Jane’s Blog: Later life, running and reading

A look back at a piece from our founder and director Jane Davis from earlier this year. We were delighted to welcome Parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt to Calderstones in March, Jane reflected on his visit on her blog, starting as always with the daily poem:

A day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, founder, Parkrun

For those who come for the poem, here it is:

From Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets

VI

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Christina Rossetti


Searching for a copy online, I came across a great 2012  blog post from Casi Dylan who was the person who set up our training at The Reader – always a good read, anything Casi writes about her reading.

I wanted to read this poem this morning because yesterday I spent the day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, ‘father, husband, runner, parkrun founder, Ashoka Fellow and CBE’, as he describes himself on his twitter homepage.

We met last year following Paul’s election to Ashoka, when I realised, hearing Paul talk about the Parkrun set-up, that The Reader could learn a lot from him. Yesterday he spent the day with us at Calderstones, talking to staff about developing a truly volunteer-run model, answering questions about log-ins and quality control and race directors and sponsorship, and later we held an open event for people – mainly Parkrunners – who wanted to come to meet Paul and hear his remarkable story. You can read it here.

There are many parallels with The Reader, not least the mid-life crisis, to give it a shorthand title, that we both endured in our different ways and from which our respective vocations emerged.

I had no plans for this,’ Paul said, yesterday. ‘I didn’t set out to  create this movement. I just wanted to spend time with my friends and I couldn’t run because of injury.’

I have a similar relation to The Reader – it grew organically from something I wanted , or perhaps needed, to do. I didn’t plan to set up a charity, didn’t think of creating a Shared Reading movement across Europe, I didn’t imagine ‘one day we’ll build the International Centre for Shared Reading at Calderstones.’  I just wanted to read with people who weren’t into reading and to get them into it. I had very powerful personal reasons for wanting to do so. Necessity, as they say, is the mother…

Certainly it was for Paul, who spoke to Reader staffers about a broken relationship, having lost his job… and the one thing he relied on for mental well-being, running, being lost to him because of injury. In such a crisis, you might have flopped into misery, got bitter or given up and turned to drink. Instead, Paul created parkrun, by getting mates into a park and timing their runs…

Almost everyone , by the time they are thirty, forty, fifty… will have experienced what Christina Rossetti describes, looking back

Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.

What a waste of time! What a waste of effort!  What a mess! That is how things were, when I started The Reader. Partly in my professional life – my teaching life at the University of Liverpool was unsatisfactory for reasons I won’t go into here; my life as writer (I had written five novels over a fifteen year period and they had all been rejected by scores of publishers); and in my personal life, for a decade or more, I was living with grave and distressing life-rocking problems.

I had no sense of future with anything in it, and the day I decided to stop writing and give up the defining mode of my life to date,  I had no sense of a future that I longed to bring about or could imagine. I did love my garden and worked on it. But professionally, I had nothing.

I had – I can see it now, but it didn’t look like that then – a blank slate.

On that slate, slowly, and without a plan, The Reader began to be formed. In 1997, the first issue of The Reader magazine was launched, and by 2003 the first manifestation of Shared Reading – 11 groups  meeting weekly in Wirral – was happening. I do not know what it is that makes a person willing, able or desperate enough to create a future. It is partly the trappedness of nowhere else to go, as Christina Rossetti says;

If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Can’t go back, can’t go left, can’t go right…there is only either stop and be frozen or keep going. She puts it, as she must, as a question;

Why face we not our future once again?

And some hard answers follow.

Sometimes when we can’t act, it is because ‘Launching with hardier hearts across the main’ (main=sea) is too hard, because our heart is not hardy, never mind ‘hardier’.

Sometimes, it is because we are tired and ‘Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight’ is  just asking too much of our tired selves.

Sometimes we are simply not strong enough to be ‘strong to bear ourselves in patient pain’. Sometimes the pain is overwhelming.

Later life is not easy. The sense of ‘something missing’ and having no idea what that ‘something’ might be can become more than painful;

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.

You feel juddery. You can’t concentrate. Things go flying off. You feel your facial expressions give you away. You feel scared. At those times we  need to hunker down and wait, (see George Herbert, The Flower), let time pass, get stronger. ‘Grief melts away/like snow in May/ As if there were no such cold thing.’

During those down times, I found, regular hard reading built up my mental and spiritual muscles. Still find that. Also, good people.

I needed to be with my friends,’ said Paul yesterday. ‘My friends were runners, those people suited me.’

Parkrun and The Reader do the same thing,’ said Paul. ‘We do it through running, and The Reader does it through reading. It is about community.’

I woke up with that thought of Paul’s in my mind. My reading friends (Phil, Angie, Brian, my colleagues at The Reader, you people here reading these daily poems alongside me, the hundreds of people I have read with over the past thirty years…) as much as my reading, have given me strength and purpose, meaning and community. My hard-won advice to the stuck: connect, realise, change – through Shared Reading, or Parkrun or whatever it is that offers connection. It is finding the connector that matters.


This blog was originally published on Jane Davis’ personal blog in March 2017. You can read more from Jane and follow her daily poetry readings here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *