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The Library That Talks Back

August 11, 2018 | Posted in: prison


We have a greater ability than at any other time in history to reach out to other people with lives unlike our own, yet too often we prefer to hear the echo of our own thoughts. One of the great pleasures of reading is the giddy sensation when we connect; truly connect, with another mind. We feel we understand them despite their different experience of the world.

The Empathy Museum, through its many audio recordings, offered the chance to walk in someone’s shoes, to hear their story. But what if the story changed? What if it could answer you back? We are, after all, more than one story.

Recently I was asked to curate a ‘human library’ composed of people with lived experience of prison. The human library idea originated in Denmark and was designed to combat stereotypes. People could visit the library and borrow a ‘Muslim’ or a ‘Young single mother’ and chat to them for a while. Intriguing, but I don’t like labels. Wasn’t that part of the problem? I didn’t want nine ‘exoffenders’ in my human library. These were people with their own stories, their own words. They would answer questions but I needed a way to present them to potential readers, a staging that would give a shape to their experience using their own words. The library catalogue would contain nine short narratives, allowing readers to choose who they would like to speak to. These could be the start of the conversation but the books would be in control.

Other parts of the Danish human library project I liked: having ‘librarians’ to guide people, and time limits (fifteen minutes maximum) to keep things focused. Essentially it is the staging of conversations. Instead of people speaking to an audience, or being lost on a panel, there would be multiple small intimate conversations, the content of which I would never know. It would take place within the Warwick University exhibition The Production of Truth, Justice, and History at the Tate Modern.

‘What if people ask something we’re not comfortable with?’ one of the Nine asked.
Just tell them that’s not in the book

To be
I was never the kind of person to get into trouble, but there I was sewing tracksuit bottoms in a prison for foreign nationals. Did I mention I was British? The first prison I was put in they asked me to choose what I wanted to eat the night before from the menu. Next day I go to the canteen and they tell me they haven’t any of what I ordered left. They’d run out. I was told you should have come earlier. How was I to know? Sewing tracksuit bottoms wasn’t great. Make a leg and pass it on. There was an older Nigerian lady next to me who used to help. She had a bad back, so I would sew a few extra and put them in her basket. One day, just for a laugh, I sewed a bee into the bottom of one of the tracksuit’s legs. People saw what I had done and laughed. Those clothes go to all different prisons. Quite a while later I’m sent to a different prison. I’ve got my enhanced, so I don’t have to wear prison clothes anymore. I take my prison tracksuit down to the laundry, and when I take it off I find the bee in the trouser leg! I don’t know how long it had been there, but I knew then it was all meant to be. I’m not angry or bitter like many. I know now what I’m going to do with myself.
Brenda Birungi is an emerging young artist and poet.

‘I don’t think I can do this. I’ve got butterflies.’ Within our Nine are some who have spoken at events previously, and others for whom this is the very first time.

Martin, who has the butterflies, hasn’t done anything like this before.
We all try to encourage him but he’s doubtful. When we break for lunch we realise Martin hasn’t returned from his cigarette break, and isn’t answering his phone. We’re all convinced he’s done a runner, but the truth is he simply got lost. The Tate is huge. Step out for a cigarette, turn around, and it’s easy to lose your way.

After lunch we’re ready. We set up three reading spaces – hoping we will have at least three readers. The Nine cluster around a table and swap prison stories, wondering who will be chosen first. Would people turn up?

From the moment the ‘library’ opens we have readers waiting, and Martin is the first to get his fifteen minutes. He comes back face aglow, and buzzing. Full of praise for his reader. ‘She really listened.’ And then we are laughing because the next reader wants Martin too, and it is so good to see his nervousness melt away.

The Library is a hit. We have a queue! My three sets of chairs have become five as conversations mushroom, springing up around the space, in the windows, around the tables, but each with its intimacy, its own bubble. All these conversations are centre stage but I hear none of them. It’s just the book and the reader, and the pleasure, the buzzy connection clear on their faces. People sit with serious intent – they laugh, and they cry. This is a living reading. Living gives mood. Living means each conversation will be different each time. Living means interruptions. Living means there is an edge. Some of those who come are already involved in the criminal justice system, some come from the larger Warwick University exhibition, and some were drifting through the Tate and saw the signs.

After a couple of hours the queue dies down. I check that everything is going well, and when I turn back, a man is waiting. I ask who he would like to speak to. Instead he stares at me and says, ‘What is this Criminal Justice?’

I start to explain the premise of the library but he interrupts.
‘I say, what is Criminal Justice?’ He says it with enough force that I can see people turn to look at us.
‘How can you have justice when you have a royal family who are corrupt?’
I can see Tate security hovering just behind the man, and one of my colleagues takes a stand next to me.

The man faces me, a little closer than comfortable, less than an arms reach. He does not smile, and his voice is harsh, and the English is expelled from his mouth in broken sentences. Again and again he comes back to what is justice? This is not a philosophical debate, or not quite. He launches into a tirade about the royal family, particularly Prince Philip who, in his eyes, preys on the poor. My questioner demands my close attention, as if I am a little slow picking up on his words.
‘How is it that Prince Philip can miraculously recover from illness? First he is ill, and cancels an engagement. Then is well again the next day. This is impossible for a man in his nineties, no?’
My questioner is convinced this can only be the result of organ donation, or rather the stealing of organs from the poor, those on the streets. How else can these people recover so fast? And as this is clearly the truth, how can I say there is such as thing as a criminal justice system, when the rich and the privileged are literally harvesting the poor?

We’re standing toe-to-toe and I can see that university and Tate staff are nervous. They are waiting for me to deal with this man – the last thing I want is for him to be escorted away. He deserves his fifteen minutes. And I do understand the need for explanations. It’s what we all want, and at one level the idea that the rich and privileged suck the life from others is not untrue. I wish we had more of a common language, as I often enjoy this sort of conversation. Trying to figure out the world. Not putting it to rights, but rather working out where we share points of understanding so we can turn over a few stones together. My questioner wants a conversation about justice based on how he sees the world. It is important to him. We continue, with me edging around his reality, occasionally sliding into it when I feel I grasp a concept. He gets his fifteen minutes, and then we part. He seems satisfied that he has been heard, and the security guards stand down.

Back at the ‘library’ we can begin to wind down. It has been frantic but the Nine are jubilant. It has been a good day for them. They have been properly paid for their time, and they were the centre of the work, rather than puppets wheeled on and wheeled off to justify some charitable programme. We talk about how important ‘lived experience is.’

‘It’s in our bodies, in how we move.’

Not everyone is convinced they had found a real audience at the Tate. ‘We should be in town, in pubs doing this. These people know all this already.’

But the majority feel it was an achievement.

‘It was when people said ‘Can I ask about your crimes?’ That respect bowled me over.’

‘They were amazing. Two were victims of crimes, and they wanted to hear from me whether prison would work.’

‘I didn’t realise how institutionalised I was. I thought it hadn’t got to me but these conversations made me realise.’

As we left it seemed to me everyone walked a little taller. The staging, the catalogue, The Tate, the exhibition all enabled people to be ready for that simplest of pleasures – an honest conversation.

The inspiration for this Human Library was shaped between Ana Chamberlen (Sociologist at the University of Warwick) and Charlotte Weinberg, Executive Director of Safe Ground.

It’s the words, stupid

March 3, 2018 | Posted in: literacy, prison

It might have been a waste of time. You arrive early at the prison. You’re not on the list so you don’t exist. You are not given an explanation. The young woman behind the glass tells you to wait in the search area. Ten minutes go by. An interpreter joins you on the bench, and you swap stories of long waits in prisons, and treatment by staff. More time goes by. You can hear the chatter of families queuing to see their loved ones. “I’ve told him. Don’t think I haven’t told him.”
Another ten minutes go by. You are now late. The young woman who was behind the glass enters the search area and again asks to see your ID. You have become a person again. Freshly searched, you are ushered through to where the tutors are waiting.

Snow flurries twirl around you as you walk. You would like to walk quicker because of the cold and your thin jacket, but nobody moves fast in prison. You chat with the tutors, get an idea of their mood, their approach to the students. Neither seems worn down by the prison regime. Both are enthusiastic about what their students can achieve. Their present students are mainly Old Soviet Bloc: Poles, and Romanians, though there is one Vietnamese guy in the less able class. You want to see both classes. In one they can easily cope with a Quick Read. ‘They really liked Dead Simple”. You are glad to hear that. With that level of language reading for pleasure becomes much more obvious. There is a shared language of comparison, and investigation, plotlines and empathy.

In the other class, the one with the Vietnamese guy, the level of English is much more basic. Some have only a few words. The teacher is a little worried about the Vietnamese guy. He will be cross. He didn’t get off the wing yesterday. She waves a sheet of paper. He was on the list but the officers used the list from the day before. Paper. You know the power of paper in a prison. Everything is on paper. That’s why you were not on the list at the gate. Someone had mislaid your Intent to Visit, or not written one. You waited twenty minutes and someone came and fetched you. That wouldn’t happen on the wing.

You place your bag of books on the table. The students have still not arrived. No movement. They’re late but that’s not unusual. The teacher shows you some photo prompts that she’d prepared for encouraging writing and speaking. “They didn’t like them,” she explains. They look fine to you. You plan to get the group to choose which of the books you’ve brought they feel comfortable with. A simple exercise but it means they have to get involved, make choices, show they can understand what the book is likely to be about.

The students are now 45 minutes late. This could be a wasted trip. You will have to drive for two hours after. Probably through snow. The teachers in the education block have no radios so have no idea what might be going on in the rest of the prison, what might be delaying or preventing students coming to the class. You look out of the window. Nobody is moving across the yard. Another teacher volunteers to find an officer and see what is going on. The teachers are embarrassed. “You’ve come all this way.”
You tell them of the hours you have spent waiting in various prisons. When a count falls short. The inability to know exactly when a lesson with start and end, because in prison the regime dictates time, not the clock.

The teacher returns. They’re on the way. You will have one hour. You decide to stay with the lower level group before moving to the more able group. It will be useful to compare the two classes’ choices. The Vietnamese guy arrives. He is cross that he wasn’t allowed to education yesterday. Students file past on the way to the other class but nobody else enters yours. The tutor gives the Vietnamese guy a worksheet while we wait. Five minutes go by.

You move across to the Vietnamese guy. He is filling in upper and lower case letters, and numbering the letters of the alphabet A is 1, B is 2 etc. You introduce yourself.
“Thanh.” (Not his real name)
You shake hands. None of your prepared exercises are for single students. You decide to try out one of the simplest books, check what words Thanh recognises and work with that. His spoken English is heavily accented but he seems to have enough for short comments and sentences. You will work with him for twenty minutes, and then move on to the more able group.
Thanh smiles at the book. The book is about skyscrapers (David Orme). Information given in short sentences, or just single words. The book starts with the pyramids and Thanh wants to show me his understanding of the numbers given. We turn to the modern skyscrapers and you try to guess where they are.

“I know this,’ he points. ‘Tokyo.”
“You’ve been there?”
He nods. Points to himself.
“To the top?” You point to the picture.
Thanh nods again.
“Did you use the lift?”
The word doesn’t mean anything to him. Your miming doesn’t help. Luckily the book has a picture and he understands, nods.
“Yes, lift.” He points upwards.
You smile. Thanh smiles. You have connected. You have managed to convey something to each other. You both smile again at this success.

Now it is different. Charged. He wants to read everything on each page. Hurls himself at the words. Not to show you what a good student he is, but because he really wants to learn English.

You finish Skyscrapers and move to Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van (Cath Jones). Again, it is simple but it is a story, a narrative, rather than plucking out individual words.

Thanh has no problem sounding out the words but he doesn’t always understand their meaning. You stop him; check he has understood tools, the rush.
And he is off again.
The teacher says, “I never knew you could read so well.”
Thanh shrugs, eager to get back to the story.

You pause him on another word, and this time he looks at you, smiles and then brings out a sheet of lined paper. On it is a list of words and their meanings.
“My cell mate,” he explains. “He teaching me.”
The list of words is practical: Shaving, food items from the canteen sheet etc. The words you need in prison. You look at the clock. There is only twenty minutes left. Should you go to the other class? But Thanh is back at the words. He wouldn’t let you go, and that fierce focus reminds you of when your son was learning to read; puzzling out words and sentences of simple stories; finding a toy, losing a toy, a dog eating a sandwich. You recognise the same focus, the magnetic pull of words because each word, each sentence, however simple, is a window, a magic door to the world. Each word unlocks something, makes the reader see more clearly, adds to the world.
Thanh finishes Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van.
“I never knew,” the teacher says.
“I want to learn,” says Thanh triumphantly.

Another teacher puts his head around the door and tells us the class is finishing fifteen minutes early. We are not told why.

Note: the class visit was part of a project (funded by the Bell Foundation) to use Reading Ahead with prisoners with esol needs.

Time for Dad

September 5, 2017 | Posted in: literacy, prison, schools, young people

‘Which are the good ones?’ Len gingerly picks through the picture books I’ve placed in front of him. The rest of the group sense a shortcut and stop sifting their own book piles.
‘You just need to look through them. Choose one you like.’ I keep my voice light. I want them to see this as fun, not a chore. To me, choosing a picture book means five or ten minutes max. The group act as if it’s going to take them hours. They fan out the slim books, unsure how to begin.
‘Why don’t you just tell us which are best? That would make it quicker.’ Marco gives me his just-trying-to-help face.
‘You have to decide for yourself.’
They look at me. In truth, they’re not trying to skive, they just want a clear answer. Because there has to be answer. There has to be a ‘best book’.
‘Listen,’ I pick a book from the top of the pile near Len and sit on the floor. The group remain on their chairs, watching me curiously.

I read Fizz the Fire Engine out loud to this group of addicts, thieves, fraudsters, drug dealers, and villains. I read it the way I read it to my son when he was barely walking, and this was his favourite book. It’s a quick story, even with all the sound effects, and as I’m reading I’m aware (because you need to be aware of your audience) of their nervous looks, their smirks and grins at my expense but also that they GOT the story, that they GOT the point of enjoying yourself, of throwing yourself into something as small and as vital as story for your child. Reading with your children isn’t a chore, it’s a gift.

Safeground’s Fathers Inside is a parenting course for men in prison. We cover parental rights, choices, dealing with your children’s schoolwork – everything, which includes reading with your kids. The five-week course is intensive and challenging, made doubly so by the fact that we use drama in every session. The men create scenarios where they tell the truth, where they role-play stories because that’s how we learn. It asks an awful lot of them in a place where honesty is rarely rewarded. They get stick for coming to courses such as this. It’s not a parent-friendly environment. Parenting? What you need that for? What’s wrong with you?
The group appreciate the different space Fathers Inside gives them.
‘We can leave all that shit on the wing,’ they say, despite my often having to cajole them back from discussing ‘wing shit’.
‘Here we can be ourselves. We’re all dads.’ Marco looks around the room. ‘That’s what we have in common. Before this I would have walked on by if he (he nods at Len) were getting trouble. Now I’ve got his back.’ He grins ‘We’d even help you, Davo.’
In the class they can see themselves and each other as fathers and individuals rather than other men caught in the same trap. Part of the value of the course is to remind the men of that other identity, help them strengthen it as only then will they be able to resist the offender label, and all its harmful negativity, which is the bedrock of prison life.

The big carrot for the course is a family day where they put on a performance for their families. There is much excitement that they will get five hours with their families, twice as long as a normal visit. This is also a source of stress. Knowing that your family and your relationship with them will be on view: this can unravel some of the stories the men tell about themselves. One man, right from the start, tells us just what a fabulous dad he is, how much he loves his kids, how much he does for them but as we get closer to the performance he has to acknowledge that nobody is coming to see him. To his credit he carries on playing his part so the performance can continue. Len, who has a three-month-old son, tells me that he would also like to contact his children from a previous relationship.

The men’s wives and partners rarely work. This can appear conservative, for all their wild drug tales the men want to keep traditional male and female roles. And yet they have never, not a single one, raised a hand to their children. Partly this is because so much of the childcare is left to their partners; they prefer to be the one who brings fun and toys. It is also because so many remember being beaten by their fathers (and mothers). Traditional, and yet they can confound my expectations. When one man said he would never read to his children as that was ‘a woman’s job’, the group freeze him out.

The group discuss how hard it is to keep family contact going. ‘Sometimes you just don’t want to see them, you know.’
‘Gotta do your own time’ – nods Zen-Bobby who misses one session a week to attend meditation. This helps with his temper though Zen-Bobby is adamant that he has no problem dealing with prison. ‘Sleep your way through. 23hr bang-up? Lovely. You go into a kind of trance. When they let you out of the cell properly a whole week might have gone by.’
For these men it is one thing to do your time. Most accept this. It is something that must be got through, slept through, something to drug yourself through, fight and paranoia yourself through. Being conscious of your family on the outside, of being helpless to help them, of not being the provider: that is hard. Too hard for many. Fathers Inside offers different ways in which they can maintain relationships.

Back to the books. ‘This is a bit near.’ Marco holds up When Dad was Away (Liz Weir/Karin Littlewood). Len has got Visiting Day (Jacqueline Woodson/James E Ransome).


Both books are about families who have a father in prison
‘Fuck. I never knew there were books like this.’
Freddie takes the book. Freddie copies out the whole book and adds drawings of his own for his own children. One of the drug dealers reveals a life long love of Dr Seuss. We show them books that help dyslexics, books that deal with all kinds of issues such as loss, moving house, worries etc.

‘I never realised books were more than stories. That when I read to my kids we’re also learning about each other,’ says John with genuine wonder.

John loves Dinkin Dings (Guy Bass). ‘Can I borrow it? ‘John is a habitual thief: sellatape, pens, paper vanish when he’s in the room. I never see him do it. But if I ask for items to be returned he will unashamedly bring them back. ‘Didn’t think they were important.’
Dinkin Dings will not come back but I want to believe he will read it down the phone to his son. The phones, the over-expensive, non-private phones where everyone’s family drama is broadcast down the wing.

On the day of the performance the group are excited. It’s the big day and they are also terrified.
‘You have no idea how scary this is for us.’
It goes well. Each family get a gift bag with books from Give A Book, a charity that supports many book-gifting projects inside and outside prison

That’s a long time they say with both apprehension and satisfaction. ‘I don’t think I spent that long with my kids before.’ If you’re out working or dealing it tends to take you away from your families. On the day the families love the performance, and mingle. They sit in couples, hands in hand (forbidden on usual visits) baby asleep on a blanket.

A long visit is something that they have all looked forward to but it’s also a long time to sit with people who inhabit a different world. Families also have long journeys. One family arrive hours early because of the trains. Others have to start back with tired and hungry children.

At the end only two of our group are still sitting with their families.
I’m enjoying watching Len and Marco with their babies. Len will be back on building sites soon, minding his temper. He seems happy and when his girlfriend goes to get a cup of tea, he is looking after his three-month-old baby. The baby isn’t immediately impressed and keeps looking around for his mother. I watch Len to see if he will wait for his girlfriend to return. The baby is grizzling now but Len’s still smiling as he reaches into the book bag and pulls out a book. His baby son looks curious before resuming his grizzling, twisting round in the direction his mother took. Len picks up his son, places him on his knee, balances the book and begins to read.

* All names have been changed

“Crazy but Brilliant-Crazy” – Penned Up festival at HMP Erlestoke

June 7, 2017 | Posted in: prison


Mr Gee is in my car. Maggie’s got the Addiction Team, and I’m dealing science fiction futures with Adam Roberts, though I’m not sure in which room, and still find it unbelievable that our event is full. Who would have thought there would be so many sci-fi fans banged up at HMP Erlestoke? Through the prison gates, and I draw keys. It’s Penned Up’s second week, and the staff smile and wave me through. They’re smiling but somewhere Security is puzzling over tomorrow’s “intent to visit”. Geese Theatre is sending a man with ‘a suitcase of masks and a ball’. Someone is bound to ask me what kind of ball.

Tomorrow will be a bit of a panic anyhow, as we are running four events: three simultaneously. Two of these are with rock solid performers, Ilya (graphic novels) and Dreda Say Michell (crime novels) – both of whom were part of our very first Penned Up at HMP Lewes in 2015, so they know what to expect. But it’s still stretching us to be in three places at once. Three people with keys, three people with registers, three people to keep the panic button in sight. Lewes had been kept simple because the prison couldn’t cope with multiple events, Erlestoke has been much more receptive so we are pushing to see what can be achieved.


All prisons are different. In Lewes the prisoners and townsfolk can eyeball each other across the street.


Erlestoke is set back from a country lane, tucked away in gardens, behind razor wire. Lewes is a Cat B local with a high turnover – “churn” in prison jargon. Erlestoke is a Cat C with 50% lifers and IPPs (Imprisonment for Public Protection), a more stable population. We shuffle on. Nobody walks quickly in prison. You adapt to the pace, no point in speeding to be first at the next gate. But that’s not life. This is what takes the newly released by surprise. Life comes at you fast. Life doesn’t wait for you to open doors.

Another gate and we are walking through the neat gardens towards the education block. After almost twenty years of prison projects I have finally been persuaded to carry keys. I was reluctant not just because it means a half day staring at slides warning of the multiple ways in which prisoners will try to corrupt you, but because it is far easier to follow someone else around. Now I have to learn the route, remember the rooms, decide whether someone has permission to go through a gate, all by myself. I don’t think I’ve had an unbroken night’s sleep since the festival began. Festivals, or good ones anyway, are a bit bonkers. Rather than calculate and Gradgrind-cost every event, you pour in talent-excitement- inspiration until the vessel overflows. Instead of offering the minimum, a good festival is designed so you can’t have it all. However much you run around you will miss something. You can gorge yourself but still know there was something you missed. You will still want more. Penned Up has twenty events crammed into its two weeks. “It’s crazy but brilliant-crazy”, a tutor tells me.

Still, despite the 4am wakings worrying about authors’ pen names, IDs, equipment, permissions, who to collect at the station, who to deliver back, I don’t have Mark’s worries. As well as putting the festival together with me he is staging a performance of David Mamet’s Duck Variations with a group of the men – but his group keeps shrinking. As soon as they agree they disappear, lines aren’t learnt, yet there is great confidence. “Ah don’t worry Mark; it’ll be all right on the day”. That day being Thursday, and today is Tuesday. I pass Mark in the yard muttering about glue, newspaper, and promises. I bet Mark sleeps even less than I do.

I drop Mr Gee at Education for his poetry workshop. Education loves the visitors. The wall is lined with photographs of them presenting certificates to the learners, and it’s been great to see so many tutors attend the events with their students. . Week Two, and already the opening with Erwin James feels a month ago. There is a sparking of interest around the place. After the months of preparation I’m recognised by most of the men hanging around corridors.
“Who you brought today?”
“Read the programme.” I know every prisoner has had a programme under their door because I know the poor bastard who did the job. But still they would rather trust their choice of event to a chance encounter minutes before the start.
‘Are they famous?”

I was that guitar player, Erwin James tweets before I collect him from the station. He’s excited because the prison band The Discarded is playing a short set after his opening speech. Erwin is a great speaker. Not just because he has the heft that comes from serving a life sentence, but also because he found a better version of himself during his time in prison. All of this means the men will listen to him, but staff are uneasy about someone convicted of murder receiving lots of attention. It brings them up hard on the anvil of rehabilitation, the stated aim of prisons such as Erlestoke, but how much rehabilitation can they take?

In the car on the way to the prison Erwin asks, “Are there any boundaries? How do you want me to play it?” I’d seen Erwin speak at literary festivals, to prison librarians, and to a packed gym at HMP Grendon.
“No boundaries,” I said. “It’s not about that.” And after the event I can see the staff who had been troubled now see it has been worth it. That it had got under everybody’s skin, and brought excitement and possibility fizzing into the room. Despite a tight window to get Erwin back for his train he insists on staying to hear the band. “I want to hear them,” and I can see he is excited. Penned Up isn’t the usual gig. Most of the time prison makes you feel small. The walls are tall, the numbers huge, the rules unclear and unspoken. Best be a mouse running through the cracks unnoticed. Now though, with Penned Up, it feels good to stand up proud, to be part of something that can fill the emptiness, however briefly.


After Erwin, the band play a great set, and their magic moment comes in week two with Billy Bragg. The Discarded have sweated for this moment. Bragg is at Erlestoke because they invited him. The audience love to hear him speak with disarming honestly about his need to get on stage, his craving for his time up there, and then the band swing into The Price I Pay, the song they have chosen to perform with him. We watch Billy fumble for his glasses to check the tabs on the song he wrote almost thirty years ago, and the audience applaud the honesty of the human behind the star. “Nobody comes to my gigs to hear me sing,” he says.


Behind the scenes, of course, there have been months of preparation, poring over spreadsheets, registers, organising movements so it all runs smooth. There is an assumption in prison that most things will fall away, never get beyond the planning stage. So the men on the committee are doubly proud to have both made it happen, and to know it is of high quality.

At the end of the festival there is time to reflect. Like all festivals, Penned Up is largely remembered in moments when something is shared: the men found Adam Robert’s discussion of 1984 and Brave New World fascinating. We all loved the visit from Robert Richards from Glastonbury festival. And then there was dear Charlie Mortimer in the library who started telling how he collected his Dad’s letters for Dear Lupin but then stopped reading from notes and looked up at the audience to say that he had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, when it was a death sentence. After a respectful silence, one of the men asked Charlie how it had felt to be told you were going to die. Charlie answered with honestly and openness – and the questioner nodded and said that’s how he had felt receiving his own life sentence.

When Kit de Waal spoke about her experiences of adopting children, a man sitting at the front, facing her, whispered so low that I think he intended only her to hear, that his own children were in care. It wasn’t an opening to discussion; more that he needed to voice that part of his story. “You’ve got to write your stories. There are not enough voices,” Kit told the audience.


The performance of Duck Variations did indeed take place and received enthusiastic applause. Festivals disrupt the norm; allow conversations to take place that could never find mouths or ears otherwise. They fill a space that you weren’t quite aware of before and leave you with more questions than answers. And all that is to the good.


PS the men wrote their own piece

Feed the space

August 13, 2016 | Posted in: prison

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Apart from illegal items, there are also prohibited items, which are not allowed into the prison. These include:

Items which may aid an escape, e.g. wire or abrasive materials.

‘It must be easy putting on events in a prison. Captive audience and all that.’
I’ve heard that a lot over the years. The other common assumption is that prisoners are so bored they’ll lap up any author who’s sent their way. They are bored but they want to work, go to classes, the gym, phone their families, take a shower, and eat. The prison regime is inflexible and you have to fit into it.

Famous? Not so famous? Authors are generally only well known to readers. Lots of prisoners are not readers. Your average literary festival author won’t warrant a second row of chairs in the prison library. What you need is someone who is famous outside the book-world, and/or has a fabulous backstory of his or her own. Generally I don’t take recommendations from publishers; ideally I ask people whom I’ve already seen at events, or who come with personal recommendations.

Mobile phones Laptops (unless authorised by the Security Manager)

library at HMP Thameside

library at HMP Thameside

Where? Most times it’s the prison library but they vary hugely in size. Some can hold 60, others you’re struggling for double figures. Two of the best prison events I’ve ever done were held in gyms: Martina Cole in HMP New Hall (women’s prison), and Erwin James at HMP Grendon. I worried a lot about these. Gyms don’t have great acoustics, we had no mics and both authors are softly spoken. In the end it didn’t matter. The gyms were crammed, which stopped the echoes, and both speakers had such resonance with their audience that people literally held their breath to hear. No coughs, no shuffles, just a warm expectation. At the end of Martina’s event there was a standing ovation. Literally. Honestly, I’ve never seen that for an author. Sure people will clap, will clap hard, even cheer, but to have the entire audience rise to its feet was amazing.

Chewing gum Glue / Blue tack Aerosols Metal Cutleries
Tin openers Any tools including scissors and nail files
Pornographic materials.

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Prison is an intense environment, everything is stripped bare and laid open so people working/living there create ways of building distance and covering themselves. It’s the place where you realize that the nice middleclass thriller writer, whose books the prisoners love, can’t in the flesh fill the space. HMP Grendon is unusual as nobody is told who the speaker will be until they arrive at the gym. Prisoners apply to go six weeks before, and then need to be vetted. I think they now trust there will be a good speaker waiting for them. The audience’s response took even Erwin by surprise. “Prisoners lowering their defences, opening up to each other, sharing with each other, encouraging each other. You don’t normally get that in prison, where prisoners are actually lifting each other up, usually they’re pushing each other down.”

Pirate CDs/ CD rewrites and DVDs. Any Pyrotechnics

Make sure as many people in the prison know about your event. Get the governor there which means less chance of a last minute cancellation. Even a Martina Cole event will be cancelled if there is a shutdown.

Sometimes you take a chance with a writer because you think they can make a connection: Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, and The Wonder Box. I figured an event would work but only if Roman could make people have a discussion rather than just sit and listen. And that’s what he did. More importantly he listened, and when leaving the event one prisoner said, ‘That’s the first intelligent conversation I’ve had in the two years I’ve been here.’

Pen knives
PDA’s with mobile facilities
Data sticks
Bluetooth ear pieces.
Perfume/Aftershave with the exception of ATAR which is permitted to Muslim prisoners and Staff.

Robert Muchamore is easily the most popular author amongst the juveniles (15-17 year olds). At the event his fans sat in the front row and the first question was: ‘How come you know so much about drugs?’

There is a different etiquette at prison events, for instance no pretence that money isn’t part of the writing deal. Writers are often asked how much they earn.

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

I’ve loved events with a wide variety of writers: Scroobius Pip, Dreda Say Mitchell, Bali Rai, Kimberley Chambers, and Noel Smith. All were prepared to open up beyond what they had written in their books

‘I didn’t think an author would be like that. She wasn’t that different from us. It makes you think you have choices:’ Teenage prisoner at HMYOI Feltham, after visit from Dreda Say Mitchell

At the Andy McNab event at HMP Pentonville the questions were not just about his life but his views on the politics of the Middle East.

A phone call asking if I could organise a prison event for Russell Brand took me by surprise. He wants to do a prison? I could imagine the sneers from some prison mangers. Do me a favour. What would the Daily Mail make of this? More likely they would leave me waiting for weeks with no answer until Brand had got bored and moved onto something else. I wanted him in a prison. I was no fan but I knew he would pull people into reading, into thinking and talking. I was lucky that Neil Barclay works in the library at HMP Thameside and within 20 minutes it was agreed Brand would visit. Neil has gone onto have a whole procession of authors and celebrities visit with more signed photos on his wall than most West End agencies.

Brand was late but for once the regime was going to bend. Never has it been so easy to get into a prison. I walked with Brand as he swayed limply across courtyards, down corridors, giving autographs on autopilot with a smile that barely held. “I don’t really know why the fuck I’m here,” he whispered to me as we entered the library. At this point I was worried he wouldn’t step up for the audience and I was going to be standing in front of 100 prisoners and staff in painful silence. The multi faith centre is rammed. We’ve let Khalid the library orderly do the introductions, and the prisoners are shouting him down, jeering and whistling in what I hope is mainly good humour.

Brand and I go in and sit down at the front. We have one mic between us. I start the interview but when Brand takes hold of the mic he is transformed.
It’s not quite Johnny Cash at San Quentin but he is electrifying. The first question comes from a prisoner who sees a dead relative in his mirror. The room quietens. Brand answers the man with hope, condolence and respect then, with perfect timing, moves onto the next question. From the moment he picked up the mic until the last question the audience are with him, and the only problem is getting back out through the autograph-hunting mob. It takes several burly guards to hold back the crush and usher us out. The whole prison feels truly alive. For one moment all the armour has dropped, and something is shared. We get to the exit and Brand is sulking because his phone is in the locker and his manager, who has the key, is still inside the prison.

A year later I’m with Martina Cole at HMP Pentonville. One of the prisoners waves and I go over. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Luke, who had been at the Brand event at Thameside. He grins in appreciation. ‘Yeah. He came in a celebrity and left a legend.’

Cameras (unless authorised by the Security Manager for specific events)

This list is not exhaustive and the searching officer has the power to confiscate any items that may present any threat to security


July 3, 2016 | Posted in: literacy, museums, prison, young people

‘What’s in the box?’ Boy A was already out of his cell and at the table. Boys B, C and D shuffled out too with the unsure glances and exaggerated stretches of newly uncaged dogs. I put the two handling boxes from Reading Museum down on the table carefully. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous week when the sheet of hardboard that covered the pool table almost slid off.
‘Yeah, what you got this week?’ The Boys were pulling up chairs, rolling needle thin cigarettes whilst nudging, knocking and nipping each other in a good-hearted way. I’d learned it was best to let them get this out of their system before getting down to the workshop proper. They would have been in their cells for several hours by the time I arrived at the Separated Prisoner Unit. Sometimes they would have been in their cells for much longer.
‘What did you ask for?’
They groan. They’re teenagers, they can’t possibly be expected to remember what they’d said the previous week. Their requests and comments from last week’s workshop were fresh in my mind, but a week in the SPU is a week in another climate.

The Boys are here for their own safety. They are considered vulnerable to bullying from local villains settling a score, or else the crime they are accused of is so heinous that they would be fair game in the main population. The SPU is cut off from the warehouse-bulk of HMYOI Reading, a tiny block whose cells date back to when Oscar Wilde walked the treadmill. The Boys are all on remand. Throughout the project some are shipped out, others stay. Only in one session did one Boy stay behind his cell door. The other Boys mocked him gently, they know he’d find it easier out with them than in the cell with just himself. They have quite enough time to be inside their heads. The Boy doesn’t come out. The officers shrug; nobody is forced to join the workshops. Boy C tells me the Boy Behind the Door sobbed all the previous night. The workshops take place in the corridor that is just wide enough to accommodate the pool table and chairs. If the Boys lean back in their chairs they touch their cell doors.

Aside from our afternoon workshops a tutor comes down each morning to give them lessons, or show the occasional film. This project is a big deal for the Boys: It is contact with the outside world, with people who aren’t part of the regime. The officers generally stay out of our way and with remarkable politeness let us get on with our project. This is back in the early noughties. The political conversation is peppered with being ‘tough on the causes of crime,’ and ‘ handing out ASBOs’ but there is also ‘social exclusion’ and the need to take library and museum services to ‘new audiences’.

‘Open the fuckin’ box will you?’
Over the eight weeks I’ve learnt timing. How to let the anticipation build but not to make the Boys feel I had power over them. The handling boxes from Reading Museum are probably the best in the country. The museum officers had taken great pride in showing me how they boxed up artifacts under themes. Most museums just use them for the school curriculum: Victorians, World War Two etc. Reading had a much wider scope: Native Americans, the English Civil War, Natural History, Smoking and hundreds of others. Smoking – I had to bring this one in. Everybody smokes. The officers let me bring in everything except the opium scales.

Faced with a series of objects we would use them to write short pieces.
I was eleven years old when I started smoking. I remember as it was by birthday and I was over the park with my brother and his friend. I was so happy I could smoke properly I went round showing all my brother’s friends and hey were laughing. I like the smell and the taste of it. I felt like an adult.

The Boys had loved the Natural History boxes: skulls, teeth, and skin.
The snake split slowly down the centre like a clean knife through the single layer. It rubbed itself in itchy ecstasy as it slid slowly free. The snake glittered in the bright sun, moist and beautiful. It slithered away leaving the dead husk behind, a shadow of itself.

Today it is the Egyptians.
‘I can’t believe I’m holding something like this. Thousands of years old. What if I drop it?’ I tell the Boy it’s fine. The museum has plenty. Some of the objects are encased in clear resin but the magic is still there. Boy A’s face is lit up. This is the point when the Boys ask me about particular object. Easy enough with old pub ashtrays but harder when you only have the name of the object: canopic jar. This leads to a wide-ranging discussion of Egyptian death rituals, curses, and rough geography. For several sessions I’d brought in a guest to help the Boys with their creative work. The Boys are generally open to trying to write but don’t like being pushed into things. The most successful sessions are with the poet Brendan Cleary. The Boys love him. Love his Irishness, his slightly dodgy dress sense, and his slipshod manner with everything except words. Brendan could get a poem out of my dog. It is Brendan who gets the Boys to address the object, speak directly to it rather than writing ‘about it’. Speak to it. This simple direction sparks the Boys into action. They create quickly and with great satisfaction. All read out their work. Sometimes the officers come in to listen They always admire the objects and occasionally shout various facts to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Over a decade later I see that HMYOI Reading, closed since 2013, will be a Year of Culture venue in 2016
It always was.


The Chase
So you see this animal is totally cool
The African plains her pride does rule
Tiger, I would love to meet ya!
In my eyes you’re a magnificent creature!

The Jackal head jar
Jackal head
you don’t look much like
a Jackal head to me

Jackal head
your ears remind me of a bat
flying through the Africa jungle

Jackal head
your face looks like a baby turtle
crawling up a hazardous beach
to the safety of the Atlantic Ocean

Jackal head
your stripes look like a vicious tiger
stalking a zebra on the African plains

Jackal head
you were the guardian of
some poor bloke’s stomach
As he made his way to he afterlife

Jackal head
what happened to the grisly contents
you once guarded?

Jackal head
Did you perhaps eat them
in a feeding frenzy?
And why were you trusted
with such a precious task
Jackal head?

I Saw This Book and Thought of You

May 2, 2016 | Posted in: prison, Reading

I’m often asked what is my favourite book is but the question always throws me. My mind goes blank: what book is in my bag? What did I say last time? But it’s a perfectly logical question to ask the guy spouting off about how people should read and read more. Let’s cut to the quick and see what he likes. But favourite books are wrapped in so much of your life, it’s hard to let them stand on their words alone. Favourite books are where your read-life and your lived-life merge. Favourite books can be the ones that change you, comfort you, shock you, enlighten you, or fill your need for a story.

Being allowed by the lovely people at Give A Book to ramble on about potential favourites, made me realise why I tend to shy away from the question – that it’s just about me and, while I’m happy to talk about ME until the cows come home, reading for me is also about connecting with other people. First with the author, your thoughts swimming together, and then with others. Readers don’t have to like the same books, but it is a special moment when you meet someone who shares with you a love of a particular book or author.
It can happen in the oddest places, and this isn’t the same as someone clocking what you’re reading and feeling they can give you their take on it. As a despatch rider, I was once sitting in the protean-wasteland of the Docklands, where new streets and buildings would appear each week. Another biker stopped, nodded at the cover of the book I was reading, The Anarchist Reader. I was immediately recruited into the anarcho –syndicalist DIWU (Despatch Industries Workers Union), given a key-ring with the apology that the DIWU had disbanded several weeks earlier.
So, no, not that kind of exchange. Nor the kind of prescribed list that publishers or prizes offer.
I have felt that connection twice recently, both times in prison libraries, both about the books of John Connolly. I’ve been reading and rereading Connolly’s Charlie Parker series (do also read his stand alone novels, particularly the magnificent The Book of Lost Things). Initially a serial killer vs. detective narrative, the Parker books have since evolved its supernatural elements, becoming a grand mythology akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic whilst losing none of its heart.
The first time was in the stacks of the prison library. I go into the stacks whenever I can, to look at what’s in stock and also to see what other people are interested in. There are some voracious readers in prison. This was a male prison and some of the men clearly thought I was there to offer “good reading choices”. The prisoner in the stacks was working through the Lee Child spines. I saw him slide by the Connollys and mentioned he might like them. Read them all. he said. And he had even the brand new collection of short stories. But we stood there talking over the latest Charlie Parker – connected. Equal for that moment and happy to share that space.

The second time was in a privately-run women’s prison. Privately-run prisons tend to have a smaller choice of books: they can’t refresh through the public library system. In this women’s prison, the prisoner has already chosen five of her six books when she asked me which other I would add. I saw she had a John Connolly in the pile and immediately we were like old friends chatting away about the series.
‘Five minutes left,’ the librarian called.
There weren’t any more Connollys. We were dancing round the stacks chatting about what else we’d read whilst promising the librarian we would be ready soon.
‘Three minutes,’ the librarian sang out, smiling at our search.
No early Clive Barker, Aickman too rare, and James Lee Burke too much on the crime side. Triumphantly I pounced on Peter Straub’s The Throat.
Okay, she should probably read Koko first but The Throat is an amazing novel and has the same strands of crime, thriller, and supernatural as Charlie Parker. We rushed the library counter together, laughing for no other reason than it’s good not to be alone.

No crime here

March 2, 2016 | Posted in: Banned Books, literacy, prison

“Why haven’t you got it?” The female prisoner is genuinely puzzled. A book she’d read in her previous prison’s library isn’t allowed in her present prison. “ But,” she points to her friend, “she wants to read it.” The librarian is helpless. Basically, at this particular prison the governor has decided there will be no true crime titles in the library.

my daddy was a bankrobber
but he never hurt nobody
he just loved to live that way
and he loved to steal your money

50 years after the publication of In Cold Blood the true crime genre remains popular both inside and outside prison. Yes, it has its clichés, any UK top ten will feature at least one Kray-related book, but it is a very broad genre, often sneered at and snubbed in the way crime fiction was in its pulp days. Recently there has been an upsurge of interest with the success of the Serial podcast and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer – neither available to prisoners. We, the public, have always loved a crime narrative from Dick Turpin to the Great Train Robbers, or the Hatton Garden’s Diamond Wheezers. And we’ve generally paid very little heed to the victims. We remember the murderers, the robbers, the violent and their stories even/especially if they end tragically, but their victims rarely get the same acknowledgement.


True crime books are so in demand that librarians often keep the most popular titles behind the counter and get the prisoners to sign for one-week loans. Like many things to do with the prison system there is no obvious logic to why one prison allows true crime and another forbids it. There are reasons for banning particular books. One prison officer told me, “We can’t have books about some of the people we hold in here. The first thing they do when they get here is check if they’re in any of the books.”

Noel ‘Razor’ Smith’s top three true crime books

Often the true crime section is what appeals to the non-reader in prison. It offers a view on the world that resonates with the prisoner, which is one of the things we search for as readers: to find our lives represented. It’s a gratifying and electrifying experience to know you are not alone.

‘It wasn’t until I read autobiographies during my incarceration by two infamous criminals – one of whom turned into a writer and academic, John McVicar and another who became a writer and renowned sculptor, Jimmy Boyle that I then felt it was acceptable to become a student.’ David Honeywell

The writer Erwin James, himself an exlifer, has spoken about the desire to change that most, if not all, prisoners feel, and self-help is the other massively popular section of the prison library.


Does it matter if prisoners spend their sentences reading up on past crimes? Reading books that show crime can be exciting during and between the violence, broken families, and prison sentences. Crime fiction, on the other hand, gives the same excitement and thrills but also comforts. It fills the gaps that pepper true crime narratives where people drift in and out of the story. In crime fiction there is always resolution. Some true crime titles just drift away towards the end, as the writer runs out of things to say, or their life gets boring. Bruce Reynold’s Autobiography of a Thief is brilliant up to the Great Train Robbery but then quickly loses momentum.

The best true crime speaks to more than just that time and place. Governors might protest that there is not enough repentance: the criminals are not humbled, not broken enough, but for their readers that is exactly the point.

One governor I spoke to seemed unhappy about any book that showed the joy/pleasure of crime rather than the suffering that came afterwards. This reminded me of the futile Just Say No anti-heroin campaign. It didn’t work because it was so one-sided. It was books such as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Melvyn Burgess’ Junk that truly hit the mark because they showed the whole heroin-world: the pleasure, the degradation, the subtleties, the lies, and allowed readers to judge for themselves.

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an’ don’t forget to grovel

Bankrobber – The Clash

Angry Young Men

January 26, 2016 | Posted in: Uncategorized

I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for the first time over the holidays. I felt familiar with the story even though I’d never read the book. That picture of Tom Courtney flashed into my mind every time it was mentioned. Like Kes it was unusual, distinctive, belonging to an era when defiance could be discussed in secondary schools. We all knew Kes; it was the book with the boy raising two fingers to all on its cover. That was enough to make it well known if not well read.
In TLLDR it was the voice that leapt out – fierce but not desperate, someone who had sized up the world and found it wanting.

‘You see, by sending me to Borstal they’ve shown me the knife, and from now on I know something I didn’t know before: that it’s war between me and them.’

Immediately before TLLDR I’d read Tony Parker’s brilliant study of life-criminal. ‘Bob’, The Courage of his Convictions. Written three years or four years after LLDR Bob compliments Sillitoe on the ‘truth’ of his fictional criminal. The narrators in both books follow the path of Approved Schools, Borstals, jail, and even conclude on the same mythical hope of ‘one last job.’ All the way through, neither narrator can be diverted from their lines. There is never any real hope of change, of another world.
Courage of his convictions
I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be a farmer but, as a kid, I did enjoy helping out and feeling useful. I would be up and out to feed the animals every morning before school. The farm was my entire world and we knew very few people who were not in that life. On those early mornings my dad would sometimes point out a fox running home across the flat dark fields. There was no real animosity towards the fox even when it took our chickens. Like with the weather, it was up to you to protect yourself. Dad wouldn’t even allow the local hunt to cross his land – an act of defiance against what he saw as showy and pointless. The fox could only be seen in a particular field where there was a long unobstructed view. Then you could glimpse its russet shape zigzagging for the safety of the trees. I didn’t see a fox close up until I lived in a city and they were tearing up my bin bags.

Once when I was looking out for the fox I saw a line of figures in white t-shirts and shorts racing across the same field. “Bad Boy’s school,” Dad told me. Never any more explanation than that, but it made sense to me, that there was a school where you were sent when you’d been so bad that even the slipper wasn’t enough. At that time I felt the worlds of the fox, and that of the Bad Boys, were totally separate from mine.

There must always have been fear of different worlds meeting. My Dad can remember the local public school visiting his village school during the war, a token gesture that they were all in it together. My dad remembers his own father not allowing him to make the reciprocal visit: “Thought it might turn my head.”

So the worlds stay separate, each in its own orbit. I was about ten at this time and reading Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. I loved this book so much I took it out twice from the mobile library. Even after all these years I can immediately spot the cover of the edition that I read.
Tunnel in the Sky
Tunnel in the Sky is a less vicious Lord of the Flies. Teenagers stranded on a planet fight for survival, but it was the close of the novel when the main character Rod refuses to return home after rescue that truly startled me. That was the first time a book really surprised me. He’d chosen a different world, refused to accept returning home where he would be safe but would lose his status.

Without books we stay in our own worlds. I read an awful lot of science fiction in the 70s & 80s. Some good, some dreadful, all of it fuelling a desire to get away. To Leave It All Behind. A desire for the new and the strange, far away from familiar fields.

Unknown-6Unknown-7cyborgDunePhil K DickStainless Steel Ratimages-4

Reading Headlines

September 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


Let’s get every child reading widely and well

Another year, another literacy drive. The Daily Telegraph article rather contradicts its message of ‘widely and well’ by giving a list of 50 books that all children should have read by the time they are 16. An inevitably bizarre list offers little to teenagers except The Hunger Games. What fuels these periodic drives to improve literacy in the UK is the need to be seen to be doing something. The more visible the better, and if you can hitch yourself to some celebrity wattage even better.

There have already been two National Years of Reading (1998 & 2008); there is the annual World Book Day, the Read On Get On campaign, and at least a dozen other national and local schemes. It is a cause that no one can argue with. Literacy is going to make a difference in someone’s life, a love of reading does make a difference, and yet there is something that makes my skin crawl when politicians leap on this particular bandwagon – isn’t it their job to put in place the institutions that enable a culture of literacy to thrive in the first place?


Between the two NYOR there was BiblioBraz in Moscow. First Ladies Cherie Blair, Lyudmila Putin, and Laura Bush all attended to showcase their support. The result was world-famous UK children’s authors reading to a room packed with bodyguards, PAs, hangers on, and a couple of rows of children.


Russia has produced a great body of literature, and enjoyed a high literacy rate. In fact at the time of BiblioBraz (2005) the government was trying to persuade fewer young people to go to university (it used to be 80% of young people went to university).

And yet, that high literacy rate and all those university graduates didn’t always give the expected results.

‘Students were notorious for their lack of interest in how to solve intellectual problems – they only cared what the answer was’
Just before the present UK literacy drive we had another headline. The Observer:
‘Fathers not reading enough to their children, says Book Trust
’ ‘Alarming’ new research says 50% more mothers read to children than fathers, and one in five students leaves primary school with poor reading skills.

At least they put quote marks around ‘alarming’. I’m all for reading more with your kids, but it doesn’t really help to throw around statistics that on closer examination show something else. The headline figures only apply to children below the age of one. After that the figures, though still unbalanced, are hardly headline worthy. At age three it’s71% 62% for mothers and fathers respectively. At five years 75% 65%, still a significant gap but enough to point the finger? Digging a little deeper we find that the actually question fathers were asked was ‘Do you take the lead in reading to your children?’ Not, Do you read with your children.


Lift your head from the relentless succession of crises, run along the timeline, and those children who enjoyed the first National Year of Reading are now adults. Whisper it. One in six people struggles to read.

A crisis? Or a result of a culture that perpetuates inequality? Finland has a more equal society by most estimates (though by no means a utopia), and regularly tops the world charts for literacy. Is it that the Finnish language is so much easier, that the teachers get so much more training, the long dark nights, or a culture that enforces and promotes equality? Discuss.


The successive governments who support one drive or another have also cut adult education; have reduced prison education to 4-week courses. I had an interest in children’s reading and education even before becoming a parent but it’s adult education that pricks my skin. I left school with one O level in English (grade C). I recently went through my old school books and was struck by how appalling my writing was at secondary school. Essay after essay riddled with spelling mistakes, and yet there were no comments by teachers. The thing about being an adult learner is you remember your learning. You remember your tutor at Poly asking why you couldn’t use commas, why you persisted in misspelling ‘challenge’. You remember reading and rereading novels, copying out paragraph after paragraph to drive in the punctuation habits and rules into your thick head. You remember being content reading a tabloid, and it being sneered at by both students and tutors. And you remember the first time you stumbled across a book that articulated your experience of education, and you remember the first time, the very first time, you nailed your thoughts to the page and they stuck. And then what went before no longer mattered.