Wandsworth Prison Reading Group
Wandsworth prison reading group takes place every month. The group is facilitated by Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of Roehampton University, with assistance from Oliver, the prison librarian.
Two of our project managers Judith and Sarah, visited the Wandsworth Prison Reading Group. This is their report.
How the group works
We visited a session in which the men, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, were discussing Boxer Beetle, the debut novel by Ned Beauman. At the beginning of the session, there was a chance for each member of the group to say a few words about the book; what they thought of it and whether they liked it. We joined in, and said what we thought. Usually the discussion would then open out but, due to an unforeseen change to the prisoners' regime, the session was curtailed. The general discussion is an important element of the session as it gives prisoners a forum to present their views, respond to different opinions and to become comfortable with disagreeing. There was still time, however, for the group to express their contrasting views of the book . . .
Boxer Beetle: the verdict
Boxer Beetle, which takes on the social eugenics movement, has two narrative strands. It opens in present-day East London with the narrator, Kevin, who collects Nazi memorabilia, discovering a murder. He sets out to find the who, what and why. The second narrative strand is set in the 1930s and follows Seth, a Jewish boxer, and his love affair with a eugenicist called Philip Erskine. At times hilarious, inventive, clever, engaging, Boxer Beetle was popular among the prisoners for sheer entertainment and verve. However, several reading group members felt it was trying to be too clever-clever and writerly through its frequent deployment of post-modern tricks - the author, for instance, turns up in the pages - and its humour prompted little more than frequent dry chuckles, rather than being deeply felt. Other members also found the book tough going, with each and every character being as unlikeable as the next. Nonetheless, with a few dissenting voices, the book was a winner.
After the discussion, it was time to choose the book for the next meeting. Group facilitators Jenny and Sarah bring along a box of books every session. The prisoners have a few minutes to browse the titles and decide which they would like to read next. When the group reconvenes, those who feel strongly about a particular title give a brief pitch about their favoured book and the group vote. This session's shortlist included Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard, A Life Like Other People's by Alan Bennett, and Animal Farm by George Orwell. Alan Bennett won the vote easily. With any luck, this will be liked as much as Boxer Beetle was, and far more than the group's previous choice - Franz Kafka's The Trial - which was considered to be far too close to the prisoners' own experiences and not an effective form of escapism!
More information about prison reading groups run by Roehampton University.