Remember when your parents used to read you bedtime stories? How you’d feel all warm and fuzzy as their dulcet tones soothed you to sleep?
Well, I’ve just revisited the experience. Not with my mum and dad, you understand. I’m in my early forties and that would be weird.
No. This time I’m on a private, palm-fringed Caribbean island — part of Elite Island Resorts — in the Grenadines and the storyteller in question is Damian Barr, journalist, author, BBC Radio 4 playwright and literary man-about-London.
Resplendent in a pair of stripy designer pyjamas, ‘to set the mood’, Damian is sitting at a table piled high with Penguin books (which guests can help themselves to afterwards), reading aloud to a group of blissed-out holidaymakers from an anthology of Caribbean poetry. His soft Scottish burr chimes perfectly with the hum of the cicadas and the gentle tinkle of cocktail glasses and, far from nodding off, we’re all hooked.
Damian, you see, has form. As host of a monthly literary salon (book club to the uninitiated) at the exclusive Shoreditch House members club, and a residential Reading Weekend at Tilton House in Sussex, he knows a thing or two about books. And, where holidays are concerned, how they can be used to make the experience more enjoyable.
“Holidays are increasingly about relaxing the body but stimulating the mind,” he says. “The Reading Week on Palm Island is guaranteed to do both, with sunset stories, an amazing author and inspirational bibliotherapy all in a beautiful setting.” The author he’s alluding to is bestselling Penguin novelist and journalist Julia Llewellyn, whose books include The Love Trainer, Amy’s Honeymoon and, latterly, Love Nest. Bibliotherapist and artist Ella Berthoud completes the trio of experts and is on hand to lift guests out of their reading rut and advise them on books they might like to try. She also works with The School of Life, ‘a new social enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living’, in Bloomsbury.
After the sunset session with Damian, people are invited to make an appointment with Ella the next day. It’s not compulsory but everyone’s game on this occasion. I’m usually an avid reader, although I’ve been a bit lax recently and am worried I’ll be ticked off. But Ella’s a sympathetic practitioner and it’s all very relaxed and informal, just the two of us round a wicker table on the terrace, a rum punch for me, a cuppa for Ella, who takes notes as I tell her about my reading tastes and habits and what’s going on in my life. This is so she can prepare my ‘prescription’, which I’ll pick up at the end of the week.
She already knows a little bit about me from the questionnaire I filled out on the flight. At first, I’m not sure how to answer questions such as ‘what is preoccupying you at the moment?’ and ‘what is missing from your life?’ but once I start writing, I don’t want to stop (that’ll be the therapy) and end up running out of paper.
According to Kuoni UK managing director Joanna Edmunds, the idea for a reading week came from the huge popularity of book groups, both here and in the US, have garnered in the past few years. She reckons around 50,000 people belong to some sort of reading group in the UK, thanks in no small part to the redoubtable Richard & Judy.
Helen, 36, is on holiday with her husband Gavin, 34. They’re both from Brighton and love the Caribbean, but, this time, are looking for something beyond snorkelling and working on their tans. “It’s been great,” says Helen. “We come to the Caribbean more or less every year but were starting to wonder whether we should try somewhere else. We’re both book-lovers so when we heard about the reading week, that made the decision for us. I’m looking forward to reading Ella’s recommendations when I get home.”
On the last night of our group get-togethers, Julia reads a passage from The Love Trainer, her first novel. The idea for the book came, she tells us, when she found herself becoming an accidental counsellor to one of her friends, whose love life was enough to make the average relationship coach run screaming for the hills. It tells the very funny story of Katie, a cleaner, who starts to ‘train’ her employer Rebecca, a wildly successful career girl who can’t keep a man for longer than it takes to buckle her Manolos. Katie eventually turns her soothsaying into a full-time job, charging Rebecca’s friends for her shrewd insights on men, love and sex.
"Holidays are the best time to get stuck in to a great book and you actually have the time and energy to discuss it afterwards,” says Julia. “People are always asking me how to go about writing a novel and what better setting to share some tips than the Caribbean?”
And my prescription? Suffice to say that my local library is now six books lighter and I’ve been burning the midnight oil ever since. As for feeling ‘therapised’, I think Dr Seuss had it nailed: “The more you read, the more things you’ll know. The more you learn, the more places you'll go.”
* Palm Island is situated at the southern tip of St Vincent and the Grenadines, an archipelago of 32 tropical islands and cays known for their natural beauty and clear, warm waters. It really is out on a limb (after a flight to Barbados, you take a propeller plane to Union Island, from where it’s a five-minute hop by speedboat to your destination) so you get the real Robinson Crusoe experience.
Prices for the Reading Week start at £1,975 per person, based on two sharing on an all-inclusive basis. Return flights, transfers and all food and drinks are included, as well as the literary programmes. The next trip takes place in October, repeated in May 2011. To book, contact Kuoni on 01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk
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