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    Stories from the book of life

    9 Feb 2010, 12:05 am

    A new scheme aims to boost learning among older people by persuading them to write their memoirs

    After a lifetime of writing for pleasure, Kate Kinsella knows the trick to getting started. "It's really very easy," says the 87-year-old former nurse. "Get some paper, take the pen in your hand and start at the beginning. It's no use looking round and saying, 'I can't do it'. You have got to make an effort. There's nothing difficult about it because the words come into your head as you write."

    Kinsella, from London, took a computer course at her local Open Age centre to make it easier for her to pursue her hobby, and two years ago, at the age of 85, the autobiography she had written for her family was made into a book.

    The independent reading charity Booktrust is hoping that Kate and other older writers like her will prove an inspiration to the over-60s, who are the target for a major new literature project.

    Bookbite, which is launched this week by Booktrust, aims to encourage older people to become more involved in writing and reading, for the sheer pleasure of it and for the social and health benefits of learning. The scheme, funded by £400,000 from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is also designed to encourage older people to make use of the internet to access support and resources.

    Participation in adult learning is in decline. Last year, a study by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) found that the number of adult learners had dropped to its lowest level since Labour came to power. The older people were, the less likely they were to be involved in learning. For 20- to 24-year-olds, 61% said they were currently learning, compared with 18% for the 65-74s. And last week colleges learned of a £200m cut to funding for adult students.

    A Bookbite website has been set up, and more than 100,000 magazines will be distributed to the over-60s throughout England via partner agencies such as the WRVS, UK Online centres, library services and Age Concern. The magazine, which gives advice on getting started, research and creative writing tips, can also be downloaded from the Bookbite website. The scheme has the support of a number of well-known authors and poets, including Andrew Motion, Pam Ayres and Val McDermid, who have contributed their own work. The author Gervase Phinn, a former Ofsted inspector, will act as writer in residence for the initiative.

    The project was launched after a study showed growing interest among the older generation in writing, initially about themselves and their families. "We knew from the focus groups we run that there was a lot of interest in finding out about writing," says Viv Bird, Booktrust's chief executive. "We are about supporting a lifetime love of books, and there was a sense of older people having a story to tell and wanting to find a way to do that."

    Bird acknowledges that the demographic requires a unique approach and level of support. "We have such a wide spectrum of older people. Some will be very clued up as to using the internet, researching and writing. Then you will have those who are less confident about reading and writing and maybe don't have the opportunity; they are isolated at home.

    "But over 50% of the population are now old people. There needs to be a huge cultural and social change: not just thinking that because people are not of working age there is no point investing in them, but supporting them and encouraging them to play a community role."

    Phinn says he was delighted to become involved with the project. He will act as writer in residence, liaising online with participants. "When I was a schools inspector I used to go to a lot of residential homes and speak to older people who had incredible stories to tell," says Phinn. "They had stories about their childhood, the war years, evacuation, that really deserved to be written down. What Bookbite will do is get older people involved as writers. I really think it is a marvellous opportunity. We are going to be very sensitive and supportive of these people. We are going to help them to interact online. This is social history, too, and the best way of doing that is putting it into words."

    Kate Kinsella had her first piece of writing published when she was eight years old. She was paid five shillings for a short story about a Hoover that she submitted to a local newspaper in Cumbria. In her later years, she also wrote the lifestory of a close friend before tackling her own memoirs.

    "When I got to be 85, I wrote about my life for my grandchildren and great grandchildren," she says. "That was the real ­reason I did the book. I have lived a life that they will never know."

    Like Kinsella, Joe Moisey, from London, had his first book published in his 80s. Now 87, Joe had written about his life in a series of letters to a young cousin. He had endured a harsh upbringing after his mother died, and went on to serve in the RAF and to work as a movie extra. Two years ago, with the help of the Furzedown project, a self-help service for older people, he saw his memoirs made into a book.

    "I felt quite proud when I saw it," says Moisey. "I never intended to write a book. I didn't think there was anything of interest in my life. If I had not had my cousin to write to, I would never have got started. It's just a matter of having the confidence to do it. I would say to people, give it a try. Imagine you are writing to someone. Think of them and tell the story."

    Vera Waters, a former teacher and health service trainer, now a life coach and public speaker, has four books to her name. She prefers not to reveal how old she is, but says age is no barrier to starting something new. "It is about a state of mind," she says. "I have always believed that nobody needs to know how old you are. You are as old as you encourage yourself to feel. But I think the person who said that old age is a very difficult time, was right. When you get older your confidence seems to run out through the soles of your shoes for a lot of people. We live in a very ageist society and that makes a difference as well."

    Waters says older people need to realise that everyone has stories to tell. "It is about believing that whatever you have done in your life is worth looking at. Story­telling has gone on since the beginning of time, and people remember stories. You can have a fancy PowerPoint presentation, you can show people graphs and figures and all of that, but tell a story that links into it and they will never forget it. That's why storytelling is so powerful. Older people need to realise that this is something they can be part of."

    www.bookbite.org.uk

    www.booktrust.org.uk


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    The bestselling author no one in Britain knows

    9 Feb 2010, 12:05 am

    Crime author Simon Beckett is huge in Scandinavia and Germany but totally unknown in his native Britain

    Until the end of last week, I had no idea I was one of the bestselling authors in Europe in 2009, let alone the bestselling UK author. It came as a real, pleasant shock. After years in the career doldrums, I'm still getting used to the ­novelty of seeing the word ­"bestseller" next to my name.

    I had known that my crime series about Dr David Hunter, an emotionally damaged forensic anthropologist, was doing well. The books have been translated into 27 languages, and appeared on bestseller charts in several of those countries. In the last 12 months, I've done interviews and readings in the Netherlands and Sweden, and been forced to turn down almost as many invitations again.

    But the biggest surprise has been with Germany. Over there, the books have sold in their millions. I had no idea of the scale of things until I went over last year to give readings. These are normally sedate affairs where empty chairs outnumber the audience. So I was unprepared to find myself – a British author who doesn't speak German – selling out several-hundred-seat venues in Hamburg, Munich and Dusseldorf.

    In Cologne, I was casually told on the way to the hall (yes, an actual hall) that 900 tickets had been sold. Afterwards, as I sat for almost an hour signing books, ticket stubs and photographs, it took me a while to ­realise that the man standing beside me was a security guard. My own security guard. How did that happen?

    German journalists often ask if I'm recognised in my home city of Sheffield. Well, no: not that I'd want to be. A few days before I heard the news about the European ranking I was at a funeral, along with people I'd not seen for a few years. "Still writing?" one of them asked. "Managing to keep your head above water?"

    I said I was. Which is as it should be. I didn't exactly become a writer to be a celebrity.

    The obvious question I'm asked now is why the books have been such a success, especially in Germany. The honest answer is that I don't know. I wanted to write tense, involving thrillers with engaging characters, but then any crime writer would say that. I could point to good editors, marketing and trans­lators, who all contribute. But I think it's mainly indefinable. Call it being in the right place, with the right idea, at the right time. It's fantastic, of course, and what every writer hopes will happen. It's just a little strange when it does.

    Simon Beckett's latest novel, Whispers of the Dead (Bantam Books), is out now


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    Letters: Resist Google's siren calls on book deal

    9 Feb 2010, 12:05 am

    Google's lawyer David Drummond is quite right (Bring books back to life, 6 February), the majority of books are out of print but in copyright. But whose fault is that? Publishers have for centuries been extending copyright in their own interests. Copyright must be reformed. As James Boyle points out in the Financial Times: "Once upon a time, three things held true. Copyrights were relatively short. You had to renew them (most people did not). You didn't get one unless you asked. Now none of those holds true. Copyright can last for over 100 years." So get back to Switzerland and reverse the tendency always to lengthen the "protection" of the Berne convention. And resist Google's siren calls as it attempts to ­imagine if books "could be made ­available to everyone, everywhere at the click of the mouse", because if you believe that click isn't going to cost you dear, you'll believe anything.

    Professor Brian Winston

    University of Lincoln

    • Your article contains a number of challenges that should be addressed. One is that those who use the vast range of books in this category – often through libraries or the secondhand book trade – should have their interests represented. We should not be at the mercy of Google and intellectual property lawyers. Another is that we should have a right to influence any exploitation of the various cultures forming our written and linguistic heritage. It is unacceptable that these issues should be determined for us by an American court settlement. Our government should stand alongside Germany and France and require Google to operate here within a framework acceptable to us.

    Paul Luscombe

    Solihull, West Midlands


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    Books of The Times: Delivering Bad News and Bearing It

    8 Feb 2010, 10:27 pm
    Sarah Blake has coaxed forth a book that hits hard and pushes buttons expertly.

    Publishers Win a Bout in E-Book Price Fight

    8 Feb 2010, 10:23 pm
    Publishers have managed to take some control — at least temporarily — of how much consumers pay for their content.