Chances are many a working class British male of 55+ from north of Watford will in someway identify with Mark Hodkinson’s memoire of life in northern England in the 1970s (and beyond).
Born in Manchester but moved to the windswept Rochdale at the age of 10, Hodkinson was brought up in a house essentially devoid of books: there was one book – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain – in the house, kept on the top of a wardrobe with other revered items such as his cycling proficiency certificate. But he became obsessed with reading – but much more than readily available comic books of Marvel and DC.
Yet Hodkinson was no bullied, bookish geek. An underachiever at school, the early days of punk and the burgeoning Manchester music scene of The Smiths, The Buzzcocks and the Hacienda Club appealed and led to the formation of The Monkey Run, a band that supported a number of high-profile headliners. Yet for Hodkinson it was always books first, even if music temporarily knocked it off centre stage. The early discovery of Camus and The Outsider was balanced with the more street savvy books such as Skinhead (Richard Allen): browsing second hand book shops or market stalls was counterpointed with record stores and the latest vinyl purchase.
No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is very much a tale of time and place. Today, Hodkinson continues that love of literature – he became not only a working-class reader – as per the subtitle of this book – but also a working-class publisher and writer too, which makes him a very rare bird. (Andrew Martin, The Guardian). But he’s not the writer of kitchen-sink dramas, a genre read avidly in his late teens. Now living in Yorkshire (across the Pennines and not very far from Rochdale), he became an investigative and skilled journalist and author, having written for The Times for two decades, three years as a columnist. As a publisher, Hodkinson’s roots are apparent with his company Pomona looking to fiction, football, music, biography and memoir. Northern writers such as Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and Barry Hines feature, as do musicians Bill Nelson (Be-Bop Deluxe) and Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian).
It’s a list that reflects the social politics of Mark Hodkinson and No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy maps, in part, how he got there. There’s no talk of his journalism except the early years of starting out and his billeting in a Sheffield council house during a short journalism course. Hodkinson’s book sets his scene – the books that were part of his formative years, a grandfather who struggled with mental illness after a head injury and who frequently disappeared, his grandmother who struggled to cope. Ultimately, it’s a story about the north; but it is also about publishing, writing and music. Hodkinson has amassed some 3,500 books in his home, guilty of BABLE – Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. It makes him what he is – and it makes for engrossing reading.