‘A Night in the Cells’ – Let Them Read Books.

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Last week I attended ‘A Night in the Cells’ held in the old offices of Pavilion books, which also happen to be the Old West London Magistrates Court containing six grade two listed cells. ‘A Night in the Cells’ was a fundraising event organised by Pavilion Books in association with the Book Trade Charity and the Howard League for Penal Reform, with all money raised going towards the campaign to repeal the recent legislation that prevents friends and family members giving their loved ones in prison small gifts –most importantly books.

The current Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, believes that he can control the banned items making their way into prisons by preventing them coming via books and other small objects given by family members, dismissing the fact that banned items get into prison in innumerable nefarious ways (I may have been watching too much Orange is the New Black), and that banning books as gifts will make a negligible impact on the problem.

This decision has naturally provoked uproar in the publishing community, and some of the most notable members of this community (including the literary agent Clare Conville, and Hachette CEO David Young) decided to demonstrate the importance of a good book during confinement. The six most successful fundraisers were to be locked up in the cells for a night, accompanied by a book of their choice. I unfortunately couldn’t stick around for their internment, but I had a good look at the cells –while it’s true that the cells were made a fair bit more comfortable than they would have been when in use, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to spend a dark and chilly night in any of them.

It was all worthwhile for the fundraisers, as they managed to raise almost £48,000 for the cause and brought the public’s attention back to the issue in the run-up to their ‘imprisonment’. Prisoners’access to literature of any kind is becoming embarrassingly limited, even more so in the light of our troubling breach of the European Court of Human Rights ruling, which states that our blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful. David Cameron’s decision to “clip the wings” of the European Court evidently shows that he won’t be told.

Prison is rarely the end of the story, and there must be greater pressure on rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the key to deterring crime –prison is not. Prison should be used as a tool, and not used like a spare room or an attic, as a place to keep our society’s detritus or hide the things we no longer want to think about. Crime isn’t committed in a vacuum, and removing funding from the arts, from libraries, from welfare, leaving us poorer and less creatively stimulated is compounding the problem.

Reading literature is the lifeblood of education, a cultural and creative activity that constantly improves not only our literacy, but makes us aware of the world around us. It gives us power by keeping us informed and broadening our minds. Almost half of UK prisoners don’t have any qualifications, and a considerable amount need assistance with reading and writing. This isn’t a coincidence. Removing the prospect of books as gifts cannot be adequately compensated by prison libraries, as they are burdening the swathe of library cuts just as they are on the high street. Nicola Solomon, General Secretary of The Society of Authors, wrote in her recent letter to Chris Grayling, criticising the restrictions on books in prison: “Any tightening of restrictions on prisoners being sent books has a disproportionate effect because prisons seem to be failing in their statutory responsibility to provide adequate library services to prisoners”. Cuts in local authority budgets mean that there is less money going into prisons to maintain essential services. There are staff shortages in prisons, meaning that there are less officers to escort prisoners to the libraries, and less people to maintain the libraries.

Looking at the statistics we know that reading and education is a significant factor in the prison demographic, yet as Ian Dunt states on politics.co.uk, ‘Prisoners are discouraged from educating themselves in a variety of ways. Anything below GCSE can be done in the education centre, but for courses above that level you need to work with providers outside the prison. Inmates need to take out a loan for the course, usually of between £500 to £1,000.’ The luxury of an external tutor is also often an unlikely addition to a prisoner’s education.

There is an unwarranted assumption made by too many people that those who commit crimes aren’t entitled to the same basic human rights as a free person – an unwillingness to see their surroundings in shades of grey. Prisoners are part of our society, and a product of it, so the least we can do is make it easier for them to read a book and learn a bit while they have time on their hands.

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Review: ‘Viper Wine’ by Hermione Eyre

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I’m not sure what I was expecting from Viper Wine. It’s elegant and lyrical, erudite and sumptuous, and at times curiously surreal and ludicrous. I mean, I really loved it, I’m just not sure I understood all of it.

Hermione Eyre’s debut is very smart and feels thoroughly, densely researched. It is a fictionalised account of the final year of 17th Century socialite Venetia Stanley’s life alongside her husband Sir Kenelm Digby. However, this tale can’t be characterised as occupying a particular time period. It leaps across the breadth of history through the narrative of Sir Kenelm, who manages to experience slices of the future as well as the past, humming David Bowie and Lou Reed lyrics to his son, and seeing flashes of information about stem cell research and space exploration amid his own studies.

The sense of time in Viper Wine is one of the most fascinating parts of it. We are handed the abstract concept that Kenelm occupies/is aware of a universal time – for him the past, present and future coexist, and it is possible for him to tune in and out of future events at will. The author’s frequent references to our present, Kenelm’s future, pull us out of the historical framework and make us rethink the context of the book, and she is never afraid to pull the rug from under us by totally shattering the fourth wall and directly referencing herself and the reader.

The novel (as well as the characters) is rarely restricted by linear time, and in many ways Venetia is just like any 21st Century woman in her thirties, plagued by misogynistic dogma delivered in the gossip of her peers and the expectations of the men who once loved her. She was once a famed beauty and as her youth departs her she is fearful not only of the rejection of her circle of friends at court but of her loving husband, despite his determined protestations. The roots of her power lie in her remarkable face – a fate that befalls many women in the public eye – a power source that unfairly, inevitably, withers with age.

Eyre draws many important and thought provoking parallels between the 17th Century concept of beauty and the 21st Century, frequently drawing our attention to cosmetic potions (of then and now) and ‘operations’, which become more and more farcical and grotesque as we move through the story. The most prominent potion is the eponymous ‘viper wine’, containing the blood of a viper, the urine of a pregnant mare and opium, making it addictive as well as vile. The theme of addiction is also handled well by the author, given all of the deftness and sympathy due, while never diverting the reader’s attention away from it’s grim realities.

This novel is smart and exciting, and demands attention. Hermione Eyre boldly ignores convention to show the reader something new, to illuminate our own weaknesses as well as those of her protagonists, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Viper Wine is available in hardback in any bookshop worth its salt, at £14.99.

‘…someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.’

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I love a good book. In fact, I often love a bad book. Whether I have always wanted it to be the case or not, I have always ended up working with books. This path is now seeming pretty inevitable for me – virtually pre-ordained – as if somewhere there can be found a map of my life, and eventually it will lead me back to the book business because, though I might not be the fastest reader in the world, or the most well versed in every current literary trend, when I boil it down reading really is one of my favourite things.

I think this is why I have been stewing for so long on that harbinger of doom: Michael Gove’s sack load of education reforms. Gove’s plan to make our GCSE English Literature syllabus more ‘traditional’, followed by the Prime Minister’s urgings that schools promote ‘British values’, appears to be sending the message to children that English literature is for the English. Stick to your own. I admit I am one of those middle class liberals made frequently and neurotically nervous by any vague patriotic movements, while probably in fact being mired by my own naivety. However, from my (albeit rather clichéd) perspective, the recent targeting of literature in schools does look like yet another way to make the next generation of workers and leaders feel as though they are not citizens of the world, but citizens of an island – that the only way to save our values is by prioritising our small nation and disconnecting with the art and literary history of the countries around us. The current Tory rhetoric deeply embeds this fear that we are somehow losing our culture via our ‘traditions’, that at the moment we really need to focus on being ‘British’, and we can do it through our young. Along with the changes to the English syllabus, there are a handful of other odd Conservative education reforms since 2013, including a strange ‘British’ approach to ancient history…

This all certainly raises the question, ‘what are our traditions?’ I feel that what Mr Gove is searching for no longer exists. A lost Tory utopia filled with bowler hats, Victorian ethics and Morris dancers sporting stiff upper lips. When churning around my understanding of these dilemmas I often internally reference Mary Poppins, the Tories playing Mr Banks, parading about in his pinstripes telling the children to buck up their ideas and look forward to a life of rigid education and frosty wealth, until Labour, acting the role of Poppins, wins the 2015 general election and gains the upper hand. She will stamp out Mr Banks’ best laid plans and bring the children a life of colour, a breadth of experience and cross-cultural friendship, ultimately vital to their growth as human beings (Nick Clegg is of course Mrs Banks, stomping around preaching a liberal agenda, while never following through when it really matters, and ignoring the direct pleas of her children. Thanks a lot, Sister Suffragette). 

As an Oxford graduate of English Literature, it seems odd that Mr Gove should want to discourage children from reading novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. He is spreading the dangerous notion that the stories of Harper Lee and John Steinbeck are somehow less relevant to our children because they aren’t about British experiences. His reforms reduce these great works to stories of nation, and not stories of universal human experience of great value to young people. Both texts address prejudice, violence, love, patience, and so much more, and studying them encourages young people to contemplate these themes in the context of their own lives, and not just that of the time and place in which they’re set. In some ways I agree that the set GCSE texts could be updated or refreshed, as these have been set texts for such a long time, but I would always rally against limiting them to British or English texts alone. He may not have banned international texts (smart move), but it can’t be denied that he has made it incredibly hard for children to study a modern text from outside of Britain (the requirements are: at least one Shakespeare play, poetry from 1789 on including the Romantics and a 19th century novel, as well as a work of fiction or drama originating from the British isles since 1914). Don’t even get me started on the idea of introducing Meera Syal to the syllabus. Holy hell. Why not bring in Dawn French too? Or Jeffrey Archer?

Earlier this year Tristram Hunt was content to maintain many of Gove’s reforms, but with the tide of anger regarding Gove’s nationalist agenda through English Literature, Labour have stated that they feel the literature reforms to be “ideological” and “backward-looking”, but Richard Adams stated in the Guardian that “Defenders of Gove’s reforms pointed out that the changes improve the chances of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World from being studied at GCSE level.” But it does however make it less likely that children will study works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved or Catcher in the Rye (the source of my title quote). I disagree with Hilary Mantel’s opinion that there should be no set texts on the curriculum and that children should be tested on whatever they fancy. It’s unrealistic to expect children to just pick up a book, especially when there are so many ways in which they can source their entertainment now. But, also because many children don’t come from homes where recreational reading is expected, let alone encouraged.

I was lucky – we always had books lying around our house, and I was encouraged by my parents to start diving into the books on their shelves from an early age. I wasn’t always choosing quality though – I was choosing anything that sounded fun, so the ‘grown-up’ stuff that sounded fun to my 11 year old self was usually Terry Pratchett and the odd thriller. Set texts enable teachers to hand over a book that is decipherable for children of varying abilities, they can tie together themes from other subjects taught at school (art, religious studies, history etc), but most importantly they bring great literature into children’s lives and offer them an ethical or artistic debate. They may absolutely hate it, but they may absolutely love it – and both perspectives are of great value. Reading a book at school can give a child a thirst for more, and set them on a long and fruitful quest for knowledge – something I think we all expect from our education.

Some other interesting articles on the Conservative education reforms:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27563466

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-warn-of-incalculable-damage-from-michael-goves-reforms-to-alevel-and-gcse-qualifications-9322794.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/29/labour-rub-out-michael-gove-education-system