Bibliotherapy

I’m a sucker for a ‘Reading Makes you Happy’ headline (but yes, it really does) so when I chanced on the term bibliotherapy, I was hooked.

Bibliotherapy is therapy involving reading specific texts with the purpose of healing. That is, narrative fiction, or poems. My understanding, in the most simple terms, is that the reader identifies with a character, watches their struggles and difficulties from a safe distance, and of course, sees the resolution and can maybe apply some lessons learned, or at least feel the benefit of universalisation (others finding themselves in similar situations). As with music, places and smells, the memory of where and when I read certain books, and the impact they made at the time, has long outlived my memory of characters’ names and specific details, so I’m not at all surprised at the link between reading to improve mental health.

If you’re an avid reader, like me, and you’ve always been a reader, you may have been inadvertently practising Bibliotherapy all of your reading life. Which books do you return to for cheering-up, making you feel more grounded, distraction? I don’t necessarily mean self-help books (though I’m sure there’s a place for them too). I mean the classics and the not-so classics, and any books in fact, which you read for pleasure. When I began to investigate, I found numerous articles, podcasts, websites (here’s one I especially liked) practitioners, actual Bibliotherapists who will prescribe you a personal reading list. I accumulate reading lists all the time! How wonderful to have one prescribed!

Recently, I was introduced to The Poetry Pharmacy books (William Sieghart) – since 2014, this publisher and editor has been ‘prescribing’ poems to individuals, and now has two books divided into sections with headings like ‘Strength and Healing’ and ‘Conflict and Resolution.’ There’s even a shop – look online! All very lovely, but I prefer to lose myself in a novel.

I rarely re-read books. When I do, I find myself returning to The Enchanted April (Elizabeth Von Armin) although more recently I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) has become my feel-good ‘re-read’ book of choice. Or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, of course, to make me laugh. These are definitely ‘comfort books’ – there is nothing too difficult in any of them. They are gentle and upbeat enough for when I don’t feel like managing huge emotions or issues. A Christmas Carol is the only Dickens I return to regularly, and I loved all of Thomas Hardy’s books, especially Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but have never dared return, in case I was disappointed, or I found all the emotion too much, too depressing.

I also re-read children’s books for my own pleasure (a result of twenty-five years in teaching, and maybe a different blogpost): Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, recently Eoin Colfer’s wonderful Artemis Fowl, and anything by David Almond or John Boyne.

Samantha Ellis, in her autobiographical and feminist book How to be a Heroine, revisits her favourites (mine too, plus new ones for my ‘to read’ list) with a focused and critical adult eye, and writes about the good and bad surprises. Her comment that Tess is, ‘not a victim, she’s tough and a realist,’ and that Hardy ‘tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while trying to make her feisty…’ has encouraged me to make a tentative return to my most favourite of his novels after almost forty years. Watch this space!

I’ve also been dipping into The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin – I’m currently busy looking up everything I’ve ever read and what it’s ‘good for.’ Tess for example, has two listings: one about resisting the temptation to ‘spill the beans’ (she trusts Angel and confesses about Alec, with appalling results) and one in the ‘top ten novels to make you weep.’ (Even Hardy cried when he killed Tess off, apparently!) There is enough new reading-list material in this book to last me indefinitely, so I may not have much re-reading time.

Which books do you return to, and why?

Thirty Days Wild

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The Wildlife Trusts have run Thirty Days Wild every year since 2015, and I have followed it in a half-hearted manner ever since. They describe it as: ‘the UK’s one and only month-long nature challenge from The Wildlife Trusts. It invites everyone to do something wild every day in June, connecting us all with the beauty and wonder of our natural world.’

During its first year (me still brain-swamped in my teaching days) my main aim was simply to get myself outdoors each day in June. Since then, I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and achievements of others, and tried to pass on my enthusiasm to the youngsters I tutor. This year, under coronavirus-19 lockdown conditions, and well aware of the benefits to my mental state of our Natural Health Service (thanks Chris Gibson for coining this term – do follow his blog) I’ve decided to sign up and record my efforts, with links to sites I find useful or interesting.

I’ve opened a new page on this website for my daily records.

 

The Cloud People

I’ve been lucky enough to have two ‘mountain-themed’ stories published recently, with Cloudburst finding a home at The Wild Word and Sacrificial Lamb making this April’s Retreat West micro-fiction shortlist. I’ve also been reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain as part of Robert Macfarlane’s Lockdown Reading Group on Twitter. Nan Shepherd knew and loved the Cairngorms, and wrote beautifully about her frequent walks in different weathers and seasons.

Being East Anglian born and bred, I can count my own ‘mountain’ experiences on the fingers of one hand. A college ‘Outdoor Pursuits’ overnight camping trip on the Cairngorms (bleak and hungover), a train trip up Snowdon with friends (me itching to be walking, not sitting down) and two summer holidays in Austria (fantastic walks, views and cable cars in beautiful weather) were pretty much the sum of it.

Most recently in 2018, I walked up Ben Lawers (the tenth highest Munro and the highest mountain in the Southern Highland) with my son during a Loch Tay-side holiday and this provided the motivation for both stories. When I say walked, we started from the car park next to the nature reserve which meant a lot of the climb had already been done (“undermining the height of the mountain” according to the guidebook). This aside, it was still an impressive expedition for us. I’m certainly not used to quite so much uphill…

We set full off in blustery sunshine, full of enthusiasm. We were going to ‘bag a Munro’, and by following a circular route, we could descend via the slightly lower Beinn Ghlas and bag two Munros in a sneaky bogof walk. The fenced-off National Nature Reserve we passed through en-route was undamaged by sheep or deer and the volume, variety and growth of flora – how the habitat really should be – surprised me and gave pause for thought. Soon above the tree line, the beauty and solitary nature of the mountains was impressive.

As we reached the summit, the clouds swept in. We experienced ‘a sea of cloud … lapping and rippling’ at our feet (Cloudburst) and exchanged exultant texts with my daughter who called us ‘The Cloud People’. We trudged down, through the cloud in drizzle, cold and wet, and that’s when I started to think more about the cloud people. We walked pretty much in silence, feeling alone and slightly anxious (me anyway) about hidden cliffs edges which I knew were just beyond our sight. As we finally returned below the cloud line, I took the photo of the bedraggled thistle as colour returned into our world. The sun shone again over Loch Tay and it was just the mountain top shrouded in cloud, but it had felt like an entire and secret world.

Photos: Mainly taken by Tom Chambers

A Brief History of Cycling

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I’m not a ‘proper’ cyclist, but I’ve always enjoyed cycling locally wherever I’ve lived, and we’re lucky to have the beautiful cycle path along the river here in Wivenhoe. Last February I injured my back, and the sciatica resulting from the bulging disc pressing on the sciatic nerve proved painful and restrictive. Standing up and walking relieved the pain; sitting, lying down and anything else (trying to sleep, for example) exacerbated it. Cycling was out of the question. Continue reading “A Brief History of Cycling”

Director’s Notes: 1

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Photo: me as the Goddess Diana in Pericles, 2017

In June 2020, I’m directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream  for Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare.

The following is an article which appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Wivenhoe News (number

Getting Started: Is All Our Company Here?
Having served an apprenticeship with two different and talented masters, I am now let loose on my own. Continue reading “Director’s Notes: 1”

The Bicycle Orchestra

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Photo: Joshua Niedermayer for Fictive Dream

I am delighted that my short story The Bicycle Orchestra is published here by Fictive Dream. I wrote the first (much longer) draft three years ago, when I’d just stopped teaching and was completing my MA. The story, loosely titled Bicycle Race, marked a break, a change in my circumstances, and also the first piece of more independent writing for some time. I’d spotted a small summary in the paper about an unnamed fifty-something woman in West Yorkshire who’d headed out for a short bike ride and ended tangled up in a race.

Continue reading “The Bicycle Orchestra”