Category Archives: Libraries

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, poetry, Reading, Writing

My bookish Christmas list

Christmas is an opportunity to give bookish gifts to friends and loved ones, and to help make small but important changes in the world. Here’s how.

Books as Presents

I’m not rushing out to do any Christmas shopping this year, but I have chosen books for several people. It’s always a pleasure giving books one has enjoyed, or one can borrow later.

Book tokens

And if you don’t know or are not sure whether Aunty Ethel will like Girl, Woman, Other, for example, you can always give her a book token. Children in other families often grow up faster than one can believe, so you lose track of what they might like. Again a book token can be the answer.

Books from Bookshops

Help independent bookshops this year by buying your book presents from them. They need your help. Many of them deliver. And to avoid lining the pockets of the uber rich on-line delivery firms you can use good on-line alternatives. I have been using bookshop.org which supports local independent booksellers. We may not have much political power, but we do have some economic power, and so spending our money on important things in the good places is something we can do.

Book Trust Christmas Appeal

Some of us want to support those working to get all children to become readers. Book Trust exists to get children reading. For a donation of £10 Book Trust will send a book to a vulnerable child for Christmas. This year there are 14,250 vulnerable children and children in care (1,800 more than last year) who can benefit from this scheme. Books to be sent this year include:

The Gruffalo Sound Book,
Elmer: A Classic Collection,
Through the Animal Kingdom,
Our Planet
Wild Lives and 
Guinness World Records 2021
.

Book Aid International and Reverse Book Tokens

This an organisation that in 2019 sent 1.2 million books to 19.5 million people in 26 countries. New and carefully selected books went to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. They should be celebrated for innovative ideas, such as the creation of libraries from disused shipping containers, a project in Rwanda. 

Here’s where the books went:

Children and primary schools      493,209
Leisure                                               225,568
Medicine and health                        141,270
Reference and secondary schs      146,877
Higher education                              91,275
Vocational, technical education     45,599
Development                                       47,475
English language skills                    20,190
[Statistics from the Annual Review]

You can support Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’.

These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So a Reverse Book Token makes an excellent present and it supports Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Happy Christmas and good reading to you all!

Photo credit for book pile: KJGarbutt on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Reading

My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing

Older women in fiction around the world

So this month I am guest blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, thanks to an invitation from Karen Van Drie. Karen had seen the series on Older Women in fiction on Bookword and suggested I did a version of older women in translation. 

A blogger’s dream invitation

It’s a blogger’s dream, my blogging dream – an invitation to blog almost daily for a month about older women in fiction in translation. Regular readers will know that I have been writing about older women in fiction almost from the start of this blog. And I have also been supporting initiatives to publicise women in translation such as Women in Translation Month, which is August: #WITMonth.  

Why Older women in Fiction?

A common complaint of older women is that they become invisible. My blog series is in part a challenge to that invisibility in fiction.

More urgently, we need to change how people see older women. James Baldwin said,

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. [quoted in the TLS by Sarah Ladipo Manyika* 28.5.19}

When I began looking for my own examples of older women who were not sweet, eccentric or death-fixated I was underwhelmed. I decided to collect readers’ ideas about better models of older women in fiction and now I have reviewed 40 titles and have a list of another 40 on my blog page about the older women in fiction series.

Not enough older women in translation

But there was a problem with Karen’s invitation. As far as I have discovered there are not many books in translation into English about older women in fiction. On Bookword to date there are only four (about 10%):

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Finland)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

The Woman of Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (Egypt)

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc (France)

The shortage of older women in translation is an amplification of the failure of publishers to include fiction by women in translation on their lists. Some of the smaller independent publishers do great work it must be said. To some extent the market will develop as the population of older women increases, as it is worldwide. But for now I am just being eagle-eyed and watching the initiatives for promoting fiction in translation. You can help by making suggestions. There is the excellent Biblibio blogwhich hosts Women in translation month; The Global Literature blog; and the PEN organisation. 

So with no shortage of older women, only of translations, I suggested to Karen that I could provide posts on older women around the world.

Blogging about the Older Women in Fiction around the World

On Global Literature in Libraries Initiativeblog the continents will be my organising principle for this month:

  • Week 1 North America
  • Week 2 Europe
  • Week 3 Africa and the Middle East
  • Week 4 fiction from the UK 
  • Week 5 a roundup of those that got missed.

Where are the older women from South America and the Far East and – most surprising to me as there are so many excellent writers – from New Zealand and Australia? 

Not all books with strong examples of older women are written by women, although the large majority of them are. You will find several examples of books by men over the month. 

I have not written all the posts. I asked some other readers/writers to contribute.

Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream by *Sarah Ladipo Manyika will be featured in Week 3.

I am so grateful to Karen Van Drie for this opportunity.

…and on Bookword?

During August I will be blogging as usual on Bookword, posting every five days. Some posts will be edited examples of the more editorial posts from Global Literacies, but I will also be posting the next in the Decades Project on Children’s Literature where we have reached the ‘70s. And I may post some book reviews if my reading prompts me to. 

But it is Women in Translation Month so I hope to keep most of my posts with that theme in mind.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

Book Aid International Changes Lives

Here’s an organisation that in 2018 sent 128 million new and carefully selected books to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. 

You can help Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’. Here’s why it matters.

Child Refugees in Kenya

Boys at a secondary school in Kakuma

24,000 children in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya now have books in their schools. The teachers have also been trained in using books in their classrooms.

Before the training I never used to know how to organise books for learners and how to captivate interest among pupils. I now understand the level of children’s understanding. Each of them is different from the other. (Isaac Ubur, headteacher Kalobeyei Early Childhood Centre)

See below for a link to hear Ben Okri say more about the supply of books to the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Children in South Sudan

18,684 books were sent to South Sudan, where the economy is predominantly rural, but farming needs to improve.

Our farming is quite basic so we need a profound change and this can be gained through books where research has been done on improved farming methods. But there is a lack of books. We have universities, we have schools, but we badly need books. (Professor Dr Jacob Lupai, at the University of Juba)

READ Bhutan 

5106 books were sent to READ Bhutan, a project that aims to offer all children the chance to read. 

The only public library is situated in the capital, Thimphu and most children living in other districts have no access to the public library. READ Bhutan is the only organisation working to build community libraries. We now have nine community libraries. Many children cannot travel outside Bhutan so the books will be an opportunity for them to see a new world, build their creativity and learn about different cultures. (Kezanger, READ Bhutan project manager)

Other 

Donkey mobile library in Zimbabwe

Books have also been sent recently to these destinations:

  • to rebuild the library in the University of Mosul, 
  • to schools in Liberia, 
  • to women in a community garden and for donkey-drawn mobile libraries in Zimbabwe
  • to medical professionals around the world,
  • to displaced children in Cameroon,
  • and to libraries in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 
Choosing books in a school in Malawi

Ben Okri’s appeal

Ben Okri, the Nobel Prize winning writer from Nigeria, presented the Radio 4 Appeal for Book Aid International on Sunday 31stMarch. You can listen to him talking about the charity’s help given to Yvonne in Kakuma Refugee Camp here.

Reverse Book Tokens

These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So a Reverse Book Tokenmakes an excellent present and it supports Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Boys in a Syrian school

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Libraries, Reading

Bookword goes to the Cote d’Azur – 1

Lured by the possibility of spring, the South of France and exposure to the artists who settled there I set off for Nice in early March. Not for nothing is the coastal area around Nice called the Cote d’Azur, the sea being a deep, deep blue, skies scarcely less rich. 

The area is very built up, and traffic already frequently stationary. In summer Nice must become insufferable, the air oppressive and the hills, in the current season jagged, inhospitable, some snow-capped, desirable for their coolness and comfort. 

Bookish things in the Nice area

Public art is big here, and inescapable. One of the more noticeable is La Tete Caree, site of Nice’s library, or at least the administration of the library. It is recent, monumental and sits in the park next to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MOMAC). We have forgotten, in our Age of Austerity, what it is to have imaginative public art projects in Britain. Nice has a left-wing civic history.

La tete caree by Sacha Sosno

Art and literature are closely associated in this place, as everywhere. The same qualities that brought Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, bring writers. They follow, they are in the same social groups, they even, like Cocteau, mix in each other’s art forms. 

Here are some of the writers (in English) I have noted who have been lured here:

Tobias Smollett

Louisa May Alcott

Agatha Christie

Zelda and Scott FitzGerald

James Joyce (apparently the opening lines of Finnegan’s Wake might describe the Mediterranean)

Sylvia Plath

Evelyn Waugh

HG Wells

Robert Louis Stevenson (Remember travels with my Donkey?)

Aubrey Beardsley

Thomas Carlyle

Katherine Mansfield,

WB Yeats – who died here.

And here are three novels with locations in the Cote d’Azur 

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This short novel is set in the hills above Nice, in a sweltering summer in the 1990s. A family takes their holiday in a villa. The scene is set for tensions to boil over. The poet Jo, his wife Isabel (a war correspondent) and their daughter Nina have rented the villa in the hills above Nice. They bring along another couple, Mitchell who collects guns and Laura, a long-time friend of Isobel’s.

Into this not very happy group intrudes Kitty, a mature teenager with severe mental problems, very attractive. She is the catalyst to a whole range of troubles and fallings out. Kitty wants acknowledgement from Jo for her poem Swimming Home. He wants her. Isobel is dismayed that her husband will be unfaithful yet again. Nina is coming into puberty and afraid for both her parents. And so on. In the end one of the party is shot and found in the villa’s pool. Any one of them could have done it, including the victim.

Beautifully written to evoke the summer in the South of France, in Nice as well as on the hills. Reading it one has to remind oneself that there are good and nice people in the world. Deborah Levy wrote Hot Milk, also set in a liminal location, southern Spain, and concerning a young woman struggling with her identity.

Looking for novels located in Nice I found this book on Trip Fiction.

Swimming Homeby Deborah Levy, published in 2011 by And Other Stories. 160pp

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo

Two Jewish brothers (12 and 9) escape from occupied Paris to Free France, and spend time in Menton and Nice, having to flee again when the German army extended its occupation. For a while the boys are imprisoned in the Hotel de Ville, Nice, on suspicion of being Jewish. The book is written by the younger boy and has twice been made into a film.

Le pouce by Cesar, outside the Hotel de Ville, Nice

Un Sac de Billes by Joseph Joffo, published in 1973 by Le Livre de Poche. 285pp

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. (9)

These are the opening words (in translation) of the novel that is probably responsible for my love of France, and many illusions about growing up cool in the 60s. You can read my review here, including references to the issue of translations.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. Original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

In a future post I will consider the reading experiences of the people in the group with whom I went to the south of France. And look out too for Marie Bashkirtseff  (diaries and letters)

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

Writers and Soundart

I love being a member of the Totnes Library Writing Group because it is full of people who are creative, imaginative and playful. Carole Ellis and Wendy Watkins are both stunning writers, and for some time they have also been creating programmes for Soundart the local community radio, as a kind of local podcast. I enjoy listening to their programmes, and so can you.

I asked them to write about their activities for Bookword, and here is their conversation.

Some practical details

Carole and Wendy: We have a monthly programme on Soundart Community Radio – 102.5 FM within a 7 mile radius of Dartington in South Devon, or online: http://www.soundartradio.org.uk. We’ve uploaded our 15 programmes to https://www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”. 

You can also contact us by email: lifewithaliteraryslant@gmail.com

Our two sound artists

Wendy: We’re both volunteers. Amateurs. Which means we love what we do.

Carole: Yes. Payment-free and we do it…  Why do we do it? 

Wendy: (Laughing) Let’s go back to the beginning. What do you remember about how this started?

Carole:  I remember a meeting at the Totnes Library Writing Space. Fiona Green, a group member, organised a guest speaker, Chris Mockridge. He talked to us about the use of radio in writing. We had great fun sitting outside in the sunshine and came away thinking ‘we could do that’. 

Wendy:  Chris showed us all how to use a handheld recorder and recorded one of our writers – Mavis Riddel – reading her own short work, “A Highland Story”.

It’s included in our “Winter Stories” episode.  I think you can hear seagulls in the background. 

Carole: We’re based in Totnes – a small market town in the South Hams area of South Devon, unofficially twinned with Narnia – which gives an impression which isn’t strictly true. But it’s a wonderful centre for art, music, writing and some amazing people are based here.

Wendy:  There’s also the legacy of the Elmhirsts who re-built Dartington Hall in the 1930s.They’re long gone and much of their ethos has been submerged, but something of that adventurous spirit lives on. “Soundart” is also a reference to the fact that we’re on the River Dart. 

Carole: Hence the seagulls.

Wendy: The studio itself is based in one of the buildings on that estate. Some do their programmes live, but we chose to pre-record ours.

Starting out with Audacity

Carole:  Lucinda, one of the founding members of Soundart showed us some very basic skills in the use of Audacity, the free software available for sound editing…

Wendy:  …and that led onto a quite amusing period in our explorations trying to do things. But what do you remember about why we started?  

Carole: (laughing) I don’t know why we wanted to do this. I think it was partly to broaden the number of people who hear our group’s writing. And a love of language and communicating and storytelling… We can cover whatever we want so we just tap into whatever interests us at the time. 

Wendy: That’s what a community radio like Soundart gives  – freedom to create and explore. There’s an engaged listening that happens in a writing group…

Carole: …and by replicating it on the radio we’re able to share that experience with a wider audience. 

Wendy: You’ve been writing for some time. I know you were making a killing at one stage, sending letters to newspapers and also writing short stories. So there’s that dimension – and other things about you, like your identity as a teacher. How does that connect with what we’re doing now with Soundart? 

Carole: Yes, I taught adults to read and write for many years. And this programme enables me to continue sharing a love of reading and enabling other people to express themselves. 

Wendy: You often do background research on subjects you enjoy. I’m thinking of the programme on dialect, or the one about the history of coffee shops and writing. 

Carole: You also have a background which gives you an interest in another field 

Wendy: I taught for a couple of years in my early twenties, but I become a clinical psychologist. That involves listening very closely and deeply to other people’s experience. I have an interest in hypnotherapy where you use language, symbols and metaphor in creative ways. A light trance is a natural state so I suppose you could say we’re all in a light trance while listening to a story. 

Although we may choose a serious topic there’s also an element of play in creating a programme. Spoken language has its own musicality and the fact that we can incorporate music is something I find very special.

Carole:  It’s one element that I enjoy a lot… And finding something that we both like, instantly sometimes, we just know that that’s going to be the bit… that it’ll fit. Also the interviewing and bringing in other people. Some are people we know from the writing group but we do find others, don’t we, from out and about? 

Wendy: I really appreciate the generosity with which people do this. Sometimes there’s a particular person I have in mind, like Dr Stephan Harding the ecologist at Schumacher College, who agreed to talk about imagination. Totnes café owners were happy to be included, bookshop owners, and because of the nature of the community it’s easy to find people. 

Carole: Yes and the Totnes librarians and others have been enormously generous with their time and with their ideas and thoughts. We’re really lucky.

Learning to avoid the orphans

Wendy: What do you remember about the first experiences of putting a programme together? 

Carole: I suppose getting the hang of the Audacity software – that was quite challenging. I mean we’ve had programs where we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it and then it’s just disappeared… 

Wendy: Or it tells you that there are 3056 “orphans”…

Carole: Yes. (laughing) I love the “orphans”. I always feel sorry for them but I don’t want them…

Wendy: We’ve never quite worked out where they come from or where they are being held…

Carole: But there’s a lot of them. That’s always been a challenge – but we’re getting the hang of it and also we know how we work best, which in the early days – it was never a challenge exactly – but it was just us getting comfortable with the working arrangement…

Wendy: It’s more relaxed. I remember that in the early stages it was very clear that you were much more technologically skilled than I am. But what’s transpired over time is that you actually like doing that part. We make decisions together and we sit together selecting music, putting the programme together, but you’re faster and more technologically literate.

Carole: You make a much better interviewer than I do so I’m quite happy for you to go out with the Tascam recorder and make those connections while I can sit in my little room pushing buttons taking out the excess stuff that we don’t need… so yeah it works… 

Wendy: We have different perspectives and life experience, but if you have some shared values it makes collaboration work. It’s the same with what programme to do next. We seem to move quite easily into different ideas. 

Carole: I don’t think there’s ever one of us left thinking, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’. It’s very much a collaboration.

Wendy: Talking of this makes me think again about how much fun creating the programme can be. And the good feeling when we’re in agreement that a programme’s now the right shape, and simply let go of it. Like closing a book, pausing, and moving on to the next.

You can find the programmes in the Life with a Literary Slant series created by Carole and Wendy on Soundart: go to www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Learning, Libraries, Writing

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers 

You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.

Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.

Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.

The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.

In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.

Children’s Literature 

While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences. 

But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.

The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Reviews

Imagine a Society of Readers

Reading is good for you. We know this. But imagine if it were national policy to promote reading with the aim of creating a Society of Readers. What would it look like? What are the policy implications of such a vision?

A Society of Readers (2018)

The Reading Agency commissioned the report A Society of Readers from Demos. You can find the full document on the DEMOS site or on the Reading Agency site here.

What are the major social challenges facing our society in the future and how can reading help? These are the questions that the report sets out to investigate and using research (you know, experts) has provided some interesting and inexpensive policy proposals.

The challenges: 

loneliness, especially amongst the growing number of old people

mental health problems

dementia

lack of social mobility

The research findings:

There is evidence on which to build the knowledge that reading has an important part to play in tackling each of these challenges. Reading wards off loneliness, especially where it is accompanied by opportunities for discussion of books, in groups or with reading buddies. The report celebrates book-based social contact.

It is possible to assist someone suffering from mental health difficulties, especially among the young, through reading material. Shelf Help in schools and libraries is becoming more common. You may have heard of poetry pharmacies, prescriptions for reading as aspects of non-medical interventions. You might be familiar with the handbook The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.

Reading promotes empathy and is an excellent reason for encouraging reading in schools, and a love of reading among the young. It is the basis of Neil Gaiman’s eloquent plea for libraries to the Reading Agency in 2013.

There is evidence that reading helps boost performance on tests, and increases a young person’s opportunities to proceed to higher levels of education. 

The recommendations: 

It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society. (cover)

The report provides 12 recommendations for the government, all based in the research evidence and successful practices that already promote reading.

What would a society of readers look like? 

That is what we mean by a ‘society of readers’ – a society that values reading, and which is in turn sustained by the benefits that reading brings. A society that saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life. A state that marks significant life events with the gift of reading – especially to its children. A school system where children, by and large, arrive with a love of reading that was handed down to them by their parents who were supported at various points in their life to turn to books themselves. A school system where learning continues throughout the year ensuring that disadvantaged children can engage with reading groups – surrounding themselves with books even and especially if their home environment lacks them. A society whose clinicians understand that reading can have a medicinal quality when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and even dementia. A society where a well-resourced retraining and further education systemencourages reading beyond the classroom too. A society where workplacesmay even carve out the time to allow their employees the time to attend further reading classes and reading groups. And a society that does not forget that its ill and ill-informed not only have cognitive needs but imaginations that can still light a fire too – and where we encourage them to share these imaginations by bonding with their contemporaries over the written word. (p41)

(Note: to make this paragraph easier to navigate I put the main policy locations in bold.)

And so why …?

Why are libraries suffering so badly from the policies of austerity?  The latest figures reported by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy) can be found in a press release from December 2018 here. The only figures that have gone up relate to volunteers and to their hours. 127 libraries closed. Spending was down by £30m and 712 full-time jobs were lost. That is in one year.

So while research and reading charities show that there are some inexpensive and beneficial policies to be promoted to help society, councils and government continue to strangle libraries. That’s why we need to imagine a Reading Society. And readers are good imaginers.

A Society of Readersby Sacha Hilhorst, Alan Lockey, Tom Speight published in 2018 by DEMOS for the Reading Agency. 

Please subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of future post. Enter your email address in the box. 

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Libraries, Reading

Six ways to choose books to read

Recently I collected a novel from the library that I had reserved about a month ago. It was Who will look after the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. I couldn’t remember why I had made a note about this book and subsequently reserved it. Perhaps it was the title, or the main character is over 60 (she isn’t) or … what? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter. I’ll take my chances with it.

Last summer Kate Vane posted on her blog: The mysterious world of book discovery. She considered how she identified books she wanted to read, including overhearing a recommendation in a bookshop. Recently, as I was listening to the podcast of some writing friends I found myself reaching for a pen to make a note of a recommendation by a guest on their show. These events made me think about all the occasions when I note down the title and author of a book that sounds interesting.

My sources: 1 Bloggers and blog readers

I often read books that have been recommended by fellow bookbloggers. Recently I enjoyed The Girl on the Via Flaminia  byAlfred Hayes, recommended on JacquiWine’s Journal. I rediscovered Barbara Comyns through bloggers’ enthusiasms too.

And on my blog I encourage readers to leave recommendations on the various themes I explore: older women in fiction, children’s literature, on books and trains, books with Miss or Mrs in the title, and so on. 

Some of the books that I have enjoyed most were recommended through comments on the blog: for example All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West, or The Stone Angelby Margaret Laurence were both recommended for the Older Women in Fiction series.

My sources: 2 Reviewers

Reviewers can be professional as in the quality papers. Kate Vane was unenthusiastic about them as they cover a restricted range of authors and they operate within the same social circle.

I agree that they are limited, but I like to see what is being reviewed, and what is being said. 

My sources: 3 Literary Prizes

As with the broadsheet reviews I keep an eye on prizes to see what’s around. I especially take note of the Women’s Prize, and usually read the winner and several others from the long and short lists. This year’s winner of the Man Booker prize is Milkman by Anna Burns. It is the choice of my reading group for January, so I am pleased to be trying to finish this at the moment.

My sources: 4 Word of Mouth

I often exchange ideas about reading, with writer friends, with others in my social circle, and I often take note of books recommended on podcasts, on the radio, and I love reading those cards in libraries and bookshops: staff picks. These personal notes reveal what the readers responded to. I might disagree, but I’m always pleased to have books pointed out to me.

On holiday recently I asked the others in my walking group what they were reading, and this led me to one of the most beautiful novels I know: That they may face the rising sun by John McGahern.

My sources: 5 Subscriptions

In order to introduce a little serendipity into my reading I receive books chosen by others. There is Peirene Press, whose lovely editions of European novellas frequently find their way onto my review pages. The most recent was And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson in December 2018.

Then there’s the Asymptote Club. This aims to bring books from across the world to the attention of members. I have reviewed these too from time to time. For example Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf in July 2018.

You will notice that both these subscriptions promote books in translation. I take advantage of this because I have few ways to know what is rewarding to read in translation. Prizewinners and bloggers’ lists are good for this too.

My sources: 6 Accidental

Books picked up while staying in in other people’s houses, or in cottages or bookish hotels; books found in charity shops and second hand shops; books with alluring covers or intriguing titles; books I have been given; books I come across at the library on the recommended shelf … 

Your sources?

What are the ways in which you find books that you want to read?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Reviews