The Penny Readings

On the 22nd January, for the price of just one penny, The British Library, in association with The Reader Organisation and Vintage, opened its doors to enthusiastic book lovers, for a revival of Dickens’s Penny Readings.

From 1840s onwards Dickens would travel around the country to give adoring crowds readings of his books, so that enthusiastic audiences from all backgrounds could attend.

The Reader Organisation, whose aim is to bring about a reading revolution, revived the Penny Readings in Liverpool eight years ago, in a bid to encourage shared reading. This was the first time the event had taken place in London and was the perfect opportunity to celebrate the beginning of Dickens’s bicentennial year.

The host for the afternoon was Christopher Green who was suitably dressed in a sparkly waistcoat, cravat and top hat. He introduced us first to Jane Davis, the founder and director of The Reader Organisation, who promptly asked what our expectations of the day were. Amongst the answers were ‘catharsis’, ‘entertainment’ and the inevitable ‘great expectations…’ I believe all were achieved and that it was an incredibly successful and wonderful afternoon. The readings and performances were enjoyed by all.

The guest readers read an excerpt from their chosen Dickens novel. The afternoon began with Angela Macmillan, whose convincing character voices made her reading of David Copperfield particularly enjoyable. She was followed by Lucinda Dickens- Hawksley, writer, and great-great-great-granddaughter of Dickens, who read from A Tale of Two Cities – a Dickens novel I haven’t had the pleasure to read yet but am eager to after her performance.

The absolutely fantastic Romany ‘Diva of Magic’, graced the stage next and dazzled the audience with her incredible ‘sleight of hand’ tricks. She was up twice in the afternoon and in her second appearance had the audience in hysterics when she enticed two male helpers to the stage, including Arthur Smith’s, father in law. She was definitely one of the highlights and brought a lot of laughter.

AS Byatt, read the opening passages of Great Expectations and did so beautifully. It is possibly my favourite of Dickens’s titles and one that I never tire of. She described how she first read it as a young girl at a similar age to Pip when we first meet him as a shivering wreck on the marshes.

Patricia Hammond, a singer, accompanied by the pianist Andrea Kmecova, overwhelmed us with her renditions of popular songs from the Victorian period, such as Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ which, though written in 1738 was rediscovered in the 19th century and became one of Handel’s best known pieces. She had a wonderful voice and really engaged the audiences. It was particularly nice that she provided a brief history of the songs that she sang.

Our MC for the second half of the afternoon was Ida Barr, ‘music hall legend and hip hop extraordinaire’. Again, suitably dressed in full Victorian attire, she wore a long dusty pink dress with ostrich feathers in her hair. She entertained the audience with a music hall/ hip hop remix of Rhianna ‘Only Girl’ (2010) and ‘If You Were The Only Girl (In The World)’, written in 1916 by Nat D. Ayer and Clifford Grey.

This unexpected remix was followed by Louis de Bernieres, who remarked, ‘I have chosen exactly the wrong reading to follow that…’ and then began to read little Nell’s death from The Old Curiosity Shop. The contrast was indeed stark and made the audience chuckle. He also quoted Oscar Wilde who is famous for saying ‘One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears… of laughter’. If I’m honest, I’d have to agree with Wilde though Louis de Bernieres read the excerpt unfailingly and to an eager audience.

Arthur Smith presented us with a harrowing depiction of London as witnessed in the opening chapter of Bleak House. Arthur Smith’s booming London accent fit the excerpt he was reading perfectly. He then contrasted this passage with his own depiction, taken from one of his books. He ended his performance with the recital of a poem on London.

Dickens is famous for his love of Christmas and this is perfectly encapsulated in A Christmas Carol. Possibly my favourite performance of the night was Phil Davis who read from A Christmas Carol beginning at the ghost of Christmas present as he shows Scrooge the scene of the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner and their fantastic Christmas pudding.

Patricia Hammond ended the afternoon with her rendition of ‘Till We Meet Again’ and the popular World War Two song ‘We’ll Meet Again’. It was particularly beautiful and moving when the audience joined in, and instantly had people teary eyed.

It was a wonderful day and the perfect way to begin the bicentennial year of Dickens. To top the afternoon off, all attendees received a free copy of a Dickens Vintage Classic. Perfect!

By Alice Palmer Brown, Marketing Assistant at Vintage Books.

Get Into Reading- It’s Only Natural

Rumour has it that before his death Apple genius Steve Jobs was working on a new game-changing  piece of technology. This astonishing creation – which could cross all platforms – would bring about direct brain-to-brain, heart to heart communication, making thought transference across time and space a reality. This was a  technology that could – literally- change the way we think, and especially about ourselves as human beings.

I’m joking, of course – Steve Jobs didn’t need to invent literary writing and reading , it’s been around for several thousands of years, since at least The Epic of Gilgamesh. But we have got so used to its existence that we may have forgotten quite how wonderful it would look if it emerged into the world new born, now.

I thought of this over Christmas when my two grandsons, Leo and Chester, came to stay. Here, in their early years, reading is in its primitive infancy but – call me a doting grandmother – it looks pretty damn amazing.

Baby Chester, 5 months, is mainly reading us, his extended family, our faces, lips, eyes, our tones of voice; and our universe of unknown objects, our fridge magnets, cups of tea, tree baubles, the goose leg-bone I hand him to chew as an aid to teething. He observes the world, as babies do, with intent concentration, ‘taking it all in’.  That clichéd phrase is worth considering, especially now we know about mirror neurones: we see, we absorb, we model. This close attention, this seeking for pattern,  and subsequently for for meaning, is the second basic human activity. (First, we keep the body going – ‘Feed me! Now!’ Chester screams). Once fed, we are the species that reads the world.  And to help us do that we have created language. ‘Chester!’ we say and he begins to know that when that particular sound-pattern happens, someone nearby is calling for his attention. His mother hides her face, ‘Peek-a-boo’ she says, dropping the napkin from her face, introducing him to the idea that things happen in time.  And Chester, seeing the joke, laughs. This is primitive, compelling narrative. And he’s reading it.

His cousin Leo, at 4 ½, is mastering language. He knows its magic properties (‘Please’), and its power (‘No!’) and, he loves the meta-structures  you can build with it: narrative, character, quest, battle, rhymes and jokes absorb him. He doesn’t care in what form these things arrive and barely differentiates between DVD, internet, ipad, books or the stories and poems we make up out of our heads. It’s content that matters. Oh, he knows that printed language exists and like Jo Gargery  he can write his name and read it when it appears in print but  – with adults queuing up to read to him – he’s not bothered. ‘They are trying to get me to read,’ he tells me when I ask him about school. It’s a technical problem he’s not that keen to take on just now. What he needs above all is the concentrated form of knowledge you get once you’ve mastered the technology or got someone to read to you: he wants the literary experience, the story, the poem.

I recently heard one of The Reader Organisation’s Patrons, author Frank Cottrell Boyce, talking about reading for pleasure where pleasure was defined not as  ‘mindless distracting entertainment’ but as  ‘the deepest form of human attention’.  At 5 months and 4 ½ years that is what the next generation seemed instinctively to give their crucial baby stage reading.

As adults we are in desperate need of complex content. Life is hard for all of us (‘man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward’) but its privations, for us lucky people in the western capitalist democracies, are mainly private and unseen. Yet it remains true that ‘the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’. Reading is a survival tool.  Read Joseph Gold’s book The Story Species if you want to think more about this. Literary language, which gives us the most complex models of consciousness humanity has yet discovered, is vital for our personal and ultimately social human development. If we are to get the best value from this amazing evolutionary tool we’ve got to start thinking about it differently.

A baby could tell you that.

By Jane Davis, Founder and Director of The Reader Organisation, a national charity that aims to bring about a reading revolution. Find out more about their pioneering work here:

Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon will finish the serialisation of Stop…! on Radio 4 this morning. We hope you’ve been tuning in to listen to the various essays and we very much hope you’ve enjoyed them! Do buy the book (only £4.99) as you’ll find many more wonderful, informative and rousing essays on reading within.

Mark is a great admirer of the works of Virginia Woolf, and his essay speaks of how well she captures ‘the roller-coaster swoop from plans for supper to the fear of dying, between childhood memoirs and the scent of the flowers in the hallway’. Here’s an extract from To the Lighthouse which shows that ‘roller-coaster swoop’ of intense feeling that surges beneath an ostensibly quiet and ordinary family scene:

But what had happened?

Some one had blundered.

Starting from her musing she gave meaning to words which she had held meaningless in her mind for a long stretch of time. ‘Some one had blundered’. Fixing her short-sighted eyes upon her husband, who was now bearing down upon her, she gazed steadily until his closeness revealed to her (the jingle mated itself in her head) that something had happened, some one had blundered. But she could not for the life of her think what.

    He shivered; he quivered. All his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendour, riding fell as a thunderbolt, fierce as a hawk at the head of his men through the valley of death, had been shattered, destroyed. Stormed at by shot and shell, boldly we rode and well, flashed through the valley of death, volleyed and thundered – straight into Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. He quivered; he shivered.

    Not for the world would she have spoken to him, realising, from the familiar signs, his eyes averted, and some curious gathering together of his person, as if he wrapped himself about and needed privacy into which to regain his equilibrium, that he was outraged and anguished. She stroked James’s head; she transferred to him what she felt for her husband, and, as she watched him chalk yellow the white dress shirt of a gentleman in the Army and Navy Stores catalogue, thought what a delight it would be to her should he turn out a great artist; and why should he not? He had a splendid forehead. Then, looking up, as her husband passed her once more, she was relieved to find that the ruin was veiled; domesticity triumphed; custom crooned its soothing rhythm, so that when stopping deliberately, as his turn came round again, at the window he bent quizzically and whimsically to tickle James’s bare calf with a sprig of something, she twitted him for having dispatched ‘that poor young man,’ Charles Tansley. Tansley had had to go in and write his dissertation, he said.

‘James will have to write HIS dissertation one of these days,’ he added ironically, flicking his sprig.        Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray with which in a manner peculiar to him, compound of severity and humour, he teased his youngest son’s bare leg.

    She was trying to get these tiresome stockings finished to send to Sorley’s little boy tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay.

    There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.

    The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.

Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west.

    To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.

   He stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask the Coastguards if she liked. 

   There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.

Carmen Callil


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Carmen Callil will read her essay from Stop…! on Radio 4 today. In it, she mentions the book Lavengro by the ‘formidably eccentric’ nineteenth-century writer George Barrow. Here’s an extract below to intrigue you further:

In the following pages I have endeavoured to describe a dream, partly of study, partly of adventure, in which will be found copious notices of books, and many descriptions of life and manners, some in a very unusual form.

The scenes of action lie in the British Islands; pray be not displeased, gentle reader, if perchance thou hast imagined that I was about to conduct thee to distant lands, and didst promise thyself much instruction and entertainment from what I might tell thee of them. I do assure thee that thou hast no reason to be displeased, inasmuch as there are no countries in the world less known by the British than these selfsame British Islands, or where more strange things are every day occurring, whether in road or street, house or dingle.

The time embraces nearly the first quarter of the present century: this information again may, perhaps, be anything but agreeable to thee; it is a long time to revert to, but fret not thyself, many matters which at present much occupy the public mind originated in some degree towards the latter end of that period, and some of them will be treated of.

The principal actors in this dream, or drama, are, as you will have gathered from the title-page, a Scholar, a Gypsy, and a Priest. Should you imagine that these three form one, permit me to assure you that you are very much mistaken. Should there be something of the Gypsy manifest in the Scholar, there is certainly nothing of the Priest. With respect to the Gypsy – decidedly the most entertaining character of the three – there is certainly nothing of the Scholar or the Priest in him; and as for the Priest, though there may be something in him both of scholarship and gypsyism, neither the Scholar nor the Gypsy would feel at all flattered by being confounded with him.

Many characters which may be called subordinate will be found, and it is probable that some of these characters will afford much more interest to the reader than those styled the principal. The favourites with the writer are a brave old soldier and his helpmate, an ancient gentlewoman who sold apples, and a strange kind of wandering man and his wife.

Tim Parks


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If you missed it this morning, don’t forget to listen in to Radio 4 to hear Tim Parks’ thoughtful essay from Stop…!  If it leaves you hungry for more of Tim’s writing, visit the Vintage Books blog to read Tim’s posts about Teach Us to Sit Still, a hugely entertaining true story of Tim’s journey into the world of meditation and alternative health. The blog posts also feature extracts from the book.

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s moving and inspiring essay from Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! will be broadcast tonight on Radio 4’s Book of the Week. In her essay she mentions Nan Shephard’s book The Living Mountain. If want to know more about this book, read this review by another fan, Robert Macfarlane.

Jeanette’s astonishing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, was published last year. Read more about it on the Vintage website or you can read an extract on The Times website (if you have an account).