C joined the group during session four. We were reading a Deep South-set American story, ‘A Worn Path’. C volunteered to read a section of it and did a fabulous American accent – much to everyone’s pleasure. C has attended every week since. He is a thoughtful member of the group. He is not always the first to jump in with an opinion, but when he does say something it is well considered. He has shown an interest in how people behave towards one another, equality, and the way the world works (or doesn’t) in this respect:
"The way the narrator doesn't give a seat to the white woman as some sort of 'revenge' - that's why we've got all the problems in the world that we have - the mentality that says, 'You did this to me so I'm going to behave like that to everyone who looks like you."'
(‘She Shall Not Be Moved’ – Shereen Pandit)
and his empathy with characters is strong:
"He wouldn't be doing this [stealing a snowman] if he had things in his life - like friends, family, a job. He's lonely."
(‘Stealing’ – Carol Ann Duffy).
C’s confidence in sharing his thoughts and his own experiences has grown steadily over his participation. His announcement that he believed in marriage during one of our discussions led to poignant exchanges and advice about relationships being given to him by the older members of the group which he gracefully accepted! He has talked about his less-enviable habits, like being anti-social when he’s on buses and shutting himself down against talking to strangers, and how his mum embarrasses him:
"She's loud, she takes over a room!"
Interestingly, he very recently said:
“I don’t like being in groups and talking about myself. But doing it, being in this room is conquering those fears. It’s therapeutic for me.”
“It’s life imitating art. We’re like those characters in that film ‘The Breakfast Club’, a group of very different people who are forced together. But then they start finding out how similar they are, the things they have in common. They open up to one another. That’s us.”
R is in his 80s and is the oldest member of the group. He also joined during session four and has attended every week since, always walking into the room with lots of ‘hellos’, a big smile and a ‘glad to be here’ attitude.
The whole group enjoys listening to R’s stories from when he was young – and from throughout his life. He tells them very well and it seems to give him a lot of pleasure to reminisce. The younger members of the group in particular are fascinated to hear about how the world was different for him as a young man. And the other older members always check their facts about days gone by with him. He has shared brilliant stories about his time in the army, in Germany, as a bus driver, dating etiquette in the 1950s and about what Manchester used to be like.
Conversely, R said one session, when we were reading a story about race, that he found it very hard to know what language to use these days so as not to offend people. He said that when he'd been younger 'coloured' and 'negro' were words that were acceptable. But when he had used these words lately people - including his family - had been upset. He said that he felt upset as he had no intention of offending people but that he didn't understand what were the right and wrong things to say and why. Much good discussion ensued. The younger members of the group had lots to say on this topic, so the learning from the inter-generational discussions has happened both ways.
R has admitted to his love of the reading group and how it helps him cope with being in prison:
“I’ve felt more relaxed in this room than in any other place in this prison. This is as ‘normal’ as life can be while we’re here. I look forward to it every week. It takes me to places.”
One week R had been to the library and borrowed a collection of funny poetry, to which he treated us to some dramatic readings.
N has been involved in the group since the first week:
“Some guys on the wing said I was doing this group to get out of work. I came the first time and I enjoyed the atmosphere and what I got out of it. I wanted to come back.”
N has said that he likes the stories we read but that:
"They’re more interesting because we're talking about them."
His confidence has increased and he has contributed more and more to discussions since that time. He shares stories from his own life – about a time when he was homeless, for example. And he has read aloud for us despite being very shy to do this at the outset.
He has a very keen interest in the language in the texts we read – particularly in the poetry – and lingers over the words/techniques that he thinks the writer is using well:
“I really enjoyed ‘Stopping by Woods’ by Robert Frost. The use of verbs, language…it’s so poetic.”
And he has written some poetry since he began the reading group and has shared this with the group very proudly at the end of our sessions.
N shows a keen interest in ‘bettering’ himself, in learning and education. When we were reading ‘The Bet’ by Anton Chekhov and discussing how the prisoner in the story passes his time, N said that the education programme in the prison had enabled him to get some qualifications that he hadn't achieved when he was younger, as he left school at 15. He had welcomed the chance to do this.
When it comes to the reading group he clearly sees it as a learning experience that is of great value to him:
“We’re all learning to communicate better. That’s a really important tool.”
“I think all the stories we read teach us that we shouldn’t judge people we come into contact with. We make judgments all the time – we do when we’re reading about characters in the stories. We all need to take people as we find them.”
“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.”
The Reader magazine offers a mix of new poetry and fiction, classic and neglected works and interviews with leading literary figures.
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