In our second Group of the Month, we’re shining the spotlight on HMP Whitemoor, where The Reader’s Brendan Harrington runs a weekly group with inmates and staff.
Great Shared Reading doesn’t need much in the way of surroundings: some people in a space, with chairs to sit on, a story or a poem to read. But over the last 12 months, some of our volunteers at The Reader have had the opportunity to run Shared Reading groups in the beautiful surroundings of Kensington Palace in London.
Since our last meeting with The Reader magazine, a chill had crept into the air and it won’t be long now until the changing of the clocks brings on the darkening evenings of winter… BUT, at least can rest assured of a good read to curl up. Issue 67 is out now!
Discussions on literature and empathy continue to buzz around The Reader HQ following Obama’s sentiments on reading for empathy, our founder and director Jane Davis reflects on how literature can help us connect with others.
The weather is turning, the leaves are falling, Autumn is most certainly upon us and with a new season comes a new edition of The Reader Magazine. Introducing Issue 63.
Ahead of his appearance at the London Penny Readings, we spoke to Erwin James about his new book Redeemable and his relationship with literature.
The first issue of The Reader in 2016 is here and it’s a very special one indeed as it heralds our sixtieth edition. There are plenty of diamonds to be found inside Issue 60, ranging from the brand new to the nostalgic, and the inclusion of our ‘One -Pagers’ – the raw, powerful and punchy moments from works of literature that make us feel alive and which we often turn to at times in need of affirmation.
‘We seek the ‘lines of life’. When readers tear from books the words that suddenly matter to them, that is their own pre-poem, the beginning of their work as receivers and transmitters of suddenly felt meaning. Reader writers: apply within.’ – The Reader Writers, Philip Davis
You’ll still find plenty of broader content within Issue 60, including new poetry from Carol Rumens, Julie-ann Rowell, Claire Allen and Vidyan Ravinthiran. The big themes of change and the future – still on many a mind as the year is fresh – feature in Gill Blow‘s story ‘Ladies of the Soil’, and Raymond Tallis seeks perspective on life from the imagined vantage of his future death in an extract from his new book The Black Mirror.
Sitting alongside future thoughts are frequent glances back towards the past, as we republish poems by Les Murray and U.A. Fanthorpe from our earliest issues, and revisit our childhoods while keeping feet firmly in the present day as we talk to Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, co-writers of the hugely popular Ladybird Books for grown-ups. Our second interview visits photographer Tim Booth, who talks about his stunning collection A Show of Hands – a collection of portraits of hands.
Marjorie Lotfi Gill features in The Poet on Her Work, turning distance that feels like helplessness into clarity as she writes on the subject of gun violence. Charlie Darby-Villis writes about reading poetry in a high security prison, and the poet David Constantine responds with his own recollection of visiting HMP Low Newton. More on the particular power reading can offer come from pieces by Drummond Bone, Ben Davis, David Abrahamson and Claire Sive.
All this alongside our Regulars and Recommendations – there’s much to celebrate in our latest milestone.
If you’re keen to make a literary resolution for the year ahead, yearly subscriptions to The Reader begin from £24, offering four issues of the magazine. You can also purchase your copy of Issue 60 for the price of £6.95. There’s the chance of winning a full set of the Ladybird Books for grown-ups within the issue, so don’t delay in ordering!
For more on The Reader, see our website.
It’s great news to hear that the connection between poetry and mental wellbeing is being highlighted, thanks to the launch of ReLit and their anthology Stressed Unstressed, a volume of 150 poems selected to ease the mind and provide solace in troubling situations. Amongst those who have identified poems that have helped them to cope during times of stress are Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.
The members of our Shared Reading groups are experiencing the power as well as the pleasure of poetry on a weekly basis, from community groups in libraries to patients on mental health wards and prisoners in high-security units. Reading poetry aloud as a group gives people access to powerful language, thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human, and in experiencing these complex meanings with others they can start to build – or rebuild – a better understanding of themselves and the world. Whichever way someone is struggling – on a particular day, week or on a longer-term basis – a poem can help to reach out on a personal, emotional level.
The best way to feel what a poem is and can do is to read it, with other people.
Take, for instance, the women at HMP Low Newton who read Mattresses by Jean Sprackland:
“Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.”
Or a group member on a mental health ward in Manchester, who found comfort in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by Wordsworth:
“On the morning of the group, he was on a 2:1 because he was ‘punching out and shouting at the staff’. He came in to the group, sat down and his focus was completely on the poem throughout. He was calm, reflective, and had read the whole of the poem aloud in a wonderfully clear voice. We were talking about places that we can remember that made us happy, and he told the story of going on picnics with his Mum, Dad and sister. By the end of the group, he only had one staff member with him, and showed no signs of aggression, upset, or distress.”
A great amount of the literature we use in Shared Reading groups deals with difficult subjects, evoking distress and often painful memories that do not seem on the surface designed to comfort or put the group member’s mind at ease. However below the surface different emotions rise up, showing how we sometimes need what is difficult to break through to the deeper part of us.
“We were reading war poetry and as I read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields Ivy shifted in her seat, and I could tell before I finished the poem that she wanted to speak. One memory in particular, translated through the poetry, brought tears to her eyes as she shared it with the group:
‘I remember once I walked in on my Father as he was changing his shirt ready to go out with Mother. He shouted ‘Don’t come in, I’ll be down in a minute’, but it was too late, I had seen his side and there was a great hole there. I ran down the stairs to Mother crying and said ‘What happened to Dad? Did he fall down the stairs? And she said, ‘No love, that is a war wound’. I remember I was so upset.’
Her emotion at recalling the story of the wound demonstrated why, even though it took place when she was very young, this was an event which shaped her and has stayed with her over the years. I asked her if she was okay, if she was happy to continue reading the poems and she replied ‘Oh yes, I like them.’ When we read next Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers by P.H.B. Lyon, she smiled and nodded and was keen to point out, ‘We celebrate every year, we never forget.’ “
Our research with partners CRILS at the University of Liverpool further demonstrates how reading poetry aloud can have powerful effects on people across all ages, backgrounds and life situations, from those living with dementia for whom poetry can stimulate emotional experiences in the present as well as rememberance and help to improve mood, to encouraging better social, emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst female prisoners. The shared reading of poems and literature has the effect of creating bonds and friendships, which our research has found contributes to a more positive outlook on life.
As the year is still fresh, here’s to more poetry, less stress and loneliness – and in reading together, sharing the comfort that comes from great literature on a wider scale.
Where would you find over 100 guests eating warming bowls of stew followed by scoops of ice cream, taking an exclusive tour of the North West’s forthcoming interactive children’s story centre and sharing poetry, laughs, bursts of emotion and gasps of recognition?
At the beginning of this week, we were delighted to welcome volunteers, commissioners, trustees, staff and many of our shared reading group members from around the country to our base at Calderstones Mansion for our 2015 AGM. Our third AGM to date at Calderstones, we gathered to celebrate a year of many highlights of shared reading activity – the written details of which can be found in our 2014-15 Annual Report. With the appearance of our special guests, we were able to tell some of those wonderful stories aloud.
Acting Chair of The Reader’s Board of Trustees Kathy Doran started proceedings by arranging the board together, before the celebrations of another successful year of shared reading could begin. Once more, the breadth of our activity has grown in the past year but Jane brought us back to the heart of what we do by reading a poem that sums up the fundamentals of what happens in each and every one of our groups. It is our aim, Jane so aptly summarised with help from John Keats, for everyone within a group to find there their own space ‘silent, upon a peak in Darien’.
Our volunteers from across the UK shared their own stories about the projects they have been involved in – some for years, others for months, but all with real impacts to the communities they read with. From Liverpool to London, Somerset to North Wales, and reading with a wide range of people, including older people with dementia, library-goers and young people outside of an educational environment in their own homes, all of our volunteer representatives spoke movingly about the difference shared reading is making – in some cases, being nothing short of life-changing. This year’s AGM marks our signing of the 125-year lease at Calderstones Mansion and we celebrated all that has happened at the Mansion so far, including the efforts of our Calderstones volunteers, who still get the chance to read in all of their various roles.
We were also joined by Vicci Tatton of Prinovis, our corporate social responsibility supporter, who told us more about how their staff are getting involved in bringing reading into the workplace, and one of our commissioners Richard Rodgers, Lead for Substance Misuse Services at Greater Manchester West Mental Health Trust who explained how shared reading helps to “bring the pace of busy life down” for service users across the trust.
All in all, it was an evening full of inspiration – from the words of classic literature to the numbers of people we’re reaching throughout the country, and most significantly, the stories of our group members. To quote Kathy Doran in her closing speech, “amazing things happen” when people come together to read – and we’re looking forward to even more amazing things in the year ahead.
The Reader’s Annual Report 2014-15 is now available to download from our website – discover more about our work in health, with young people and criminal justice settings, as well as many more highlights from ‘a vintage year’.
This week’s Featured Poem is a choice from William Blake, taken from his Songs of Experience. Blake began writing poetry when he was twelve, but his visionary experiences began before then at the age of eight when he told his mother that he had seen a tree filled with angels “bespangling every bough like stars”. Such visions became a theme through his work, with this poem alongside his other I Heard an Angel appealing to a different set of senses.
This poem was recently read in a shared reading group within a Criminal Justice setting, who are making their way through Skellig by David Almond. The Angel is featured within the book, sung at one point by one of the characters, and it was the melodious quality that was picked up by one of the group members in particular. The choice was found to be an ’empowering’ one – take a read and see what you think.
I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!
And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.
So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten-thousand shields and spears.
Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.