How a chemistry teacher at St Albans Catholic High School, Ipswich, became a born-again bookworm!
Kathryn Gerry’s New Year resolution to read all the stories she ‘should have read’
At the turn of the year we ran an article about Stacia Briggs’s quest to crack, in 12 months, all the books she thought she ought to have read. It got Suffolk chemistry teacher Kathryn Gerry thinking. (Actually, it got her husband Neil thinking.) STEVEN RUSSELL reports
New Year’s Eve, 1992. Her friend Yvonne’s flat in Llandudno. Kathryn, a science graduate, finds herself on the outside looking in. “My friends were all English students and as a chemist I felt left out of the heated discussions on the merits of Tess of the D’Urbervilles over Jane Eyre,” she says.
“There were definitely two camps: you either loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles and hated Jane Eyre or it was the other way round. You couldn’t be both. And I just had nothing to add.”
She feels, for the first time, the gaping hole in her knowledge about books, particular the classics. So, as the UK greets 1993, Kathryn makes a new year resolution, “and it is the only one I have successfully kept. I decided to read ‘all the books I have never read’.”
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And she is.
“I kept exclusively to classics for the first five years, starting with Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. I am still reading a book a month. We have run out of space at home so I have a Kindle now, but still prefer the experience of reading an actual book.”
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Actually, one title a month is a conservative estimate. A glance at that Kindle shows Kathryn last year read 27 books on the device. Then there were perhaps 10 or so traditional paperbacks.
That’s some going – a) because she wasn’t really a reader of fiction until that new year moment of revelation, and b) because she’s a chemistry teacher, and we all know how teachers are strapped for time.
So how does she manage it?
“Break times, lunch-times, I have my nose in a book,” says Kathryn, who teaches chemistry at St Alban’s Catholic High School in Ipswich – the school she joined as a newly-qualified staff member in 1993. “I do five minutes before school. I just carve out the time. I’ve always got a book with me.”
Is there a stereotype – that scientists don’t normally read fiction for pleasure – and, if so, is it daft?
“No, I think it’s true. People say to me ‘You’re an English teacher, aren’t you?’ ‘No, I’m a chemistry teacher.’ ‘But you’re always reading!’ They think it’s odd. They’ve made a connection: I love books, therefore I must teach English.” And she really wasn’t a passionate reader as a child, back in north Wales? “No, completely not. I read a lot of Enid Blyton and (in junior school) Anne of Green Gables, but, my teenage years, I don’t think I read very much at all.”
It really was that New Year’s Eve party which turned Kathryn into a born-again devourer of fiction.
Friend Yvonne had an old copy of Emily Brontë’s haunting novel Wuthering Heights on her bookcase. “As a child in the ’70s… Kate Bush – you know Wuthering Heights? – I loved that song. The first ‘45’ I ever bought – showing my age! – and I said to her ‘Can I borrow that? I’m going to read it, because I loved the song; don’t know the story behind it.’ And that was it.
“Two or three weeks later, my aunt, who was living abroad, came to Birmingham. I met up with her and she gave me £10. I went to the bookshop and bought Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Pride and Prejudice. Then I was hooked.”
What did she like about those classic stories?
“I think for Wuthering Heights it was the idea of the lost love between Cathy and Heathcliff. Pride and Prejudice I thought was quite funny in places – the home life of the Bennets.
“Tess of the D’Urbervilles was just gloomy!” She did like it, though. “We’d read Far from the Madding Crowd at school, so you know it hasn’t got a happy ending. But I love (Thomas) Hardy. There’s only two I’ve not read. (Desperate Remedies and A Laodicean.)
“Most of his books have got a theme about people who should have married at a certain point and then didn’t, and then later on maybe tried to put things right – and it’s not always possible. Which makes sense when you know a little bit about his personal life.”
Today, the family house on the edge of Ipswich is indeed running out of room for more titles. Two bookcases downstairs are full, with more volumes stacked up. There are bookcases upstairs, too.
Kathryn does buy most of the stories she reads. “I don’t have many vices, and the treat of a new book every week, as vices go, is better than smoking or drinking!”
She likes, too, the physicality of a traditional volume. “In the book club (which she joined) sometimes I’d say ‘I enjoyed this book; I liked the paper, the font – just the whole thing.’ Some books, if the paper’s cheap or the font too small, it makes it less enjoyable.”
Kathryn’s tweaked her reading approach over time.
“There were quite a few years when I’d try to read most of the Man Booker (Prize for Fiction shortlist) but then after Last Orders, by Graham Swift (which triumphed in 1996), I didn’t think that was a worthy winner. Put me off!” she laughs.
What was wrong?
“I’m a scientist, not an English student, but a book that had four or five male characters… there was Vic and Vince. Why would you do that? I think there was only one female character, and all the other were middle-aged men – not that there’s anything wrong with middle-aged men – but give them similar names? It made it hard work.”
That said, she does appreciate that one reader’s meat is another’s poison. Story-telling and writing can be subjective. “That’s what I find fascinating. One of the books on my list, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I recommended to lots of people. They all loved it, apart from one of my friends, who absolutely hated it.”
Does she have an all-time favourite?
“As a classic, I loved The Woman in White, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I loved that book. There’s these layers to the story, and little details crop up in the different layers, building to an ending. The clues to the ending are there, but first-time through I didn’t get them. I re-read it every so often and I’m always looking for the clues. It’s very clever.”
Kathryn’s passion for the written word shows no sign of flagging. Reading and running are her main hobbies, “though obviously not at the same time!”
Kathryn’s dynamic dozen
1The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. I like the way the mystery unfolds and that it is told by different characters.
2 Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier. The description of unrequited love is very well written.
3 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I found myself thinking about the characters long after I had read the book and hoping they were happy.
4 Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery. I named my son Matthew (now 16) after Matthew Cuthbert. This was the first book I read as a child that has a truly unhappy event in it.
5 Atonement, by Ian McEwan. The story is told from different points of view and the ending is very clever.
6 Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson. There are three strands to the story and the clues to the ending are there but are well hidden.
7 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell. This has a chilling ending.
8 Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. The story unfolds slowly. We know at the start that someone has died but we don’t find out who or how until the end.
9 The Misremembered Man, by Christina McKenna. A heart-breaking and heart-warming story.
10 The Earth Hums in B Flat, by Mari Strachan. Reminds me of my childhood in North Wales.
11 Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy. The only Hardy I have read with a truly happy ending (I have read 13).
12 The House of Sleep, by Jonathan Coe. Lots of interlocking stories; a very interesting read.
What do you like?
Kathryn says it was husband Neil who nagged her to write in with her list of literary likes, and we’re grateful to him for that! If you have a list of books you adore (six, maybe, or 10, or 12 – along with details of what’s good about them) we’d be pleased to hear, and share them with readers.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at Features Department, East Anglian Daily Times, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.
Where’s Suffolk? Go to Cambridge... and keep going!
Kathryn says Suffolk has certainly grown on her, though she does miss the Welsh mountains.
The county has been home since 1993, following a combined science degree in Coventry and a teaching qualification in Leicester.
She admits not knowing where Suffolk was, initially.
“I remember phoning home. I said to my mum ‘I’ve got an interview in Ipswich… where is Ipswich?’ ‘I don’t know. I’ll ask your dad.’ So she shouted to my dad ‘Where’s Ipswich?’ and my dad shouts back ‘Go to Cambridge… then keep going.’ OK, quite a way from home, then…”
No trace of a Welsh accent, nowadays, is there… “I’ve lived in England for too long, unfortunately!” she laughs.
I love Welsh. There’s a beautiful musicality to it.
“That’s why I loved The Earth Hums in B Flat. I was reading it and there was something strange about the structure of the sentences. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“As I was reading further on, probably a couple of chapters in, it was reporting one of the conversations and said ‘Mrs Jones turned and spoke in English.’ I suddenly realised all the other sentences, even though they were written in English, it was Welsh speech converted into English. And that’s why it didn’t quite fit.
“I thought ‘Ah, that’s it! Makes sense now.’”