Practising Imagination

Agnes on Caldy beach march 2017
Agnes on Caldy Beach, Tina and Chester in the background, Chester playing in mud

Thinking about imagination and direct experience this morning. I was slightly aware,  as I looked through All The Days of My Life yesterday, that my attitude to poems, to literature in general, has changed in a significant way over the last…shall I say ten years? This is something to do with my instinct about a key element of Shared Reading.

It’s out of print now – be great if The Reader could get it back into print, please – but worth tracking down a secondhand copy of ATDOML  as this anthology is a very particular one, with a personal  take on both poetry and life experience. It was  put together by my husband Phil Davis, for me, when I was a teacher in Continuing Education, reading a lot of poetry with my students and  wanting a book with all the good ones in. So he made it. It came out in 1999, just after we had started The Reader magazine and just before I began ‘Get Into Reading’, which would become Shared Reading and The Reader  as it is now.

What I realised as I looked through the  book yesterday was that I know almost every poem in this collection, have read all of them at least once and some of  them many, many times. They are part an inner geography/library that connect to the growth (as Wordsworth might put it) of this reader’s mind. And yet some of these poems I am unlikely to read anymore because they do not allow me to  think directly about my own experience. I suddenly feel as if concentrating on a key problem in Shared Reading (got to make it personal) has sent me  off at an angle, small at first, that is only now realised as too big. I’ve gone off course!

Take, for example, ‘The Voice’ by Thomas Hardy;

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

This wonderful poem, which I think I first read in  let us 1982, in Brian Nellist’s University of Liverpool English Department third year Victorians and Moderns tutorial, has almost fallen out of my reading repertoire. Why? I tend to read poems that allow  me meditate on my own life and problems. This poem is more like a story, requiring me to practice imagination. I think  I do practice imagination in reading but nearly always in prose or Shakespeare. But when I choose a poem I’m often looking for and choosing poems that reveal something directly about me, to me.

Let’s read this poem about Thomas Hardy, then.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Hardy begins with ‘woman much missed’  which is, in any context, an odd formulation. We might have expected  ‘woman’ as an address but ‘much missed’ is direct, personal, confessional, really. Is he speaking to her – Woman –  or to himself?

We hear a man  haunted by a voice, ‘how you call to me, call to me,’ an echo. He has been longing to see (‘much missed’), to hear her, and now she is here, calling, but there is no comfort for him. What the voice is saying seems complicated and nostalgic and also, perhaps, guilt-inducing. Is this why he started with ‘much missed’? In what sense does he  miss her ? Because he didn’t seem to miss her when she ‘had changed from the one who was all to me’;

Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Those three lines are awful to imagine. The ‘woman much missed’ may not be the same woman who has died, but an earlier version of that woman, with whom Hardy fell in love  ‘at first, when our day was fair.’ By the time the real physical woman died, he  no longer loved, she had changed ‘from the one who was all to me.’

As I read in this way, I am tussling with words and syntax, trying to understand as many layers of meaning as I can reveal by reading,  by noticing. This is our basic  equipment in Shared Reading ( if this was parkrun, it would be putting one foot in front of the other to achieve locomotion).  You can call it ‘close reading’ but I call it reading. It means noticing and becoming conscious of as much as you can.

But I am doing something more than reading  (‘close reading’,  ‘analysing’, ‘taking apart’, ‘deconstructing’) the words, spaces, line-endings, punctuation and rhythm. These elements add together to come more than the sum of the parts: I am getting inside Thomas Hardy’s experience. as I unpack the layers  of thought and feeling, my brain experiences the language and the language-experience as if it were my own. Mirror neurones! Imagination!

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

A noticing reader will be aware of the commas on  either side of ‘then’ on the first line of this stanza. The first reading of ‘then’ is straightforward, a conversational pattern we hardly notice in daily use; ‘let me view you, then,’ where ‘then’ probably means ‘in that case.’ I used it in exactly that way at the start of this post.

So the whole line  means – on one level – is it you? yes? in that case, show me.

But ‘then’ is also  a time word.  And the next line takes us back to the past, ‘then’ is picked up, an echo, like the voice itself, and we understand a terrible jarring feeling happening over and over again in side this man grieving for someone who left him (or whom he left)  long  before she died.

As I read, I am inside the experience of the poem, inside the mind of the writer of the poem following through the written marks on the page, like tracks, his thought patterns. And the harder I read,  the further inside his thought-processes I get. Thus reading the poem, in this way, teaches me to practice imagination.

Now I am in his shoes as he stands there, no longer quite hearing the voice, almost no longer haunted. Yet how bleak that feels;

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

In fact by the time we get the word ‘dissolved’ the voice seems completely gone. And ‘wistlessness’ – is this a word Hardy has made up?  Wist=know, so wistless seems to mean ‘heedless’ or ‘not knowing’? Does the line mean ‘you, being dissolved, cannot know (me) (anything), are not there? Have ceased to haunt me. She is now ‘Heard no more again far or near?’

The tremendous last stanza, with its astonishing self-knowledge,  visible in that formulation,  ‘Thus I;’
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Look at me, Hardy seems to be saying, a man barely able to stay upright, in wind and leaf-fall, in cold of north wind, among thorns…’and the woman calling.’ And so we return, cold and weary, worn-out, to the beginning. The poem is circular and  Hardy cannot escape its round and round again-ness. Always, finally, the voice, coming back to him.
To practice reading, is to practice entering the experience of another, the experience of the poet. I go back to Archibald MacLeish:
But what, then, is the business of poetry? Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.
If I understand what it is to live Hardy’s terrible life in these Poems of 1912-13 then I understand more of human experience than  if I simply live my own life.
Why then my concentration on reading poems which help me understand my own life? For me self-understanding is the starting point, and I am still at that starting-point, sometimes seem to be more at it than ever before.

But  something has happened this morning which makes me think I need to add in poems of not-my-experience to my daily readings.  I don’t want to  narrow down my imagination, got to keep practising.


What to read in a Shared Reading group: two poems by Derek Walcott

UK - Liverpool - The Reader Organisation
Me, doing Shared Reading with a colleague on the phone. It’s not  form that matters, it’s content. Be close to the text but be moved, be personal: ‘Feast on your life’.


I wanted to write about Derek Walcott today, as he has just died, ‘called home’, to take a phrase from one of his great poems.

When I heard the news, two poems came immediately to mind. ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ (which you can read in today’s Sunday Times)  and ‘Love After Love’,  a poem that has been read in many Shared Reading groups over the years.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ was the first of Derek Walcott’s poems I read, when I was still teaching at the University. I found it – in an anthology of some sort, name now lost to me – and  took it to my Friday Afternoon Poetry class.  That class was one of the strands of DNA that went into the mix to bring The Reader and Shared Reading into being.

I started it – hhhm, don’t remember, so far back it goes, but it may have been in the 1980s. It was still quite near to the time when I had  finished my Ph.D and was finding my feet as a teacher of literature. I knew I was afraid of poetry, and thought that if I was so afraid, other people would be suffering the same anxiety. So I advertised the class as ‘Afraid of poetry? come along to share your fears and read together in a relaxed group.’  Ten, fifteen, maybe eighteen of us would meet from 1.00-5.00 on the last Friday of the month for four hours of (what I’d now call) Shared Reading.  I think that class is where I first met my long-time colleague, Kate McDonnell.

The morning of the class, I would choose a poem –  or possibly two – in the same way I do for this blog –  am I interested in this? Does it touch something? Is there  a match for something live in me? Can I enter it?

And then for  a whole afternoon, the group would  sit and read together, teasing out meanings, a concentrated, collaborative experience.

‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ seems to come at a time when the poet is uncertain about his work, and the letter is an unlikely blessing, a benediction, call to arms.Like the religious poetry of the seventeenth century, this poem helps create a space in me, where something religious might happen.  I have read the poem many times since that first time, and remain moved by the word ‘home’, as Walcott himself is:

The strength of one frail hand in a dim room
Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured,
Restores my sacred duty to the Word.
‘Home, home,’ she can write, with such short time to live,
Alone as she spins the blessings of her years;

It’s a poem about what survives death and what survives life, too. How thin and frail the threads that sometimes hold us in place, yet how, despite their frailty,  they sometimes are ‘steel.’

The other poem, ‘Love after Love’,  I think I first had from Kate McDonnell, once we had got  The Reader going  ( in the days when we still called it ‘Get Into Reading’).

No, no – now I remember also reading this in those Continuing Education classes at the University. Perhaps having found ‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ I went and sought more of  Derek Walcott’s work.  I recall the room I read it in. Perhaps Kate was present.  It’s a well-known, much-anthologised poem, but that doesn’t take away from its strength or reality at all. Many times I have seen new readers profoundly moved  to recognition by the poem.

Recently someone told me  they had had an occasion in their Share Reading group when the conversation had become very personal, group members sharing profoundly personal information. This  didn’t usually happen, they told me. We’re very good about sticking closely to the text, not going off.  I was surprised by this.  Yes, of course, – we need to stick closely to the text, but what does the text stick to,  if not to us?

It may be that in a group where little personal thought is shared it is still happening – inside the individual readers – but I’d hope all group members would speak from the personal: because, really, what else is there?

When I read a poem , I’m trying to match it against what I know, so as I start this one, I see my own front door – both literally and metaphorically – I see my life’s time and my sense of self:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

I  can hardly imagine what  anyone could do with such a poem if not read it personally, connecting it to your own experience. ‘You will love again the stranger who was yourself.’ Surely , readers are required by the very language – ‘you’, ‘yourself’ –  in this line to think of themselves? To remember times when we didn’t love ourselves,  when we were self-estranged?

This leads me to ask myself, are only some  pieces of literature suitable for Shared Reading? A colleagues recently told me how much better a book was  working out in his group than a previous novel. Why?  Because it allows more of the personal?

So though anyone might enjoy a thriller, a thriller wont yield much to a Shared Reading group because it is not about real things. This isn’t about form – look again, Lincoln in The Bardo, not at all ‘realism’ – it’s about content, meaning, belief and thought. Lincoln in the Bardo  is made in fancy  dress, but it is absolutely about types of deepest reality. This is what we  look for in good reading for Shared Reading groups. You’ve got to want to look in the mirror.

It may not be necessary to confess everything you see there: some or all of that recognition might remain private. But the most powerful groups I’ve been in have shared not only the literature through slow reading aloud, but also direct, real personal response and recognition, the most serious of which have always, like the poem ‘Love After Love’, involved some pain;

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit.Feast on your life.

The peeling of that image from the mirror always hurts. But those moments of true intimacy, of revelation, are always the best moments of the best groups: they create the steel threads which help hold us in place.

Shared Reading is about sharing not only the reading, but also ourselves.

Good – and green – in the garden

The single red Camellia trying to get in through the window

I’m just going to concentrate on a few verses of ‘The Garden’ by Andrew Marvell. You’ll find the whole poem here. I found it in the Oxford Book of English Verse.  Like many famous English poems, I read it as an undergraduate at University. But those readings often went over my head – or perhaps heart?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it since.

The Garden

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I have no idea what’s happening in this opening stanza!

I can’t find the tone, and I’m not sure what’s being said. The word ‘vainly’ makes me think that Marvell is going to be talking about things humans get wrong and yet the two parts of the sentence here don’t seem to add up… palm, oak, bays – aren’t they all prizes, don’t you win them in wars and races? Yet later he’s saying ‘all flowers and all trees…’ Hate that feeling of not getting it. I rush on, then restrain myself and go back.

I’m going too fast here and in a kind of reading panic because it’s a famous poem and I don’t understand it. What do we do when we don’t get it? We read it again, more slowly, a little bit at a time. I  take a breath and start again, going for the first chunk of meaning;

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

As I read it aloud I realise ‘single’ is a clue here. There’s one kind of thing (lines 1-6) which is to do with ‘single’ and then there’s another kind of thing (lines 7&8) which is to do with ‘all’.

When I’m trying to read I often have to do without knowing and so sketch out a murky  unclear area I don’t yet understand and just leave it there. I often think of that space as ‘x’, as if reading was a bit like math equations, and you have to accept there are lots of parts you don’t know. You mark them as unknowns and then try to work out other bits. Eventually  ‘y’ may reveal ‘x’.

But I do now know that these opening lines  are about the difference between ‘single’ and ‘all’. It’s about taking notice of a the entirety of a garden rather than some special plant, is it?

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

But also the difference between ‘uncessant labours’ and ‘repose’. The ‘single/all’ split has made me notice another, which  is the difference between ‘uncessant labours crowned’ and ‘garlands of repose’. And now I notice the difference between ‘crowns’ and ‘garlands’.

Hmm.I’m taking it at face value, but now it strikes me that this poem  may not be about a garden. It’s the word ‘vainly’ that makes me think it’s bigger than that. Can’t do anything with that thought yet.  People strive to win ‘the palm, the oak, or bays.’ They are plants that are signify winning. Winners get a crown  of bays, and those bays are cut from trees. Bays in particular  are often clipped and manicured, as the trees here seem to be;

Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

The shade of trees  wouldn’t naturally be ‘short and narrow’, it should be long and widely expansive. But these trees seem to be only there for the  comment they can make on human endeavour, which I’m beginning to think  might be a very formal kind of gardening. But is this about any kind of clipped and manicured effort? Say you set yourself  to do something – a winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, or writing a  world-class Haiku or magnificent bodybuilding –  something that would result in you being a winner. Would all that unnatural clipping and pruning,  de-naturing the tree (person, thing, activity) under cultivation but also wasting your own time because all other flowers and trees are going, growing, in another direction?) is it about the energy of nature, and the energy of humans trying to do something?
Well, I’m no longer feeling scared and starting  to feel excited. I’m reading!
It’s the ‘prudent’  upbraiding that is bothering me. Why is it prudent?
If I did devote all my garden time and energy to clipping and pruning some prize-winning specimen, wouldn’t the plant itself, by its very nature ‘ upbraid’ me? Perhaps because of its natural tendency to grow wildly? But why would that upbraiding be ‘prudent’? Does prudent mean careful? Is it about money? I go to the dictionary – ‘prudent, acting with or showing care for the future’. From the Latin, provident. I think it is to do with the nature of trees – be they palm oak or bay – or plants (or people? or human endeavours? ). These things have their own energies and growth patterns.

I think this is a poem against a life of clipping bays. Don’t clip and contain natural energy – go with the flow.

Time’s up, more tomorrow.

Onwards, Readers!


I woke up this morning at 5.24am and immediately got up to log on and see what had happened with the #Big Give since I went to bed. Nearly £500, some of it in very small denominations, that’s what!

It is absolutely amazing to see donations coming in from NYC public library, Bootle New Strand, Central London, Mossley Hill, Cornwall, Norris Green, Kensington London and Kensington Liverpool, Hampshire, Wigston, Salford, Strabane, Prenton and sunny California, as well as dear old Strathey Lighthouse, to name but a few of the locations people are donating from…

Our friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, Trustees, ex-Trustees, relations, partners, group members and supporters are donating five pounds’ in their scores, as well as £10, £20, £30,£40, £50, £100, £300, £420, £500 and £1000’s…

It is one of best jobs I’ve ever had at The Reader, logging on and reading through the list of donors – and it is not just the money, though at time of writing we’ve secured a total of  £25,876.25  which is TERRIFIC.

But it is not the money that makes it uplifting and exciting … It never is the money, is it?

(Though the day I took a phone call to say we’d got £2.1m from HLF for Calderstones Mansion, it did feel as if money could make you joyful. I was in a hand-car-wash in Everton, and still holding the phone, shouted out to the man wielding the spray gun, ‘I’ve got £2.1 million!!’ and he shouted back ‘Allah be praised!’ and carried on washing my car.)

But that rare moment aside, it is not usually the money.

No, it is the reach of the people who want to support our reading revolution that I am finding really moving. The smallest sums – many of them coming from group members or others whose lives have been touched by shared reading – feel profound. It reminds me of the flowers lining the route of Charles Dickens funeral… of course it was expected that Westminster Abbey would be filled with expensive lilies and it was, but London was full of bunches of wildflowers laid at the wayside, gathered by the poor who knew Dickens wrote their lives.

As we enter the  3rd day of the #BigGive and  support naturally slows down, may I ask you to lend a hand  by talking to people, posting on Facebook, tweeting or emailing the direct link to the donate page to colleagues, friends and relations?

and boldly, boldly but kindly, I ask you to do as I have done and to ask your friends and relations, your contacts and colleagues to give what they can to help us  continue to train volunteers to read with older people, like Rose.

Rose, 77 and living in a Home for last 3 years says of her shared reading group:

It puts something in your mind. It doesn’t always come straight away but the mind starts thinking. This is the only time we talk, you see. The rest of it is always in there [points to head] and we’re not happy. Everything that’s been happening in the group has been very true. Real. And this stuff that’s written down makes you feel different. It makes you feel lucky to be here. Because whatever’s in these stories is true – a lot of them are very truthful – they say a lot, they mean something.


Onwards, readers!



Infant Joy, Infant Sorrow



Redeemable: A memoir of darkness and hope, by Erwin James, Bloomsbury

Erwin James is a Guardian columnist and author, a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and a Patron of The Reader. Redeemable, his memoir, builds on and expands what we know of him through his two collections of essays, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook and The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole. Erwin is a convicted murderer who spent twenty years in prison before his release in 2004. You can read his remarkable essay on the power of reading  in The Reader magazine, number 54.

reader 54

Though I knew it would be a sad, hard book, I had been longing to read Redeemable, because Erwin is a remarkable man, and because ‘how do people change? ’ has been one of my key obsessions for thirty years. As I write these life-size numbers – twenty years, thirty years – I feel both how long and how short are these lives I am reading and thinking about.

I read the book over three days, nights and early mornings this week. The first reading session gave me nightmares. That’s not a very comfortable recommendation for a book, but don’t be put off. There are particular reasons why I would be moved to nightmares by Erwin’s story. The remorselessly crazy of helter-skelter of a family dominated by unacknowledged pain, dogged by poverty, and knocked about by hunger and alcohol brought alive many memories of my own childhood. And for all the brute reality of memory and fact, there’s something blank, which I found as frightening as anything else, this blank numbness, recalling William Empson’s  poem, ‘Let It Go’;

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

It is as if, even now, after all this thinking and sifting and remembering, Erwin cannot fathom his father, whom he loved, loved, loved. But why, after his wife’s death, did Erwin Snr continually abandon his children? Why did he beat his little son? It’s as if Erwin has, in the end, simply to let it go, ‘the contradictions cover such a range’.  There are no answers and no time for answers in the first two-thirds of the book, which feels a rushing headlong descent towards the newspaper clipping that gives the bare, public details of Erwin’s trial for double murder.

Erwin mentions reading Crime and Punishment in prison many years later, and I felt as I read, that the world of Redeemable was lit by the same feverish pained misery as Dostoevsky’s novel.  So, as a  twelve-year-old, Erwin is living in children’s home when he gets into a fight at school and runs away, from Ilkley to Shipley, an eight mile walk, to the place  he thinks his father is living. His father’s girlfriend won’t let him stay and sends him on to Aunt Bridie’s house.

She told me where my aunt Bridie’s house was and said that Maw (Erwin’s much loved grandmother) was staying with her and my uncle Jake. Bursting with excitement I sped off to find them. The house was at the top of the estate, the very roughest part where houses had windows missing and holes in front doors. When I arrived I banged on the door as loud as I could.

As soon as she saw me Aunt Bridie threw her arms around me and hugged me tight. ‘Maw, look,’ she called to the living room. ‘It’s wee Erwin!’

I cried with joy when I saw Maw and rushed to her, grabbing hold of her and sobbing into her arms. ‘Oh, son,’ she said, ‘look at the size of you!’ I hadn’t seen her since a few weeks after the crash (in which Erwin’s mother was killed) more than five years earlier. She looked very old and not at all well. She had a great blue and black bruise on the left side of her face. ‘Don’t worry son,’ she said when I stared. ‘I just fell doon the stairs when I was tired.’ I could smell alcohol on her breath. Around the room I saw empty beer and wine bottles and realised that Maw, Aunt Bridie and Uncle Jake were all drunk.

The police picked me up in Shipley town centre two days later and after a couple of hours in the police station I was taken back to the Home.

And so it goes on, the unstoppable blur of drunken faces, robberies and runnings-off that make up this child-and-early-adulthood.

At one point in the week, Redeemable is in my mind as I watch a young mother playing with her three-month-old baby. The mother is holding the baby about ten inches away from her face, completely focusing the child’s attention. The mother smiles and talks, nodding, making deep contact. ‘Aren’t you a lovely one, you are, aren’t you?’ She pauses, waits patiently, holds the child, and continues to nod and smile. In response, the baby smiles and coos, almost, you’d say, speaks back. They talk to one another, communing, communicating for ten, fifteen minutes as I watch. I’m thinking of Wordsworth’s Prelude where in Book 2, the babe ‘nursed in his mother’s arms…doth gather passion from his mother’s eye.’  Wordsworth observed, as psychologists and baby-watchers have done, that the baby recognises its feelings in the faces of others, and gradually learns through language to name those feelings.  Language is what we use to communicate between inside our wordless, feeling-driven selves and the outside world of everyone else. Language is what we have to help us become part of humanity. Language and role-models, as William Blake knew. His poems Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow give us the psychology in two tiny nutshells.

infant joy

Erwin, like many children who fall into the Care system and later into prison, doesn’t have much in the way of role-models (though he loves reading and writing and, a school failure, loves English). He learns what his family teaches him: to love without hope of love returned, to drink as a way to escape the pain of being unbeloved, and to hurt others as he has been hurt. Care teaches him nothing but that he is a criminal. It is only when he is convicted and  meets the patient, one might even say loving, psychologist, Joan Branton, that you feel the human exchange, the eye contact, the focus, the shared language of feelings begin to enter his consciousness. He is no baby: he is twenty–eight years old.

But Joan gives him time, conversation, books, including Crime and Punishment. ‘What have you done to yourself?’ Sonia the prostitute asks Raskolnikov the murderer in one of that novel’s culminating moments. This is one of the questions Joan invites Erwin to consider.

The book is testimony to the possibility of redemption, to the work of some of those working in the prison system and to Erwin James’ creation for himself an inner life, a set of values and a belief, learned from Joan, that we are redeemable. ‘There is always a way back,’ she tells him, ‘if you want it badly enough and are prepared to work hard enough.’

Highly recommended, but it is a hard read.  Have tissues and time to recover. Then send some books to prisoners or support the work of The Reader in prisons and other criminal justice settings.

The Reader’s Shared Reading model gives people in prison an opportunity to think about their lives and the lives of others through the medium of literature. We run shared reading groups in a number of criminal justice settings across the UK. We are glad to have recently won the first ever public tender for a shared reading contract, which will provide shared reading in all Northern Ireland Prisons.


Learning to write: Edith Wharton’s  Hudson River Bracketed 

Edith Wharton’s novels can be astonishingly revealing of human behaviour at the absolutely micro level – Wallace Stegner, whom I recommended here in a previous post must have learned something from her.

This was one I hadn’t read and so picked up in an Oxfam bookshop just before setting off for my reading and writing sabbatical. It’s a lovely thing when you have an author you trust enough to think ‘Something by you will be worth reading. It’s 500 pages but it will be worth carrying in my book suitcase.’



And so it was.

Hudson River Bracketed is an architectural style, the style of a grand, largely unused, American house which plays a key part in the novel. It’s as if an English novel of the 1920s were to be called Oxford-Redbrick-Semi. Or Miners Two-bed and No Inside Loo. It’s partly a novel about the way that class, education and experience shape a life, and more than that, it is about how those things, plus reading, sex and money make or unmake an artist, and specifically a writer. And more specifically a male writer, from the west of America, born about 1900. Meet Vance (short for Advance) Weston:

By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the college of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents had lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.

One of Vance’s difficulties is learning how to trust or judge what he experiences, and the opening sentence gives us a clue about that, pitching ‘a week in Chicago’ against ‘invented a new religion’ without blinking.  You decide, Edith Wharton seems to be silently saying, what kind of young man this is…and yes, he is naive, excite able, foolish, inexperienced and has big ideas and a even bigger feelings. Should we laugh at him? Yes, a bit. But not everyone invents a new religion by the time they are nineteen, and it might be worth sticking around to see what else this guy does.

It’s a long stick-around, standing by this young man as he learns some hard Edith Wharton-ish lessons about the way complications build up and may  hamper, break or ruin the potential of a life.

In the last third of the novel I began to feel that the  trajectory might be  the unbearable downward curve at speed that is The House of Mirth (also by Edith Wharton, and surely that has got to be on my list of 100 books to build a woman? Think I need to re-read it. What a great book. My husband is currently reading a book called Why Humans Like To Cry and I was thinking The House of Mirth would be a good example of that… but is ‘like’ the right word? Surely, ‘need’  might be better…) But this is not The House of Mirth, Vance is man, and that doesn’t make all the difference, but it does make a difference.

This would be a book to read perhaps alongside or following D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers. It would make a very good  novel for a shared reading group, because it has short chapters, is episodic and is full of serious things to talk about…especially, how selfish does a higher purpose make a person? What is selfishness and how does it sit alongside our  need for  others, for love and  social being?

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.

Cheap Beans: Food for Thought

Chris Catterall, TRO's managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days
Chris Catterall, TRO’s managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days

We’ve been recruiting a Hospitality Manager for The Reader Organisation this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about the food/reading analogy. Everyone we interviewed rightly talked about quality being the key to whatever we eventually offer at Calderstones Mansion and elsewhere, and one person spoke about the need to offer something for everyone. We often say of The Reader’s shared reading groups that one size really does fit all: we’ve got a model that works across the human board. Can we do that with the events and food, the venue and shop we’re going to develop at Calderstones Mansion? Candidates we interviewed were also thinking about the people who might come to connect with us at Calderstones, and what they are used to eating and visiting right now.

‘How do you chose what to read in your shared reading groups?’ is the question I am asked most often.

There is very often an implicit anxiety there: are you imposing your cultural values on readers? Are you making people read great literature when really they’d prefer something else?

A shared reading group is like a pop-up restaurant: you may chose from the menu or there may be (often at the beginning of a group) no choice, just one straight offer, one dish. I often take one short story with me to start a new group, just as I did with the very first Get Into Reading group. No choice. But an established group may devise all kinds of ways of  deciding what to read – perhaps raffling the  names of Shakespeare plays….But yes… the menu has always been devised by someone with some particular quality-based thinking behind the choices.

Any foodie will tell you that great food is to do with the quality: the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the cook. But what individuals like is a different matter because that’s to do with taste, and taste is often to do with habit, with what we’ve learned, with education.

You can produce your slow-cooked organic bacon, fresh herb and molasses home-baked beans, but I may prefer the cheap, mass-produced, low quality ValueBrand I am used to. To me, they are great. I like the taste sensations produced by the saccharin and nitrates. Getting me to try your fancy beans is a matter not of legislation but of tempting me to change my habits, a personal project. (Although if the nitrates are proven to be carcinogenic, there may be legislation in the long run…) So, is leaving me with my ValueBrand beans acceptance of cultural diversity or educational neglect? Does quality matter, or is it merely a question of taste?

My early reading life included acres of probably these days unpalatable Sci-Fi and everything ever written by Agatha Christie. Or Enid Blyton, to take a perhaps more contentious writer. I loved that stuff and no one should have stopped me reading it – even if only because I was enjoying my own imagination, the power of plot, and developing my reading habit. But why did I choose them? Partly because, as people say of mountains, they were there. They were there in the school library and at home. Along with Denis Wheatley and Jean Plaidy and those Dick Frances thrillers about horse racing. I read them all. And the among the unpalatable Sci-Fi were some good books -and the development of a taste which eventually led me to Last and First Men, Shikasta and works like Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (a long literary story but it was all one journey). But if the little bookcase in our sitting room had contained Dickens as well as Denis Wheatley – would I have read them?

As I write, I am suddenly remembering that an old lady my grandmother cleaned for gave me two beautifully bound, gold-tooled Dickens volumes and I loved them – they looked gorgeous. Our Mutual Friend and, I think, David Copperfield. I tried to read Our Mutual Friend but I couldn’t. It was too hard. I’d have been maybe ten, maybe twelve. I don’t think I ever tried David Copperfield. I wonder now what would have happened if someone had read them to me?

I kept those books for years – may even still have one of them – and I don’t think I ever read them in those particular edtiions (though I read most of Dickens later, as a university student or teacher). Yet I was disposed to love them. I couldn’t digest them; I could barely take a mouthful. I needed the enthusiasm of some lover of Dickens, some believer, to tempt me into trying them. Just as I now tempt people who think they really don’t like Sci-Fi to try, let’s say, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (consider pulp fiction, the literary equivalent of junk food, for so long and in some quarters, still).  Or to try Pastoralia by the magnificent George Saunders. A strange, strong taste, but worth cultivating.


Not Now, Bernard

Literature, it’s an amazing technology: one person can transmit across time and space to another. You use these strings of signs – letters, words, sentences – on paper or screen or even by voice and they go directly into someone else’s inner world and start acting and reacting there. It is the most precise way we have of transmitting, sharing and thinking about the human experience.

That is why it is important that the study of literature is not the study of history or culture or philosophy, although all those disciplines have a part to play in understanding what it is to be human. Studying literature is trying to understand what writers say and testing their understandings against our own. It’s a thing in its own right. Here’s an example.

Some boys aged 8-11 are in a library, looking at books in a bored, desultory, careless way. These boys do not much see the point of literature. They do not like reading and do not feel it has much to do with them. They are mostly not very competent readers. They have lost confidence and don’t feel any personal need to master the skill. Why would you bother? Soon, many of these boys will stop seeming to care about school altogether.

Now an adult is reading to them, Not Now Bernard, by Dave McKee. It is an excellent work of fiction, and the form in which it arrives – strong visual images, hard hitting and witty language, powerful and convinced reading by the adult, helps the boys take it seriously long enough for something to happen. Bernard is in a foul mood and no one is taking any notice of him. In the garden a monster eats Bernard and he returns to the house, biting Bernard’s father on the leg, and suddenly all the boys are paying attention.

This is literature at work.

Every boy among them has wanted to bite some adult on the leg, has needed attention, has been ignored in kindly, normal ways as well as, in some cases, in sadder, less usual, ways. The boys, though they might be considered far too old for this book, which could be aimed at preschool or other very young children, have been drawn into attentiveness. The book has touched a spot:  the boys are variously moved or interested or amused. Something in them is responding to something in the book, with mild shock, with laughter, they are pointing, re-reading, asking questions that are both emotional and intellectual – ‘Is Bernard really eaten?’ ‘Why doesn’t his Mum and Dad see him?’ ‘He is the Monster!’

This act of reading opens a meditative, contemplative space (I say that, though here in this primary school library, the room is also noisy and chaotic). Together the book and the reader are creating a mental, an emotional space, in which one may think, as it were, through a focussed lens, about real experience.

For each of these boys will have experienced something like the Bernard story – every child among us knows ‘not now’ – but only the lucky boys, with adults who stop to talk, who help them build positives out of what might otherwise be negative experiences, will have the language and the emotional literacy to master the ‘not now’ experience. This is in a small way what literature is for. It is to record our otherwise unintelligible experience and give it back to us in ways we can understand and make part of ourselves. It stands for other humans. It passes on important human messages. These messages are not always, not even usually, writ large. They are, in the best books, subtle, multi-layered, and complex. But the next time a boy calls for this teachers attention, if she calls back ‘not now, Bernard!’ everyone will understand a great deal more about the situation than they did before they had read the book.

The suffering, naughty, amused adult mind of this story is a model which these boys might not have if there were no transitional object of contemplation, no sharing: no book. If no one had read it to them.

In this sense literature is a practical, day-to-day, human technology. The book is, in this case of Not Now, Bernard, a sort of caring, witty adult. But of course, the very boys who do not get much attention from or time with an attentive, space-creating adult, are most likely the very same boys who do not have a copy of Not Now Bernard. These are the boys who do not go on weekly visits to a public library, the boys who have not mastered the technical skills of reading, the boys who are disengaging with education before they’ve left primary school.

That’s why it’s important that we concentrate on building reading for pleasure with children, and that we face up to the fact that that has to be done, in most cases, by one human sitting down with some others and sharing books. And that costs time.

Shall we do it now, or not now? Don’t make me bite you on the leg!

Donate to the Reader Organisation’s work with children here. £5.00 will help to buy a copy of Not Now Bernard, or another great book. £50 will help to train a volunteer to read it with the boys. £5000 will put a Reader in Residence in a school once a week.