can have two or three people in if you want; we don’t mind that. And he would like to read from the pulpit or the rostrum, or whatever you have [up front].” So he did.

And the pastor was gobsmacked. He said, “I just did not think that was possible.” And he let him read. And the pastor later told me, “He’s one of the best readers we’ve got!” I taught him to read.

He said, “How did you do it?” I said, “You’ve got to sit down with people, one-to-one.” Either small groups, or one-to-one. Christians did this in New Testament times. They did it when they had a Bible chained to a pulpit, or a Bible in a church. They got together, somebody would read it, and they would then [read aloud]: “In — the — beg — in — ning”, and [the accomplished reader] would point to it …


Alex jr: The syllables.


Alex sr: And they would say, “Oh, yes?” And they would repeat it. And then they would look at it and they would listen to him reading. And eventually, they got the letters.


Alex jr: And the Muslims and Jews really show us up here, because they cater to all educational levels, from the age of about seven or eight onwards, and—in a country that’s, for example, English-speaking or French-speaking—they get them reading Arabic and Hebrew!


Alex sr: Yes.


Alex jr: The ladies have come back from their jaunt, so we’ll wrap it up here. Many thanks for sparing the time, Dad, and I think you will have inspired quite a few people.