Ask for The More

blue thistle.JPG
Thistles in an olive grove. ‘A tough life needs a tough language’  J Winterson

For Jo, the Crossing Sweeper

I’m thinking ‘Why Great Literature?’ and I am thinking of Jo, the Crossing Sweeper. Jo, orphan street-boy, at the heart of Dickens’ great novel Bleak House.

Great, great I say, despite the fact that it’s patchy and there’s stuff I don’t like in it. Great because it tries for the biggest of pictures, top to bottom, the whole shebang, and it ties everyone together in one flailing mess and says, we’re all in it together.

‘I don’t know nothing,’ says Jo. No one looks after him, and he has to look out for himself as best he can. He can’t read or write. There isn’t a happy ending.

Great, I say, because it makes me cry when Jo dies, when Esther faces her smallpox-marked face in the mirror for the first time, when I feel the piteous waste of Lady Dedlock’s life.  Great because ridiculous Sir Leicester Dedlock does love that woman and is human, not merely a cut-and-paste stereotype, as I might have wanted him to be, so I could more easily class-hate him, when, after his stroke and having learned of her running away, he writes on a slate, ‘full forgiveness’.

The stuff I don’t like – I’ll not go into it – I ignore. Because I want the great. I am hungry for the great, for that which is more than me, bigger than me, better than me. If I only read books which encompassed what I already know and like, what would be the point? The point – for me – is growth, is to be the more. When I founded The Reader it was to take books which offer ‘more’, books often referred to as ‘great literature’, to people who didn’t already have it.

Sounds very nineteenth century – posh ladies taking religious tracts to the poor –  as here in Chapter 8 of Bleak House, ‘In The Bricklayers Cottage’:

I was glad when we came to the brickmaker’s house, though it was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt- pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s.

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too businesslike and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a Lie!”

He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all this, and he now turned over on his other side and smoked again. Mrs. Pardiggle, who had been regarding him through her spectacles with a forcible composure, calculated, I could not help thinking, to increase his antagonism, pulled out a good book as if it were a constable’s staff and took the whole family into custody. I mean into religious custody, of course; but she really did it as if she were an inexorable moral policeman carrying them all off to a station- house.

Ada and I were very uncomfortable. We both felt intrusive and out of place, and we both thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people. The children sulked and stared; the family took no notice of us whatever, except when the young man made the dog bark, which he usually did when Mrs. Pardiggle was most emphatic. We both felt painfully sensible that between us and these people there was an iron barrier which could not be removed by our new friend. By whom or how it could be removed, we did not know, but we knew that. Even what she read and said seemed to us to be ill-chosen for such auditors, if it had been imparted ever so modestly and with ever so much tact. As to the little book to which the man on the floor had referred, we acquired a knowledge of it afterwards, and Mr. Jarndyce said he doubted if Robinson Crusoe could have read it, though he had had no other on his desolate island.

We were much relieved, under these circumstances, when Mrs. Pardiggle left off.

The man on the floor, then turning his bead round again, said morosely, “Well! You’ve done, have you?”

“For to-day, I have, my friend. But I am never fatigued. I shall come to you again in your regular order,” returned Mrs. Pardiggle with demonstrative cheerfulness.

“So long as you goes now,” said he, folding his arms and shutting his eyes with an oath, “you may do wot you like!”

Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped. Taking one of her young family in each hand, and telling the others to follow closely, and expressing her hope that the brickmaker and all his house would be improved when she saw them next, she then proceeded to another cottage. I hope it is not unkind in me to say that she certainly did make, in this as in everything else, a show that was not conciliatory of doing charity by wholesale and of dealing in it to a large extent.

She supposed that we were following her, but as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill treatment from the poor little child.

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by its appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

Such compassion, such gentleness, as that with which she bent down weeping and put her hand upon the mother’s might have softened any mother’s heart that ever beat. The woman at first gazed at her in astonishment and then burst into tears.

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping – weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, “Jenny! Jenny!” The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman’s neck.

She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were “Jenny! Jenny!” All the rest was in the tone in which she said them.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

Ada was so full of grief all the way home, and Richard, whom we found at home, was so distressed to see her in tears (though he said to me, when she was not present, how beautiful it was too!), that we arranged to return at night with some little comforts and repeat our visit at the brick-maker’s house. We said as little as we could to Mr. Jarndyce, but the wind changed directly.

Ah, the danger of becoming Mrs Pardiggle, with her tracts for babbies. I wanted to avoid that, because the drunk man who gives his wife a black eye is certainly not a babby. What would he recognise, I wonder, what book would work for him? Or perhaps clean water would be a better starting place?

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban. Read it – it’s hard to find, but seek it secondhand in an out of print collection of Hoban oddments called The Moment Under The Moment. I took a poem along with in case things went pear-shaped and the poem was ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson. The poem exploded with reality and there were tears. From my point of view, all was well. After a few weeks, Frank, an ex-welder from Birkenhead said to me, ‘Jane, when are you going to bring out the good stuff?’

The good stuff?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘What the posh-nobs have – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, all that.’

Frank thought I was holding back, which in a sense I was, but soon after he made his request we started reading Othello in that group. Couldn’t recommend it more highly. Lots to talk about and more than that – new thoughts, or old thoughts, put into words for the first time. ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light…’

I’ll read Iago, said a woman in the group, one week when I begged for help with the reading, I was married to that bastard for twenty seven years.


Then there’s Jay (not his real name), a twelve year old boy in a foster placement, unable to read or write. Well, he’s not on the streets like Dickens’ Jo, is he? He’s not bouncing from pillar to post. We have a social care system, we have Ritalin, don’t we?

What do you usually do, Jay?

Go down the shops, hang out.

We were working on a summer project in which we were reading The Unforgotten Coat and making a Guide to Our City.

What’s a guidebook? asks Jay.

A book about what people could do here, what they might want to see, where they might want to go.

Here? Said Jay, incredulous.  S’just alkies, innit?

Why shouldn’t Jay have Great Literature, works of art, that will make his experience bigger? Given a choice (which he isn’t, because his family and me and you, that’s to say, society and education, have all failed him and he has no choices, especially not about reading) but say he had achoice, at the moment he wouldn’t choose to read anything.

So I’m not thinking about choice, I’m thinking about primitive modelling: I love reading books, copy me. If that’s what I’m doing, it matters that the books are ones I genuinely love. Why? Jay will feel the love, and like the Bricklayer’s family, he’ll smell  the fake if I don’t.  But I must choose something I love that Jay might get interested in – it’s no use me taking him Bleak House or Othello first off. Yet it can’t be a book for a babby, because Jay is no babby. I’ll take picture books probably, but complex ones, so a twelve year old with violent and desperate experiences of life won’t feel insulted. But I’m not taking a World of Warfare comic, because Jay probably already knows about them. And yet no one has ever read to him and school he’s been out of the classroom a more than in it. So I started with I Want My Hat Back, great pictures, totally witty, a story of terrifying murderous rage, with more emotions than a psychologist’s office.


Who decides what is ‘great’?  The person having the experience, of course.

So much depends on the Reader Leader, who must try to choose something that will offer a great experience to their group members. You choose beyond your comfort zone, for yourself, but with your group in mind, because way beyond any format, any type of reading, any structure, is the truly recognisable reality of something new happening as we read. Do you love it? Does it take you somewhere you haven’t been? That’s it. That’s the more.




What to read in a Shared Reading group

The Return Home and Rosa's Blanket
Cherry blossom, West Kirby 31 March 2012

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

Blossoming! I saw this same tree yesterday but didn’t have my camera, so it was good to find it in my back collection, and realise I’ve loved it before. The picture does not  do the reality justice – the centres of the white  blossoms are dark pink.

Thinking of the surprise of finding lovely stuff growing – last night I was looking at  The Reader’s videos on You Tube, trying to decide what I should show when I go to Uppsala  next week, and  I was surprised and delighted when I stumbled across a film from Shared Reading New South Wales. I didn’t know there was Shared Reading in NSW!  My colleague Megg tells me that Christopher started out in  one of her groups in Kensington and Chelsea and then  did Read to Lead…great to see Shared Reading seeds settling around the world.

This morning I continued reading All The Days of My Life and found there are many poems I’d like to read  – I’d forgotten that I used to really love Dennis Haskell’s ‘One Clear Call’, a moving poem about Tennyson’s ‘Crossing The Bar’ and the reality of poetry. I used often to read the two poems together.

But I came to ‘Intimations of Immortality’ and thought, it is always worth rereading and I wondered if many people running Shared Reading groups ever  simply do a whole long poem like this?  This is perfect for an hour and a half, maybe two hours reading, though you have to watch the time – because really it’s a four-hour poem. Sometimes I meet people  who tell me that Shared Reading means reading a short story and poem. And I say, no, Shared Reading is about sharing the reading, not the format of the reading matter. You  might read a scene from Hamlet and no poem. Or you might be a starting out on a novel and want only the novel because you’ve got to concentrate and it is hard to find the time. Or you might decide to read a longish poem.

If you were reading this poem, you’d start by knowing that some people in your group would find the length and the language off-putting, so the first job is to make sure you really love it before you take it along, or if love is not yet possible, at least you need to think you might really love it if you got into it. You’ve got to trust it to work out.

Thought I might read a little each day this week. There’s a link to the whole poem here.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Now, I’ve pasted all those lines in, but I might spend a long time at the beginning of a group thinking about the title of this poem, otherwise it might seem like a meaningless collection of long words.
‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of  Early Childhood.’
Does anyone remember the feelings of early childhood?  Some people say they can remember being in their pram, looking up into the trees, seeing the blossoms, as in the picture above.
I remember my sister being born, I was five. I remember being picked up to see her through  a ground floor hospital window. It would have been March and I remember it as sunny. There  were wallflowers and I could smell their scent, powerful, peppery, sweet. Only when I get to the scent do I feel I am getting into ‘immortality’. The scent moves me, almost literally transports me. Is this the kind of early childhood memory Wordsworth is talking about?
What is an ‘intimation’  – have you ever experienced one?  The Online Etymological Dictionary tells me it means “action of expressing by suggestion or hint, indirect imparting of information” .
And what would an ‘intimation of  immortality’ feel like ? Perhaps none of us in the group can imagine that. Perhaps someone will surprise us with a profoundly poetic explanation of their take on it.
I’m already thinking I’ve made a mistake in imagining I can read this poem in a session, even a two-hour one!
Time’s up!  Why does writing take so long? More tomorrow.

10 years of Get Into Reading

By Jane Davis

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!

                        Bart Simpson

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

An individual.

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.

Trust and the Risks of Reading

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

This, by W.H.Auden, is the epigraph to one of my favourite novels, The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. It is a novel about the hardness of life, about danger, about hope and about risk-taking. Highly recommended.

The quotation from Auden came into my mind recently when along with my long-time colleague, Josie Billington, I presented a workshop at the Royal Society for Public Health. Some things that happened there, in the delightful Founders Room, with its huge bay window looking out on the back of Portland Place, got me thinking about the relationship of trust that is at the heart of shared reading.

This was the plan: I was to do a small demo of the shared reading model we use in Get Into Reading, and she was to present some of the evidence from the LivHir study. We were going to read some of the poems used in the study (especially ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice) and then look at the transcripts used in the study. These transcripts are the written up recordings of the two groups which ran in a GP surgery and in a mental health drop-in. Both groups were made up of people with a diagnosis of depression. Few members of the groups were familiar with the idea of reading for pleasure. The transcripts are a fascinating joy to read. (Download the study here) Having been a member of many such groups myself, the transcripts were particularly exciting because they pressed home to me the previously not-quite-articulated sense that reading is a slow-motion, depth-charging re-creation of experience. So many things shoot by us as we live, registered somewhere, perhaps, but not always in consciousness. Reading the transcripts, I see that written language is the technology human beings have evolved to hold experience in consciousness. I have also been rereading The Prelude by William Wordsworth this week, so perhaps that thought has also seeped through to me from there? I’m thinking of The Prelude Book V, ‘Books’;

Visionary Power

Attends upon the motions of the winds
Embodied in the mystery of words.
There darkness makes abode, and all the host
Of shadowy things do work their changes there,
As in a mansion like their proper home:–
Even forms and substances are circumfus’d
By that transparent veil with light divine;
And through the turnings intricate of Verse
Present themselves as objects recognis’d,
In flashes, and with a glory scarce their own.
But that is an aside.


So, about 16 people gathered to hear about our work in the RSPH Founders Room, where Josie and I turned the lined up chairs into a sort of circle. I introduced the basic thinking behind the Reader Organisation (Literature is some of the most valuable human thinking the species has ever done: we need to use it, but it is being wasted by being confined to academic courses or by not being read at all. What is The Reader Organisation doing about this? We’re having a reading revolution; we’re running weekly, read aloud reading groups in our project, Get Into Reading. (Find out more about Get Into Reading here.)

And then I read the poem, ‘Snow’, by Louis MacNeice. Do you know it? You can find it here.

A small period of time elapsed in which people in the group responded to the poem in the ways that people often will respond – recognition of ‘the drunkenness of things being various’, wondering whether the roses are inside or out. Then, just as, from my point of view, the conversation began to develop an take flight, a man said, ‘You’ve said you despair of the way literature is taught, and yet that is exactly what you are doing here – you are ripping the poem apart. I don’t see the difference.’

This was not in the plan! I must have swallowed hard and looked worried. It’s difficult not to want to fire back a straight ‘No, I’m not!’

But there was some demur from others in the group, and one person said, ‘We’re not ripping it apart, we’re mulling it over…’

The man remade his point. It was no different to any literature class. A woman sitting almost opposite me spoke up.

‘This is not like any discussion that happened to me at university, my experience of literature at university was nothing like this. There was no room for a personal response or relationship with a poem or novel….’ She spoke with a force of strong feeling, and the rest of the group attended, as the emotional temperature in the room went up by about 10 degrees. ‘Here, we are being invited to respond as people, but at University….’ She flushed now, and put her hand to her throat. ‘I’m sorry. I’m getting upset. When you study literature it’s nothing like this, they don’t want to know anything about your emotional response. I didn’t want to look at a book for a year after I left University. Oh! I’m getting upset…Sorry.’

She didn’t cry, but she did change the tone of the discussion. I told her, ‘You are Mrs Normal. I meet so many people who tell me this – ‘I couldn’t read after I did my English degree’. It happens to lots of people, and we should do something about it. If we were training chefs on a three year course that ended with them hating or fearing good food, unable to eat, the college would be closed down.’

And then we went back to the poem, and the people sitting around, some speaking their responses and some in silence, began to read and think and feel together again. Now that the temperature had gone up, some people offered more of themselves as we read – how steady the peeling of the tangerine is, how thinking comes from feeling the world through our senses, ‘On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands’.

The next big jolt came when a man sitting beside me said, ‘May I ask a different sort of question? You describe this as a powerful intervention. How do you manage risk?’

‘Risk?’ I repeated, like the naïve idiot I can be. I was in the poem’s zone and didn’t at first understand what the guy was talking about.

‘Risk,’ he repeated. ‘How do you manage it?’

Of course we had seen the risk, there, live in the room. The woman with black hair who had studied English at Oxford had, in a sense been – what is the right verb – hurt? touched? activated? by the poem and our shared reading of it, to feel some complex, perhaps difficult feeling. Her hand to her throat, a flush of blood rising to her neck, she had told us, ‘I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional….’

This is the risk.

That someone will feel something they had not planned to feel. That old or new thoughts or memories will rise to the surface. That it might be very moving. That we will be touched, that we will feel, ‘There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses’.


I made some attempt at an answer – not very comprehensive. In the NHS Mental Health Trusts where we run our Reader in Residence programmes, risk is mitigated (the language is foul, isn’t it?) by the presence of a member of NHS staff. In Dementia Care, a carer will be present. With Looked After Children we take great care in the choosing of books. People who facilitate or conduct reading groups are trained to be aware of the risk that someone might get upset, might spark into painful memory, might suddenly be moved by feeling. We teach people to read in advance, so as to know what might be coming, and to anticipate things that might be triggers for strong feeling. But we do not advise them to avoid reading things which might trigger feeling. How could we? Any literature might do so. To read ‘ My luve is like a red, red rose’ is a nursing home lounge is to trigger feeling, to call an old lady, rolled like caterpillar into her self, to consciousness, to gently uncurling, knot by knot, her spine straightening until she sits upright, and makes eye contact. ‘And I shall love thee still my dear, though the rocks melt with the sun.’

And in the Founders’ Room at the RSPH it wasn’t necessarily the poem that had activated the powerful feelings so much as the responses to the poem, and the practice, and the people by members of the group. How to mitigate those risks?

We try to do it by modelling behaviour and in my own Get Into Reading session in a Drug and Alcohol Service I thought about that this week when two new members joined our small group. It was a difficult week to join, as we were reading Chapter Four of Russell Hoban’s magnificent post-holocaust novel, The Mouse and His Child. It’s a chapter in which the protagonists get involved with a travelling experimental theatre troupe. Not easy for newcomers in that (i) it’s ostensibly a children’s book, and it might feel patronising or humiliating to be reading such (ii) this chapter is a skit on Beckettian theatre – you don’t need to know that, but you do need to trust the book in order to go with it…

“Act One, Scene One,” said a scratchy voice across the stream as the sun rose. “The bottom of a pond: mud, ooze, rubbish, and water plants.”

“That kills me,” said a second, more resonant voice. “That is deep. That is the profoundest.”

“Two tin cans, standing upright, half buried in the mud at centre stage,” continued the scratchy voice. “At stage left, a rock.”

You don’t have to have read Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, but…I was really wishing I could lay the novel aside and read something else for these two new people, both men, both conscious it was a children’s book, both looking more than a little ill-at-ease at finding themselves in the reading group at all. And yet, the pressures of the other members’ needs – to go on with the story, to keep the momentum up – were also strong. The risk is of alienating newcomers who may have really staked a lot on turning up at the reading group, or of annoying or disappointing longer-standing members of the group. And there are all the other – more serious, less obvious risks – in this particular context mainly to do with making people feel stupid because the book is clever…

People in the group worked hard – remembering the names of the two new men, using them – to include the newcomers, to make them feel (whatever was happening in and couldn’t really be explained about the book) that being here, with us, was ok. A woman explained that she too had come to the group after the book had started but that she had got the hang of it now. A man explained ‘It’s not really a kid’s book – it’s about getting your own territory.’ ‘Yes, and war,’ said another man. ‘It’s bloodthirsty.’

When the session was over, the most ill-at-ease of the two newcomers, who had already told us that he wouldn’t be coming again, said that he might come again because the banter had been good even if it wasn’t the kind of book he would normally read. And maybe he will. In a sense, there’s no mitigating for the risk of a first session, because people don’t know each other. We can’t really know what will have helped or hurt, unless the newcomer is brave enough to speak up. And the tone of the group says – you don’t have to say a word if you don’t want to.

Of course, as we come to know each other in a group – and some Get Into Reading groups have been running in one form or another for nearly ten years now – we learn that some things will be particularly painful to some people. If a death is going to occur Joe will warn Tom in advance, because it always does upset him, but if Tom feels Joe knows that, and he’s had the opportunity to decide not to come that week, he can take it. He will probably attend.

Some poems are to be handled very carefully in new groups. ‘Crossing the Bar’ for example, which at the beginning of the project ten years ago seemed a hand-grenade I was continuously and stupidly lobbing into groups of unknown people, one of whom would always begin to cry:

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Someone who has been recently bereaved, or in some cases, someone who has been bereaved and still has a deep sore spot hidden perhaps even to themselves, will cry when this poem is read. When, at the very beginning of Get Into Reading, I saw a woman cry as I read the poem, and saw her fold up the poem and put it in her purse when we were done, and saw a fellow group member reach over and touch her hand and say ‘ Well done, kidder,’ I knew that this was the value we were missing (and perhaps the risk we were mitigating) in academic university study. In twenty years I had never seen anyone cry in response to a poem in a University. Not that people should cry, but simply that we do have to have room to be moved, if we are moved. I believe that is why people write – to pass on the inner movement which is feeling, and I think that is why – whether we know it or not – we need to read. But it has to be a personal choice.

The thing we actually do to mitigate risk is to create a reading environment where people are free to respond, or not; to speak, or not to speak. We allow the power of response to lie within in each individual – no one is required to do anything. We trust the literature to speak a human language, and we trust each other to each other’s responses with what I will call for now respect but which might also be called gentleness. People on the whole are tactful and quickly build a supportive group. So when Jack says, in an underbreath, ‘Miss my kids, loved that bedtime routine,’ Janet, knowing nothing of why Jack hasn’t access to his kids anymore will respond, ‘Yeah, lovely that time, calming them down with a story.’

It is a tiny moment of relationship, tactful, trusting. As it says in MacNeice’s poem, ‘the room was suddenly rich.’ And often, within minutes, someone else will make a joke or a cup of tea, to move us on. All this happens quite naturally when there is no educational or medical professional control, when we are a group of people sharing reading and where the real expert in the room is the book. At my group in Chester our chapter ended with the idea of ‘self-winding’. The once broken, now mended but no longer dancing, clockwork mouse-child conceives a possible self-directed future:

As before, the child felt the star a comfort. His good-luck coin clinked against his drum, and now he felt luckier than ever before. “Maybe we shan’t always be helpless, Papa,” he said. “Maybe we’ll be self-winding some day.”

“Maybe,” said his father.

‘Is the father like an addict?’ asked the other newcomer, a man in his fifties. ‘Is it like the child is reminding him of hope and the father can’t feel it? He can’t get out of his old mind-set?’

That question was a risk I think the newcomer was able to take because of the way in which the group had already demonstrated its safety to him. It will be interesting to work out, over the coming years, exactly how we do that. My guess? By asking for nothing, you leave the risk-taking decision in the hands of the person whose risk it is – they assess the situation and make their own decisions. Not having a professional in control may be less risky than it might seem.