Endure Hardness: thanks, Frank, Carol, Helen and many more

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Blackthorn lit by sunshine under stormclouds, Wirral Way Mar 31 2017

Thank you to @liverpoolparks who got in touch to suggest the therapuetic Calderstones Park viburnum might be  Viburnum Carlesii ‘Aurora’. I think you are right ! I’m going to try to see one somewhere in a nursery.

Thanks also to two readers who dropped me notes asking: Are you ok?

Let me give you a short, emphatic answer: Yes!

I’m trying to make this blog something like journal, something like my portion of a shared reading group and something like a postcard from wherever I’ve been.  That necessarily means some difficult days because things are difficult – in  the world, in the Third Sector and at The Reader (where I am leading the reshaping of our ideas and organisation in order to continue to bring about a reading revolution with a lot less money in the public sector system). And sometimes, like almost everyone else, things are difficult in my personal sphere, too. That’s normal.  Without moaning, let’s all agree to own up to that, in public.

I don’t feel overcome by these problems but I do want to acknowledge them.

I hope this blog will become a record of the relation of my reading to my resilience. In that sense, though this is my personal blog, it is genetically very much a part of The Reader family. After all, the reading revolution didn’t come from ‘an idea’.  It came from my personal (agh, can I say it? dare I?) salvation by great literature. It worked for me, yet my mum died of alcoholism at the age of fifty-one. Could it work for others?

I often speak from a personal place in Shared Reading. Sometimes the most powerful times in a group come when someone does that, perhaps to their own surprise. Recently a long-standing colleague who spoke up in that way  told me she’d felt ‘ambushed’ by the poem we were reading together. Ouch.

Ouch, yes. But also, oh. Oh, you feel that? And, oh, there you are. Yes, here I am.

That ‘ouch’ was a moment of great connection. And ‘only connect’: that’s the first rule of Shared Reading, surely?

I am going to continue with ‘Intimations’, which I’ve been reading all week, tomorrow. But today  I want to mark The Reader’s Wirral Volunteer Celebration which I attended yesterday, with our Patron, Frank Cottrell Boyce. I’d asked Frank to come and read something, and dear Patron, he didn’t think it was right to read  his work for children, so over the last two weeks, had written us a story. Think this is  the third time he has done this for us, giving  those of us in the audience an amazing hot-from-the-desktop-printer experience. Great story – refugee children, free wifi and the parting of the Mediterranean sea. It’ll appear in The Reader at some point in the future.

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The Reader’s Patron, Frank Cottrell Boyce reading a story he wrote for the occasion, Wallasey Library Mar 31 2017

It’s sixteen years since I started Shared Reading (which we called ‘Get Into Reading’) in Birkenhead. At first it was just me, running an initial five-week course, paid for by a grant from the University of Liverpool Widening Participation fund. After that five weeks, it was just me as volunteer. I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it so much that after a year or two (memory! detail!) I gave up my teaching at the University in order to concentrate on making this thing happen. I had no idea what it was, but I knew I was determined to do it. As a grants novice I spent a year battling with a massive application form for EU ‘pathways’ funding. A song was created to go with that form, often heard in our house around tea time.

Family member: How’s it been today?

Me: *&^%*&*  awful

Family member: Why?

Me: *&^%*&* Pathways!

Family member: Oh! *&^%*&* Pathways! that reminds me of a song…

Everyone: Piggy pathways, piggy piggy pathways, Piggy pathways, piggy piggy pathways,Piggy pathways, piggy piggy pathways (ad infinitum or until hysterical laughter breaks out.)

It was a year’s work, no one paid me to do it, and in the end, the application was deemed so poor, it wasn’t even submitted. No money. I carried on reading every week with my two wonderful groups.

One of the people I was reading with in those groups was Carol Munns. Carol, who had been a stay-at-home-Mum,  helped me to conceive the idea of growing the idea when she suggested, ‘Couldn’t you take this round schools, like they do with the book sales?’  I can remember being staggered by the idea, and very excited.

Later, Carol applied for a job as a library assistant, with the all of us in the group encouraging her. And she got it. She’s worked in Wirral libraries ever since. For ten years she’s run a Get Into Reading (Shared Reading) group at her library, through thick and thin, through corporate changes, through Council cuts. ‘I’ll keep it going,’ she told me yesterday. ‘It’s the people, isn’t it? It’s the connection.’

The future of The Reader, of Shared Reading rests with people like Carol, people who love it, and will carry on doing it, come rain or come shine. We’re looking for hundreds, thousands of you. One such is Helen Willows who wrote to me yesterday to see if I was ok. Helen is aREader Leader and GP in Shrophire. To cheer me, she writes;

Today marks the one year anniversary of our “Wild Reading” which we started in a pub at the litfest last year, and has seen three of us formally trained at TRO and now delivering regular sessions  with school children and with adults with mental health issues. Shared Reading is part of Oswestry’s STP for promoting resilience  in mental and physical health, as part of the social prescribing project. There have been some deeply moving moments with adults and children in our isolated, poor area.

All of which is to say, today’s poem is not just about getting through difficulty but about the value of it. Difficulty, hardness is by definition not easy, yet something requires it. And requires us to live through, or with, or because of it. Christina Rossetti says it much better than me. A great poem to discuss with a group of people who are going through hard times.

Endure Hardness

A cold wind stirs the blackthorn
To burgeon and to blow,
Besprinkling half-green hedges
With flakes and sprays of snow.

Through coldness and through keenness,
Dear hearts, take comfort so:
Somewhere or other doubtless
These make the blackthorn blow

The whole poem rests on the word ‘make’. Beauty, love, good stuff sometimes just seems to appear, like babies ( ah but think of childbirth, there’s no ‘just appearing’ there). Most times it is made by the hardness that forces it out of us. As Doris Lessing writes in Shikasta, joy is ‘never anything but the song of substance under pressure.’ The pressure is hard. That is why my favourite sentence in all of literature is from Paulina  in The Winter’s Tale: ‘It is required you do awake your faith.’ More of that another time.




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