2013 at The Reader Organisation: A Year in Review Part 2

Yesterday we took a look back at the first six months of 2013 at The Reader Organisation – and what a packed six months they were! Today we’re moving on to the second half of the year; here’s what happened from July to December.


042The Reader Organisation was mentioned in ‘From Better to Best’ – a report from the Liverpool Education Commission setting out their vision of turning all capable children in Liverpool to leave primary schools as readers. TRO was chosen by Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson to help in plans to transform Liverpool into the UK’s foremost reading city – the goal we’ll be aiming to achieve through our Liverpool City of Readers project, launching in 2014.

Staying with our work in education and with young people, we ran a second Reading for Pleasure day conference at Liverpool Hope University and held a very successful Recruitment Day in London. A film documenting the first year of our RISE project was produced, and we celebrated the success of our hardworking North West volunteers at a special Volunteers Afternoon Tea.


king learShakespeare’s greatest tragedy came to Calderstones Mansion House, as Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of King Lear hit Liverpool for two sell-out, five-star performances. The unique outdoor production, starring Joseph Marcell and Rawiri Paratene, reopened the Garden Theatre for the first time in over 30 years, bringing great literature and theatre back to the heart of the community at Calderstones and thrilling audiences from far and wide. Delighted visitors also rolled up to the Mansion House for our first Calderstones Summer Fair.

The Reader Organisation patron Erwin James wrote about the importance of reading in prison for the Guardian Books blog, mentioning TRO’s criminal justice work, and there was another big development in furthering the reading revolution as Social Business Trust invested £280,000 in TRO.


awardSeptember was a month recognising The Reader Organisation’s growing social impact – the results of a Social Return on Investment (SRoI) report found that for every £1 invested into Get Into Reading in Wirral, an average of £6.47 worth of benefit to health and wellbeing was returned to group members.

We were also thrilled to win the Growth award at the Social Enterprise Network Powerful Together Awards, recognising achievement in social enterprise across Greater Merseyside, as well as being shortlisted for two further categories.

We welcomed the Lord Mayor of Liverpool and High Sheriff of Merseyside to Calderstones Mansion House, started our Llais a Llyfr/Make Friends With A Book project across North Wales and celebrated the second year of one of our most successful partnerships with Forum Housing in Birkenhead.


Jen's group with ALAfC 72dpiOur Hope Readers project at Liverpool Hope University entered into its third year, engaging 125 new Education students with a reading for pleasure culture, and Calderstones received its first commission from Mersey Care NHS Trust to run Get Into Reading and A Little, Aloud workshops as part of their Recovery College provision – the first of many, we hope…

TRO made the shortlist in the Smarta100 Awards and Jane was highly commended in the Social and Community Leader category of the  2013 Liverpool Post Leaders Awards. The worldwide success of The Unforgotten Coat continued as Frank Cottrell Boyce won Children’s Book of the Year at the German Children’s Literature Awards.

We took part in a number of events for World Mental Health Day, including theRead For Life’ event at University of Liverpool, shared reading about dignity for Global Dignity Day and had lots of Half-Term Hijinks at Calderstones.


MRL_5280We celebrated the achievements of another year full of shared reading at our AGM, held for the first time at Calderstones Mansion House, and heard the inspirational stories of some of our group members from a wide variety of backgrounds. Calderstones was also the setting for several of our Short Courses for Serious Readers, with many satisfied readers enjoying classic literature in the beautiful surroundings.

Frank Cottrell Boyce wowed audiences at Leasowe Library – via the wonders of modern technology; shared reading in the capital got even bigger with the launch of our South London project, expanding our work across Lambeth and Southwark, and Jane was officially launched as one of six new Ashoka Fellows in the UK.


christmas reading onlineThe last month of the year was all about the Penny Readings – and to celebrate 10 years of the festive extravaganza of reading and entertainment, we held the very first Penny Readings Festival at St George’s Hall, where members of the public enjoyed an absolutely free afternoon of Christmas reading and fun.

The Penny Readings and Ha’penny Readings themselves were a huge success, with guests including Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Farley, Wirral Ukulele Orchestra, the High Sheriff of Merseyside and many more delighting audiences in shows that Dickens would have surely been proud of.

What a year it has been! We couldn’t have made it all happen without the support of our partners, funders and commissioners, volunteers, group members, trustees, staff and every single follower of the reading revolution.

Let’s see what 2014 will bring…

2013 at The Reader Organisation: A Year in Review Part 1

Calderstones Mansion House c Dave JonesIt’s been another remarkable year for the reading revolution and certainly one to remember as we began to set up home in our latest base, Calderstones Mansion House. So much has happened in the space of 12 months it’s almost hard to believe there has been time to fit everything in, so here’s the Reader Review of the first six months of 2013. More to follow tomorrow…


The year got off to an incredible start as TRO was awarded preferred bidder status for Calderstones Mansion House, Coach House and Stable Yard at Calderstones Park, Liverpool. Our vision for Calderstones is a community for everyone with reading at its heart, and we’re already building up the foundations of the future International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing at Calderstones with our shared reading and community event activity.

Scans of brain activity show intense electrical activity when reading challenging literature
Scans of brain activity show intense electrical activity when reading challenging literature

The work of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems (CRILS) attracted global attention with research headed by Professor Phil Davis finding that reading serious literature ‘acts like a rocket-booster to the brain’, and Read to Lead moved further afield with its first Belgian course. Reading aloud was also signified as the latest trend in an article in the Observer, which mentioned the work of TRO.


There was more press coverage of shared reading, this time in The Guardian as journalist Lynsey Hanley spoke about our work alongside her own experiences of finding support in fiction.

A very regal twist took place as we brought Read to Lead to Kensington Palace. Shared reading for the Queen? It could happen one day…


Eamee's awardThe Flemish reading revolution continued as Jane appeared at the Mind The Book festival in Antwerp, and one of our Wirral Apprentices Eamee was shortlisted for the Liverpool City Region Apprenticeship Awards, making it through a competitive shortlist to the final three for the Wirral region. Congratulations Eamee!

Elsewhere we celebrated World Read Aloud Day doing what we do best – need we say any more?


G31A6964After a good old tidy and the placing of some Readerly touches – including lots of cake – we opened the doors to Calderstones Mansion House for two public open days, inviting people to Connect With Us at Calderstones. We were expecting a few hundred – an amazing 1,200 people came to the Mansion House and shared their hopes, dreams and memories with us.

Our very first Shared Reading Practitioner Day happened in Liverpool, bringing qualified shared reading practitioners from across the UK together for a day of thinking, learning and, of course, reading, and we were delighted to be part of the wonderful World Book Night celebrations both as a book giver and at the Liverpool flagship event at St George’s Hall.


Jane and Andy 2 72dpiShared Reading for Healthy Communities, The Reader Organisation’s fourth annual conference took place in London, for a day full of considering how shared reading can contribute to building stronger, healthier and more connected communities. We welcomed our largest number of delegates to date to The British Library for a varied range of seminars and enlightening contributions from Andy Burnham MP, Professor Louis Appleby, Alan Yates and some of our shared reading group members.

There was more exciting development news as TRO was selected as one of the thirty winners of the Big Venture Challenge 2013 and teamed up with the Verbal Arts Centre in Northern Ireland, and our Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) project continued in Liverpool with visits from award winning poets John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins.

Our first shared reading groups also got underway at Calderstones Mansion House.


Issue 50 cover online versionIt was a celebratory month as the beautiful, bumper 50th issue of The Reader magazine came off the press. Wishing us a happy birthday with new content were David Constantine, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Blake Morrison and Les Murray amongst many others, and we also delved into the Reader archives for a selection of gems from the previous issues. The issue received international acclaim, being called ‘magnificently rich‘ by American review website New Pages.

Jane was shortlisted alongside another inspirational Liverpool woman, Josephine Butler, at the Addidi Inspiration Awards, we brought RISE to London and Reading and read for wellbeing at the Southbank Centre, and as an organisation TRO received the PQASSO Level 1 Quality Mark.

Come back tomorrow for our Reader Review of 2013 Part 2: July-December.

Poets Walk The Line to support The Reader Organisation

This October four poets – Gaia Holmes, Julia Deakin, William Thirsk-Gaskill and Michael Stewart – took on the challenge of tracing the 47 mile trail of the Stanza Stones, commissioned by Ilkley Literature Festival and created by Simon Armitage, on their one year anniversary. The trek, called Walking The Line, proved to be inspiring, eye-opening and gruelling in equal measure, and The Reader Organisation was honoured that such a thoroughly literary journey supported our work. The fifth ‘member’ of the group was one of Simon Armitage’s socks, used to fundraise along the way and we’re happy to announce that the group raised over £100 to support our outreach work.

The Walking The Line poets on the Stanza Stones trail (c. Michael Stewart)
The Walking The Line poets on the Stanza Stones trail (c. Michael Stewart)

One of the Walking The Line poets, Michael Stewart, joined us for our Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) project last year, visiting HMP Low Newton to read to some of the women there. Michael chose to put forward The Reader Organisation as Walking The Line’s chosen charity as he was ‘deeply affected’ by his visit as part of RISE. Watch the video charting the first year of RISE, featuring participating authors, on our website.

Michael also blogged about the Walking The Line experience and with kind permission, his blog has been reproduced below.

On behalf of all of us at The Reader Organisation, we’d like to extend a huge congratulations and thank you to the Walking The Line team for their heroic and poetic efforts.

From Michael Stewart: ‘Walking The Line: Over and Out’

We launched the event in the Riverhead Tavern in Marsden on Thursday 17th of October, at 7.30pm. In attendance was a small but appreciative audience, that included a 67 year old wild camper from Stockton-on-Tees who is originally from Scotland, called Freddie Phillips. He had brought his tent, sleeping bag and stove on his back, and was going to walk the entire 47 miles with us over the three days, wild camping along the way. I’ve got to know Freddie along the journey, and he is an amiable chap and an inspiration to us all. Also joining us, the tattooed poet from Wigan and fellow Grist writer, Matt O’Brien; and Angela Varley (another Grist poet), who brought homemade flapjack and a bottle of brandy, to sustain us on our journey. We collected £27.20 in Simon’s sock.

The next morning, we set off from the New Inn, meeting up with Winston Plowes, another writer, but also a children’s entertainer and narrow boat resident. We walked along the canal towpath a short distance, then began the ascent of Pule Hill, passing the memorial cross on the way. There were no views of Marsden, as promised, only a thick blanket of fog. In the quarry, we found the first stone: SNOW. We read the poem out-loud, then chatted about it. I said I thought the line about the ‘unnatural pheasant’ was a political line, and we discussed the effect of grouse shooting and how much the landed gentry paid for the privilege of shooting these birds and other game birds. We talked about the illegal practice of shooting raptors and corvids.

Later, we joined the Pennine Way and walked across the scarily high bridge over the M62. All these years of travelling along the motorway by car had given me one perspective of the landscape, now I was having to re-adjust, as I took in a completely different one. We trekked across Blackstone Edge, where in 1846 there had been a gathering of 30,000 thousand, who had come to listen to the Chartist, Ernest Jones. We dropped down and stopped at the White House pub.

There we were joined by Andrew Moorhouse, publisher of the beautiful limited edition book, In Memory Of Water. The book features the stanza stones poems, together with specially commissioned wood engravings by Hilary Paynter (for more information about the book, see here: http://andrewjmoorhouse.webs.com/). We were also joined by an Otley Morris dancer and her family.

We had a bite to eat, then set off on our way again. Not far from the pub, we encountered the second stone: RAIN. This is the most prominent off all the poems, carved directly into the rock face. On sunny days, the letters shine and twinkle, with the quartz crystals embedded in the coarse gritstone. This was not a sunny day. The iron in the stone has oxidised, giving the letters a lovely orange glow. We talked about the military language in the poem, ‘sea-bullet’, ‘air-lifted’, ‘strafes’, and how this was a theme throughout the collection. Almost as though Simon was turning these reflections on nature, into war poems: man against the elements.

We arrived in Hebden 18.6 miles later, a bit bedraggled but elated. That night we read in front of a packed audience at Hebden Bridge Library. The library had done a brilliant job of publicising the event, and we were very grateful to receive such warm hospitality. We collected £71 in Simon’s sock. We celebrated by downing a few real ales in the White Lion pub. Then, at midnight, we left Freddie in a torrent of rain, as he went to hunt for a wild space to camp for the night.

The next morning we met six new walkers outside the Nutclough Tavern and walked through Nutclough Wood. We began a steep climb up the hill. Here, disaster struck, as Gaia sustained a serious back injury which left her in absolute agony, and with great regret, had to be escorted back down the hill. We carried on, joining the Calderdale Way. We traipsed across the moor, disturbing some irritated-sounding grouse, until we dropped down into Lowe Farm, with its turreted tower.

We walked across a lovely old bridge over Luddenden Brook. I’d been speaking to Andrew Moorhouse the day before about the secret stanza stone, that no one had found. He told me it had been set in the side of Luddenden Brook, but almost immediately, there had been a flood, and the stone had been washed away, making it now hidden from all. I learned that the stone was carved with the apposite phrase, ‘in memory of water’.

A few miles later, past Warley Moor Reservoir, we came across the third stone: MIST. This is perhaps, with the exception of the secret stone, the hardest to find. It is concealed beneath a sandstone quarry. The stone the poem has been carved into had started out in one piece but split down the middle during the carving. Adding further poignancy to the mutability of the landscape and the fraught task of carving the stones themselves. We greatly admired Pip Hall’s work. The work of a stone carver is perhaps one of the few, where not a single mistake is permitted.

We carried on past Thornton Moor Reservoir and then down for lunch in the Dog and Gun pub. Here we were joined by another group which included the writer Leonora Rustamova, in tight lycra shorts. That night we read in the Brown Cow pub in Bingley. The audience was a very select one, and we competed with the rock band playing covers downstairs. In the audience was writer Char March, who read some of her own work, after we had finished, and really made the event memorable. We collected £10 in Simon’s sock.

The next day, we set off from Bingley station, joining a group of over a dozen walkers and writers, including the novelist and short story writer, Simon Crump, who was dressed in a vintage tweed suit, a tweed flat cap and was carrying two pints of milk and a bottle of rum. We walked along the canal, past the impressive construction of the Bingley Five Rise Locks. We passed some clay pigeon shooters who tried to kidnap Simon for their mascot, and into the rather spooky entrance of Rivock Forest. The forest is very atmospheric and put me in mind of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. I half expected to come across a gingerbread house, but instead, we encountered the next stone: DEW. In fact, DEW is carved into two stones. We discussed again, the use of military imagery in the poem, ‘fuse-wire’, ‘tapers’, ‘primed mortar’, ‘tinder’, ‘trigger’, ‘march’, ‘ranks’, ‘barbed-wire fence’, ‘flags’, ‘surrender’. And argued about whether we wanted to replace the ‘stoat’ with a ‘rat’ instead. We concluded that ‘stoat’ was the right choice after all.

We traipsed across Rombalds Moor to the PUDDLE stone. Or rather, two stones. These stones were reclaimed from an industrial site near Bolton. They had been part of a mill floor but now set free from industry to enjoy the freedom of the heath. There are still marks on the stone, from where iron machinery was fixed to them. The conflict in this poem is of a different type. Instead of man versus the elements, here we have two natural forces competing with each other: the Atlantic sea and the Yorkshire landscape.

At the Twelve Apostles stone circle we were met by another dozen or so walkers, making our party now a merry band of 35 people. We walked with them over Ilkley Moor, to the final stone: BECK ‘Where the water unbinds and hangs over the waterfall’s face, and just for that one stretched white moment becomes lace.’

Later on, we did our final reading at Ilkley Literature Festival’s last night in St Margaret’s Hall. We collected £11.16 in Simon’s sock. Making a grand total of £119.36.

We’d done it. We had survived the experience and arrived at our final destination a little damp and dishevelled, but triumphant. We parted company with hugs and handshakes. It had been emotional.

Thanks goes to all those writers and walkers that joined us on our way and the audiences at each event. Thanks also to the ‘sherpas’ who ferried our books and chattels to the various venues. These were: Stephen Weeks, Lisa Singleton, Sean Bamforth, David Gill and Paul Bose. A special thanks to Freddie Phillips, for joining us the whole distance, and going one further with his wild camping. You put us to shame – here’s tae ye!

This event would not have been possible without the support of The University of Huddersfield, The Arts Council and The Ilkley Literature Festival – and we remain forever indebted to you all.

Read more from Michael on his blog: http://michaelstewartxxx.wordpress.com/

RISE: Erwin James in conversation with Jane Davis

Erwin-JamesRISE: Erwin James in conversation with Jane Davis
Monday 14th October, 6pm (FREE)
Ustinov College, Durham University, Howlands Farm, South Road, Durham DH1 3DE

Join Erwin James, Guardian journalist and former prisoner, at this special, in-conversation event with Founder and Director of The Reader Organisation Jane Davis, a fringe event of Durham Book Festival 2013 and The Reader Organisation’s Reading In Secure Environments (RISE) programme this October, in association with the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University.

Erwin will be talking about his life as a reader and a writer with Jane at this free event, where they’ll also be joined by two of The Reader Organisation’s Reader-in-Residences at criminal justice settings in Durham, Charlie Darby-Villis (HMP Low Newton) and Lynn Elsdon (HMP Frankland).

Erwin James began writing for The Guardian on criminal justice issues while a serving prisoner in 1998; to this day, he is a regular columnist and contributor. Two collections of his columns, A Life Inside, A Prisoner’s Notebook and The Home Stretch, From Prison to Parole, have been published. He credits his discovery and interest in reading and education while in prison with changing his life. As well as being a trustee for Prison Reform Trust and patron of charities including CREATE and Blue Sky, Erwin is also a patron for The Reader Organisation.
As a believer in the value of reading in prisons, Erwin has expressed his support for the RISE programme since its beginnings last year:
“I’m thrilled at the news of The Reader Organisation’s RISE programme. My first experience of reading as a shared experience happened when I was in prison and the poet Ken Smith came in to talk to a group of us about his work. I was ten years into a life sentence and was still trying to find my way. Ken invited us to read some of his poems and extracts from one of his books. We were all intensely inhibited at first, defensiveness being the default position to survive on a prison landing. None of us had ever done anything like it. But in the library that day Ken made us feel safe enough to let our defences down, and to engage with him and each other as the real people we were deep inside. The humanising impact of Ken’s visit lasted long after he left us. He probably never knew it but in the two hours he gave us he managed to remind us that though we were prisoners, we were people first – and that we had some value. The potential for RISE, I believe, is massive.”
Erwin also spoke about RISE, The Reader Organisation and his own experiences of reading in prison in one of his recent posts for The Guardian Books Blog.
All are welcome to attend this free and special event, which promises to be a deeply interesting evening.
For more information on Durham Book Festival 2013, see their website.

The Reader 51 has arrived

51 Cover 72 DpiWe’re at the start of a new season, which means that the arrival of Issue 51 of The Reader magazine is incredibly well-timed. Featuring a gorgeous and comforting Autumnal scene cover, appropriately titled ‘Little Comfort’ by artist Michael Troy, Issue 51 is full of rich content to keep your literature levels well stocked up as the days get shorter and nights get longer once more.

Highlights of the issue include:

  • A new poem from Jean Sprackland, Taking Down the Scaffolding, which also features in Charlie Darby-Villis’s account of her visit to HMP Low Newton as part of the Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) programme
  • New poetry from Hannah Lowe, John Wedgwood Clarke, Jonathan Edwards and Barney Eden
  • Sean Haldane writes on the strange arrangement of personal time in this issue’s Poet On His Work
  • The craft, nature and beliefs of Thomas Hardy is given perspective as we get ‘Four Helpings of Hardy’ from Mike Irwin, Bernard O’ Donoghue, Jane Thomas and Josie Billington
  • The new Vintage Classics editor Frances Macmillan is interviewed on publishing matters and the literary phenomenon of the year, Stoner by John Williams
  • Combative, engaging and fascinating essays from Philip Davis, Martin Boston and Malcolm Bennett
  • New fiction from Stuart Evers and Victoria Benn

All this alongside your regulars and more tales from the Reading Revolution – a true wealth of literary goodness as golden as the leaves descending from the Autumn trees.

Current subscribers can expect Issue 51 of The Reader to drop through their letterboxes any day now, and if you haven’t already subscribed then there’s no need to miss out – you can snap up your copy of the new edition or purchase a year’s subscription from on our website, where you can also browse through our back catalogue of vintage Reader copies.

RISE in Reading


This beautiful, bright sunny day is a day to be in Reading, as poet and comedian John Hegley makes an appearance at the Reading Poetry Festival reading and discussing his work with parents and families.

Before this, John will join one of The Reader Organisation’s weekly Get Into Reading groups at HMP Reading to read from and talk about his poetry. Both of these events are part of our Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) project.

John Hegley has worked as a poet for over 30 years, producing poems that range from the surreal to the humourous. In 1998, his poem “Malcolm” came second in a BBC survey to find Britain’s most popular comic poem.  His talks on poetry are relatively rare, and always very interactive so today’s talk should be a cracker!

If you are interested in John Hegley’s talk and are close to the Institute of Education at 4.30pm, why not take a look at the Reading Poetry Festival website to book your free tickets for what promises to be a wonderful, interactive event for both adults and children.

Shared Reading for Healthy Communities: A Day to Remember

Conference Crowd 72dpiAfter months of preparation and anticipation, The Reader Organisation’s fourth annual National Conference ‘Shared Reading for Healthy Communities’ took place yesterday at the British Library Conference Centre in London. It was a big day by all accounts – we welcomed our largest number of delegates for a packed schedule with plenty of big ideas about shared reading, health, communities and a wellbeing approach for the ‘whole person’.

The day started with the very heart of shared reading, with an extract from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey by Jane Davis and some incredibly inspiring testimonials from Get Into Reading group members Jane, Jon and Denise, who had very different but equally powerful stories of the effect their groups have had on their lives.

“For me, it was the start of my road to recovery…it has rebuilt my life”

Our first plenary session of the day provoked much discussion about how we can find A New Language for Mental Health – through literature, or otherwise. Alan Yates, Professor Louis Appleby and Dirk Terryn spoke about how language and literature can be used to talk about mental health and how exploration of both can benefit the individual and society.

Jane and Andy 2 72dpiAfter a varied morning programme  Healthy People seminars, touching upon mental health, public health, chronic pain and dementia, it was time to welcome Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham MP, who discussed how reading English at university and literature has shaped his life and career. Andy spoke animatedly about his recent visit to a Get Into Reading group in Wigan, his belief that libraries and culture are vital for providing a social model of support  and shared the literature that means the most to him, including the poetry of Tony Harrison – sharing some reading aloud by reading the poem Bookends.

Feeling suitably inspired, there was little time to stop as we headed into our afternoon session, Connected Communities. Professors Phil Davis and Rhiannon Corcoran got our brains electrified with fascinating talk about the connections between literature and neuro-science and our afternoon seminars kept the thinking going at full steam, with a vibrant evaluation amongst participants of our Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) project, and a seminar on shared reading and recovery, in libraries and for young people.

There was lots to consider about the current, ongoing impact of shared reading – but that didn’t stop us from finishing the day by looking to the future, and considering where precisely the model could be in ten years time. Nationally and internationally renowned? Taken out into the realm of technology? Translated into hundreds of languages? Lots of exciting things to consider against the backdrop of The International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing at Calderstones.

And the conversation wasn’t just within the walls of the British Library Conference Centre – it was great to see so much buzz throughout the day on Twitter, using the hashtag #TROConf:

“Incredible stories – tear jerkers and goosebumps – at @thereaderorg conference today”

“Stimulating conference hosted by @thereaderorg about the power of shared reading & mental health/well being. So many stories”

“Amazing presentation on ‘Literature and Neuro-science,’ investigating language and brain stimulation at #TROConf @thereaderorg

“Inspiring stories about reading making people’s lives better- best conference I’ve been to for ages.Thanks @thereaderorg

What a day indeed. Here’s to the future and all its many possibilities for shared reading…

Make sure you keep an eye on The Reader Online in the coming weeks for more insight from Shared Reading for Healthy Communities – and keep your thoughts coming on Twitter too: #TROConf

Featured Poem: Childhood Home by Lemn Sissay

Lemn and Jane 2 - c.Steve Wasserman RMSYL
Credit Steve Wasserman, http://readmesomethingyoulove.com

Last week’s Featured Poem previewed our latest RISE event with John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins in Liverpool in association with Writing on the Wall and In Other Words, and this week we’re reflecting back on another brilliant RISE event which took place last month with Leigh and Wigan Words Together Festival with award winning poet, writer, broadcaster and patron of The Reader Organisation Lemn Sissay.

Continue reading “Featured Poem: Childhood Home by Lemn Sissay”

RISE presents John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins

RISE: John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins
7.30pm, Thursday 9th May
LEAF, Bold Street, Liverpool, L1 4EZ

John BurnsideIf you’re in Liverpool tomorrow evening and fancy a night in the company of two award-winning poets then you’re in luck, as our latest public RISE event is bringing John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins to the city.

In partnership with Writing on the Wall and as part of the In Other Words festival, John and Rita will be reading from and discussing their work at LEAF, following earlier readings in HMP Liverpool and in-patient units in Merseycare NHS Trust and 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust respectively as part of our Reading in Secure Environments (RISE) project.

Rita Ann HigginsJohn Burnside is one of only two poets to win both the Forward Poetry Prize and the TS Eliot prize for the same book, Black Cat Bone and has been called “a Master of Language” by Hilary Mantel. Rita Ann Higgins has been described as both provocative and heart-warming, with Ruth Padel writing that her poems have “a brilliantly spiky, surreal blend of humour and social issues.”

Tickets cost £6/£4 concessions but there is a special two for the price of one offer if you enter the code WoW at the booking page or at the Philharmonic Hall Box Office, Hope Street, Liverpool, L1 9BH.

Featured Poem: The Fair Chase and others from Black Cat Bone by John Burnside

Our Reading In Secure Environments (RISE) project comes to Liverpool this week, in partnership with Writing on the Wall and In Other Words. On Thursday, award winning poets Rita Ann Higgins and John Burnside will visit in-patient units in Merseycare NHS Trust and 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and HMP Liverpool. Later the same day, both will read from and discuss their work at a partner public event at LEAF.

In preparation for John’s visit to HMP Liverpool, Reader-in-Residence Alexis McNay has been reading from his Forward Poetry Prize and TS Eliot prize winning anthology Black Cat Bone with his Read and Relax group in the prison. In this account, the reactions of two young men, not seasoned poetry readers by any means, show the true spirit of RISE:

What we were after there, in the horn and vellum
shadows of the wood behind our house,
I never knew.

So opens and closes the first verse in The Fair Chase, setting the tone for the poem, the collection, and our own foraging during this Read and Relax (R&R) session at HMP Liverpool. By the time we sit down at this poem, with its wondrous and mesmerizing journey in pursuit of we never quite know what, we have already been over hill and dale – or what passes for that between the five stark landings on this Victorian prison wing – on a more mundane quest. I’d arrived to find the room we’ve used for three years being painted, assigned to a new education programme, without notice, and R&R is temporarily homeless. It takes us a while longer than usual to locate each other, and then a while more to find a spare room; it’s a single cell used – thankfully not this morning – for meetings, but it’s adequate for the two young men and myself that constitute the group today. The episode is typical to the environment, where such certainties as there are can be pulled out from under you. The resulting uncertainty holds no gratification. It’s of the Rumsfeldian order of ‘unknown unknowns’, where the cynicism at work behind the obscurity of the questions can leave you without the appetite required to pursue the answers. What a relief, then, when we finally emerge into the unknowns of John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone.

We’re reading this as an introduction to the poet and his work in anticipation of his visit to the prison as part of The Reader Organisation’s RISE (Reading in Secure Environments) project. The two young men, both in their early twenties, have been given copies of the book, and we begin with the long 11-page poem The Fair Chase. These are not seasoned poetry readers, and this is not – if you’ll allow me a precarious term – ‘easy’ poetry. I want you to picture this. We sit in a tight circle, we take it in turns to read sections, pausing to repeat and talk over some of the most arresting images, such as when the narrator/hunter, having taken his shot but found ‘no body, no warmth, no aftermath, nothing to prize’, digs himself in to wait for day, and feels

a gravity I’d never known before

dragging me down
so it seemed I would cleave to the earth,
the life I had taken

snug as a second skin.

The poem’s hunter of meaning finds himself ‘alone in a havoc of signs’; for us, the semiotic variables may be complicated by reading in company, but we bounce off each other, the search isn’t lonely, it’s fun. ‘W’ looks between me and ‘J’ as he repeats these lines. He’s on the verge of something, an exquisite poise the poem helps the reader maintain throughout, but though he struggles to find the words, this forward-leaning and almost-utterance isn’t about finding vocabulary, I don’t think – it’s about connecting with emotion. His repetition is like repeating the stimulus – touching wires together in the hope that the spark will make the leap – but the pleasure isn’t limited to the making of meaning. Which is good, because we are often flummoxed. ‘W’ knows that there is some commonality suggested by this ‘fit’ – ‘it’s like… they’re the same’ – and he had already noticed the intimacy in the earlier ‘all the world was still/and not a creature in it/but ourselves’, and this seems to be the essence of the idea, as close as we’re supposed to come, in keeping with the quarry in the poem, ‘glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quite discerned,/not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes,/then nothing.’

It would be something, though, to trace and light up the synaptic flashes between the three of us, none of us scholars, but generating quite a little firework display. We are grappling with some difficult ideas, but the two young men are absolutely up for it, open to it, and sensitive to some of the most troubling moments. ‘J’ isolates the point where hunter and quarry appear to come face-to-face;

I took a bullet,
loaded it with care
and aimed with an intent that felt like love

Again, there’s that act of repetition, trying to get an idea to solidify around a feeling. ‘It’s like respect… they’re looking at each other and there’s this common feeling’, he says. At the bottom of the page, the line ‘I pulled the trigger’ seems to disappoint him. The young men are still trying to discern a narrative, to recognize an animal, to anchor to the literal, primed by a culture where cause and effect, codification, and audience alignment tend toward the anodyne, directing understanding and limiting the need to consult the imagination. If they are not put off by the poem’s withholding of easy answers, it’s because they are tuned to its higher frequencies; when we reach the line describing a time and place

where, once or twice a year,
a girl would drown,
pledging her heart to a boy she had mostly imagined

we then begin wondering whether what the huntsman is chasing might also be something more abstract, like happiness, like love.

The Fair Chase ends – leaves us with –‘an echo’, and although one of the young men feigns being disgruntled, feeling short-changed – ‘we’ve been reading this for half and hour and we’re left with… with… an echo!?, all pursed lips and hands on hips – we all know we’ve enjoyed it. We look at other shorter poems, Amnesia, for example, which parallels the ‘blanking out’ of new snowfall with another type of obliteration, prompting ‘W’ to talk of the way snow erases landmarks by which we navigate, and ‘J’ to reminisce about how he’d get the toboggan out as soon as it snowed, and ‘break and cut all me fingers and hands’ careering down hills.

Black Cat Bone is a collection you can dip into – lucky-dip into – in many ways. I’m still pondering a line in Amnesia, and ‘J’ says, ‘there’s some shit-hot lines in here’.

‘Which line are you looking at?’ I ask.

‘Page 35,’ he says, and reads

I have a dream.
She’s in an attic room
with someone else,

hands in her skirt and that
dove sound caught in her throat

that I thought was ours.

He’s moved on to a new poem, attracted by the sexual intrigue, the smack of narrative. ‘W’ wants to read Dope Head Blues, and I don’t think he finds what he was expecting, but we always find something. ‘W’ says, ‘this is a proper writer, because he doesn’t tell you everything… you have to use your imagination’. There’s a healthy irreverence, too, from these two urban lads; when I suggest that they’ll be able to ask the poet questions when he visits, ‘J’ adopts a jokey confrontational stance, addressing an imaginary John Burnside – ‘yeah, what happened to the end of that long poem? eh? And you know that dream you had? That was me in the attic… nah, I’m only joking!’

When I ask for assurances that they’ll be at the reading, they seek their own clarity, ‘yeah, we’ll come, if you promise to ask him to sign our copies’.

Tickets are still available for John and Rita’s public reading at LEAF this Thursday, May 9th, and can be purchased from the Writing on the Wall website or via the Philharmonic Hall Box Office, Hope Street, Liverpool, L1 9BH.

Find out more about RISE, the events and featured authors by visiting our dedicated RISE blog: http://risereader.org.uk/