Reader Story: Neil, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“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.”

Neil* has been involved in the group since the first week. He 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 Shared Reading group and has shared this with the group very proudly at the end of our sessions.

Neil 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, Neil 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 Shared 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 judgements 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.”

* Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Robert, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“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.”

Robert* is in his 80s and is the oldest member of the Shared Reading group. He joined during the fourth session 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 Robert’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, Robert 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.

Robert has admitted to his love of the Shared 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 Robert had been to the library and borrowed a collection of funny poetry, to which he treated us to some dramatic readings.

* Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Norman, Read to Lead Graduate, Highlands

Norman is Prison Literacies Liaison Officer in the Library Support Unit at the Highland Council. He attended the Read to Lead Residential in September 2009. This is his Reader Story in his own words:

Read to Lead training has expanded and enhanced the nature of my work, no doubt. I’ve always had a broad definition of what literacy is, and was used to running groups as part of my job, but Read to Lead and the Shared Reading model added a whole new dimension to my role. I now run a group at HMP Inverness Porterfield, and have been so impressed by seeing the model at work that I secured funding to commission a special Read to Lead course in Inverness in March 2011.

Training in the Shared Reading is essential: the process seems simple, when it’s done well, but beneath this there are complex capabilities involved.

Norman has given permission for his name to be used in this Reader Story

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Reader Story: Conor, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“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.”

Conor* joined the Shared Reading group during session four. We were reading a Deep South-set American story, A Worn Path. Conor volunteered to read a section of it aloud and did a fabulous American accent – much to everyone’s pleasure.

Conor 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. While reading Shereen Pandit’s short story She Shall Not Be Moved, Conor said:

“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.”

And his empathy with characters is strong, he reflects here on Carol Ann Duffy’s Stealing:

“He wouldn’t be doing this [stealing a snowman] if he had things in his life – like friends, family, a job. He’s lonely.”

Conor’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.”

He added:

“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.”

*Please note that all our Reader Stories are anonymised.

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Reader Story: Marty, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“Marty seems to be getting loads out of the group. When I popped my head around the door before [into the meeting] I could see it on his face – just how much he’s enjoying it and into it.”

Staff member, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

I first met Marty* in mid September. When I went to talk to hostel residents at the morning meeting about the new Shared Reading group, I recall how he fixed me with a distinctly disinterested gaze!

A week later Marty was in the main office at the hostel when I arrived. One of the hostel workers said, “Give it a go. I think you’d really enjoy it.” Marty looked very uncomfortable and put-on-the-spot but grudgingly said, I’ll go for 10 minutes. That’s all.”

That particular day the session was one of the more disrupted variety. During the session Marty was pestered by two other residents who had arranged to borrow his bike plus a fire alarm meant we had to evacuate the building for a good 10 minutes – both perfect opportunities for Marty to make a bid for freedom! However, he stayed for longer than his pledged 10 minutes; he stayed for the duration of the session. He was a real pleasure to have in the group, asked direct questions about the text when he wasn’t clear, listened to others keenly and expressed his views in a very articulate manner (so much so that two other group members said at different points: I think exactly what you’ve just said, Marty! You put it so well!”).

He talked about having a near-death experience, seemed moved by a poem we were reading and challenged another group member’s theory that “real poetry rhymes!” At the end of the session before leaving the room he said, “That was really relaxing.

When I arrived the following week the residents’ meeting was still in full swing. However, Marty came out of the meeting early – and seemed keen on getting cracking with the Shared Reading group (he was very smiley, friendly and chatty – not a hint of mistrust – and one of his friends commented to me, “Marty’s been non-stop reading since your group last week!”).

Two of the regular group members were still in the meeting. Marty said as I set off to find them, “Tell them they should be here! That meeting was pretty heavy – this will relax them, get it out of their heads.” A week later I overheard Marty and another hostel resident talking about the Shared Reading group over a game of pool as I was coming to find them (they didn’t see me). Both of them were saying how “relaxing” they were finding it.

Since his first reluctant attendance Marty has been to every Shared Reading group session (bar one where he had a probation appointment), relates politely and respectfully to every one (being one of the best listeners in the group and responding sensitively to very personal things that other group members talk about), articulates deeply thoughtful and intelligent responses to the texts we read – airing views on war, death, disability, loneliness, friendship, family and prison amongst other topics.

His confidence in participating seems to be growing week on week and his mood during sessions – the way the texts and the interaction with the group affects him – is ever positive. Today, Marty was the first member of the group to offer to read a section of our novel aloud. He did a fabulous job and his willingness to do this paved the way for two other group members to follow suit!

*Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Shared Reading in HMP Low Newton

In preparation for RISE (Reading in Secure Enviorniments –  a collaboration with seven national literary festivals to bring contemporary writers to criminal justice settings) we read Jean Sprackland’s poems for a few weeks.

This focus on one poet is a new, rewarding, departure for the groups. Themes were explored, comparisons made, and we came to really know Jean’s subtle, gentle, funny yet serious voice. As one reader put it; I really like these poems because they’re real. They are real life”

Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman couldn’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listened politely, sensitively, but then the group moved on, back to the text, and the talk returned to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changed to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading was genuinely a new one.

Another, deeper, insight followed: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startled this woman to a laugh, and you could see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.

In another group the darkness helped to draw a listener in, intriguing her despite her previous hostility to what she described as the ‘irrelevance’ of poems.

“I like people’s stories, and now I’m going to pass a mattress on the way the out and wonder what secret’s and stories it can tell.”

Someone else quickly responded “I wouldn’t want anyone to know the stories my mattress could tell”, with mischief and bravado in her eyes. This was greeted with a smattering of laughter, but I wondered if it was my imagination that I saw a trace of embarrassment in the truth that hid behind the joke as she looks away.

Another reader looked up thoughtfully, “we don’t want to think about the stories of the mattresses here, we want to block out the previous occupants.”

The others nodded in agreement, talking about their dislike of an older style of prison mattress, ‘…reeking with secrets.’ The new plastic covered ones are much better, all agreed. Hard, not particularly comfortable, but they’re impersonal and let you forgot they’ve been shared.

Even better the plastic surface can be wiped. One woman, usually very quiet, described kneeling on the floor and washing her mattress down when she first moved into her cell. There was another pause and then she held my eye, Not that it was dirty like, just for the peace of mind, you know, psychological cleaning.”

* Please note, all Reader Stories are anonymised 

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