Sonja Sohn at the Fire Station

You’ll know about the event with Sonja Sohn at Liverpool Philharmonic tonight but did you know that yesterday she was up at Croxteth Fire Station reading Shakespeare with auditionees for Merseyside Community Theatre? It was a fantastic afternoon and a very busy one at that – lots of TRO staff, journalists, and fire fighters running around – the photos will tell you a bit more:

Niall being filmed for Channel Four
Fire fighters in training
Sonja reads with Steven
Sonja takes a liking to Emma's hat
Steve, Sonja and Jane read for the MCT auditionees
Leila picks up a lift home

Plenty more photos here.

The event was featured on Channel Four news last night, click here to view.

Centre for Medical Humanities Fully Funded Doctoral Studentship

The Centre for Medical Humanities and the Department of English Studies, Durham University are pleased to announce a fully funded doctoral scholarship in ‘English Literature and Medical Humanities: Literature, Medicine and Human Flourishing’.

Download more information here.

Please feel free to contact Corinne Saunders (

There’s no such thing as an ending…

Last night, I finished reading Paradise Lost. And it wasn’t quite a normal reading of Paradise Lost (if such a thing exists?!): I have, since the beginning of April 2009 (yes, that’s fourteen months ago), been reading Paradise Lost with my  Get Into Reading group (here’s my first report – I only ever got round to doing the one)every Wednesday evening for two hours. “Blimey”, some people day, “that’s tough going.” It has been, yes, but not quite in the way those people seem to think.

It’s not been a slog, it’s been the most incredible reading experience of my life: it’s also not been easy (far, far from it) but it’s been something that the six to nine of us (we can’t all be there every week!) have shared: we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve been hugely frustrated, we’ve disagreed, we’ve seen eye-to-eye, we’ve been able to talk about the Big Stuff. Our ideas and thoughts have been able to be expressed oenly, in an environment where there’s no judgment, no pressure to say the ‘right’ thing. Milton’s allowed us to talk about life, death, infinity and everything in between: why were we created pure if we were always meant to fall? What does it mean for us that humans exist in a broken world? How is it that good can only exist when there is an opposite to it, evil?

These questions (none of which we have found the answers to, by the way), have got us all thinking about our lives – each week were were thinking about what it is to be human – and this isn’t to say that it was all really heavy going, there have been many laughs and lighter moments along the way too. Milton was writing over 400 years ago, what did that matter? What Milton gets at is the struggle within us all to live our lives: the world is broken, how do we live in it the best we can? What actually is “utter darkness” and are we still in it? We only think of the earth, heaven and hell in terms of space and time – how are we meant to understand eternity?

You get the picture.

How did it feel yesterday, knowing that when I arrived in the evening armed with chocolate Smartie cakes and apple pies, it would be the last time that we would be sitting down with Milton? My gut feeling: sadness. It wasn’t joy for the fact that we were to complete this epic poem but a strange sense that I was going to feel emptiness when I finished. This has been far more than about just ‘ticking that one off’, it’s been sitting down with a group of people, discussing what we think and feel, and frankly, what we don’t know we think or feel about something every week. It’s been incredibly powerful. To say it’s been a journey isn’t only a cliché, it’s totally wrong: it’s been an experience. A journey would imply a beginning and an end but what I’ve felt is that we’ve not ended anything. It’s been an experience from the first line but by line 649 of Book XI, it’s been the weight of a week’s experience cumulatively: I’m not sure that makes sense but it’s as if each week has had it’s own unique experience and that each week it has the week behind it to add to it and anticipation of the week to come in front of it too.

This week, there was no week in front.

I have felt that we’ve had Milton in the room each week, that we’ve conjured him up: how often we have wondered how he did it, even how dare he do it; how sometimes he makes us struggle over a few lines, grappling with the meaning and how sometimes he carries us away in sweeping, descriptive, almost cinematic narratives. So much of Paradise Lost is incredibly visual: it is ripe for the picking for a film director. Yet making a film would be immpossible, surely? How could you begin to film the depths of despair that Satan falls into in Pandemonium; the sheer scale of Satan’s journey from Hell to the gates of Heaven and then to Earth; the very making of our human conscience? This is stuff not of our world but far, far beyond it.

Satan, who starts of so big – where does he get to? The ‘character’ that was so central to the narrative at the beginning, who seemed (rather scarily) so utterly human really, dwindles away by the end. We were saying when we finished last night, “what happened to Satan, we haven’t seen him for ages?” In fact, it was the first time we’d even really thought about the ‘character’ of Satan for a good few weeks. It’s like now the evil’s been planted, there’s no need for him to exist. The deed’s been done.

Yesterday we were talking about whether it’s innate that humans have to believe in something beyond them. If we were closeted away, straight from birth, in an environment untouched by cultural and societal factors (a cave in an Amazonian rain forest, for example), would there still be a part of us that wondered where we came from and that where we came from may be beyond what we can see or know? Or is this a culturally conditioned thing? Do we think that we are fallen beings operating in a broken world because this is what we have grown up to believe? Or do we have an innate sense of the fact that somewhere, beyond us, is the paradise we have fallen from? In our searching for this, are we just like Adam and Eve, not content with what they have in the garden of Eden?

As you can tell, I have to ask far more Big Questions as a consequence of reading this book than I am able to answer. I like that. I like that it has, in a way, shaken me. I don’t know anything more certainly about life than when I began but I do know, far more certainly, that a lot more is uncertain, and that that’s okay. It’s not just the text that’s taught me that, it’s the hearing of everyone else’s opinions – the insights, disagreements, similarities and the down right peculiar – that has opened my mind to the fact that there are, in some way, no facts. There are no true beginnings, no real endings: we’re caught up in something in which we cannot know, for certain, the very origin (the creation of the world, that’s not the very beginning), or where it is to end (eternity, that’s certainly not an end); Paradise Lost itself ends with a beginning.

So how did I feel when I finished it? I don’t think I know.

Click here for a few of my highlights from Paradise Lost (it’s been tough to choose and I’ve tried to keep it short but…).

Event: ReWired and Reading – Sonja Sohn in Conversation

The Reader Organisation is very excited to present a very special guest from Baltimore, USA…

ReWired and Reading: Sonja Sohn in Conversation
7.30pm, Tuesday 22nd June
at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (Rodewald Suite)

Actor Sonja Sohn played Detective Kima Greggs in every series of The Wire. She talks with Jane Davis, Director of The Reader Organisation, about her life, being a punk poet, getting into acting and The Wire, and her decision to put her professional life on hold for a while in order to set up a not-for-profit company, ReWired For Change.

Sonja says:

I am absolutely thrilled to meet the people of Liverpool and the fans of not only The Wire, but The Reader Organisation as well. When I met Jane we spent hours getting to know one another and swapping stories of our experiences working in deprived communities.

I was impressed by Jane’s passion and level of commitment to those The Reader Organisation serves and am delighted to participate in an event which supports such important work.

This is a charitable fundraising event for The Reader Organisation.

Tickets cost £10 and are available from the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s box office: 0151 709 3789 & online.

Jane’s at Hay today

If you’re at Hay Festival (or near it) today, you can hear Dr Jane Davis (Director of The Reader Organisation), author and TRO patron Blake Morrison and Dr David Fearnley (Medical Director, Mersey Care NHS Trust) in a conversation about our work to bring about a Reading Revolution.

The event’s at 5.30pm in the Elmley Foundation Dream Stage. Book your tickets here.

Speaking of Blake, I’ve just finished reading his new novel, The Last Weekend, which is as captivating as it is chilling but can you trust the narrator?

Recommended Reads: Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle

Frank Cottrell Boyce reviews Alexei Sayle’s (not yet published) book:

Everything about Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin Ate My Homework is completely unexpected, apart from how “just listen to this bit” funny it is.

I knew that Alexei’s family were communists and I thought this would be an account of a particular political culture.  Or maybe of Sayle’s adventures in alternative comedy.

Instead it’s a warm, affectionate account of a tiny family (Alexei was an only child) who were remarkable not so much for their beliefs as their individuality and their adventurous spirit.   Sayle’s father Joe was a railway man and as such had access to free railway travel. While most of his colleagues used that to get their families a cheap trip to Blackpool, Joe Sayle used it to take his wife and son on epic journeys across Europe and behind the Iron Curtain.  They seem to have lived for these trips and at one point Sayle says if there was a movie of the family history, its tagline would be “They Set Too Much Store By Holidays”.

But I’m glad they did.  Because its given Sayle a fabulous treasure trove of holiday snaps.  As a novelist, one of his great strengths is that he still has the comedian’s eye for the telling detail.  Here he uses that to give us glimpses of Worlds that have gone forever – the lost empire of the Soviet Union, the Europe of transcontinental luxury steam trains and also the strange, forgotten social life of the trade union seaside conference with its dinner dances and free passes to the local miniature railway. Joe Sayle himself – idealistic,  well-mannered working class autodidact seems like a member of an extinct species too. While his wife, Molly – strident,  energetic,  eccentric, foul-mouthed, mesmerising, yelling furiously at the telly all the way through the Queen’s speech – is a fantastic comic creation.  At least I think she’s a comic creation. She can’t be real, can she?

Alexei was one of our guests at the Penny Readings last December.

Sidekicks on Radio 4

Good friend of The Reader Organisation, author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, hosted a programme earlier today on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Sidekicks’. In the programme Frank talks with people who’ve created sidekicks, those who’ve played the parts and those who’ve studied just how essential these charcters really are to making the fiction seem believable and offer a human face to the often inhuman character supposedly at the centre of the show.

You can listen again here.

Out of interest, do you have a favourite sidekick? Mine’s Robin, The Boy Wonder. Where would that big black bat be without him? (I’ve also just found out that you can create your own Batman and Robin comic here.)

Philip Davis on Serious Jokes

Philip Davis, editor of The Reader magazine, is a professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool and author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life.

In the United States, it is currently Jewish Heritage Month and he was asked by Oxford University Press USA to reflect on his own Jewish heritage. Below we learn about serious jokes.

More than forty years ago, Mr Zold was the shamas – the Jewish church warden, as it were – of the Orthodox Synagogue to be found in Shakespeare Street, Nottingham.

As a boy I was more interested in Shakespeare than in Judaism, but the address was only part of the incongruities of assimilation: just along the road, in a not dissimilar white-stone building, was the local YMCA. My father was an orthodox Jew, a Yeshiva-educated boy from Hackney in London, who as the years went on became more and more disillusioned with orthodoxy. He hated the thought that the more money you paid, the better your seat in the synagogue – meaning, not some superior cushioning (he could have put up with that), but a place closer to the Ark of the Covenant and by implication to the Lord Himself. My father also disliked the new Rabbi. I remember one Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur, which follows hard upon Rosh Hasshanah, the Jewish New Year – when towards mid-afternoon, my father went upstairs to the separate ladies gallery above us males, to see how my mother was doing during the fasting. That was his custom as a husband every year around three o’clock; it was like a religious ritual. Only as he did so, the ‘new Rabbi’ (meaning he had probably been in post for five years by now) made a loud announcement in English that the men were not allowed to visit their wives upstairs – which, in point of orthodoxy, was correct. My father, however, had his own laws, and even as Rabbi Posen renewed his prohibition from the dais, the bimah, there was my father visibly leaning over the rail of the ladies gallery in profiled assertion of his greater loyalty. Defiantly, he expected to be seen in his silent protest, and I sitting alone downstairs awaiting his return was (I now recall with some surprise) not in the least embarrassed but delightedly proud. I knew even then that this was the minority within the minority, the righteous law-breaker, the stiff-necked hook-nosed Jew of the prophets recalling spirit against letter.

Read the rest of the blog here.

Event: ‘Life’s Better with a Book’ – a Readers’ Day

Life’s Better With a Book

a Readers’ Day
… in partnership with The Brindley Arts Centre

Saturday 12th June, 9.30am – 4.00pm

Join The Reader Organisation’s Jane Davis, Brian Nellist, Angela Macmillan and many others, for a day of interactive workshops that explore the ways that literature can make us feel good. Engage with some familiar favourites in Dickens, Austen and Wordsworth, and discover some new writers, as we unearth why reading and writing occupies a unique role in our lives: helping us to understand self and other; personal experiences past, present, and future; and uncountable unknowns. “Can hard times really make us stronger?” “Can we recover moments of supreme happiness from times past?” The Reader Organisation staff consider these big questions and more, all inspired by the reading experience.

Tickets: £20, £15 Student/OAP, £12 Leisure Card Holders. A delicious lunch is included in the price.

Workshop Details and Booking Form:
Brindley Readers Day 2010 Booking Form

Booking and Enquiries: call or email Claire Bigley at the Brindley: 0151 906 3734 or