Last week saw 250 people gather in Wallasey Town Hall to celebrate 10 years of Get Into Reading, with tea and cakes, readings and testimonials and a massive Readerly Raffle with fine book prizes…
So I’ve been thinking about the past 10 years from the sudden perspective an anniversary brings. I wrote about this in The Reader magazine recently, and for those of you who don’t yet subscribe, I’m reprinting the piece here.
That Which Makes Me Man
In my editorial in The Reader No.11, ten years ago, I wrote about reading ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson, with beginner readers of poetry:
In both groups, as I read the poem aloud, someone began to cry. I offered to stop, to change the poem, do something else. In both cases, the reader moved to tears said ‘No, carry on. I want to read it.’
Those two groups were the first Get Into Reading groups, which I ran in community education centres in Birkenhead during the summer of 2002. My idea had been to try to take the kind of work I had been doing inside the University out into the wide world – that is, reading the great books of literature as if there were no body of literary criticism, as if my students and I were simply humans who had found a piece of writing on a bus and picked it up out of sheer interest. ‘Great books out of the University’ was my motto. When I looked back at it, I saw that that editorial began with a quotation which seemed to point at a terrible truth:
Poetry? Kill me now!
I don’t know where I read that more people in the UK write poetry than read it, but I bet it’s true, just as Bart’s sentiment strikes home because you know you’ve felt it and so have lots of other people, especially young guys with skateboards, and, at the risk of sounding like someone who shares DNA with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education here in the UK, I blame the way we are taught. On this point, actually, I probably go further than Mr Gove.
Say it is true that more people write poetry than read it. I find that supposition very heartening. It means that people feel a need for poetry, a need so powerful that they are willing to take pen to paper, put finger to keyboard, and to pull words up out of silence and into writing. That is a deeply creative act, however well or badly done.
Sadly, most such writing will inevitably be badly done, as most such writers do not think that their need for words will be helped by reading the great poetry of the past two thousand years. This is a waste. Writing is at least a craft and at best a great art. Anyone who does it (however badly) is doing it but, as with baking or oil painting, not everyone who does it achieves good results. Really doing it well, in all crafts, indeed in any creative endeavour, requires practice: learning from experience and from the experience of great masters is how people get better.
Most people who write poetry – in desperation, battered by fate, moved by the hugest experiences of human life – do not think of learning how to do it better. They just need some words right now. If the words help and excite them, then the writer may be led on to more writing, and in a positive feedback loop, they may begin to love writing so much that they will want to learn more about it. Loving doing something almost invariably leads to learning more about it, though the learning, being experiential, may be hard for us to recognise as learning. Great bikers love their bikes and know how to build, ride and fix them. The leather-clad, loud, biker convoy carries experts. Great bakers don’t just manage to knock out a few flattish scones – they learn from the masters of the tradition and come up with delightful gooseberry savarins. Very good musicians go to even better musicians and learn from the masters. It’s a kind of loving.
If bikers and bakers and bass players see the need to learn, why don’t all those people who are moved to write poetry read poetry?
The answer is that people have been immunised against poetry by bad education. I am using poet Les Murray’s words here, from his poem ‘The Instrument’ , first published in The Reader No 2:
Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;
They want to control it…
…Not poor schoolkids
Furtively farting as they get immunized against it
Mass education may have worked when we were simply trying to make factory hands literate to read the safety instructions, or get pre-calculator clerks to know their multiplication tables off by heart, and it still works in a Zumba class (if everyone wants to be there), but we have failed to create a mass education which educates individuals for the hard sad task of being human. This is partly caused by the failure of people working in the Humanities to recognise the human value of their subjects. Among the many downsides of this is the two-thousand years’ worth of literature mouldering unread in the stacks of closing libraries.
All of which is to say, when those readers were moved to tears by ‘Crossing The Bar’, I knew that I had stumbled into something important, though I had no idea what it was at the time. I knew it was to be my work, though I had no vision of The Reader Organisation becoming what it now is (an independent charity creating thousands of reading sessions every year, with sixty-three full-time staff and eighty volunteers, a social enterprise turning over £1.3m last year). I had no ambition except to get more reading of great literature to happen. I think I did understand explicitly what I had previously felt implicitly, that reading can give any of us access to feelings and thoughts we have, we suffer, but may not usefully know. Ten years on, with more than 330 Get Into Reading groups run every week by The Reader Organisation and hundreds more by people we have trained on our Read to Lead courses, I am pleased to report that the single most surprising thing about what happens in those reading groups is the utter delight arising from, and serious attention given to, poetry. People love reading poetry.
Last week I helped run a day of sessions for a group of people who have been doing our Read to Lead course. Several of the people on the course had been sent along by an NHS Drug and Alcohol Service. This day’s work was as moving and powerful as anything I experienced in the early days of Get into Reading. As part of the course, our students were to select a poem of their own choice to read in a shared reading group with their colleagues – a chance to put what they had been learning into practice. All the chosen poems were impressive – for example, Thom Gunn’s ‘Human Condition’ or Alexander Pope’s ‘Solitude’ – and to read them in such company was a powerful experience. A few years ago some of these people would have been living lives dominated by drugs and/or alcohol, some of them homeless, others separated from people they love. These hard experiences are perhaps only extreme versions of all human lives, but because they are at the far edge of experience, they help bring into sharp focus the power of literature in a life. ‘Now it is fog’ begins the tremendous Thom Gunn poem, and I look around the table and wonder in which fogs we have all been walking.
Now it is fog. I walk
Contained within my coat;
No castle more cut off
By reason of its moat:
Only the sentry’s cough,
The mercenaries’ talk.
The street lamps, visible,
Drop no light on the ground,
But press beams painfully
In a yard of fog around.
I am condemned to be
The poems addressed a complex and interconnected range of thoughts and feelings anyone might have about being a human, having a life to live; being with, or without, companionship. And it took one of The Reader Organisation’s young apprentices, newly out of foster-care and attempting to set up her life without the help of a family, to suggest that there was no coat, no castle, no moat. ‘These are what you put on, to protect yourself, and yet they cut you off,’ she said.
It seems almost miraculous to me that ten years on, I and so many colleagues should be outside of University, outside Continuing Education and outside the School of English where The Reader began, and that we should be reading, day in and day out, great literature with people who are not doing a course but simply trying to live their lives. That we should be reading with drug addicts and ex-alcoholics; with people in recovery and people in Care; those in deep physical or mental suffering; that we should be reading with psychiatrists and firefighters; with occupational therapists and mothers whose children have been taken away from them; with people who are profoundly deaf (we ‘read aloud’ through sign language) and with trainee teachers; with people at work and people living with dementia, and people in prison or on probation; that we should be developing community-readers’ apprenticeships for care-leavers who may have little formal education and are about as far from a university English degree as it is possible to be. And that so many of these people should then want to learn how to pass on this reading revolution to others.
A supporter goes to visit a group in London and emails me that Lois, who was once a volunteer and who is now a staff member, is reading Hamlet with her group. A colleague writes me how she has loved reading and been hugely moved by Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. At my own group at a Drug and Alcohol service in Chester, we are about to start on Kipling’s Kim. In prison, Al is finding that Ray Bradbury and George Saunders go down well, and at Forum Housing a housing officer is reading Silas Marner with her tenants’ group. Not all groups will be reading literature of this quality all the time: we start from where we can start and we work our way into the greatest books, if that seems to be working for the people with whom we read. My colleague Angela Macmillan’s wonderful A Little, Aloud anthologies contain all kinds of good things for adults and children to taste and try. Brian Nellist’s new poetry selection, Minted: Practical Poems for Life has 50 great things he wouldn’t want a reader not to know.
Who’d have guessed when I walked, quaking with nerves, into that community education centre in Birkenhead, that all this would come about? That in Aarhus, Denmark, in Melbourne, Australia and in deepest Cornwall, and Easterhouse Glasgow, in Belfast’s Hydebankwood Prison, people would be getting together to share reading every week, and to open together the wonderful storehouse of literature, and by reading personally, making the most powerful of inner and outer connections. As Thom Gunn writes:
I am my one touchstone.
This is a test more hard
Than any ever known.
And thus I keep my guard
On that which makes me man.
We read aloud and test what we read against what we personally know. We share that testing conversation as much as we wish to share, and the rest we do in our inner privacy, and thus individually and collectively, getting into reading together, we remake our humanity, humanities. It is a kind of loving.