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