Professor Bob Usherwood of the University of Sheffield recently asked me for a brief account of my visit to the Westcotes group, which he could include in an article for Information Professional – the Library and Information Organisation’s magazine. This is an adapted version of the email I sent him.
As a novelist, I’m a big advocate for public libraries. Also, I’m usually up for talking about my writing. So when Matt, the library manager, mentioned to me that he had lined up Finer Things for the Westcotes Reading Group I naturally volunteered to come along – if they wanted me.
I suppose the stereotypical book group would be predominantly middle class, predominantly female, in a coffee shop somewhere talking about Iris Murdoch – and mostly that’s what they’re like. They’re lovely. I’ve done a few book group gigs and always really enjoyed them. The Westcotes group, however, is different, in that its members are either currently homeless and struggling with substance abuse, or have been in the past. Organised jointly by Matt and Lee Ayres, a local homeless man, they meet in the library once a month to share a meal and talk about a book.
Meeting this group was fascinating and rewarding for me. Things I learned that night about living with drug addiction will probably make their way into the book I’m writing now. I hope they got something out of my contribution too – though if I were to attend again, my approach would probably be different. Normally, I just take questions and see where they go. I think for this particular group a prepared talk might have been useful, just to shape things a little more at the start.
Not everyone had read the novel, and some members were there mainly for the food, warmth and companionship, a few hours out of the rain. After a while, talk drifted away from Finer Things and towards the group members’ personal interests and experiences. The thing is, these are all characteristics of pretty much every book group I go to, including the middle-class coffee shop ones, because they’re never just about the reading; they’re about reading as the context for an essential social act.
If you spend your life on the streets coping with addiction, living an existence that’s not merely chaotic but fundamentally decivilizing, essential social acts are rare and priceless. My book was a useful lever, but the very fact that these people could come into a library for a few hours to talk about it was the real point. The people I met on that rainy winter night had all been alienated from the society they live in, and this group was a toehold on normality for them. For some, it seemed to me, it was turning into more – the beginnings of a route back in.