“Jen! Can you come downstairs and carry some things up to the office for me? I’ll be outside in twenty seconds.” So, off I fly down the stairs, thinking that I’ll be needing to flex some muscle to carry books, notes or files upstairs but no, instead I was confronted with a platter of bread, cheese, salads and meat, a bunch of bananas and a basket of hyacinths. “What’s all this for Jane?” “For the BBC, or whoever’s around that maybe hungry,” comes the reply. I think the perplexed look on my face must have said it all. “Oh Jen, you don’t know, do you? [no, I don’t] The BBC are coming today, a film crew, to interview me and film a reading group… in twenty minutes!” Somewhat shocked and enthused by this, heightened by Jane’s cry of “Alan Yentob’s coming to do it!”, as she was getting back into her car to take it to the carpark, the whirlwind of activity began.
“The BBC are coming!” I yell as I return back to the office, armed with a delicious looking platter of food. “Oh, I know,” people say casually. “Well I didn’t, and we haven’t got any clean cups! Quick! Get some mugs cleaned, get the kettle on and oh, yes, get to the shop for some milk!” All hands on deck for the last minute preparations and all ends up well, of course: there are enough mugs and enough hot water for everyone (never mind the boxes and papers all over the place). The BBC film crew, director, researcher and Alan Yentob arrive without any unnecessary fuss or demands and the office is alive with an enthusiastic buzz. First things first though, “Cup of tea, anyone?”
The reason for this, to me very sudden, barrage into The Reader office was to film a reading group and interview Jane as part of an episode of Imagine… focused on the life and writing of Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing (due to be screened in late May). Lessing, who has had a profound impact on the course of Jane’s life, made an insistence in her Nobel Prize lecture that we must continue to tell stories, to read stories and that a “storyteller exists within everyone of us.” Jane’s ambition to get people reading, from whatever their social or educational background – and what’s more to enjoy reading – is inspired by Lessing’s own beliefs about how reading really can describe the human state. This is firmly expressed in Lessing’s final statement of her speech, “I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.”
Whilst the filming was getting under way, I was looking after various members of the BBC crew (when I say looking after what I really mean is providing cups of tea and giving the nod to allow the cling film to be taken off the sandwiches), chatting to Alan Yentob about Never Mind the Buzzcocks and his feelings about Simon Amstell, and trying (with quite a lot of difficulty) to concentrate on getting some work done. After the day’s work Yentob and the crew seemed pleased with how it all went and were particularly encouraging about the format and success of the reading group. “This is what we do, ” Jane tells him, “and I want to do it all over the country.”
For all the disruption and excitement there was no disarray and they were all extremely grateful for our hospitality. “Honestly,” said the researcher, “it’s been great – normally we have to eat boiled rats in the BBC canteen.” The look in his eyes was worryingly sincere. “Welcome to The Reader,” I said, “we do tea and cake very well here.”
By Jen Tomkins