In June 1983, at the age of 27, I sat in the garden of the Albert pub in Lark Lane with Brian Nellist, who had been my third year tutor at University and told him, ‘I want to teach adults to read.’

My degree, First Class honours, top of my year, was the first success I had had in the world. I was a not-very-mature mature student about to start her adult life.

The day the results came out my ex-partner committed suicide.  I had ended our relationship – which involved a lot of drugs and drink – so as to be able to concentrate on my degree. I was left with a terrible sense that I had to make my life count for something – that the thing I had chosen, ‘literature’, had to pay.

Within 3 years my mother would die of alcoholism. These two deaths were utterly significant in the much later development of The Reader Organisation. They seemed to stack up an equation – what life is, and how you value it, what matters, what things cost.

In the pub garden that sunny day, Brian persuaded me that instead of becoming an adult literacy tutor, I should do a Ph.D. I took his advice and the three years I spent writing my thesis, Visionary Realism: from George Eliot to Doris Lessing laid down the foundations of my adult life. I became a university teacher of literature. My desire to ‘teach adults to read’ stayed stubbornly put, however and I taught Adult Continuing Education for the next 20 years.

I had no ambitions and absolutely no sense that I could affect the world in any way, nor would I want to. I thought the world wasn’t very good, and I didn’t respect it very much.

As I look at memories of what I felt at that time, it seemed that the most important thing was to make a small good world around myself, immediately – in my house, with my family, in classes I taught.

That was the world I could affect. I had to make my own life pay – I felt – for those two lives which, if I had if not actively taken, I had not been able to save. This has always been at the back of my sense of my own adult life and behind my teaching or sharing of literature. Can it help?

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. Finishing my Ph.D.  had taught me that I could complete things, so for many years each day I got up at 5.00am and wrote. I wrote six novels during this period, none of them publishable, but all important to me: I was remaking the world in images I chose. I wrote stories of people whose lives had been smashed up, whose worlds were broken. And  then I taught literature, part-time, to adults. Being an unpublished novelist was a sad state (though I didn’t care a jot for a long time:  I just had to write), but it served as a sort of preparation for the hard slog that would become The Reader Organisation: I was learning to believe in and to build structures. It was a fifteen-year apprenticeship in not giving up.

During this long and intensely private period of my life a traumatic event took place.  I felt the world, the cosmos, was broken. Literature, in this period, assisted me – as breathing apparatus assists in a major fire. I can remember reading Psalm 91 when I was so frightened that, night after night, I was scared to go to sleep:

          He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

and from the noisome pestilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust:

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

I did not, do not, ‘believe in god’ in any sense that a person with a formed  religious faith would recognise. Yet I needed those words  – ‘fortress ‘ ‘deliver thee’  ‘snare of the fowler’. The words met me in my place of terror and offered –what? Recognition? Language?

They are ancient words, words to  which people, for more than two thousand years, have turned in their terrors.  Unable to sleep, I took comfort from those countless human beings, and the words to which they had turned. The verses seemed to offer structure, shape, and yes, refuge. I liked reading them aloud. They gave me, in the deepest sense, comfort.  And it was a surprise – I had no idea those poems, The Psalms, were still alive.

Many other books also helped me – the entire works of George Eliot (including the nine volumes of her Letters). Shakespeare. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.  The works of Russell Hoban. Poetry, starting with Chaucer and going as far as my dear old friend Les Murray’s An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and probably further. George Herbert. Paradise Lost. The Prelude and everything else by Wordsworth.  These books gave me back my inner and outer experiences in words and sentences, feelings and thoughts, images, worlds, cosmologies, voices, languages.  They gave me meanings which matched what I already – wordlessly – knew.

The Reader Organisation has grown out of and from the wonderful compost of sadnesses, ruins, breakages, losses and terrors of my own real life and the lives of others I have known.

When I started my mission (‘great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them’) in 2002, it was with the intent of passing on this strong, life-saving stuff to others.  Having felt the true weight of the trouble many humans, most humans, have to live through, the seriousness of needing some strong help really comes home.  Of course there is lightweight reading, and some people are lucky enough to live on the surface most of the time. Let them continue to bob along happily, reading for pleasure.  But many of us are shipwrecked, drowning. We are reading, like the child Davy in David Copperfield, ‘as if for life’. Is that reading for  pleasure? Is it bibliotherapy? These are not the right words but no matter, so long as they bring us what we need.  We need lifesavers, the great books.


This blog is based on a talk I gave to colleagues at  The Reader Organisation’s ThinkDay,  July 2013

2013-07-22 16.00.21We combined ThinkDay with Sportsday, as we have a garden at Calderstones Mansion. Picture shows Team A lining up for their innings in a very competitive game of rounders.

The Song of The Lark by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (1913) was the first book of Willa Cather’s that I read, probably in some sort of feminist press edition in about 1976. I read it at someone else’s house, didn’t make a note of it and then could never remember it properly. Only this: it was a wonderful book. The feeling of it – open and fresh – stayed clear in my mind.

Much later I found My Antonia (1918), one of the finest novels to come out of America: loving, quiet, unassuming, radiantly human. I have read it three or four times in the past twenty years. Not all books will stand that. I think somewhere in between O Pioneers! and My Antonia I may have read The Professor’s House (1925) because the title seems familiar, but I can’t remember the story and am perhaps be confusing it with Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor, which I also can’t remember.

I picked up this secondhand Virago edition of The Song of The Lark for 75p in a charity shop sometime after Christmas and thought – I will read this over Easter. And here I am. My daughter, mother of a four year old saw it on the kitchen counter and picked it up wonderingly.

‘Imagine reading a book this long,’ she said, part mocking her own hard-to-get-reading-time state. There are different stages of reading in a life.

That’s why I’d had to save it for the Easter holidays. I work long days at The Reader and am often asleep by 9.30 at night. Reading in bed is barely an option. So I’ve been creating reading time by getting up at 6.00 and reading in the bath for half an hour. But to get going with a big 560 page novel like this I need a long run up, a head of steam, otherwise I keep forgetting what’s happened.That happened in the winter when I tried to read The Eustace Diamonds. In the end I had to abandon it after about 500 pages.

And so, having had some reading days, I’m currently on page 238 of The Song, nearly half way through. It’s as good as anything of hers I’ve read, good enough to make me laugh out loud with pleasure, and last night to cry, in the chapter where Ray, who has secretly loved Thea, realises, as he dies, that she could never have loved him back. I’ll maybe quote that tomorrow. I wanted to start earlier in the book, with Thea’s first piano teacher, Wunsch, an itinerant alcoholic musician, realising she’s got, as they say, talent:

Wunsch sat motionless in the arbor, looking up through the woolly vine leaves at the glittering machinery of heaven.

“Lente currite, noctis equi.”

That line awoke many memories. He was thinking of youth; of his own, so long gone by, and of his pupil’s, just beginning. He would even have cherished hopes for her, except that he had become superstitious. He believed that whatever he hoped for was destined not to be; that his affection brought ill-fortune, especially to the young; that if he held anything in his thoughts, he harmed it. He had taught in music schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, where the shallowness and complacency of the young misses had maddened him. He had encountered bad manners and bad faith, had been the victim of sharpers of all kinds, was dogged by bad luck. He had played in orchestras that were never paid and wandering opera troupes which disbanded penniless. And there was always the old enemy, more relentless than the others. It was long since he had wished anything or desired anything beyond the necessities of the body. Now that he was tempted to hope for another, he felt alarmed and shook his head. It was his pupil’s power of application, her rugged will, that interested him. He had lived for so long among people whose sole ambition was to get something for nothing that he had learned not to look for seriousness in anything. Now that he by chance encountered it, it recalled standards, ambitions, a society long forgot.

I thought this was terrific writing. Almost every sentence made me think about things or people or experiences I know. How frightening it is to start to believe in something, to remember lost aspirations, to find lost bits of oneself coming back to life. The awful responsibility of belief.


Poem for today

I read ‘And Yet The Books’ by Czeslaw Milosz, a poem I know well, and admire, and often read. You can find it here