Stephen Nolan: 'The truth is I don't like books, I can't get past first page'
Ahead of Book Week NI, which starts tomorrow, broadcaster Stephen Nolan confesses to Una Brankin how he lacks the confidence to read novels - and why he hopes his new on-air book club will change all that.
He's a compelling broadcaster who wins huge ratings for the BBC and 5 Live, but Stephen Nolan must be a bit of a headache for his press officers.
Pinning him down for an interview is invariably a game of cat-and-mouse: the portly one would rather ask questions than answer them. After a two-day chase this week, a BBC publicist managed eventually to capture him and make him talk to me about his radio programme's new book club, part of Book Week NI, which starts tomorrow and is a joint initiative between BBC Northern Ireland and Libraries NI to encourage more people to read.
And it was an unusually non-combative and low key Nolan on the other end of the line, apologising for his pimpernel tendencies. (The last time we spoke, he was haranguing me on the radio for describing former drug mule Michaela McCollum Connolly in unflattering terms.)
"I have to confess, I don't read books. Do you?" he asks. "I have to read so much news and reports and all that for work, the last thing I want to do when I get home is read.
"But over the next 12 months I'm going to try to commit to reading - I'll be reading all the ones for the book club. But the honest answer is that I don't like reading books. They're not for me. I don't know why. I can't get past the first page."
Perhaps it's something to do with being a stickler for facts rather than fiction? Or lacking in patience and preferring more immediate gratification?
"Well, I have the CNN guy Anderson Cooper's autobiography and Johnny Carson's - you can tell my interest as someone in the media here on a local level," he says cheerfully. "But two pages in and it's not for me. I don't have the confidence in myself as a reader."
Nolan admitting to any lack of confidence is a surprise, but those who know him well confirm he can be almost endearingly insecure at times.
Whatever his self-doubts, he's famously sharp and articulate, and despite his aversion to books, Nolan, who grew up on the Ballygomartin Road in north Belfast and went to Belfast Inst, got an A in English O-Level.
"Yet I've no memory of reading books for my O-Levels or as a child. Anything I ever read was work related. I just couldn't give you a list of my favourite books, because I don't have any. But I am going to use my new library card and read whatever's on the list for the club, whether it's flowery fiction or whatever."
The award-winning broadcaster received his library card when he met the Communities Minister Paul Givan this week at Belfast Central Library, ahead of BBC Northern Ireland's Book Week. He can use his membership to borrow books and enjoy a range of other free services in libraries across Northern Ireland.
But he admits he'll have to drag himself away from box-sets in his time-off.
"I like box sets. I'm watching Madame Secretary at the minute," he says. "I'm told a book is a whole different experience, though, and people say, 'Oh, you don't know what you're missing out on, not reading', so this is a whole new world opening up to me.
"I'm on planes quite a lot, so I'll test out if reading a book while travelling will relax and calm me."
The predictably titled Biggest Book Group in the Country will be launched by Stephen on Radio Ulster on Monday morning. Once every month, The Nolan Show will give listeners the chance to share their views on that month's chosen book. In the first episode of The Biggest Book Group in the Country, former Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson will introduce and read some extracts from the group's first ever book, which will be announced that morning.
Listeners will then have a month to read the book, which they will be able to find at their local library, before the programme discusses the book at the end of November. The book club will include a mix of celebrities and Nolan listeners.
Nolan says: "I'd love to know if a big star like Carl Frampton reads, and what he reads when he has a big fight coming up. That's been on my mind for a while, and I'd like to know what type of books people in working class areas read. That's on my radar."
In answer to his question on my reading habits, I recommend the book I'm currently half-way through, Graham Norton's warm-hearted debut novel, Holding, a crime novel of sorts, based in rural Ireland. He makes a note of it for his book club. "Now I wouldn't mind reading that - I like watching Graham Norton's show and I'd be interested in that all right.
"And I've this romantic notion in my head of going on these beautiful walks where I live around Strangford Lough, and taking a book with me. Maybe I'll start with that one."
Book Week NI and Stephen's book club come at a time of decreasing literacy here. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that university students from Northern Ireland have some of the poorest reading, writing and maths skills in the developed world.
The analysis of 23 countries also revealed that only students in England and the United States of America had worse numeracy skills.
This means that around one in five Northern Irish students struggles with more than basic reading, writing and maths tasks. The report concluded that this means they can do little more than "read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin, or understand a petrol gauge".
Poor grammar is sometimes heard from some of those who ring in to Stephen's shows - but he's not worried.
"Some people think that's important - I feel it's more important to get people to say out loud what they're thinking and to say what they mean from the heart, whatever way it comes out. I don't care if it's grammatically correct, but I would encourage people to read, even if the library is not for me," he says.
Given his commitment to getting through the reading list for his new radio club, I warn him that he won't be allowed to bring a book or anything else to read into Celebrity Big Brother, the legendary reality show for which he has been mooted. So, is he signing up it? "Never say never," he laughs. "My friends say they'd love to see me on it, but I don't think I'm high profile enough. I don't think I could survive anyway - I need my own space.
"If I ever did it, I know people would just love to see me getting tortured."
As for rumours of his retirement at the end of the year, he claims they are grossly exaggerated.
"I'm just looking to cut down the hours," he says. "I'm actively looking at my work/life balance.
"I love the BBC and the 5 Live show, and we've just won two major awards, but I'd love to spend more time in Santa Monica, especially. I'll just try to carve out a few more weeks off, rather than give up work.
"In the meantime, I'm going to give reading a go.
"If anyone, like me, hasn't read much before now, then we can start the journey together and share ideas about great books - on the biggest show in the country."
BBC Northern Ireland is hosting Book Week in partnership with Libraries NI. Radio Ulster programmes include Cover to Cover with Steven Rainey every weekday at 4.30pm. During this programme there will be big interviews with a range of authors, including Wilbur Smith, Jilly Cooper, Bernard Cornwell, Anne Rice, Nicci French and Ian Rankin, with Steven finding out more about what inspires and motivates them to write and delving into each author's imagination. Steven will also be joined live in the studio by guests such as mentalist David Meade and crime author Stuart Neville, to hear about their favourite books and will be talking classic and contemporary page-turners with fans of the written word
Book lovers can share a photo of their favourite book or even their book collection across BBC NI social media using #bookweekni. For details of all libraries, services and events, go to the Libraries NI website www.librariesni.org.uk - you can join the library online or in any Northern Ireland public library. Also check out www.twitter.com/LibrariesNI