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.

‘This is for everyone’ made me feel patriotic for the first time ever

I recognised  the Great Britain of the Olympic opening ceremony in a way I hadn’t expected. I recognised a country I  live in and I loved feeling proud of that country. I don’t think that has ever happened to me before, certainly  not on a National Occasion, though once, returning to England after a month in the Cyclades, I  was moved to tears by the greenness of England.

‘Did you love it because it was by Frank?’ asked my husband. He meant ‘Would you have loved the same thing if someone else had been the writer?’

‘No, I loved it because  I love –  feel – a lot of what Frank thinks…’

I don’t remember exactly when Frank Cottrell Boyce told me  he was working on  the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony as the writer on Danny Boyle’s  creative team, only that it was on  a train from Chester  to London, not my usual route, and that he got on at Crewe, not his usual starting place, and that we met in one of those between-compartment-spaces as we both searched for somewhere pick up  signal on the  notoriously poor-coverage Crewe-Stafford section of the track.  I’m not much of a sports fan and to me the Olympics meant little more than a couple of weeks of reduced eye-contact and increased grunting from the males of my family. So I was glad for Frank, but not  very excited by his news, and neither could I imagine what it meant for him as a writer – I mean,  how do you write a ceremony? I imagined troops of synchronised twirlers with  ribbons ( I stopped watching those ceremonies  round about Tokyo).

Since then,  Frankie, the  first and the most devoted Writer-Patron at The Reader Organisation, has let little slip, though we have met several times on the London train, coming or going, as we lay waste our powers in the Capital. Several times he has been, with hindsight, incredibly disciplined:  ‘I can’t tell you a thing. It’s Top Secret.’ ( That should have given me a clue about the Bond element but I was  still mainly   imagining ribbon twirlers). One time a conversation about Shakespeare had  him twisting like a  caught fish on a line and I thought to myself, ‘Blimey – they are  building the opening ceremony on The Tempest! How brilliant!’

Last time we met – which must have been at the inauguration dinner for his Professorship of Reading at Liverpool Hope University, he said something like, ‘It’s all  books.’  I imagined giant books opening but it didn’t seem Olympic so I filed the comment away and we continued our  talked about developing reading  for pleasure in schools….and I sat down to watch the opening ceremony last night feeling curious but expecting boredom or disappointment. I have no patriotism bone, or I live in another country or in my own head, and I don’t like formal shows. They ain’t natural.

Frank, on the other hand, is natural. He’s also a great writer.

I first met Frank  when we chose his novel, Millions, as our Liverpool Reads book in 2005. I’d read the novel, in the lovely original hardback edition with the golden cover, with my son Ben, the summer he left school. At 18, anyone might have thought he was a little old for  Millions, but no – and neither was I –  we started reading it aloud to each other on the motorail train down to the South of France and had to strictly ration ourselves  to a chapter a day. It is a wonderful book, profound and ordinary and funny, which is what Frank is absolutely brilliant at. Profound, ordinary and funny and utterly believing. And there’s the  rub. It was what comes from that  – from believing – that gave this ceremony/performance the  funny, generous,  small-scale, magnificent feeling that I recognised as my country.  It was knowing and witty but it was never cynical or merely clever. In his address, as the ceremony got underway, Danny Boyle said what might have seemed to some a strange thing; ‘I don’t believe in God but I believe in the people who do – this is their show, they really are the best of us.’  I thought of Frank when I read those words in the paper this morning, because all Frank’s work is about believing. In Millions, the power of belief actually changes actual reality.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, Patron of The Reader Organisation, with his novel, Millions

I should have realised, when  Frank  kept keeping his mouth shut on all those trains, that he and the rest of the creative team  would be cooking up something  massively imaginative for everyone. He did tell me it was  going to be massive but I was still thinking ordinary Olympic ceremonies, the unreal worldly realism of   ribbon twirling and uniformed masses marching in time. I should have known there would be none of that. Drumming in time, yes. Dancing, yes. Fond history including Votes for Women (and I was glad to read this morning that at this Games, for the first time ever, all participating countries are fielding women athletes)  and believing music,  Jerusalem and Nimrod and a wonderfully powerful and very quiet  Abide With Me, yes.  What we got was  music, poetry, story and belief.  I loved the sight of  300 apparently sick children jumping joyfully on beds. I loved  the twee pastoral scenes with real sheep and geese and those magnificent carthorses,  crazy Glastonbury Tor and the lovely English Oak atop it. I was hugely moved by the raising of  the industrial northern chimneys,  my chimneys, for I lived in Hyde, Lancashire as a child, and remembered skylines full of those great belchers.  I loved the factory-hands, the  huge numbers of individuals moving only more or less together,  and who were allowed to be individuals, even in the mechanised industrial revolution scenes. I loved  the hammering  Pandemonium of Paradise Lost,  the Blakean furnaces heating up the molten metal into heavenly golden rings. Above all I loved that it was a literary ceremony! It was all about books! The Olympic cauldron  was out of Dante’s Paradiso, surely? the whole of everything comes together in one enormous flower-like fire?

I prefer  the C.H. Sission translation, published by Oxford University Press in the World’s Classics series.

I saw gathered there in the depths of it,

Bound up by love into a single volume,

all the leaves scattered through the Universe;

Substance and accidents and their relations,

But yet fused together in such a manner

That what I am talking of  is a simple light

At this high point my imagination failed;

But already my desire and my will

Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Perhaps most of all I loved the appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, with the message ‘This is for everyone’ in lights behind him. Why did I find that so hugely moving?

The decision to let the future, represented by those 7 apparently anonymous young athletes, light the fire in the Olympic cauldron avoided a single celebrity handover, and cleverly prevented splitting the nation into Beckhamites and Redgravites, but will also have been an image of  the collaborative creative process  in which Frank, Danny and their colleagues have been engaged. I remember seeing the pair of them on stage at a filmfest, discussing the making of Millions before a screening of the film. Any advice for young film-makers, someone in the audience asked. Yes, said Danny: pick your team, get a band together, have good mates.

‘And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make’ sang Sir Paul, the lyrics totally overcoming my mild irritation that such a hammy  old trouper should be closing the show. It was a like the perfectly positioned quotation that sets a tone around everything else that has been written. Love and belief, belief and love, with Frank Cottrell Boyce at  the writer’s keyboard, of course they were the key words. The show made me glad to be British – a phrase I never thought to use. Thanks, Frank.

On Habit

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between different meanings of the word  ‘habit’. Dictionary.com offers 11 (slightly Americanised) different takes :

  1. an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
  2. customary practice or use: Daily bathing is an American habit.
  3. a particular practice, custom, or usage: the habit of shaking hands.
  4. a dominant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality: She has a habit of looking at the bright side of things.
  5. addiction, especially to narcotics (often preceded by the ).
  6. mental character or disposition: a habit of mind.
  7. characteristic bodily or physical condition.
  8. the characteristic form, aspect, mode of growth, etc., of an organism: a twining habit.
  9. the characteristic crystalline form of a mineral.
  10. garb of a particular rank, profession, religious order, etc.: a monk’s habit.
  11. the attire worn by a rider of a saddle horse.

It is meaning numbers 1-8 that most concern me, though when I looked up the history of the word, (Online Etymology Dictionary) I was interested to see that it was early connected to the Monk’s habit from the Latin, habitus “condition, demeanour, appearance, dress,” and that made me think that, of course, the special habit worn by Christian monks in the 13 century was not just a form of dress but an outside marker to the habits of the wearer  – appearance as a form of being.

Thinking about this sent me looking for poems about habits ( got some? let me know please via comments) and I found this, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, which touches on the habitual daily practice, the habit of one’s body and the connection of this, for GMH  to the habit of a priest:

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

I’m interested in the way habits of the body (silence, for example) begin as sensory practice, but build to inner reality in this poem. Hard for Hopkins, who loved the beauty of the world so much, to force himself into this  retreated blank of sense! Yet through  not hearing, not speaking, not seeing, he finds  music, eloquence and sight… Something in me (as no doubt something in Hopkins) shies away from this rejection of sensory. Balance up your sense of him by reading this poem alongside one of his madly-loving-the-world poems, such as Pied Beauty.

I’m taking delight in gardening at the moment ( yes, despite the weather) mainly thanks to Emma, who has been clearing back the overgrown stuff for me, and it’s the plant-related meaning that has been pulling me toward these thoughts. In plants ‘habit’ is still deeply connected to that very early meaning  – that how a thing looks/lives is what it is  – for example, a plantswoman might tell you that the Hardy Geranium, ‘Anne Folkard’ has ‘a lovely trailing habit’.  But what your plantswoman would also mean is that ‘Anne Folkard’ is lovely and trailing. She grows in her characteristic, habitual way.

While I’ve been thinking about the habits of certain plants, I’ve started wondering how the word connects to our more common usage of the word, as in good or bad habits, or, leaving moral judgements aside, just plain things you do, characteristic behaviours. (And as my own habits, good and bad are of enormous and frustrating interest to me, I’m signing up for wayoflifeapp and will report back on how I get on with it).

The habit of a plant  – its general form or mode of growth – is both how it grows and essentially, from one point of view, what it is. The word ‘habit’ seems to exist at that point where something that is not fixed – but rather, growing – becomes fixed.  That’s an interesting place.  Does Jane Davis have a habit in the same way Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ does?

This usage of the word points to Nietzsche’s thought that ‘we become what we are’. I’ve always liked the two sides of that aphorism, which seems to determine us even as it denies determinism. As a human individual in process of growing, or as a member of a family, that is surely often how it feels.  People grow into themselves.

It’s been surprising to me to realise that some of  the habits and practices I unconsciously built into the Get Into Reading model come from things I learned as a child. My mother, divorcing in the mid-1960s, aged about thirty and with four children  – the oldest, me, not yet 10, the youngest a babe in arms – took a pub, because it seemed a good way of earning a living with the kids on the premises. Childcare, work and social life all wrapped up! Our pub was Parliament Place, just off Liverpool’s Upper Parliament Street, in Liverpool 8.

That’s my little sister in the centre of the group of girls on the far pavement, and that’s our pub on the corner, the pub with no name, affectionately know to its friends as The Little House. My sister says the two tiny tots in the back of the mini pick-up are our brothers. Where was I?  In the long hot summer of 1968…I’d be 12. I had a job in the Arab grocery shop round the corner in Stanhope Street. That shop man, name forgotten, let’s call him Ali, cooked a fine mutton and potato stew which he used to share with me. It tasted unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I’m thinking as I write, cumin? Coriander? I worked there and on a cooked meat stall in St John’s market. Later, but not much later, it might even have been later that year, Saturdays consisted of walking down into town and hanging out in the International Section of Central Library or the Walker Art Gallery.

There were kids behind the doors in our street who didn’t go out until they were five and had to be sent to school. Florrie Bird, aged nine and going on forty, would sell you her granny, they said, for sixpence. Patsy Flanagan was one day a teenage girl in our street and then the next a bruised prostitute on the corner of Hope Street, with dead, drunk or narcotised, eyes. We lived, in that two bedroom flat above the pub, with mice, scabies, lice, fleas. Our Mum drank heavily into the night – what times! what lock-ins! what parties !  -and fought with Tony, and became, in a couple of years, addicted to alcohol. They were the worst of times, and yet while we lived them, they seemed the best of times.

I think she felt free, after her divorce, and enjoyed the sense that she was good at something. And she was: in the pub, there were huge social differences and yet a rough equality before the law and, usually, a social tact which meant that people’s deficiencies were overlooked or turned into bearable jokes. Wit in conversation was prized above all, along with any kind of storytelling, good singing or comedy, and, though we laughed at it, snappy dressing was also a talent. But everyone, even those with no social offerings, had a place here. Barry, in his filthy coat, always had that corner by the door of the bar. Margaret and June drank port and lemon disapprovingly in the parlour. Chinese Jim, Paddy and Molly, the Lucas boys with their acne and greasy hair, handsome Bo, Ace and Jimmy in sharkskin suits. It’s a small pub on a corner in a very small street and was a local for I guess about sixty households, many of whom even then were still connected to the  sea, the Port of Liverpool, the docks, and lived within a couple of hundred metres walk. And we had the itinerant drinking wanderers and occasional repertory actors from the old Everyman. People knew each other’s habits.

Occasionally the social order broke down and a fight would erupt and I’d wake up to that excitement, scuffling and shouting, tables and chairs scraping the floor, banging over, then the pub door slamming. One night I looked out of my top floor garret window to see two men squaring up to each other, circled by everyone else. One of these guys took off his jacket and handed it back, then put a hand to his head and removed a toupee and handed that back, before dancing forwards, stepping sideways, fists up. Everyone laughed at the toupee-lift but Gerry was too angry to hear them.

If someone had a talent, whatever it was, it was appreciated; poker, stolen goods, even lying. Sailor John might recite John Donne or a Shakespeare sonnet. A drunken old actor would do us a great Shakespeare soliloquy, or Marv could do a Johnny Cash. All offerings received with gracious pleasure by your host, my mother, Betty, a lovely barmaid landlady, welcoming and witty.  There were boundaries about nastiness and violence: Prue and Margaret, posh old birds both of them, who had fallen or drunk themselves down into very hard times, were welcome when relatively sober and restrained, but when they got pissed and snooty, lording it over everyone and shouting  ‘Ignorant uneducated people!’  or yelling at Mum’s boyfriend Tony, ‘You’re nothing but a kept man!’  they were barred out. Violent men were tolerated to a point, in that we might  all be scared of Ronnie, but  people would eventually team up to eject him. Most of the time my mother created an atmosphere in which these disparate people would accept and enjoy themselves and each other. Her recipe for life was written into me as habit: ‘enjoy it’.

The single-minded pursuit of pleasure is often the sign that someone is on the run from pain. My mother’s determination to be happy soon tipped over into not taking on the challenges of real life, which, after all, is a very tough one and needs solutions more creative and complex than whisky.   I spent a large part of my early adult life unlearning a lot of blot-it-out stuff I learned at my mother’s side in the pub. But when what was left of Betty was cross-fertilised with my experiences in the literature tutorials of Mr Brian Nellist (learn by loving things, learn by appreciating), and the mind-set of my husband Phil, with his insistent demand that reading should be about finding what moves you, then – wonderfully – the new created thing, this gracious species that is the Get into Reading model, was generated. Pub, and pulpit, and personal. I’ll talk about pulpit  bit another time.

Meanwhile, for this habit of pleasure in the shared human, I thank you, Mum.