If a library houses books, what kind of building makes a home for readers?


Since visiting Thoronet Abbeye, a ruined Cistercian Monastery in France, I have become mildly obsessed with the idea of a building providing form for, holding, a way of life.

Of course we all do this all the time in the décor of our own homes, which, however much or little we think about them, reflect who and what we are and how we live. My study is a mess because I hardly use it, simply rushing in and out, dumping things and scrabbling for stuff I can’t find. Before the advent of The Reader Organisation, when I used it all the time for writing, it was better (usually).

Thoronet, built in the 12th or 13th century, creates spirit from stone or stone from spirit (wouldn’t Russell Hoban have loved that? Read his short story, Shwartz). The whole building is a musical instrument, a sort of acoustic amplifier creating a tremendous long echo, which the monks used as a discipline, developing within it a plainsong which was slow, harmonious, layered. An evening concert there, hearing and feeling the building at work was a mightily powerful experience.

As it says, quite rightly, on Wikipedia;

 The abbey is fundamentally connected to its site, and is an exceptional example of spirituality and philosophy transformed into architecture. It is distinguished, like other Cistercian abbeys, by its purity, harmony, and lack of decoration or ornament.

After the concert we went back by day to walk around the site and see the building in its physical setting. I was struck by how far from the world it feels even now, and how many more times further away from anywhere it must have been in the 12th century. People chose to come to this remote place, and to hack rock from the ground in order to build this instrument-building so that they might feel and sing and  live in a certain way. The community they built here is an attempt to change, indeed to re-create the human world from scratch, in accordance with a set of beliefs. And I wondered, is everything we make like that?

So, back home, thinking about buildings, I’m asking myself whether our public and institutional buildings reflect us in the same way? I look at  McKinsey’s London offices  and yes, that is McKinsey. Same for the British Gas Boardroom, where SBT invited The Reader Organisation’s Managing Director, Chris Catterall, and myself to pitch for investment. I look at NESTA’s home and I think to myself – yes, that’s more or less NESTA. I look at Springwood Heath Primary School  and again, that is pretty much Springwood. Then I look at some other learning or idea or health institutions. I don’t want to name them. You will find them everywhere. But, oh dear.

Is this poverty of spirit in our communal buildings about lack of money? I am remembering in my churlish way the utter quality of the toilet doors in Portcullis House, Westminster. Centuries of forests and thousands of public pounds went into them. Why do MPs and their admin teams deserve such superior shutters when patients in an inpatient mental health unit at Anyborough Hospital will have warping and wobbly-locked mdf closures? The toilet doors have in both cases been built and installed by belief as much as budget.

Can you make something good out of not much, if you believe in what you are doing? If what you are doing is not ‘getting cheapest possible doors’ but ‘building a decently secured toilet’. Isn’t it about ethos as much as economy?

As someone who has created patchwork quilts from scraps for the past 25 years, who has cooked a pan of Scouse out of what was in the kitchen that night and fed it to (my hero) Marilynne Robinson, who has furnished her homes from junk shops and auctions and Oxfam, of course I’d say yes. You do it on a wing and a prayer, or by love, or  in time and by being  creative. You do it above all by believing you can do it and that it matters how you do it.


Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.
Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.


We are going to make a very lovely thing  at Calderstones Mansion and a lot of it is going to be made out of belief. And if we were not The Reader Organisation, but any group of socially-minded enterprising people who had the opportunity  re-making this place, would it still be a good idea to put reading at the heart of that project?

We will be making a bistro and a shop, and a gallery, perhaps a dog walking service, a dance studio, certainly bedrooms for our residential courses and Reading Weekends, and we’ll be creating a venue on the Garden Stage, there will be a library and a second-hand bookshop, we’ll do weddings and we’ve already done a Christening and a Community lunch… and what, you might say, what does reading have to do with any of that?

The enterprises we are going to make here are going to ensure the building is economically viable. Our first responsibility is to keep the roof on and the decay at bay. But if a reading billionaire* gave us thousands of millions of pounds, we’d still want to set up the enterprises because of the non-cash value they are going to create by providing interesting and useful volunteering and jobs. And then we’d want those volunteers and staff members to read together, because the biggest thing we want to make at Calderstones is a community, a community that holds all kinds of people and passions together. And what holds a people together ? Sharing stories.

Until very recently, throughout human history, groups of people have held themselves together through a book – the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran. These religious books held and still hold bodies of stories and poetry and thought which define a people. Many types of human community have grown from these texts, from the Sufi circle to the parish church to the Cistercian monastery to the Blue Mosque.

We are a plural organization – we have not one book but many. At The Reader Organisation all staff members run or attend a weekly shared reading group. We do this so that we never lose sight of the basis of our organizational existence: reading together. Recently  I was at Calderstones Mansion House with the Friday morning group (part of a research project being conducted by colleagues at University of Liverpool, funded through the AHRC). We were reading the extract from Jane Eyre in my old friend Angie Macmillan’s anthology A Little Aloud.  We spent two hours reading and talking about half a dozen pages. I completely forgot about my  pressing and complicated work as Director of this organisation – it was like living in another medium, another universe, for two hours, free of gravity and diving deep into language, meditating on the ranges and possibilities of meanings with my reading companions, drawing on our own life-forged  understandings.

That is an intimate experience to share with a group of people.  It’s about expressing and hammering out personal belief, in concert with others. This is why we believe at The Reader that shared reading is community glue. Slow book talk, deep language talk, over long time, let us know each other.

What we want to make at Calderstones is a model of a reading community, where whatever else is going on, people will be connected by a huge body of reading experiences. Let the building have many bookshelves, reading corners, kindle power sockets. Let it be a Thoronet for readers.

Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing
Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing


*Dear Reading Billionaire, even so we’d still like some money


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.

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.

The Mouse and His Child – Social Enterprise Novel

I have re-read one of my top 5 favourite books of all time: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. It ends with a great vision of a brilliant social enterprise, well worth a read by any those of you who are thinking of tapping up the Big Society bank for a project. The business lesson here is: you gotta walk it before you talk it.

The re-reading has confirmed the book’s place in my personal biblio-cosmology: it’s a significant star, bright, moving, and full of meaning for me. All that and it’s funny, too, as you can see in chapter four, when the Caws of Art travelling theatre troupe perform ‘The Last Visible Dog’ and we see Samuel Beckett both mocked and adored.

 Crow flung wide his broad wings like a black cloak. ‘What doesn’t it mean!’ he said. ‘There’s no end to it – it just goes on and on until it mean anything and everything, depending on who you are and what your last visible dog is.’

‘ “Beyond the last visible dog,” ‘said the mouse child to his father. ‘Where is that, I wonder?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the father, ‘but those words touch something in me – something half remembered, half forgotten – that escapes me just as it seems almost clear.’

I first came across the novel when my daughter brought home one of the those catalogues children used to bring home from school – books that were going to be for sale. This would probably be in the early 1980’s, and the book had this same yellow cover in those days, so maybe this, pictured, is the actual one? It says ‘Reprinted in 1983’ and that would have made my daughter 9 years old, a good age for reading this novel. I remember reading it to her, and later to my son, and later still, to a class studying ‘The Novel’ in the Continuing Education programme at Liverpool University. I read extracts from it, with parts of If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, to sixth-formers studying war literature on University study days; it was on the menu when inducting a new intake of staff at The Reader, and when we set up a staff shared reading group it was the first novel we read. Just recently I’ve read it in my weekly reading group with a Drug and Alcohol Service – the first novel we have read (next is going to be Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury), following a range of short stories and poems. I might have read this book 8 or 10 times.

On the first page of my paperback copy, Russell Hoban (who died last year) writes;

 Having once been set in motion, we cannot wind up our own clockwork again. But we can make toys whose stillness can be rewound to new motion, toys whose stillness is never final until the clockwork is destroyed…Each toy insisting on its one idea, its one action. Assembled with or without thought by human hands and eyes and minds that put, whether they wanted to or not, some yes or no, some why? or why not? into the toys. Something was put into them.

Toys? He means novels, surely? I seem to remember reading somewhere that Hoban did not like being known as a writer of children’s books ( he wrote the magnificent Frances series, as well as this and other great children’s books, e.g. Mole Family Christmas, another of my favourites, about a fat man in a red suit…), and certainly, his adult fiction deserves more recognition, but this quotation shows why he is such a wonderful children’s writer: he is utterly unpatronising. Perhaps we could just call him a wonderful writer? Some of his books can be read to or by children. But all the same, the books we call his children’s books are very much for adults. It feels as though, with all his jokes and obsessions, he’s mainly writing, as the best children’s writers always are, for himself as a reader.

Russell Hoban was very interested in what it is that was put into us, whatever that is: ‘some yes or no, some why? or why not?’ In one of his greatest books, Riddley Walker, Hoban talks about this thing that is in us, looking out of our eye-holes.

‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it don’t have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. Maybe you don’t take no notis of it only some time. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the next youre on your feel with a speer in your han. Wel it wernt you put that speer in your han it were that other thing whats looking out from your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn an loan an sheltering how it can.’

This a writer concerned with what Marilynne Robinson calls ‘soul’. I’m going to call it that, too.

The Mouse and His Child is a soul book, and doesn’t have any false dichotomy about this world and others: it’s a spiritual and a material journey, they ain’t separate. It’s a book about coming home, about what home is, and how it becomes home. In the beginning, something is lost – one day you are on the counter in the toyshop, watching imposing but snooty clockwork elephant walk up and down in front of a fine doll’s house, next, everything disappears as you are packed into a box to become a Christmas present. And then you are somewhere else, and eventually broken and found in a dustbin by a tramp who gets you working again – more or less – and sets you down on a road saying ‘ Be tramps.’ So our story – like so many great human stories – begins with the loss of paradise and the emergence of evil. As they set off on the road, the father mouse says;

 ‘Anything at all might happen, I suppose.’

‘But it won’t, ‘said a soft voice close by. ‘Not this evening, my lads.’

A large rat crept out of the shadows of the girders into the light of the overhead lamps, and stood up suddenly on his hind legs before the mouse and his child. He wore a greasy scrap of silk paisley tied with a dirty string in the manner of a dressing gown, and he smelled of darkness, of stale and mouldy things, and garbage. He was there all at once and with a look of tenure, as if he had been waiting always just beyond their field of vision, and once let in would never go away.

The poetry of that last sentence is adult poetry, the poetry of danger, of inevitability, of war, and evil, even behind it’s opaque language of the Nazis and the camps (for yes, they are here, in the background shading of the book). Would a nine-year old-child understand it? No, I don’t think so, not even if they asked you to explain the word ‘ tenure’. Should they read or hear such a sentence? Oh yes indeed, it needs logging away in the back of the mind, for future use.

Would a child psychoanalyst like this book? I’d expect them at least to recognise it. The clockwork of the story allows Russell Hoban to model, through the toys and animals, the movements and stillnesses of our being, as children may do with play. Anyone who has struggled with their life should like it, for every major character in the story has something seriously wrong with them, is broken, or corrupt, or getting by, or self-deluding, or labouring under some tremendous tragedy. The seal, for example, who originally balanced a ball on the end of her nose, (and who in my film of this book, would be played by Marilyn Monroe), gets along by hanging out with a series of males who give her shelter or a good time. She had lived with Muskrat for a while;

Muskrat looked at the key. ‘Of course,’ he said, as he wound it, ‘I remember now: Key times Winding equals Go. She had just such a key in her back.’

‘Who?’ said the father.

‘The tin seal,’ said Muskrat.

‘The seal!’ said the child. ‘Did she have a platform on her nose?’

‘No,’ said Muskrat. ‘There was only a metal rod that turned, and that was how she used to wind up string for me. Many a cosy evening we spent that way. Charming young lady!’ He smiled, lapsing into a silent reverie… ‘She had been travelling with a rabbit flea circus, but the whole concern broke up not far from here. A fox ate the rabbit, the fleas joined the fox, and the seal came to stay with me.’

So, just like real life, then. And just like real life, breakages and flaws don’t have to determine us, they also offer ways in which characters may become their best selves: we don’t get over our failings, so much as learn, as Sam Beckett intimated, to live with them better. And as well as what we know about, things we know not of affect us: out-of-character things happen to and through us, despite ourselves. So Frog, with his fake charms and fortune-telling, turns out to tell true fortunes despite himself.

The frog, as far as he himself knew, had never accurately predicted the future in his entire life. He told fortunes for profit, just as he sold charms and cures, surveyed territories, and performed weddings. The weddings were at least legal, since he was a legitimate justice of the peace; the surveys were more or less exact; the cures occasionally healed; the charms worked as hard as their wearers; and in the matter of fortunes he had learned long ago to say whatever best suited the occasion and the customer. The mouse child wanted a family and house, and Frog desired to please him; therefore he went through the motion of the oriental divination, preparing the while to see in the future a mama, a sister, and a beautiful house.

So the frog intended, but as he looked at the coin and the seeds, he found himself unable to speak the words he had planned. He had practised the seed and coin oracle many times, but never before had he experienced anything like what was happening to him now. All else beyond the pattern in the snow departed from his vision; his ears hummed, and all other sounds vanished, leaving him alone with the voice of his mind and the dark seeds dancing in the stillness of their mystic changes.

‘You have broken the circle,’ he said, ‘and a straight line of great force emerges. Follow it.’

I started this post thinking about the fabulous social enterprise that is built by the end of the book and look! I have wandered into soul journey territory. But perhaps they are close to the same thing. We all need home, love, action and finally, to become (more or less) self-winding. The mouse and his child, the elephant, the seal, uncle Frog and all the other broken crew of adventurers keep going until they find their own home and pull together a patchwork family. They know what others need, and are able to provide it. What they have been through together is what helps them to create a great work-for-good by the end of the book.

If Virginia Woolf was a tulip, this is the kind of tulip she would be (though perhaps the colour is a bit vulgar for her?)

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.

On The Heir of Redclyffe and on reading but not writing

Four months is an unconscionably long time to let a blog languish.

I would like to offer a few excuses:  been moving office, had a very long holiday, incredibly busy post-move and post-holiday. But the real problem is: I don’t have time in my week to write.

I hardly have time to read. Or at least that is what I tell myself.  I’m interested in this because what’s true for me is likely to be true for others. So for  one week only – a reading/time-use audit starts  today. Each day I’ll publish what I’ve done/read with my time and we shall see if I do have time to read/write or if I am simply frittering hours on  newspapers, bad TV and  hanging-around-chat or Zumba.

In my own defense I wish to state  that in  the last six months  I have been  making time for books during the week by  getting up earlier and  using the 6.30 -7.00 am slot to read each day. I read interesting, hard things in that half hour – things   requiring  my best concentration. Harder novels, or nonfiction, sometimes Wordsworth (The Prelude, which feels as if I  have got to keep reading it on some sort of continuous loop through the second half of life). Half an hour, I have to say, is not enough to even open up my best concentration, which seems a rhythm I need to build over a day or days. Time and depth (and habit) are connected.

I read in the hour or less before going to sleep (mostly  novels – recently Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck, and Russell Hoban’s new book Soonchild – out next year with Walker  Books)
or things which bring the energy of compulsive reading with them – things which I really can’t bear not to be reading (lately that has been Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Suite Francaise  by Irene Nemirovsky, Images of Organisation by Gareth Morgan, and Emotion and Spirit by Neville Symington)

And I am aware that an average of an hour a day, for someone heading up an  organisation dedicated to a reading revolution is just not enough.  But what to do about it ?

Since I last wrote on this blog I’ve been reading…

The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte M Yonge – wonderful strange Victorian novel about a man who tries to be good, to really live by  Christian principles. It was a massive bestseller in its day, but for modern readers will be problematic in lots of ways – mainly, it’s not ironic or cynical! So you have to do  one of  those time-translations as you read, and keep thinking, ok, how would this translate into modern  experience/ways of thinking… but really worth the  effort of trying to do that
As in many novels about ‘good’  the centre of goodness is  hard to portray ( I’m thinking of Daniel Deronda, or Lawrence’s Birkin in Women in Love , or God in Paradise Lost). But what is brilliant, and awful, is what very real  portrayal of what stubborn, understandable, stupid, ordinary egocentric badness looks like (the kind you and I practice every day). Could anyone  write a novel that could go into this astonishing, real place today? Probably not. Only  The Wire gets there – and not even  that consistently. Why?

Here’s a bit from near the end of the book when Philip returns to visit Amy, (a young widow, new mother) the cousin he has badly wronged:

All was as usual. Charles’s sofa, little table, books, and inkstand, thework-boxes on the table, the newspaper in Mr. Edmonstone’s old folds.Only the piano was closed, and an accumulation of books on the hingetold how long it had been so; and the plants in the bay window werebrown and dry, not as when they were Amabel’s cherished nurslings. Heremembered Amabel’s laughing face and abundant curls, when she carriedin the camellia, and thought how little he guessed then that he shouldbe the destroyer of the happiness of her young life. How should he meether—a widow in her father’s house—or look at her fatherless child?He wondered how he had borne to come thither at all, and shrank at thethought that this very evening, in a few hours, he must see her.
The outer door opened, there was a soft step, and Amabel stood beforehim, pale, quiet, and with a smile of welcome. Her bands of hair lookedglossy under her widow’s cap, and the deep black of her dress wasrelieved by the white robes of the babe that lay on her arm. She heldout her hand, and he pressed it in silence.
‘I thought you would like just to see baby,’ said she, in a voicesomething like apology.
He held out his arms to take it, for which Amy was by no means prepared.She was not quite happy even in trusting it in her sister’s arms, andshe supposed he had never before touched an infant. But that was allnonsense, and she would not vex him with showing any reluctance; so shelaid the little one on his arm, and saw his great hand holding it mostcarefully, but the next moment he turned abruptly from her. Poor sillylittle Amy, her heart beat not a little till he turned back, restoredthe babe, and while he walked hastily to the window, she saw that twolarge tear-drops had fallen on the white folds of its mantle. She didnot speak; she guessed how much he must feel in thus holding Guy’schild, and, besides, her own tears would now flow so easily that shemust be on her guard. She sat down, settled the little one on her knee,and gave him time to recover himself.
Presently he came and stood by her saying, in a most decided tone,’Amabel, you must let me do this child justice.’

You have to accept it for what it is – mid Victorian, High Anglican and necessarily full of values we don’t care for these days – but also full of brilliant observations  – as above in Amy’s instinct to let Charles hold the baby, and her fear while he does – and powerful vision of  how good can operate in a  naughty world.

I read it in the Oxford World’s Classics  paperback  – highly recommended – and you can download the full text from Project Gutenberg