The Temple of Serendipity

Brad Bigelow recalls skipping classes to go to the library.

Somewhere around my third week in college I looked up at my calculus professor and realized that he never took attendance. In fact, none of my instructors took attendance. This came as a great revelation: I was free to leave. So I quietly got up, shouldered my bag, slipped out the back exit, and walked across the square to the library. I walked up to the third floor, back into the stacks, and spent the rest of the hour browsing through the modern English literature section. It was as if I’d been stuck in prison for years and one someone had tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Look: the gates are open.”

I forget now what book I selected and took to read for a few minutes in a quiet carrel. But I returned to that floor again the next day, and most other days when there wasn’t an exam. I would find a new stretch of shelves, scan them over until I found something interesting, then take my discovery over to an empty desk and read for three quarters of an hour.

I’m sure it was within the first week or so that I found an orange-ish volume titled, The Best of Myles. It was a collection of old newspaper columns written by one Brian O’Nolan, AKA Flann O’Brien. It resembled nothing I’d ever seen in a newspaper: shaggy dog tales that ended in atrocious puns (‘Foal rush in where Engels feared to tread’) and catechisms of clichés (‘When was our friend not born?’ ‘Yesterday.’). I kept stifling great guffaws as I read. To think such wonderful things were hiding among these millions of sober volumes.

For the next four years, I came here to escape from dull lecturers and tedious papers. I ventured from English into other literatures. I remember my delight in opening Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes and finding it full of nothing but little paper feathers, each with a single, lovely line of poetry. I remember thumbing through H.C. Artmann’s Der aeronautische Sindbart, desperately wishing I could read German, since it just looked like such a fascinating story (I still long for it to be translated).

I wandered into history, once finding a gruesome book from 1939 depicting what it claimed were Polish atrocities against innocent Germans. The victims shown in horrifying detail must, of course, have been Poles slaughtered in the first weeks of World War Two, but to see how meticulously and soberly they were turned into misinformation and propaganda was truly chilling.

I wandered into the aisles of oversized books, once finding many volumes of a weekly newsheet published in New York City listing the details of all the ships that arrived and departed. ‘SS : Left Dakar 18 April 1936. Arrived 7 May. Sorghum. 6 Pass.’ Every entry created a story. I read New Yorkers from the 1950s just for the ads (‘Nightly in the Arbor Room of the Hotel Louise: Ray Romero and his Magic Harp’). I sampled news magazines from New Delhi and issues of Soviet Life. I discovered George Ade’s fables and Max Ernst’s collage novels, official accounts of Korean War combat trauma, airplane crash reports, and railroad trade journals from the turn of the twentieth century. Even so, I never felt that I more than scratched the surface. Though I spent an hour with the Illustrated London Weekly from 1912, I never got to sample 1933 or 1894, or the German film magazine thirty feet further along the shelves, or the French encyclopedies.

I sometimes now picture a classroom and try to remember what I studied there. Number Theory, perhaps. I can’t recall the first thing about it. But I vividly picture the wrinkled coarse newsprint and fastidious prose style of the News of India and the portrait of Chauncey Depew opposite the title page of his two-volume collection of speeches. And I still feel, when stepping into a good library, as if someone is tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, ‘Look, the gates are open.’

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Brad Bigelow is the editor of the excellent Neglected Books page.

Reading and Dementia

This week, the Alzheimer’s Society called for all care staff to receive mandatory training in dementia care. The call came after a survey carried out by the Society found that many patients with dementia living in care homes go for hours without speaking a meaningful word to anyone. The shocking statistic that has been used in news reports this week states that some residents spent less than two minutes in every six hours talking to staff or other residents. I’m not great at maths, but even I can work out that if a patient is up from 8am until 10pm, this means, on average, they spend less than 5 minutes in meaningful conversation with another person during a whole day. Obviously, that is a worst-case scenario statistic, used to shock people into action, but is the general reality of the situation that far removed from this? What does the report mean by a ‘meaningful word’? And most importantly, what can we do to combat this situation, especially with the number of people with dementia in the UK expected to rise to more than 1 million by 2025?

Apart from the obvious human need for interaction and stimulation, these things are also thought to help manage dementia and so it is highly disturbing that in ‘care’ home situations, these seem to be completely absent. Relatives interviewed for the report claimed that there was ‘not enough’ for dementia patients to ‘do each day’ and when you consider that a care home may have up to 60 residents, all needing high levels of care and attention, it is not difficult to see that staff simply do not have the time to sit and talk to patients for hours on end. And so, even if care home staff are given training to work with patients with different forms of dementia–and they undoubtedly should be–the question that remains with me is, will they also be given the time to enable them to provide the interaction and stimulation so desperately needed? My guess is, no.

Since November 2006 I have been working on a Get Into Reading project in a fantastic care home here in Liverpool which specialises in dementia care. I run two weekly reading groups, following the GIR model, and also provide one to one reading sessions for patients. In a week I work with an average of 25 patients, reading poetry together. It is a simple idea, but the effect is quite astounding. After reading ‘The Oxen’ by Thomas Hardy, one resident turned to the group and said ‘It has something in it, which hits you here (pointing to her heart) and it speaks to you and stays with you’. I have seen people’s eyes light up when they hear the first line of an old familiar poem. Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ triggers a general response of ‘OOOHHH, I know this one, I learnt it at school. It’s wonderful!’ Most can recite at least the first stanza and go on to talk about the experience of memorising it to recite as children. It is amazing how these memories of words and sound patterns remain, and how they act as a shared communication when you read them together. New poems are also powerful and produce strong reactions. In one group session we read ‘Beer’ by George Arnold. One resident commented ‘I loved it. It gave you the length as well as the words and you felt you didn’t have to rush’. I re-read the line ‘I sit/While golden moments flit’ which echoes this idea of not rushing, and she said ‘and they are special moments, especially if you haven’t read for weeks and then you read this here and it touches you and you realise how much you have been longing for it really. I love poetry’

People listen to one another and hear what the others are saying. They encourage one another with their reading and I have noticed that they love most of all to read aloud together, sharing the reading in the purest sense. This means that less confident readers can join in too without any pressure. The statistic from the Alzheimer’s Society of two minutes’ meaningful conversation in every six hours included residents interacting with residents. The reading group is a wonderful way of encouraging conversations between residents as well as staff, with the poem acting as a shared point of focus.

Over the last year I have been struck by the conversations I’ve had with patients and the effects that reading poetry has had on residents. But it feels like a drop in the ocean. After all, 25 out of 700,000 (the number of people living with dementia in the UK today) seems pitiful. How can this be rolled out so that it benefits more people? I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a national volunteering scheme, in which hundreds of people could be trained to deliver this service in care homes across the country. That’s a big idea, but it seems to me that as the health minister draws up a new strategy for dementia care, he would do well to think big on how as a nation we can care for people with dementia effectively. We must do so in a way which will make that shocking statistic a thing of the past, rather than making plans that look impressive on paper but make little difference to the lives of residents in the real running of a busy care home.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this.

By Katie Peters

Mersey Care Reads Update

In posts during October we introduced Mersey Care Reads, a joint project between The Reader and Mersey Care NHS Trust, which aims to set up reading groups for service users across the Trust. The project is now well under way, with nine groups currently in action and a host of training sessions taking place for Mersey Care staff members and volunteers who have come forward to facilitate ongoing groups at the end of the project.

One of these groups is based at Crown Street Resource Centre, part of the adult mental health service provided by Mersey Care. The group got off to a terrific start back in October, with the support of Martin Maxwell, an enthusiastic member of staff who invites service users and joins in with the group each week. He is one of those taking on the Key Professional Training and will continue to facilitate the reading group after the twelve month project finishes. The group of eight have got to grips with a whole range of material since then, including Simon Armitage poetry, a short story by Chekov and (with Christmas fast approaching), Dickens. Our time is split into two 45 minute sessions with a 15 minute tea break in the middle. We usually start and finish by reading a poem together, reading either a short story or chapter from a longer book in between. In recent sessions we have read sections from Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island focusing on the chapters on Manchester and Liverpool. Bryson is fascinated by Liverpool’s history and writes about the present state of the Dock area of the city with an ever present longing for the old glory days of hustle and bustle.

I was appalled to think that never in my life would I have an opportunity to stride down a gangplank in a panama hat and a white suit and go looking for a bar with a revolving ceiling fan. How crushingly unfair life can sometimes be.

As we read this, members of the group recalled their own memories of the dockland, the ‘past’ which Bryson suggests dominates Liverpool’s future. One gentleman told us:

My Father worked at sea, and when he was home, he used to take me for a trip on the overhead railway on a Saturday morning. I used to draw pictures of the ships, it was wonderful. Once he took me on a tour of an Indian Destroyer, I’d never seen anything like it!’

We talked about the idea of Liverpool as ‘a place with more past than future’. Most people disagreed with this: ‘You need to have memory and a link to the past, but you take that and use it for the future’ said one group member. The idea of ‘using’ past experience, perhaps especially, the negative, to create a positive future was something which we picked up again in the poem The Road Not Taken. On reading this, one gentleman commented, ‘There are things that happen in your life that you may regret, but if they hadn’t happened, you would have missed out on things. You don’t know what will happen to shape things. If I hadn’t been in a car crash years ago, I wouldn’t be sat here today’.

This week we started reading A Christmas Carol. It is the first reading of this story for everyone in the group, although a couple of people have seen various film adaptations. There was a lot of debate about the character of Scrooge himself. After reading the first few pages where we are given an impression of Scrooge and his solitary existence one man suddenly said

I think he is lonely. Sometimes when you don’t see people you don’t feel like you want to be integrated with them. It’s difficult. That’s how I feel and I think it is how he feels here.

Another group member replied:

I don’t think he feels lonely. I think he is lonely, but he doesn’t feel it, or doesn’t know what it is.

We talked about the idea that you could be lonely, but not know it yourself and how terrifying that would be, because it might mean you would never be able to escape the loneliness. ‘If you could get through to Scrooge and make him see, that would be wonderful!’ someone exclaimed. We battled with the relationship between Scrooge’s apparent hatred of people, warmth and joy, and his strange contentedness with his situation. This led us to question: Is Scrooge happy? ‘I think he is happy with his version of happiness. But I don’t think it is a very good one’ was one answer which made another member of the group stop and say ‘That’s interesting. I think that’s right. Its not a good one’. Everyone is very keen to find out whether anyone can indeed ‘get through to Scrooge’ during the rest of the story and we are well and truly ‘hooked’ and looking forward to reading further in the next session in order to find out the answer!

By Katie Peters

Mersey Care Reads Update

In her piece a few weeks ago, Get Into Reading project worker Mary Weston introduced the Mersey Care Reads project, a joint venture between The Reader and Mersey Care NHS Trust, which aims to set up reading groups in trust sites across the district. She spoke of the fantastic support we have received from the trust in getting the project off the ground.

One month later we have six groups up and running across the services with another three due to be set up before Christmas. One of these groups is based at Mossley Hill Hospital, working with older people’s services. So far we have had three sessions together and have read poetry by Wordsworth and Pam Ayres alongside short stories by Helen Dunmore and Ernest Buckler. Last week we read Chapter 6 of Little Women, the classic tale of four sisters growning up during the American Civil War. In this section, Beth, the quiet, modest sister, is invited to play the grand piano at the house of their rich neighbour Mr Lawrence. Having been educated at home, due to her chronic shyness, this is an almost impossible prospect for Beth, whose love of music battles with her timidity in this chapter. The thing we liked most was the way the characters of Beth and Mr Lawrence each brought out a different side of each other through the chapter. One group member commented

‘Reading this has made me wish I took more notice when I read it years ago. I didn’t take things in then, but now I notice the details. It is so wonderfully written. It really is beautiful’

We have decided to continue looking at this novel in the coming weeks, looking at the characters of the other sisters.

The support from Mersey Care staff has continued to enable the project to get off to a fantastic start and the Mossley Hill group has benefitted from the hard work of two excellent Occupational Therapists who are part of the team being trained to facilitate reading groups themselves so that the project will leave a lasting legacy of reading groups throughout the trust in years to come.

Posted by Katie Peters

Pitching her case: Jane Davis on Night Waves

In the run-up to this year’s BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking festival in Liverpool next month, Jane Davis (Director, The Reader), can be heard pitching her case for the promotion and pleasure of books for all, as part of the festival’s People’s Choice debate. Listen to Jane on Radio 3’s Night Waves tonight at 21.45.

Of all the art-forms, only books allow us to fully understand the human experience…

Are you a supporter of what we do? Do you think that The Reader‘s hard work and enthusiasm should be further recognised? If so, get voting in the People’s Choice debate during the Free Thinking festival (9th – 11th November)!

The Reader is running ‘Book at Breakfast’ events on Saturday 10th November and Sunday 11th November as part of the BBC’S Free Thinking festival. It is an invitation only event but you will be able to listen to the programmes on Radio 3.

Get into Reading Footsoldier Dies and Goes to Heaven

Mary Weston manages the Merseycare Reads Project, teaches in Continuing Education, works as a counsellor, runs open house for asylum seekers, failing relatives and homeless teenagers, exercises a bordercollie, stage mothers, sings mezzo-soprano and writes fiction.

Earlier this week Katie Peters described some of her experiences working for for Get Into Reading at the Merseycare NHS Trust. In this post her co-worker Mary Weston highlights the difficulties of persuading healthcare practitioners to consider reading projects as part of their care packages:

One moment I was in the thick of it – Rockets bursting in the skies, heavy mortar fire shaking the earth. To the right of me, Captain O’Connor and Sgt Purcell were scrambling into no man’s land for yet another assault on the high ground of Whetstone Lane. Further to the south, I knew Lt. Williams was single-handedly holding the bridgehead at New Ferry. Nasty show that.

My life flashed before my eyes. It seemed I was travelling weightlessly toward a white light…

I found myself in a landscape that seemed lit from within. Angelic beings came forward to meet me…

Merseycare NHS Trust have commissioned a Reader-in-Residence project: I think this must be the first serious investment in the Get Into Reading model of literature for health in the country, which is not to discount all the support Birkenhead and Wallasey PCT have given us over the years. Book blogger dovegreyreader has mentioned the difficulty of convincing health service managers to look at projects like this. She says: ‘I have an as yet unevaluated theory that we could halve the counselling budget in General Practice if we could … establish some all-inclusive Reading Groups on Prescription in surgeries.’

The Trust run a range of services in the Liverpool and Sefton areas: adult mental health, secure services, and older peoples’ services, as well as drugs, alcohol, and services for people with learning disabilities. I don’t know how many sites they run – it’s over 50, I think, including acute psychiatric wards at Stoddart House, Broadoak and Windsor House; adult mental health day centres like South Drive, Crown Street and Unicorn Road. In addition to Ashworth, there’s the medium-secure Scott Clinic, and the Low Secure Unit at Rathbone.

There’s no way that my job-share colleague could have known where to begin, which is where the angelic beings come in. Lindsey Dyer is the one who made it all possible, finding the funding and planning the project with a keen strategic eye, targeting potential reading group sites across the different directorates and areas. Not only does this mean that the benefits of reading groups are spread fairly, it gives us a chance to test the model with the different client groups, developing our expertise in working with people whose functioning is more impaired than the average Get Into Reading client. She is absolutely committed to the project and has been able to open (or kick down) doors that ordinarily would have been closed to us.

Then there’s Judith Mawer. Her job takes her peripatetically all over the Trust’s premises, supporting staff and encouraging best practice. Her inside knowledge has been invaluable, and the good will that she has with frontline workers has given the project a credibility it could never have had on our own. With her experience of doing English Literature on the University’s Continuing Education programme, she comes from the same stable as we do, speaks the same language.

Between them, Lindsey and Judith have managed to interest more than 50 staff members in volunteering as reading group facilitators or assistants. This is the way the programme will roll out and ‘embed’ itself. The Brigadier has just finished a series of Induction Sessions, which seems to have fired them all with enthusiasm. And Merseycare seems to have a tradition of leading from the front: the Chief Executive and the Medical Director, have committed themselves to leading weekly groups.

Is this all really happening? Or will I wake up and find myself in a Casualty Clearing Station on a morphine drip?

‘Captain Sensible’

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by Mary Weston

Depression worst for health

An article published in The Lancet today states that depression “produces the greatest decrement in health” compared with the chronic diseases angina, arthritis, asthma and diabetes. Research by the World Health Organisation found that depression had the largest effect on declining health compared with other chronic illnesses. Professor Louis Appleby, National Director for Mental Health, said on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that “it is vital we find new models” to address this destructive condition. Get Into Reading, an outreach programme run by The Reader centre, was highly commended by Professor Appleby at this year’s Health and Social Care Awards for its work in this area.  Launching a project with Mersey Care NHS Trust in the next few weeks, The Reader is at the forefront of tackling the disabiling effects of depression through its unique model of weekly shared reading and conversation groups.

Meeting the Prime Minister

Last Wednesday Jane Davis and Kate McDonnell were invited to a reception held by the Prime Minister for public sector champions. Mr Blair said that he wanted to thank people who had done something special. Jane and Kate’s invitation came in recognition of the ground breaking Get Into Reading project, which works at the cutting edge of reading and health practice.

Along with Doctor Shyamal Mukherjee Kate and Jane were invited to have a few minutes with the PM who was interested to hear about Get Into Reading. He told Kate that his favourite book is Ivanhoe. He also said that he hadn’t enjoyed reading at school, despite having an inspiring English teacher, it was only in later life that he came to enjoy it.

Doctor Mukherjee invited the Prime Minister to visit Wirral’s Get Into Reading project once he has had a rest. If you would like to watch the moment Jane and Kate met the Prime Minister, just select the video footage below.