‘Your worries disappear!’ East 17's Tony Mortimer on discovering reading – as a 50-year-old

Should the government ever need to hire a reading tsar to raise the country’s literacy skills, then they should look no further than Tony Mortimer. Sure, the former East 17 star had made it until almost 50 years of age without ever reading a novel – perhaps not ideal credentials for the role. But listening to him talk about the wonder of books, and the journey he’s been on since picking up his first one last March, is such a pleasure that I’m convinced he could sweep anyone along.

Mortimer is emblematic of the reading boom brought on by lockdown this year – Bloomsbury reported its best half-year profits in more than a decade – and his social media posts documenting his new hobby made national headlines, with sweet, awestruck tweets that proved to people that you’re never too old to embark upon a new, life-enriching project.

“Books are just pure escapism aren’t they?” he marvels down the phone from his home in Essex. “The plot twists, the descriptions, the metaphors. It engages your imagination like no other medium! It makes your worries disappear!”

A love of words is not a new thing for Mortimer. As the founder of one of the 90s’ biggest boybands, his songs have sold more than 20m copies; the Christmas classic Stay Another Day, about a subject as heavy as his brother Ollie’s suicide yet cleverly easy to interpret as a simple love song, too, earned him an Ivor Novello award. But he says he never felt he had the time nor the concentration to sit down with a full book until lockdown struck.

He wishes he’d made the discovery sooner. At school, he says, there was too much peer pressure not to bother, especially for boys. But with nothing else to occupy him during lockdown, he decided to give novels a go. He picked up Eva Pohler’s Secrets of the Greek Revival because he fancied reading something about ghosts. Although he worked out the ending early on, he decided to plough on just so he could say he’d read something. “I was knackered by the end!” he laughs. “But it gave me a sense of massive accomplishment. I was really proud of myself. And I thought: I enjoyed that, I’m going to try some more.”

Mortimer has now read an impressive 70 books – his latest a “young adult book about time travel”. He tells me that his record is seven hours of reading in a single day. (“Although I did put some fencing down, too – I wasn’t just sitting on my arse all day.”) His daughter Atlanta introduced him to the Books app on his phone, which he says has “changed my world … I’ve got hundreds of books from that!”

He rattles off a list of what he’s read so far: Harry Potter, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and several works by “that JRR Tolkien fella”. He likes fantasy stories but also a good thriller, with Agatha Christie a particular favourite: “Oh, God, she’s a genius!” he says. “You just cannot work out who it is!”

He recently read her mystery novel And Then There Were None, which left him astonished: “Just talking to you now has brought me back to the island where it’s set; I can see the house and all these people again. It forces you to use your imagination, which is the most powerful thing you have.”

Mortimer’s not stopping at just reading. In a plot twist Christie herself would surely be proud of, he’s recently started work on his own debut novel, an adventure story for young adults that he hopes his 17-month-old grandson will grow up to read one day. “I’ve got tens of thousands of words, but they’re all over the place at the moment, so I’m trying to get them into some order,” he says. “I’m making it all up as I’m going along.”

He’s set himself the challenge of writing 500 words a day, and is getting together three chapters and a synopsis to shop around after talks with an agent. What’s he learned so far?

“Write whatever you want,” he says. “Don’t be scared. It’s your story. If you want a fire-breathing dragon coming out of your chimney then do it! I’m sure there were times even JK Rowling was low on sugar and thought: ‘Oh, this sounds a bit silly.’”

Mortimer is especially proud of his year of reading and writing because of where he’s come from: a working-class kid from east London, he was sent to handwriting classes as a young boy because his parents wanted to switch him from left- to right-handed. “I had to learn to control my letters and write all over again,” he says. “I was so messy. So there’s an irony in me becoming a writer. I hope it sets an example: don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t write.”

Music has taken a backseat while Mortimer masters this new challenge. “To be honest, everything’s on the backburner,” he says. “I’m finding that the more you get into how books are constructed, the more difficult it becomes.” However this latest chapter turns out, the way Mortimer’s made the most out of a terrible year should be an inspiration to us all.