Truth be told, I've spent a lot of time in Portsmouth over the last couple of years. So much so that I've started to feel a bit guilty about turning up, in case I'm met with a muffled sigh of "him again?!" I'm already meeting children who have seen my event on at least one occasion. "Was it all the same jokes?" I ask, tentatively. "Yeah, pretty much." The reply comes with a slightly pitying shrug.
But I just can't stay away. I like Portsmouth, and though I can't guarantee it feels the same way, it has been very kind to me. Dinkin Dings has twice won the Portsmouth Book Award and this was my second lit quiz in as many years. If I'm honest, I was sort of hoping for an invite back.
I'm a cynical, hard-bitten swine in many ways, but the Portsmouth lit quiz melts even the hardest heart. It's everything that's good about the world of books, reading, libraries and, by golly, authors. I was lucky enough to be on a table with Ali Sparkes, Angela MacAllister and the room-illuminating legend that is Andrew Norriss. All spectacularly nice people, happily giving up their time to try and win – sorry, take part in – a bookly quiz with teams from several handfuls of Portsmouth schools.
But my biggest hat tip goes to the Portsmouth library service, and in particular the quiz MC, organiser and all-round hero Peter Bone. Mr Bone and co. take an imaginative, almost childlike approach to plugging books. They make it about books - not reading - books. Actual, specific books. And it works. Even I wanted to read a book by the end of the quiz and I usually just use them to build tiny stairways for my many gerbils.
(Not to go off on a tangent, but today chief schools inspector Michael Wilshaw called for higher standards of literacy. Alarm bells ring throughout the land, understandably so. The People in Power lower their newspapers for a moment and cry, "Something must be done! Tell the children they MUST read because reading is GOOD for you!" Read 'cause it's good for you, like broccoli. There can be surely nothing more discouraging than being told something is good for you. I barely touched a book for years because I thought it might do me some good. Nobody, nobody said "comics are good for you." So I read them. All of them.
Not that plugging literacy can't also be more about books than reading-for-broccoli's-sake, obviously. Portsmouth does it again with The New's campaign - here's a whole bunch of stuff they've done to make reading un-broccoli-esque. And here's me, running about like an idiot – sorry, inspiration.)
Portsmouth, keep doing what you're doing!
And no, I still don't like broccoli.