Last Saturday I spent three hours in the company of some of the nicest people I have ever met. It was our reading group ‘farewell do'; a chance to say goodbye to one of those happy episodes in life that seem to come along just at the right time.
As adults, how often are we read to? The joy of listening to a great story seems to end with childhood; but why should it? There are good reasons to read to our children and they don’t only relate to the comfort and closeness built up around the bedtime story. It engenders a love of words; develops the imagination and encourages little ones to enjoy the sense of inclusion in a carefully woven tale that can take them to places they have never experienced. Why shouldn’t it be the same for adults?
In 2010 the Royal Literary Fund established, as a one year nationwide pilot, a number of reading groups. Unlike book clubs, which often ask members to read a set novel before a meeting, each week our group listened to our group leader – poet Julia Copus – read a short story. We would then discuss our responses to the piece, have a break for a cuppa and a biscuit and then listen to a poem carefully selected by Julia to reflect the themes expressed in the story. Again we could comment, perhaps choose one of the group to read it again. We were a group of like-minded but also very different people, from different backgrounds, but the atmosphere was wonderfully non-judgmental.
As the weeks went on, and as the one year pilot was extended to a second but, sadly for us final, year, my confidence grew. I felt better able to comment without feeling that my thoughts were not valid, or of less importance than someone else in the group. We got to know one another; people came and went but a core group remained and we welcomed every new member that found the group offered them something beyond a chance to get out of the house for an evening. By the time we sat listening to the final story at the end of June, and met last night to say ‘thank you’ to the wonderful Julia and celebrate the ways in which the group has changed us all, it was clear that the RLF had given us the opportunity to enjoy a very rare experience indeed.
Really listening offers an opportunity to drift into the world the author creates in a very different way to reading for oneself. Sometimes the brain leaps ahead as you gaze at the written word and the temptation to rush is sometimes overpowering, whether the story is enjoyable or not. And to hear a poet read a poem is a great way to learn the importance of inflection and of what is meant rather than what is simply written.
I know this wouldn’t be for everybody. There were weeks when the story didn’t ‘hit the mark’ with me and I felt as if I were the only one in the room who hadn’t ‘got’ the poem. Being read to is such an unfamiliar experience for an adult that the people who dropped out might just have felt alienated rather than engaged and if anyone expected a straightforward book group they were always to be disappointed – never was our reading directed and there was never any homework. It was the unexpected that was so appealing for me.
The selection Julia chose was wonderfully eclectic and international – Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf to Raymond Carver and stories published in the New Yorker. I discovered writers and poets that I had never heard of and have been left with a lasting love of many – particularly the writer Elizabeth Taylor, whose short stories and full length novels are so true, so wonderful in their evocation of the minutiae of our ‘ordinary’ lives that they strike forcefully to the core of what it means to be human. So passionate am I to spread the word about her work that I requested a place on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Bookclub’ programme to celebrate the centenary of her birth. It was a wonderful experience and I asked two questions, both aired as part of the programme earlier this month.
That is something I would never have done before ‘Reading Matters’. I doubt very much whether at least two of my published articles would ever have been written either, and Dandelions and Bad Hair Days would never have come together. I was too harsh a judge of my own ability to understand what makes writing ‘good’ before. And without the group I would not now be celebrating a commission to write a book that will hopefully join the ranks of many other successful titles from the Pen and Sword stable.
Julia Copus is a wonderful poet and a generous woman to have spent so much time working for and with us on the programme. All of us who have taken part are immensely grateful to her. On Saturday we presented her with ‘Julia’s Rose’ which we hope she will see bloom in years to come and remember how she helped many of us do the same.
Julia’s new collection of poems – The World’s Two Smallest Humans was published on 5th July by Faber and Faber