(David Kendall, Martina Cole, Louise Page and Dave Morgan from Merseyrail. Photo courtesy of Merseyrail.)
During Learning at Work Week 2014 our Ambassador Martina Cole visited a number of workplaces who have been running the Six Book Challenge this year. David Kendall, who works with us to spread the Challenge to workplaces and prisons, accompanied her on her journey. Here he tells us about the events and Challenge participants' reactions to meeting Martina.
A 1000 mile journey
My week with Martina Cole covers 1000 miles, 3 prisons, 1 Tesco, and a train station. Up and across the country, it starts in blazing sunshine at Tesco Watford Extra and ends in cloud and drizzle at HMP Styal.
The Tesco Extra at Watford is enormous, the people are warm, delighted to meet Martina, and to be awarded their Six Book Challenge certificates. "She's so normal," they say, "an inspiration." (Martina giving a certificate to a Challenge completer from Tesco. Photo by usdaw and InPress Photography.)
"I'm not well-educated but I am well-read," Martina tells her audience more than once in the week.
Although each day brings a different venue we mainly stick to the same format: intro, Q&A with the audience, and then awarding Six Book Challenge certificates. I'm there to make Martina feel comfortable, to make sure the events run smoothly, and to start off the Q&A session.
It's tempting to start with the same questions each time but we manage to vary it, and so each conversation is a little different and the audience find out more about Martina: from her love of poetry, particularly Spike Milligan, to how the Crime Writers Association weren't originally keen on letting her in as she wrote from the criminal's point of view. We hear that she doubted herself, then realised that she would always regret it if she didn't send off the manuscript that later became the first of many bestsellers. Martina's life story resonates with all the different audiences. They hear someone who didn't do well at school, someone whose teacher told her she would amount to nothing. (Photo by usdaw and InPress Photography)
As I talk to the Challengers the same words and phrases come up to describe both Martina, and their experience of the Six Book Challenge: inspirational, confident, meaningful, and real.
Until You Try
In HMP Styal we have the welcome addition of performance poet, Tony Walsh, whose poem 'Until You Try' perfectly complements the atmosphere of the event:
Try studying our history books
Try re-writing them
Try re-writing yourself
Standing in the chapel at Styal, Tony Walsh is twice Martina's height but very much in her shadow. We all are. Everyone is here to see her, the Queen of Real. And they come; the blind, the pregnant, the lady who didn't learn to read until she was 60 and has now done the Challenge twice. The lady who lip-reads our chat, who was reading at seven but who didn't learn to speak until she was 10.
As we weave our way back to the prison entrance, we can hear fingers tapping on glass - at every window there are faces smiling, and waving.
We meet governors in beautiful offices, are shown amazing workshops where prisoners are repairing shoes, assembling lights. We hand out hundreds of Six Book Challenge certificates and each one feels like an invocation to inspiration, dreams, and self-realisation. "This is the best bit," Martina tells me. "I love this." (Above: Martina giving Six Book Challenge certificate to a completer from Merseyrail. Photo courtesy of Merseyrail.)
There are 60-70 prisoners at the event at New Hall. At the end a few girls at the back are standing clapping. There are no demands, nobody seems to even notice them but suddenly like swifts leaving a telephone wire, all the other prisoners are getting to their feet too, all standing, all clapping, cheering, and for that second, that moment, this prison feels like it is a good place to be.
Martina is clearly delighted and she tells them. "You can do it. The Six Book is just the start. You can do anything."
With thanks to: Louise, Chris, Pete, and Martina; Dave Morgan (Merseyrail); William Waite (USDAW, Tesco); Stephen Jones, Phil Morell, & Delia (HMP Liverpool); Anne Turner (HMP New Hall); Una McLoughlin (HMP Styal); Tony Walsh.
Read more about Martina's tour of workplaces and prisons during Learning at Work Week.
Share photos of your Challenge award ceremonies via Facebook and twitter using #SixBookChallenge.
If you'd like to run the Six Book Challenge at your workplace find out more or contact Genevieve Clarke.
Watch Tony Walsh perform his poem, 'Until You Try':