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I Met The Sea At The Bus Stop

2nd November 2020

Liz Treacher, Lead reader, Open Book

It uses literature to connect people, build communities and to amplify voices that often go unheard. The charity works across eight sectors – prisons, multi-cultural groups, community groups, libraries, residential settings for the elderly, islands, healthcare and public groups.

Over lockdown, the organisation ‘flipped’ to bring together groups on Zoom, training its 75 lead readers and offering one-to-one sessions, starting a weekly podcast, creating a newsletter and commissioning new writing.

Six weeks later an evaluation of the new ways of working drew 70 responses in a week, with 100% reporting they felt more positive after taking part in an Open Book session.

Brora is a remote town in the Highlands , four hours drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Liz Treacher, a writer, is the lead reader for the Open Book group there.

She says: “The group has really inspired me during lockdown. A good example is the group poems we do, for example ‘I Met The Sea at The Bus Stop,’ which was written after we’d read poems about dolphins, and someone in the group said that their grandmother had been a herring girl, following the trawlers.

“We talked a lot about what that must have been like, and we moved from that to talking about what the sea would be like as a person. Then we all went away – still all on Zoom – I think for 10-15 minutes, and then we came back and put everyone’s lines together, and changed a few bits, and then we had a poem. The exciting part was that every person in the group contributed something.”

Liz says: “When you work with adult learners their ideas and images are often so amazing that they’re often very inspiring. Really the only reason I started writing was because I’d worked with students for a number of years and somehow what they were achieving pushed me. It pushes me further on my own path.”

Edinburgh-based Claire Urquhart is a former corporate lawyer who co-founded the group in 2013. She says the groups have also recently discovered the benefits of reading aloud to share their experiences.

“We’ve recently discovered the fact that it’s such a leveller,” she says. “Because we’re reading aloud, most of the members of a group will have a go at reading, but we have lots of groups where it’s the group leader that does all of the reading.

“It means that for example in the head injuries unit where we work, if you’re re-learning to read after a stroke for example, you can still be part of the book group.

“In some of our prison groups we’ll have someone who might have low-level reading skills sitting with someone who’s studying for an open university English degree, but they can sit in the same group because the reading’s done aloud and it’s your opinions and your thought and your responses that are the important thing, not the actual reading itself. “

In some of our elderly groups, those who find it difficult to hear also have the text in front of them so they can see it, she says.

Open Book is one of the many inspiring causes that are supported by The National Lottery whose players raise £30 million each week, and Claire notes that: “Our funders want to see impact, they want to see legacy and they want to see planned growth, but they also want to see risk assessment and the organisation to be able to flip and respond to be able to continue to have that impact in times of real need. This recognition from The National Lottery is a real boost and it helps spread the word about what we do and help more people.”