The ‘Reading Rooms’ project, based at the Verbal Arts Centre, has been promoting reading & memory-sharing in older people’s homes for the past year

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The reminiscences at the Seven Oaks weekly ‘Reading Room’ on its final session before Christmas turned to one of the snowiest winters of Derry’s past - the big freeze of 1963.

Nell, one of the group’s regulars, remembered she was living on the Lecky Road at the time and recalled the travails of negotiating even the short distance from her home to her then place of work on the Foyle Road.

“I remember they were all out pushing the snow away and everybody was out doing their bit, digging away,” she recalled.

“I was working in the Star Factory on the Foyle Road. Along the middle of the road you could see the whole line of people.

“You were safer to go out to the middle of the road there was that much snow.”

The memory was sparked by a reading of US author Tobias Wolff’s short story ‘Powder’.

The tale relates a Christmas skiing misadventure undertaken by a reckless father and his more cautious son during hazardous weather conditions in Washington state one winter long ago.

The story has been read aloud by Sinead Devine of the ‘Reading Rooms’ project, which has been running a weekly session at Seven Oaks and several other older people’s homes in the city and district over the past year.

Operating a bit like a book club it has the advantage of not obliging its members to commit the time and effort of finishing a full length novel they may or may not enjoy.

Instead, the readers concentrate on single short story, in this case, Wolff’s ‘Powder,’ before finishing off with Cecil Day Lewis’ poem ‘Walking away.’

The Reading Room members follow along with printed copies of the story and end up discussing similar incidents or experiences by drawing on the fictional or biographical worlds represented.

Sinead explained: “Sometimes residents make connectons with each other.

“Like, ‘Oh, you were from the Lecky Road’ or ‘You were brought up on a farm’ - connections or relationships building.

“We’ve been here for over a year now through the Henry Smith Charity (HSC) and we’ll be staying here for another year.”

HSC, an independent grant making trust, funds the ‘My Home Life’ initiative, which attempts to deliver positive change in care homes for older people.

It’s hosted by the City University of London, in partnership with Age UK, and, in the North, the Ulster University School of Nursing in Magee over the past few years.

Sinead explained that the ‘Reading Rooms’ project has been successfully allowing the residents of homes to enjoy literature in a comfortable environment, even if they don’t feel at home in a group such as the one in Seven Oaks.

“We do one-to-ones with people who mightn’t come out to groups.

“Maybe you’ve never been part of a group and at this stage of your life you wouldn’t want to.

“For some people, there’s something lovely about being read to.

“It helps you relax and then for others it’s about the conversation as well.”

That’s certainly the case for the Seven Oaks group.

Of one of the ‘Reading Rooms’ officers who has led sessions over the past year, Nell said: “They tell stories about Derry and all the differrent people you would have known.

“They have some good stories.”

The project will continue throughout 2018 in order to promote the love of reading and to encourage residents to carry on sharing their valuable memories.