Poem of the Day – some lines from Piers Ploughman

Love is the plant of peace and most precious of virtues;
For Heaven hold it ne might, so heavy it seemed,
Til it had on Earth yoten himself.
Was never leaf upon linden lighten thereafter,
As when it had of the fold flesh and blood taken;
Then was it portative and piercing as the point of a needle.
May no armour it let, neither high walls.
For-thy is love leader of all our Lord’s folk of  heaven.

It is a long time since I read Langland’s Piers Ploughman, which I read once – fast and furious – as an undergraduate and once, or  perhaps twice, in the slow, considered way  I developed when I taught  Continuing Education classes. Read it aoud for weeks  or months. The room that comes to mind when I try to recall ‘the last time I read Piers Ploughman‘ is a room I taught in long, long,long ago.

This morning I was  looking through The Oxford Book of English Verse  for a poem for today when I stopped here, perhaps arrested by the second line – the idea that love is, or was, ‘heavy’  – drawn to Earth by something like a massive gravitational pull. That Heaven couldn’t hold it is astonishing! There’s asci-fi element to the these few lines which I love – the sense of relationship between spheres. Love is ‘leader of all our Lord’s folk of heaven.’

A few words puzzle me – ‘ne’ – it’s a negative so the line means something like ‘Heaven might not hold it’. ‘Yoten’ – of course, it’s gotten, that ‘y’ is a ‘g’ in modern English. ‘For-thy’ – , hmm not sure, thought it meant  perhaps ‘for this’.

Once I had thought through some of these language glitches, the lines seemed to hugely expand in my mind. The first line – ‘Love is the plant of peace and most precious of virtues’ – had seemed to me at first almost a cliche, and I hardly read it, I just rushed past, (though now I am back here again, ‘the plant of peace’ is good, and offers me a moment’s rest, like when you notice something in a garden). But on first read, I was  hurtling through, til lines two and three stopped me in my rushing tracks:

For Heaven hold it ne might, so heavy it seemed,
Til it had on Earth yoten himself.

That Love must be on Earth, is not airy-fairy, is not heavenly but has got to be here, compelled , like something falling, pressing towards where it must be. And then, astonishingly, once love was here, it became as light as anything you can imagine – can go anywhere, can pierce anything and is – great word – portative – it GOES! You can carry it with you.

Yesterday at The Reader, our Patron Erwin James came for lunch and an after-lunch talk and reading from his book Redeemable. (See my post about that  book here.) He spoke of Joan, the prison psychologist, who had taught him to believe he was ‘redeemable’. Erwin talked movingly of the intentions of many people working in prisons – ‘those people are there because they want to help’.  He was visibly moved  when he spoke of Joan. Reading today’s poem I’m thinking of Joan, her care and  love for  fellow humans ‘portative and piercing as the point of a needle.’

Erwin spoke also of the front needed to survive in prison, and the fear behind the front. I thought of that in the line ‘May no armour it let, neither high walls.’ (Neither armour nor high walls can stop love).  He spoke of doing push ups to make himself strong and powerfully fronted. I asked him what he had done for mental strength, and he answered  without hesitation, ‘reading’.  Joan gave him ‘Crime and Punishment’ to read.  Tough love, but love all the same, ‘portative and piercing as the point of a needle’.

Love is so light now, Langland compares it to a ‘leaf upon linden’  – that’s a Linden tree, we have some in Calderstones Park,  light, fluttering, huge, scented … I’ll post a picture of one when they come out into leaf again.




Good in the garden. Again.


Ah, the poor blog. Whenever things get busy then down, down, down the to-do list it falls.

Like the dear old garden, couch-grassed-over, cursorily glanced-at in the half-light as I leave the house, ignored as I arrive home at night: I half-forget it  yet feel it on my mind. But, in another sense, my (lack of) commitment to writing is not like  my love-it-when-I’m-out-there relation to the garden, because writing is a struggle and hard to feel pleasure in, whereas gardening, once started, is easy and makes me feel great. But oh, in both cases, the starting is hard.

I did try. Over Christmas I wrote about my book of the year but, at the risk of sounding like a second-year undergraduate, I lost my work. Yes, closed down without saving, or perhaps actively,  in a fit of exasperated distraction, chose not to save. And so hours of thinking and trying to make sentences about Joshua Ferris’ painful and deeply moving novel, The Unnamed,  went into the pale and placeless ether, and much as I love the book, I haven’t had the grit – or is it the time? or is it the energy? –  to go back and rewrite the post. Why? 4 major funding bids and The Reader budget to sort out in January and February. Oh yes, Jane, and why else? Why? I am spending at least an hour a day watching Seinfeld,  to which I became addicted over Christmas. It’s Kramer. And I’ve been making, and eating, marmalade. The making takes several hours per batch, the eating about the same.

Could I use that ‘at least an hour’ of Kramer, those several hours of marmalade, to write, to re-write,  about The Unnamed, which is without doubt, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and certainly the best contemporary novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Home? I’ve been reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and have to confess in the light of the thoughts it’s made me have, that I might have rewritten my piece about The Unnamed. But I didn’t, because I let myself be distracted by Kramer and marmalade. I  am an obsessive, but not all the time, not about everything: I’m a monomaniac and a magpie. For  true grit, the kind of grit that makes you the best in your field, you need the single mind. Tim, the hero of the The Unnamed has that kind of habitual dedication to his obsession, walking, and it costs him everything.

I cannot garden in the dark so that lets me off the hook, Kramer-wise. As for weekends, I cannot garden in January – it’s just too monochrome out  there and the many things I have left undone – the broken shed door, the weed-rank pots – stand out like painful truths I don’t want to hear. But yesterday was Spring-like. I stopped off between car and door for the briefest of glances at the red single Camellia… one of the first plants I ever bought, which I planted by digging up a paving slab in the backyard of our first house. When we  moved I dug it out and brought it with me in a pot. It’s maybe twenty-five years old now, perhaps thirty. Lovely  thing, and unusual in that it’s stamens are not golden but red, same colour as the rest of the flower. It is always flowering by Valentines Day, but this year started on the  2nd February.

So having stopped to look, I looked elsewhere and saw lots of good in the garden – primrose, crocus, lovely red leaf buds on a rose, the unfurling Euphorbia.

Taking my Mum to the Garden Centre yesterday afternoon I bought some pale pink primulas to go in the big pot – they look brave. Not counting the Garden Centre time, I did an hours work but felt as good as if I’d had an invigorating afternoon at Enniscrone Seaweed Baths. 

As for writing, I need more grit.

King Baby Rules!

Top Reads 2016

King Baby by Kate Beaton (Walker Books)

The Dear One @BIGpicturebooks put this terrific book in my hand on a recent visit to Walker Books HQ.  I’ve never seen a poor Walker book  so I happily accepted, along with a slice of  the wonderful cake she’d bought in for our meeting.

D, Anton, Cake and books at Walkerctc75zqw8aafxu4

But I didn’t read it until the following weekend when my  family was visiting and I thought, ‘I’ll try it out on Chester.’

Chester is five and has a tiny  baby sister, Agnes.

I’ve only once or twice* seen a book read with such appetite. We stayed there, where we started, on the kitchen floor, reading it once, twice, three times, each time Chester’s eyes seemed held, almost despite himself, to the pages, his body shuddering with small laughter. It was the uneasy, rather adult, laughter of surprised recognition.

Yes, they do adore you!

And yes! Babies do demand a lot of their attention!

And – hmm, yes, the gap of consciousness between me and those misunderstanding adults!

And –  huh – what a lots of mess a baby makes!

And I, mother of two and grandmother of four, was laughing too. That maniacal ego! That  utterly preoccupying determination to be more, oh, I recognised it all right. Six times my offspring over I recognised it.

Kate Beaton has made a tremendous book, a real contender for this reader’s no.1 Book of the Year spot. Especially good for exhausted parents expecting their second baby, but everyone with any kind of  memory of anyone’s early childhood will recognise this all too human, all too fleeting human reality. Top read!


*I have written about one of those reading occasions in The Reader magazine and will reprint it here sometime.


  A DIY Manual for Humans

Top Reads 2016

A Little, Aloud with Love, ed. Angela Macmillan

I feel a little proud of this one, Aunty-proud, because I saw it grow from the early days through to publication and life in the wide world. The third in The Reader’s A Little Aloud series, this is a gorgeous collection of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone you love, put together by my long-time best friend and colleague, one of the three founders of The Reader, Angie Macmillan.

From Angie’s introduction, in which she describes a shared reading session in a Care Home where she as group leader is the only member under the age of eighty-five, to the final poem in the book, Anne Bradstreet’s quietly affirming  ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’, there is much good reading, good sharing,  in this lovely volume. Shared Reading group members, the afterword following the Bradstreet poem tells us, have taken the poem home to give to their partners. And in the Care Home group, Angie notes,

The poems and books that are important to us at The Reader as the tools of our trade are the ones that make connections at a deeply personal level. Everyone in the nursing home could make such a connection with Burns’ great poem (‘My love is like a red, red rose’) and thus we came together in shared experience both of the poem and in something understood between us.

The book finds many kinds and phases of love, giving all of us something to connect with, recognise and share. You might read this with your sister as much as your partner, with a work colleague or your old, old mother-in law.  You would share  excitement and underlying anxiety in Mr Rochester’s garden-at-night-proposal to Jane Eyre, or perhaps the not knowing where or what  love is in George Saunders’ unpredictable (always unpredictable, George) ‘Puppy’.  Anyone in a domestic love relationship will enjoy the terrific daily love in the pair of poems  on ‘Holding Up’ –  U.A. Fanthorpe’s  ‘Atlas’  (‘There is a kind of love called maintenance/which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it’) and Michael Blumenthal’s ‘A Marriage’.

You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you…

But then,
something wonderful happens:

a man or a woman,
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.

A Little Aloud, with Love helps us hold up the ceiling by giving us words for the everyday of love as well as the grand dramatic moments.

Reading a poem or one of the prose pieces each week, it will last you and your beloveds all year.




Onwards, Readers!


I woke up this morning at 5.24am and immediately got up to log on and see what had happened with the #Big Give since I went to bed. Nearly £500, some of it in very small denominations, that’s what!

It is absolutely amazing to see donations coming in from NYC public library, Bootle New Strand, Central London, Mossley Hill, Cornwall, Norris Green, Kensington London and Kensington Liverpool, Hampshire, Wigston, Salford, Strabane, Prenton and sunny California, as well as dear old Strathey Lighthouse, to name but a few of the locations people are donating from…

Our friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, Trustees, ex-Trustees, relations, partners, group members and supporters are donating five pounds’ in their scores, as well as £10, £20, £30,£40, £50, £100, £300, £420, £500 and £1000’s…

It is one of best jobs I’ve ever had at The Reader, logging on and reading through the list of donors – and it is not just the money, though at time of writing we’ve secured a total of  £25,876.25  which is TERRIFIC.

But it is not the money that makes it uplifting and exciting … It never is the money, is it?

(Though the day I took a phone call to say we’d got £2.1m from HLF for Calderstones Mansion, it did feel as if money could make you joyful. I was in a hand-car-wash in Everton, and still holding the phone, shouted out to the man wielding the spray gun, ‘I’ve got £2.1 million!!’ and he shouted back ‘Allah be praised!’ and carried on washing my car.)

But that rare moment aside, it is not usually the money.

No, it is the reach of the people who want to support our reading revolution that I am finding really moving. The smallest sums – many of them coming from group members or others whose lives have been touched by shared reading – feel profound. It reminds me of the flowers lining the route of Charles Dickens funeral… of course it was expected that Westminster Abbey would be filled with expensive lilies and it was, but London was full of bunches of wildflowers laid at the wayside, gathered by the poor who knew Dickens wrote their lives.

As we enter the  3rd day of the #BigGive and  support naturally slows down, may I ask you to lend a hand  by talking to people, posting on Facebook, tweeting or emailing the direct link to the donate page to colleagues, friends and relations?


and boldly, boldly but kindly, I ask you to do as I have done and to ask your friends and relations, your contacts and colleagues to give what they can to help us  continue to train volunteers to read with older people, like Rose.

Rose, 77 and living in a Home for last 3 years says of her shared reading group:

It puts something in your mind. It doesn’t always come straight away but the mind starts thinking. This is the only time we talk, you see. The rest of it is always in there [points to head] and we’re not happy. Everything that’s been happening in the group has been very true. Real. And this stuff that’s written down makes you feel different. It makes you feel lucky to be here. Because whatever’s in these stories is true – a lot of them are very truthful – they say a lot, they mean something.


Onwards, readers!



That shining place

Rose’s Reader story

Rose is 77 and has been a Care home resident for over 3 years. She has been attending a weekly Shared Reading group organised by The Reader. 

These are  her words. 

You might have a friend here but they’re not really interested in what you’re saying. There’s a lot of them sad. Lots of people that don’t feel happy, frightened to speak. You keep a lot to yourself. There’s no one who really takes any interest. I don’t think anyone else cares. It’s only you who comes and does these things and it’s something to look forward to. I look forward to the poems and I look forward to you talking.

We’re all pleased about you coming. We feel like somebody cares. We didn’t know what to expect when we first started the shared reading group, but what we got was lovely! If you didn’t come, we’d have nothing to think about.

It’s surprising what it does to the mind. Your mind starts wandering when you’re unhappy, it wanders too much. After you’ve been and we’ve read these poems, I think it helps a lot. Everything in your mind seems clearer. I often think about them after you’ve left.

It puts something in your mind. It doesn’t always come straight away but the mind starts thinking. This is the only time we talk, you see. The rest of it is always in there [points to head] and we’re not happy. Everything that’s been happening in the group has been very true. Real. And this stuff that’s written down makes you feel different. It makes you feel lucky to be here. Because whatever’s in these stories is true – a lot of them are very truthful – they say a lot, they mean something.

Bringing it out [puts her hand on her chest]. It brings out what’s been gathering here [hand on chest]. Not leaving it there. Leaving it there makes you unhappy. Bringing it out with the group. Whatever’s been bothering you.

Reading about other things and other people makes you feel better. I thought my life was bad but I think some people have gone through worse. It’s a shame because a lot of people have suffered haven’t they? It makes you think ‘well it wasn’t too bad’. It helps. And we like to know you’re coming here because it brings back memories in a way. It’s important not to chase them away – remember them!  You start thinking about what you’re life’s been like and you think ‘this is very important’.

See – you’ve had a life where you haven’t always been happy, and you can’t really put it into words, it just stays there [points to head]. But talking about these poems, I think it helps. They’ve got a lot to say these poems about life as if, that’s the way life’s got to be. It can’t be good for everybody. We hope it is, but it never is, is it? These poems means something don’t they? They mean something because you can’t wait to hear them, read them and think about how it’s been a bit like the life we’ve had.

(Together we read the poem)

Slowly, slowly wisdom gathers:
Golden dust in the afternoon,
Somewhere between the sun and me,
Sometimes so near that I can see,
Yet never settling, late or soon.

Would that it did, and a rug of gold
Spread west of me a mile or more:
Not large, but so that I might lie
Face up, between the earth and sky,
And know what none has known before.

Then I would tell as best I could
The secrets of that shining place:
The web of the world, how thick, how thin,
How firm, with all things folded in;
How ancient, and how full of grace.                    Mark Van Doren

Good poem that one. They’ve all been good really. It gets everything together that one. It’s very true what it says, it’s what happens in our life. And that’s the way our life is. Slowly but surely, we’ll get there. It’s put me in the picture now. Yes, and it’s a very nice place. Mustn’t worry about it. ‘Then I would tell as best I could the secrets of that shining place’ – we know that shining place don’t we?


Can you help The Reader raise money to bring shared reading, company, pleasure, thinking and comfort to Rose and others like her?

This year, The Reader is taking part in The Big Give’s Christmas Challenge, with the opportunity to raise £40,000 to support older people through Shared Reading.

But we need your help. Click  here to find out more about The Reader’s Big Give and how to donate – all donations must be made online between midday Tuesday 29 November and midday Friday 2 December.

Please help spread Rose’s Reader Story and help us train volunteers to read in Care Homes

Becoming Self-Winding

imageOne of the greatest reads of the twentieth century, for me, is Russell Hoban’s extraordinary novel, The Mouse and His Child. In this deeply resonant children’s book, a father and son clockwork mouse toy is broken and thrown away, found by a tramp, more or less mended and set down on a road which leads them to… I’ll not give the story away, but suffice it to say that once their physical needs have been taken care of and they have a roof over their heads, the mouse father and child develop the dream of becoming ‘self-winding’.

Over the past five or six years The Reader’s various volunteer projects have produced some remarkable outcomes for volunteers themselves and for the people with whom they work. But however moving, these outcomes are more or less what we expected when the projects were devised: that people would gain confidence, make friendships, find meaning and purposive social activity in the shared reading of great literature.

What we didn’t expect is that volunteer projects would change our idea of what The Reader is and will become.

But that is what has happened. Because of their desire to become, in effect, ‘self-winding’, we can no longer think of The Reader’s volunteers as defined by time-limited ‘projects’. Their demonstrated commitment, energy and staying-power has led to us developing what we’re calling for now the ‘membership model ‘, which will encourage everyone involved in groups or one-to-one reading to become part of The Reader.

Last week I spent an evening in the company of Reader Leaders in South London, where for the past five years we’ve been building a community of shared reading, funded through Guys and St Thomas Charity in partnership with the  Maudsley Charity. We’ve trained nearly 200 people to  become Reader Leaders, running shared reading groups in locations such as Blackfriars Settlement or Southwark Resource Centre.

I was moved and excited by the brave and determined people I met. I sat next to Elsa Joseph, an aspiring writer and part-time carer. She spoke to me about the way in which shared reading had become a lifeline for her, and wrote to me later to explain,

I’ve always loved books and reading. For me, my shared reading group is my one social weekly outing that I look forward too and can’t envision living without. The hustle and bustle of urban city life can sometimes make you lose sight of your hobbies and interests and that’s why I’m so grateful to the Reader for re-igniting my passion for reading and writing.

Elsa also spoke of the power of the group she leads to provide support for the people she reads with. 

‘It’s good for us, and it is good for others,’ agreed John, who sat on the other side of the table. ‘We all get so much out of it.’

‘One of my ladies says it is the only time she gets to talk to others in the week, she never has anyone to speak to.’

We read the fine Philip Booth poem, First Lesson, together and talked about what we pass on to our children and others.

John said, ‘But this is also what we’ve been talking about – passing on the groups, letting go…’

It was touching to see my colleagues, Penny, Lois and Val, who have built groups, recruited these Reader Leaders,  and passed the groups on, letting their ‘daughters’ swim alone. Every poem had been chosen to reflect in some way this situation. I was moved to tears when Lois read Seamus Heaney’s ‘Scaffolding’, and spoke bravely and openly about the ways in which building this tremendous project had changed her. ‘I’m a better person now than I was 5 years ago,’ she said. Not many jobs offer us that kind of personal development. Sitting reading poetry with homeless people was one of the things Lois thought had changed her for good.

I feel as if we’re changing our model from a small fleet of busses driven by professional drivers to an enormous caravan of people on foot, on bicycles, rollerblades and scooters. There is a support team and there are some busses in the caravan too, but they are no longer the only mode of transport. The support team don’t have enough bicycle pumps or blister plasters or rucksacks or spanner sets or oil yet. But we’ve got the people, and they are moving, and that’s the only thing you really need. Love will find a way for everything else.