“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”
A week ago, we took part in the first National Arts in Health conference, hosted by AESOP (Arts and Enterprises with a Social Purpose). Exploring the ways in which the arts can be harnessed to improve the provision of healthcare in the UK, the conference brought together leading thinkers and doers in the arts and health, and The Reader was lucky enough to be selected as only one of three organisations out of twenty eight to showcase in the opening plenary.
It was a truly inspiring day, attended by those including Arts Impact Fund amongst many others, and an honour to be featured alongside other organisations doing fantastic work to improve well-being amongst communities facing physical, mental and emotional difficulties. Our Communications Manager Emily Crawford was there on the day:
Last Friday I had the privilege of witnessing something pretty special. Three of our reading group members – all of whom had their own very personal journey with The Reader and mental health – stood in front of 500 people at the Southbank Centre and told their stories about how Shared Reading has impacted upon their lives. They actually did a lot more than that – they spoke eloquently and did a spectacular job doing something that would terrify most people. The power of the work we do is seen most through stories like those that our three readers – three of hundreds across the UK – shared, and as I stood backstage was reminded just how important it is. People who at times who have felt utterly alone, disconnected and afraid were able to take the leap to standing on stage in front of all those people and sharing all of that experience, as well as the huge distance they’ve travelled since then – and what’s more, had the room in complete silence hanging on every word. “I’m sitting here now – as a well person” is one of the lines that still rings in my head.
Our Founder and Director Jane Davis, alongside our readers in that bustling space on Friday, finished our section by sharing William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus. It’s a poem that’s been read in many of our weekly Shared Reading groups and so has a lot of resonance with many of our group members, including the three who shared their own stories. It’s a poem and a performance that led Peter Bazalgette, the chair for Public Health England, to take to the stage afterwards and proclaim that we had just ‘opened his eyes’. It’s a poem that, after practising for this performance, led one of our readers to turn to me and say “I’ve been repeating those lines ever since you gave me this you know, when things get frazzled: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’. It reminds me that I’m in charge of me.”
It was also great to have such a brilliant reaction from attendees of the Conference on Twitter:
A huge congratulations and thanks to our readers for taking part and being such spectacular spokespeople for Shared Reading!
Find out more about the Conference over on the AESOP website: http://www.ae-sop.org/
We’re in the mood for love here at The Reader, thanks to the publication of our new anthology A Little, Aloud with Love – the latest book in the A Little, Aloud series celebrating that special emotion and perhaps the most fêted subject in the history of English literature. Featuring a wealth of great writers from Shakespeare to Shelley, getting right up-to-date with authors including Haruki Murakami, Wendy Cope and Margaret Atwood, A Little, Aloud with Love celebrates love in all its forms and not only the romantic kind – though of course, there are plenty of poems and stories inside the book to woo or otherwise delight the object of your affection.
To celebrate the arrival of A Little, Aloud with Love – and that little-known lovers’ holiday called Valentine’s Day that is approaching at the end of the week – this week’s Featured Poem is a choice taken from the book itself by John Clare. Speaking about the first flushes of love and the effects it can bring, both physical and emotional, it’s bound to strike a chord with anyone who has experienced the euphoria and confusion of falling in love.
If this ode whets your appetite for more, A Little, Aloud with Love is now available to buy from our website and in stores.
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start—
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.
Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
For those of you in Liverpool, we’re launching A Little, Aloud with Love this week at a special event at Waterstones Liverpool One on Thursday 11th February from 6.30pm. Featuring live readings from the book and music designed to pluck at your heart strings, the evening will be hosted BBC Radio Merseyside’s Roger Phillips and also features Gogglebox stars and Liverpool lovebirds June and Leon.
Tickets for the A Little, Aloud with Love launch cost £3 and can be bought on the door or booked in advance by calling Waterstones Liverpool One on 0151 709 9820.
“He spoke of how the line, ‘A need for alliance to defeat, The whisperers at the corner of the street’ (from Not Love Perhaps by A.S.J. Tessimond), reminded him of his own situation, where the strength and love he feels in the reading group sustains him throughout the rest of the week when he is alone and often facing hostility.” – a Shared Reading group leader on one of the members of their community group
Every year over 15million people will experience a mental health problem and each week tens of millions of people engage with the arts, whether it be through reading, dancing, singing or visiting galleries, theatres or museums. The link between the arts and improved mental well-being is one which more professionals and volunteers are experiencing firsthand in the UK, and will be celebrated at the first national Arts in Health Conference and Showcase, taking place at the Southbank Centre in London tomorrow (Friday 5th February).
This major event, organised by Aesop – the arts and health social enterprise – will bring health decision-makers together with over 20 different arts interventions from across the country to explore the various ways in which the arts can be harnessed to improve the provision of healthcare. Attended by Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health, and Professor Sir Malcolm Grant CBE, Chair of NHS England, the conference will showcase how engagement with the arts can make positive as well as cost-effective health outcomes for all ages, from young people and families to older people. The Reader will be a part of the day’s celebrations, with a showcase of Shared Reading in action featuring stories from some of our beneficiaries who have used Shared Reading as part of coping strategies for their mental health conditions.
We currently work with CCGs, Public Health bodies, NHS trusts, on wards as well as in communities, reading in libraries, centres and our future International Centre for Reading at Calderstones Mansion, delivering Shared Reading groups that bring people closer to literature and one another, allowing space every week to connect with their thoughts and feelings. Our groups help people to make fewer visits to the GP, improve mood and relaxation and can assist in better understand of themselves and those around them.
Each week hundreds of Shared Reading experiences can help people from all backgrounds and facing a number of difficulties to discover something more:
I joined [the group] at a time when I was at my lowest ebb. I had been ill for a couple of years and coupled with other problems I had not bounced back. I had withdrawn completely from society and had given up the many activities that I used to love. The day I found out about the group will be etched on my mind forever, as it was the start on the road to recovery and getting back to living. Shared Reading helped me to venture out again. I have rebuilt my life, have many pastimes and enjoy community involvement. It calms the anxious mind; it is an escape from everyday pressures; it is company, and I have seen the benefits that it has given so many people. – Denise, London
It’s so much better than being stuck on tablets, health-wise I’m so much better because of it. I’m still shy but I’ve got so much more confidence, I don’t mind voicing my opinion and don’t worry about being made a fool of now. I’m really pleased I’ve started coming. This is what it’s all about: in a short space of time you get all these friends, it costs you nothing and you read stuff you never thought you’d read – like Silas Marner! I could have ended up like Silas Marner but I thought ‘Right, I’ve had enough – it’s time to get off my backside and do something!’ – Tony, Wirral
Through the stories, I feel I can talk and I feel really good, not bad. And I feel a relief. This is what happens through the stories. Comparing myself with the stories, this helps me. I tried to end my life because I found no hope or where I belonged or who I could trust or who I could talk to. In this group it’s about the books and discussing things that happened to us. And listening to other people’s stories, it’s not just me, it gives me hope. – Shad, London
We’re excited to be sharing more stories from our group members at the Arts in Health Conference tomorrow, and to be part of building a stronger connection between the arts and healthcare. The conference is sold out, but highlights will feature on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme from 5-6pm on Friday 5th February.
As new research released today shows that reading empowers people to make positive changes in their life, we’re happy to be showcasing the social dimension of reading with other people along with reinforcing the positive outcomes literature has for our collective mental health.
This week’s Featured Poem comes from Edward Rowland Sill, who combined his career as a poet – which began in his days attending Yale University – with roles in education, including being a professor of English literature at the University of California. His poetry was largely contributed to magazines, and a memorial volume of his work was privately printed after his death in 1887. However his poetry made an impact, with some of his verses – including The Venus of Milo – being held in particular regard.
The Tree of My Life was recently read in one of our Shared Reading groups in a dementia care home on Merseyside, with the group’s leader sharing their experience of reading this evocative choice:
“We worked through the poem with one group member taking over leading by re-reading a line, allowing time to think about the line and then re-reading the next bit. We concentrated on the lines ‘I would have it bowered in the grove, in a close and quiet vale; I would rear it aloft on the height, to wrestle with the gale’ for some time and thought about the difference between the two and making the decision on where to put the tree. We concentrated on the word ‘bowered’ and wondered together what that might mean.
‘Till suddenly, one fine day’ made a group member feel that he is suddenly alert and we went on to think of the expectations he had ‘never so grand and tall as I dreamed’. We thought about the warmth that is in the last four lines and thought of the sun shining through the leaves. At the end of the session one resident who doesn’t join us but who I always pass a poem to told me how beautiful the poem was and how she couldn’t stop reading it.”
Why not take a read and see what you think?
The Tree of My Life
When I was yet but a child, the gardener gave me a tree,
A little slim elm, to be set wherever seemed good to me
What a wonderful thing it seemed! with its lace-edged leaves uncurled,
And its span-long stem, that should grow to the grandest tree in the world!
So I searched all the garden round, and out over field and hill,
But not a spot could I find that suited my wayward will.
I would have it bowered in the grove, in a close and quiet vale;
I would rear it aloft on the height, to wrestle with the gale.
Then I said, “I will cover its roots with a little earth by the door,
And there it shall live and wait, while I search for a place once more.”
But still I could never find it, the place for my wondrous tree,
And it waited and grew by the door, while years passed over me;
Till suddenly, one fine day, I saw it was grown too tall,
And its roots gone down too deep, to be ever moved at all.
So here it is growing still, by the lowly cottage door;
Never so grand and tall as I dreamed it would be of yore,
But it shelters a tired old man in its sunshine-dappled shade,
The children’s pattering feet round its knotty knees have played,
Dear singing birds in a storm sometimes take refuge there,
And the stars through its silent boughs shine gloriously fair.
Edward Rowland Sill