Giving books in Wormwood Scrubs

The first Book Room at Wormwood Scrubs, set up by Give A Book
The first Book Room at Wormwood Scrubs, set up by Give A Book

The debate on books in prisons is still a burning issue since months after the announcement of rules to ban prisoners from receiving books through the post. A petition to get the ban overturned – supported by The Reader Organisation – has received over 28,000 signatures, and there have been various campaigns, including the very active #booksforprisoners hashtag on Twitter which highlights the reformative power of literature.

Our work sharing reading in prisons and other criminal justice settings around the UK demonstrates how literature can have a massive impact on the lives of prisoners and ex-offenders. The sharing of personal experiences through books offers opportunities for prison reform, rehabilitation and prevention of further crime, as well as improving health and wellbeing, increasing confidence and providing the chance for self-reflection. Simply put, our work with people such as N shows what effect reading has on opening up prisoners’ lives outside of their cells:

“You hear a lot of chat about people’s crimes in this place.  In this room we’re talking about other things, so many other things.  And we’re listening to each other.  I’ve learned that we’re all essentially the same.”

(Read N’s story in full on our website)

Our friends from Give A Book, who facilitate the gifting of books to charities, organisations and people who need them the most, have recently set up a new Book Room in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. The room is designed to support the existing library within the prison, encouraging prisoners to read recreationally in an informal setting.

The Book Room has proved immensely popular since its opening, with an influx of donations of great literature from sources including Granta, English PEN and Cambridge Literary Festival. There has also been some great feedback from the prisoners on the wing, which you can read on the Give A Book blog.

There are plans to open a Book Room on all wings of the prison, and it’s a fantastic initiative which The Reader Organisation wholeheartedly supports. Congratulations to all at Give A Book for the success of the Book Room and best of luck for it continuing!

You’ll also find more about the subject of books in prisons in Issue 54 of The Reader magazine, which is out now. Writer and patron of The Reader Organisation Erwin James writes about how the power of a good book gave shape to a profound dream he had while he was in prison, and this issue’s interview is with campaigning barrister and director of Just for Kids Law Shauneen Lambe, who speaks about her work with prisoners on death row in Louisiana.

You can buy your copy of The Reader magazine in Waterstones Liverpool One and a range of other stockists around the UK, or online via our website, where you’ll also be able to purchase a year long subscription for the UK, abroad or institutions:

“You hear a lot of chat about people’s crimes in this place.  In this room we’re talking about other things, so many other things.  And we’re listening to each other.  I’ve learned that we’re all essentially the same.” – See more at:

“Reading has given me life”: Better with a Book

Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)
Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)

Yesterday delegates, readers and The Reader Organisation staff descended on The British Library Conference Centre in London, awaiting a day of stimulating discussion and thought-provoking insights into the practice of shared reading for our fifth annual National Conference, Better with a Book. The sun was shining early, which was only a sign of the good things to come, and anticipation for the day started early with our #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter:

Off to ‘s national conference . Anticipating inspiration, ideas and some great poems.

Read. Share. Live. Inspire. Be inspired. Be well.

We welcomed delegates from a wide range of fields, including libraries and community development, education, therapy, law, nursing, and from across the country and beyond – even from as far away as Melbourne, showcasing the global reach that shared reading is beginning to have.

After a welcome from Founder and Director Dr Jane Davis thanking everyone for being advocates of reading for pleasure, the day started by asking whether young people are Better with a Book featuring an esteemed panel, Baroness Estelle Morris (Institute of Effective Education at the University of York), Dr Alice Sullivan (Director 1970 British Cohort Study, Institute of Education, University of London) and Simon Barber (Chief Executive at 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust). After reading from their favourite childhood books, Dr Sullivan presented the findings of an illuminating study which found that young people’s reading habits had more influence on their attainment than the level of their parents’ education. The matter of giving young people choice to explore reading in relation to their place in their world was a big talking point – Simon spoke of his experiences of running a group for young people in the mental health inpatient unit at 5 Boroughs, where they chose to read texts as eclectic as Black Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, and Estelle placed emphasis on reading as a social context for children and young people.

Great to be with a whole room of compassionate bookworms ‘s event

The most inspiring and incredibly moving part of the day came when we met some of our readers from shared reading groups in London and Merseyside who shared their personal experiences of the impact shared reading has had upon their lives, from giving them the confidence to live well as well as discover new skills (Jennifer went on to do Read to Lead training), find employment, appear on stage, and in the most fundamental and significant cases, provided them with the means to keep on living. Shared reading was described as a ‘lifesaver’ and the power of the testimonies was truly alive in the room:

Inspiring personal testimonies from readers. Life changing moments beautifully told

such transformation in people’s lives has happened through reading groups!

Incredibly moving, funny, raw stories from those attending groups with

It wasn’t just the effect on themselves that was brought to life – Jennifer spoke passionately about her work reading with people with dementia, and one woman in particular for whom shared reading has brought joy and a release to her life, so much so that it is a major point of her week:

“She’s in the poetry, and for one whole hour she’s happy.”

Seminars honing in on the topics of shared reading in PIPEs, research into the cultural significance of shared reading, examining the working model of shared reading for commissioners and the links between reading for pleasure and cognitive development gave much for us to think about before heading to our main afternoon sessions.

Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)
Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)

Lord Alan Howarth (Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Arts, Health and Wellbeing) chaired a panel discussion how reading in prisons can contribute to prison reform and how prisoners should be helped within the system and on return to the community. The complex topic was masterfully handled by Nick Benefield (previous Advisor on Personality Disorder at NHS England and Joint Head of the NHS Personality Disorder Programme), Lord David Ramsbotham (House of Lords member with a focus on penal reform and defence) and Megg Hewlett (Reader-in-Residence and PIPEs group leader in West London). Following the day’s emerging theme of shared reading ‘opening and unlocking’ individuals, Megg shared the story of a young woman within a criminal justice setting finding herself in the poem Bluebird by Charles Bukowski, and Lord Ramsbotham spoke of his belief in the importance of Readers-in-Residence to both the medical and educational needs of prisoners.

Our keynote speech came from writer, broadcaster and author Lord Melvyn Bragg, who spoke in-depth about the story behind his novel Grace and Mary, which came from his own experiences of his mother being diagnosed with dementia. He spoke about how it was important for him to help and discussed how literature linked with his lived experiences of the condition; in particular highlighting The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and King Lear (“Nothing will come of nothing.”). In discussion with Jane, Lord Bragg spoke about his life as a reader, saying that he couldn’t imagine his life without books and explaining in powerful words what reading has done for him.

“Reading has given me life…reading has given me several lives…reading has given me access to the possibility of a great number of lives.”

His words proved just as inspiring for our audience:

Melvyn Bragg ‘access to the paths not taken- that’s all in reading’. Amazing closing talk ‘s conference

A closing point from Jane which reminded us of the importance of finding ourselves in reading books from the ages rounded off a remarkable day which highlighted in real human terms the remarkable effects reading can have on so many different lives. ‘Inspirational’ was the word of the day from our #betterwithabook attendees, and it was a very fitting term indeed.

Better with a Book was featured on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking by Jules Evans from Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, University of London. Listen from around 38 min 20 secs in to hear about books that have helped guests through hard times and an exploration of our work and research:

Better with a Book: One week to go!

_O7J3781 There’s just one week to go until we head to the British Library Conference Centre in London for Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s National Conference 2014. Delegates from across the UK will be joining us for the day to explore the relationship between literature, mental health, education, increased social engagement, enhanced emotional development and improved quality of life, and it’s promising to be the most enriching Conference to date with a wonderful line-up of guest speakers on the bill.

Better with a Book will be examining how the practice of shared reading makes people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds feel fundamentally better – from young people reading for pleasure in schools to literature being a way in to people within a variety of secure settings. What is it about reading, and specifically reading aloud with other people, that creates such positive impacts upon our lives?

The day will begin with an introduction by TRO Founder and Director Jane Davis, leading on to a panel discussion with Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan. Amongst them they will be unravelling the relationship between reading, emotional wellbeing and educational attainment, following findings of a study by the Institute of Education – of which Dr Sullivan was a co-author – which found that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school in a range of subjects, including maths as well as spelling and vocabulary.

Also in the morning there’ll be the chance to Meet Our Readers as we talk to four of our regular shared reading group members from London and elsewhere around the country about how their lives have been improved by joining a group in a hospital or the community. They’ll be telling us more about their personal experiences of shared reading and the varied impacts literature has had upon them.

_O7J4023After lunch, there will be four Breakout sessions available to attend, including a discussion of how shared reading is working practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs), a panel of commissioners who will talk about what working with The Reader Organisation has brought to them and an examination of the latest ongoing research into the cultural value of shared reading by the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at University of Liverpool.

Reading in secure environments is a significant area of our work, and Lord Alan Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Nick Benefield, previous Joint Head of the NHS and National Offender Management Service Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, and Megg Hewlett, Reader-inResidence at West London Mental Health Trust, about shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments.

Rounding off the day, Jane will be in discussion with writer, author, broadcaster and former President of MIND Lord Melvyn Bragg who will talk about his life as a reader and his novel Grace and Mary, which is based on his experiences of living with a relative with dementia.

All this as well as a chance to experience shared reading firsthand in some special sessions – it’s going to be a truly stimulating day enjoying great literature and the positive effects it can bring.

There are still a last few places available to join us for Better with a Book – all the information on how to book can be found on our website:

We look forward to seeing you in London!

Inside Time: Shared reading in HMP Gartree

The latest in our series of articles showcasing The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings as featured in Inside Time is from the Psychologically Informed Planned Environment (PIPE) unit in HMP Gartree in Leicestershire.

Nicola Bennison, Reader-in-Residence at HMP Gartree, discusses The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument by Anne Stevenson with the Bookchat group.

The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae
in the chain of the difficult spine.

Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to the minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.

Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No. No desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.

– Anne Stevenson, Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)

We are a group of eleven today. I read the poem through, slowly.

Gawd. I’ve no idea what that’s all about. There’s a lot of long words,” says K. “It makes no sense to me.”

I agree about the words. We can talk about them. I read it again.

Does it make you think of anything, even if you don’t understand it?

K: “Is it, like, we’re looking at some ill person, there’s something wrong with him, like he’s disabled or something?”

What does anyone else think?

P: “Yeah that’s what I thought too.

What makes you think that?

Everyone scrutinises the text.

P points: “Here, I think it’s this, about difficult spine, sounds like it’s not right.”

Yes! And why would a spine be difficult ?

“It’s perhaps because it’s like, really complicated.”

“And fragile.”

Yes, I say, it makes you think of the way you have to hold a baby’s head up until it gets strong.

“No,” says G, “I think it’s about the perfection of the human body, how whatever we do, it makes no difference, it generally comes out perfect. It’s DNA!”

Go on…

“See here, where it saysNo desire or affection could have done / with practice what habit / has done perfectly. It’s, like, automatic – nothing to do with what we do!”

We mull over this.

H: “To me, it’s like being given a guided tour of a high performance car, you can see how beautifully it’s made, what it can do…”

Yes! And there are machine-like elements – the manipulating tendons, the chain…

We unscramble some of the big words together – capillaries and ganglia, infinitesimal. We savour the sound of some of the words – knucklebones, ossicles

And what about the spirit?

We discuss it for a while and decide that it could be either divine or human. G is sticking to his guns:

“Nah, it’s evolution, isn’t it! The miracle of evolution!”

But there is something ambiguous here about what sort of control we have – the body is already doing what the brain tells it to yet…

I read some of the lines again. Why would bones be blind? I wonder.

H: “When babies are born not all their bones are connected yet…”

G: “You know what I think, when the baby’s still in the womb, the bones aren’t all joined up but it’s like they join up as if by instinct, they find their way. Maybe that’s it, like they are swimming blindly.”

It’s a lovely image!

Someone reads out the lines about the lungs. K is still paying attention:

“That’s the miracle, I think –when a baby first comes out of the womb and it automatically breathes, fills its lungs [he mimes this] – because air, you can’t see it or taste it, it’s just… a miracle!”

We return to the text.

Those last lines still worry me, I say, and read them again.

“Yeah, there’s only one positive thing in there, isn’t there, love…”

But it’s time to go. The men are standing up, folding up their copies of the poem to read later, and ponder for themselves those last lines.

Our Criminal Justice team operate around the UK, bringing weekly shared reading groups to those in secure environments. Find out more about shared reading in prisons, PIPEs and Criminal Justice settings on our website:

Inside Time: The Send-Off in HMP Liverpool

Throughout the UK we are sharing reading in prisons and secure Criminal Justice settings, with the reading and discussion of great literature creating the opportunity for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour, improve their health, wellbeing and interaction and increase levels of self-confidence and self-reflection.

Each month highlights from shared reading sessions are featured in Inside Time, the national newspaper especially for prisoners in the UK, and we’ll be publishing the articles here on The Reader Online after they’ve been featured in the paper.

The latest article comes from Amanda Brown, who is in charge of the strategic development of our Criminal Justice projects, and her ‘Read and Relax’ group at HMP Liverpool. The group are discussing The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

– Wilfred Owen

K, T, W, M, L, D and P discuss this with me.  All listen while I read, after which there is silence.

“Troops going to war. Very poignant.” K sighs. “Old men make wars, young men fight them.”

M, a young man, stabs at the page and looks up.

“I can see them – on the trains.  Grimly gay – gay meant happy then. They had to go.  Didn’t want to go.”

“It’s the title that hits me – The Send-Off – it’s like a funeral,” says P. “all white with wreath and spray…”

“As men’s are, dead,” adds L.  He leans forward, animated.  “Why would they be getting onto a train if a siding shed?  They’re not alive!”

Others need to consider this.  D frowns.

“That’s interesting, what you’re saying,” says K.  “I hadn’t seen that.”

There is lively debate here.  D suggests lines of the poem which seem to contradict L.  Lee remains adamant.

“That’s the beauty of poetry,” he claims.  “You see one thing, I see something else.”

When they pause, W speaks quietly.

“If I didn’t know Wilfred Owen was writing in WW1, I’d have said it’s about the Jews being sent to concentration camps.  I can see that.”

We exclaim, then, about the possibilities of the poem, unknown by the writer, provided by history.

“Owen knew nothing about WW2.  We can’t read his poetry without knowing about it.”

“Makes me think about taking my granddad, who’d been in the war, to see Saving Private Ryan. That opening sequence – he said it was just like that.”

“Secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.” I repeat.  Then, all at once, everyone is speaking.

“They don’t know where they’ve going.  They’re young.  Leaving their homes, their wives and girlfriends.”

“That’s why the women gave them flowers.”

“’Don’t forget me!’ – that’s what the flowers mean.  That’s like my missus.  She sprayed my clothes with her perfume before I came here.”

“My ex-father-in-law was in the war.  He was from Scotland. He was shipped out of Liverpool and his sisters came all the way down to Liverpool to see him off.  They bought him flowers – he told me that.”

I reread the lines: Nor there if they yet mock what women meant/who gave them flowers and suggest that maybe the women’s message was ‘Look after yourself. Come back to me.’

“The wives won’t know where their men are – no-one knew,” says M.

“They don’t know where their letters are going.  They write, but then they hear nothing,” says T.

I wonder about the question in the poem: Shall they return to beatings of great bells/ In wild trainloads?

“Because they won’t be coming back,” says P.  “Most of them won’t.”

“Just a few, maybe,” adds D. “No parades.  No cheering.”

We discuss the scenes in Wootton Bassett – the silent respectful crowds.

“Creep back, silent, to still village wells,” reads L.  This is their spirits coming back!”

“I don’t see that,” says D.  “But I can understand where you get that from.”

“Reading like this – it’s like splintered glass,” says K.  “It’s spread out in so many different directions.”

“I think this poem is the easiest to understand of all the ones we’re read,” says D.

“It means something to all of us,” says K.  “We feel it.”

Discover more about shared reading in prisons and Criminal Justice settings on our website:

Nick Benefield, former NHSE PD Advisor and Joint Head of NHSE/NOMS Offender PD Team, and Lord Alan Howarth, All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, will be discussing the effect of shared reading in secure mental health settings at Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s 2014 National Conference on Thursday 15th May at the British Library Conference Centre, London. Head to our website to discover how you can book your place:


Books in prisons: a vital lifeline

New rules by the justice secretary ban anyone sending books to prisoners. The Reader Organisation does not support this measure and urges you to sign this petition opposing restrictions on reading.

The stats about reading speak for themselves:

  • 70% of pupils permanently excluded from school lack basic literacy skills (National Literacy Trust)
  • 60% of the prison population lack basic literacy skills (National Literacy Trust)
  • 20% cannot fill in a job application form (Prison Reform Trust)
  • 75% of adult prisoners have a dual diagnosis of mental health problems combined with alcohol or drug misuse (Prison Reform Trust)

Writer, TRO patron and former prisoner Erwin James wrote about our work in prisons for the Guardian recently, and is interviewed in the brand new issue of The Reader magazine about his own prison reading experiences. For him, it is clear that reading offered the possibility of change:

I did not think I had the intellectual capacity to think outside my four cell walls.

I wouldn’t have called myself a thinker but in prison you live inside your head. Everyone is a thinker in jail.

I was literate, thankfully – so many people in prison are not. Joan Branton, the psychologist, lent me a number of books, among them Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, a dark tale with huge resonance to me; it was depressing but at the same time also very compelling. And Joan started giving me the mental tools to try and figure out how I’d become what I’d become.

Read the full interview with Erwin in Issue 53 of The Reader.

We run shared reading groups in prisons across the UK each week, bringing men and women together to share great literature, connect with each other and improve wellbeing. Reading and shared reading groups provide opportunities for self-reflection, increase confidence, encourage greater social engagement, all of which contribute to reducing reoffending.

From mistakes that I’ve made in the first few stories about what I thought about characters, I’ve learnt not to judge a character too quickly, not to rush in but reserve my judgement, not to judge people. Yeah, I think it has affected the way I am with people too.” 

Shared Reading group member, HMP Frankland

 “I spend a lot of time lying in my room.  A lot of the time, I’m not even there really.  I don’t know where I am.  I’m just – I don’t know – just a lump.  And then I come here and I’m thinking so much.  My thoughts are going in all sorts of unexpected directions.  And it changes things.  I mean – I’m not the same when I go back to my room.”                                                   Shared reading group member HMP Liverpool

 67% of those we read with feel more understanding towards each other and 61% feel more positive about life. Read the most recent research report into our work in prisons here.  

Reading opens doors, offers intellectual and emotional development and helps us to evaluate our place in society. It is vital that those in prison are given access to books and the opportunity to discover their potential through reading.

The Reader Organisation in Inside Time: An inside view of shared reading

inside timeThe Reader Organisation’s activity in Criminal Justice settings is expanding all the time, with regular shared reading groups being delivered in prisons, secure hospitals and offenders institutes throughout the UK each week providing opportunities to reform, rehabilitate and reduce reoffending through the reading of great literature in a safe environment. Not only does the use of shared reading in secure environments create a foundation for a collaborative approach to reducing criminal behaviour, it allows the space for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour through a medium that has a direct personal impact as well as helping to contribute to stronger and safer societies in the long run.

Our work sharing reading within Criminal Justice settings is highlighted in Inside Time, the national monthly newspaper for prisoners in the UK. Inside Time creates a ‘voice’ for its readership – currently standing at an estimated 50,000 – providing articles and comments that seek to be informative, interesting and entertaining, and a key link to the outside world for its readers as well as connecting them with their family and friends. Amongst its contributions is cultural content including  a regular poetry slot, which has produced 5 volumes of the Inside Poetry publication.

Each month in the paper, a member of TRO’s Criminal Justice team provide an insight into a shared reading group session that has taken place through a poem or extract from a short story and a snapshot of the discussion that has accompanied the piece of literature. Always interesting and often revealing, the columns show how vital great literature is as a sounding board, connector between people, thoughts and emotions – and in many situations, as a lifeline.

Here on The Reader Online we’ll be regularly featuring the TRO Inside Time articles on a monthly basis, bringing you our latest column hot off the press and giving you a closer view of shared reading in secure settings. To begin the feature, we’re visiting a piece from the archives, originally published in September 2013. Wigan Project Worker Val Hannan takes us into a session at her group in Hindley YOI (funded by Greater Manchester West Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust), where the group shared the poem Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye.

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.

—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

– Reprinted from Tender Spot: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) by Naomi Shihab Nye, with kind permission of the poet

After I’ve read, the group take turns reading a stanza each. We begin with the epigraph: ‘We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.’

‘It’s strange,’ says C, ‘intriguing’.

‘It’s basically saying that everyone’s going to die’ says T.

C continues: ‘Some of us are alive but some of us are dead and we’re all going down the same path – we’re alive but we’re all dying.’

Suddenly F repeats the last stanza: ‘‘I who did not die, who am still living…/clenching and opening one small hand’ – This is me. It’s about me. It’s how I feel. I look at my hand – I always do that.’ F holds his fist up. ‘What’s that on my hand? Have I got blood on my hand? These thoughts are always at the back of my head.’

Lady Macbeth’s anguish is vivid in my mind.

‘It wasn’t premeditated,” offers T, seeking to comfort. Others nod, faces showing sympathy.

F says he is fine; he wants to continue.

We look at the first stanza.

‘What could the drum be?’ I ask.

‘It’s his pulse or heart beat getting slower,’ says T.

‘The narrator is only seven at this point – what about that?’

‘He’s getting scared and getting further away from home – going somewhere he doesn’t know,’ says C.

‘It could be about fate,’ says T. ‘He’s leaving his soul or one life behind.’

I ask about the image used to describe how the person felt: ‘My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.’

‘When I first came down to jail, I felt like that,’ says M. ‘My stomach had gone, I was only 12.’

I ask about the lines: ‘When you can no longer make a fist’?

‘This is when you can’t move, when you don’t have any strength.’

‘It makes me think of when you’re in your cell,’ says, C, ‘and you want to get out and you pound the bed and walls in anger and you can’t do anything and then you just get really weak and end up crying with the anger.’

They all agree with this and talk about how they often feel there is no release for their pent-up anger and frustration.

I ask about the image of the journey and why the ‘backseat’?

‘It could be the journey of life,’ says T.

‘It’s life as a car journey,’ says M.

‘But why the backseat?’

‘The back is in the past. The front seat is moving forward but you’re in the back seat of life when you don’t know what’s going to happen,’ says C.

‘What about borders – what could they be?’

‘It could be death – the border between life and death,’ says T.

‘Past and future,’ says M. ‘Childhood to being an adult.’

We focus on the final image: ‘clenching and opening one small hand.’

‘It’s your pulse, a heartbeat,’ says M.

‘It’s like stress,’ says F, ‘when you have to keep opening and closing your hand. I do it all the time.’

We discuss how our thoughts control the way we feel and conclude the worst prison is not a physical one, but the one we make for ourselves in our own mind.

You can find Inside Time on the web here:

Find out more about The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings, alongside Reader Stories from readers in various secure settings, on our website:

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: 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: