Maura Kennedy, our Events and Publications Manager, and Mary Weston tell us about the Chapter & Verse Mersey Care author visits. All photos are courtesy of Mersey Care NHS Trust.
For the 3rd year running, The Reader Organisation has teamed up with Mersey Care NHS Trust and the Bluecoat’s Chapter & Verse Literature Festival in Liverpool for a series of highly engaging author visits. Selected authors who are appearing at the festival in the historic Bluecoat are also invited to a variety of Mersey Care venues, thereby bringing one of Liverpool’s most interesting cultural events directly to the Trust’s service users and staff. This year’s visitors again reflected the diversity of literary talent on show at Chapter & Verse: Colin Grant, John Healy and Sarah Hall visited Ashworth Hospital, the Kevin White Unit, and Crosby Library (where members of the Kirkby & Southport Community Mental Health Team Get into Reading groups came together) respectively, all of which was coordinated by Cath McCafferty, Library and Knowledge Services Manager, in partnership with The Reader Organisation and the Chapter & Verse festival. The events brought together authors and readers (current and potential) in an informal and open way to share readings, questions and conversations.
Colin Grant at Ashworth Hospital
We had been using the name ‘Bob Marley’ to publicise Colin Grant’s visit to Ashworth; it was useful as shorthand, but it didn’t do justice to I and I: the Natural Mystics, which is a study of the Wailers, their context, the development o f their music and thought, and their effect on Jamaica and the world, intelligent and meticulously researched. Too academic for a special hospital audience? You might have thought so, but not at all. Grant held the group’s concentration for the whole of his talk, illustrating his ideas with film, photographs and music. His interactions with the patients, and the questions they asked him, demonstrated that, and afterwards we had to drag him away from all of the people who wanted to connect with him.
Colin Grant has a gift for communicating the familiar by means of the familiar: Trench Town where Marley, Tosh and Wailer grew up was ‘like Port Sunlight’, a paternalistic housing estate (at least in intention – they never got round to laying the plumbing, and Trench Town soon degenerated into the original Concrete Jungle). The rise of Rastafari ran parallel to the Nation of Islam, which people would recognise through Muhammed Ali. He balanced anecdotes about ganja with the spiritual seriousness that fired the Wailers: listening to their conversation on tour was ‘like being in a seminary.’
At the end of the session, the hospital band gave us their cover of ‘Redemption Song.’ Grant had just been telling us that the lyrics contain a quote Marcus Garvey, a message that bears repeating.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.
by Maura Kennedy
John Healy at the Kevin White Unit
John Healy’s epic autobiography, The Grass Arena, was originally published in 1988 but it will forever resonate with readers, particularly those who have struggled with brutality and addiction in their lives. The power of John’s book is emphasised by the fact that he is one of only a handful of living authors published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
In preparation for John’s event, myself and Eleanor McCann (Mersey Care Reader-in-Residence) read extracts from The Grass Arena with some of the Kevin White residents and Sr Bridget Folkard, who hosts the unit’s weekly Get into Reading group. The reading and discussion was serious, generous and focused. There was slight bemusement and disbelief that John himself would be visiting the unit as part of the Bluecoat’s Chapter & Verse Literature Festival – this bemusement turned to rapturous appreciation when John appeared the following day. He was welcomed as an elder, much-loved relation with those in attendance offering him tea and undivided attention during his readings from The Grass Arena.
John’s readings gave a snapshot of his experiences and the power of the book – the searing honesty, the drudgery and pain of addiction, the moments of black humour and small graces, and the ultimate, unique recovery. John’s recovery is not typical – he became completely engrossed in chess (learned in prison) and competed on an international stage – but those in attendance, judging by the numerous responses and questions, could each take something personal from John’s journey.
by Mary Weston
Sarah Hall at Crosby Library
Sarah Hall is a challenging author – her writing is poetic, dystopian, and fictional. Unlike John Healy’s work, it does not speak directly to personal experience or carry the weight of autobiographical truth. It is “literary” in the sense that it is primarily about language — how it sounds, the “right” word, the mood that is created. Some of those in attendance, who are members of the Kirkby & Southport Community Mental Health Team Get into Reading groups, had read one of Hall’s short stories from her new collection, The Beautiful Indifference. Entitled “Vuotjarvi”, after a Finnish village – no one in the room, including the author, knew how to pronounce it, and the unresolved ending had left some unanswered questions. Hall’s work, like this title, is enigmatic in the best sense – more about creating a powerful mood than providing answers. Hearing the story read aloud by the author gave a sense of its tension and rhythm and, fascinatingly, a chance for those in the small audience to ask probing questions. Sarah rose to the rigorous questioning, with answers that not only shed light on her own work but writing in general. For Hall, writing is not about providing comfortable answers or “happy endings”; she aims to unsettle, to provoke thought. Hall is exploring language and its power with her readers, a power that transported us from the edge of the Mersey to the shores of a remote Finnish lake.
by Maura Kennedy