- Bestselling author and literacy campaigner receives Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from University of Warwick
- Speaking before the ceremony, Ken Follett said that the award gave him a “great sense of validation” in his milestone 70th year
- Students should focus on “the ability to learn and re-learn, all through life” rather than feel obliged to choose a vocational path
Listen to an interview with Ken Follett at: https://youtu.be/R5nKo6GorDA
Ken Follett CBE FRSL has been made an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Warwick. The bestselling author received his award, which he described as “a great honour,” on Wednesday 16 January, during the first of the university’s 2019 graduation ceremonies.
Follett has a passion for storytelling and a passion for politics. His first job after graduating from University College London was as a trainee reporter on the South Wales Echo. With a young family to support, he began writing books in the evenings and weekends, publishing under a variety of names and honing his skills. In 1978 his eleventh book, spy thriller The Eye of the Needle, sold for the equivalent of $3 million, allowing him to become a full-time writer.
More than 40 years later Follett still relishes the challenge of writing a book that readers will be completely absorbed in. He said:-
“I’ve been doing it for a long time but it’s still difficult to write a book that people will get so involved in that they will be disappointed when their plane lands and they have to close the book.
“I get up and the first thing I think about is what I’m going to write. I’m eager to get to my desk and get on with it. I’m thinking – I could do this to make it better, I could have this surprise in the middle of the scene…
“There isn’t anything else that I want to do - when I go to hell they’ll make me play golf!”
Thinking back to his own undergraduate days as a philosophy student at UCL, Follett emphasised the importance of developing a positive and flexible approach to learning:-
“What we’re doing in our formal education is learning how to learn. That’s the most important skill, because we know that the work that you do and the skill that you deploy when you’re 25 is going to be different from the skill you’re going to need when you’re 45 - that’s the way the world is now.
“So the most important quality you need is the ability to learn and re-learn, all through life. After I graduated I did a three-month course in journalism, after which I became a journalist on the South Wales Echo. That three month course was a doddle because I had spent my life learning and learning came naturally to me. And that’s the most important thing to have.”
A self-confessed “overachiever,” Follett relaxes by playing in a blues band and consciously gives himself permission not to excel. “My aim is to be barely adequate. I enjoy it, I love the blues, I love playing with the band, I love the banter with the guys and girls in the band – and the fact that I’m not a virtuoso doesn’t matter. We respect the music, and we respect the artists who created the blues, but I don’t have to be that good. So long as I can go ‘thump thump thump’ in the background, I’m having a good time, the audience are dancing and I don’t need to be best in the world. That’s relaxation for me.”
Follett has also devoted time and effort to tackling poor levels of literacy in the UK. He said:- “I’ve always felt that we as a country had the need to give better opportunities to the poorest and most disadvantaged among us, and one of the things that can absolutely ruin a person’s life is being unable to read.
“And it’s not about reading novels – for an illiterate person in Britain today, the least of his or her problems is that they can’t read my books, the problem is that he or she can’t read the instructions on the bottle of medicine, or the map – the road signs, the signs in the Tube station – these are the problems, these are the difficulties that people face. So it seems to me one of the best things you can do if you want to help people who are struggling is take people who can’t read or struggle to read and give them a leg up.
“I was President of the Dyslexia Institute which then became Dyslexia Action, which is a great charity for helping dyslexic people, and I was also chair of the National Year of Reading, in 1998 -99, which wanted to give the message that if you read for pleasure you’re also developing important skills that you can’t really do without.
“David Blunkett was Secretary of State for education at the time and it was his idea. It was a joint enterprise between the world of books and publishing and newspapers and the world of politics and government – and I think we did some good, although I must say we didn’t do a tenth of the good that JK Rowling did writing the Harry Potter books. The best way to encourage people to read is to give them great novels!”
Asked whether he had a message for the students sharing his graduation ceremony, Follett said: “Be pleased with yourself – you’re entitled, you worked hard and you passed your exams. And of course this is only the start. You’ve come to the starting line and now the rest of your life is beginning, and good luck!”
18 Jan 2019
Media Relations Manager