The Reader’s Penny Readings, inspired by Charles Dickens’ journeys around the country sharing his work, was a night our literary friend would have been proud of.
More than 400 volunteers, Shared Reading group members and members of the public joined us in St George’s Hall for a variety show quite unlike any other.
It was opened by the Liverpool Chamber Choir with a smashing rendition of Jingle Bells, which we were told was written three years before the opening of our St George’s Hall venue, while Dickens was writing Little Dorrit.
“He might have stood on this very stage singing this very song”, explained Reader volunteer and choir leader, James Hawkins.
Later, The Reader’s founder and director Jane Davis, added: “Charles Dickens trod these very boards, but when Dickens read in this room, it was before health and safety. He described in his letters that people were banging down the doors to get in. There would be 700 people crowded into this room – sadly we’re only allowed 500.
“And he charged more than a penny, by the way.”
Jane took the opportunity to thank all of those volunteers in the room – and those unable to join us – “thank you for all you do for reading and for people”.
She also thanked players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for the “grant that has made this event happen”.
Our Readers who were there
As well as music from Liverpool-born actor Stephen Walters, plus songs from The Reader staff members Chris Lynn and Lily Kehoe, the audience was treated to a series of literary delights.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, celebrated author, screenwriter and Reader patron, read a scene from The New Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, where the small children were attempting to make Christmas Pudding. . . with soap.
Maxine Peake played all parts in her reading from Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child as the toys’ quest to become self-winding lands them on stage with The Caws of Art.
Later, she read from Dickens’ own Dombey and Son – which is currently being read in one of The Reader’s first Shared Reading groups, in Birkenhead Central Library.
We were also joined by Reading Heroes, Barney and Tate, who, full of energy, offered a rather surreal performance of a chapter from David O’Doherty’s Danger is Everywhere, on the dangers of reading.
“Make sure there isn’t a tiger under your bed… and that your cat isn’t a tiger… Also beware of the page 9 scorpion.”
The High Sheriff of Merseyside, Peter Woods Esq DL, also took to the stage in full regalia, complete with sword, to treat us to Saki’s Reginald’s Christmas Revel.
Our Readers who couldn’t be there
Three people read on behalf of someone who could not be in the room that evening, including Helen Thompson, a Reader Leader from the Waves of Hope project for homeless people in Liverpool.
Dave and Carl, reading group members in HMP Liverpool, were given their moment by The Reader staff member Amanda Brown, who read Vernon Scannell’s Incendiary:
“Such skinny limbs and such a little heart
Which would have been content with one warm kiss
Had there been anyone to offer this.”
“After reading this poem they shared something of the stories with the group and they both said ‘that was me’,” Amanda said.
Chris Lynn, who used to lead The Reader’s dementia project in Wigan, read Mark Van Doren’s Slowly Slowly Wisdom Gathers, for Rose.
Quoting her, Chris said: “It gets everything together that one. It’s very true what it says. It’s what happens in our life.”
As ever, the evening was closed by a reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, read by Phil Davis, Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool.
“They were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.”