One of the greatest reads of the twentieth century, for me, is Russell Hoban’s extraordinary novel, The Mouse and His Child. In this deeply resonant children’s book, a father and son clockwork mouse toy is broken and thrown away, found by a tramp, more or less mended and set down on a road which leads them to… I’ll not give the story away, but suffice it to say that once their physical needs have been taken care of and they have a roof over their heads, the mouse father and child develop the dream of becoming ‘self-winding’.
Over the past five or six years The Reader’s various volunteer projects have produced some remarkable outcomes for volunteers themselves and for the people with whom they work. But however moving, these outcomes are more or less what we expected when the projects were devised: that people would gain confidence, make friendships, find meaning and purposive social activity in the shared reading of great literature.
What we didn’t expect is that volunteer projects would change our idea of what The Reader is and will become.
But that is what has happened. Because of their desire to become, in effect, ‘self-winding’, we can no longer think of The Reader’s volunteers as defined by time-limited ‘projects’. Their demonstrated commitment, energy and staying-power has led to us developing what we’re calling for now the ‘membership model ‘, which will encourage everyone involved in groups or one-to-one reading to become part of The Reader.
Last week I spent an evening in the company of Reader Leaders in South London, where for the past five years we’ve been building a community of shared reading, funded through Guys and St Thomas Charity in partnership with the Maudsley Charity. We’ve trained nearly 200 people to become Reader Leaders, running shared reading groups in locations such as Blackfriars Settlement or Southwark Resource Centre.
I was moved and excited by the brave and determined people I met. I sat next to Elsa Joseph, an aspiring writer and part-time carer. She spoke to me about the way in which shared reading had become a lifeline for her, and wrote to me later to explain,
I’ve always loved books and reading. For me, my shared reading group is my one social weekly outing that I look forward too and can’t envision living without. The hustle and bustle of urban city life can sometimes make you lose sight of your hobbies and interests and that’s why I’m so grateful to the Reader for re-igniting my passion for reading and writing.
Elsa also spoke of the power of the group she leads to provide support for the people she reads with.
‘It’s good for us, and it is good for others,’ agreed John, who sat on the other side of the table. ‘We all get so much out of it.’
‘One of my ladies says it is the only time she gets to talk to others in the week, she never has anyone to speak to.’
We read the fine Philip Booth poem, First Lesson, together and talked about what we pass on to our children and others.
John said, ‘But this is also what we’ve been talking about – passing on the groups, letting go…’
It was touching to see my colleagues, Penny, Lois and Val, who have built groups, recruited these Reader Leaders, and passed the groups on, letting their ‘daughters’ swim alone. Every poem had been chosen to reflect in some way this situation. I was moved to tears when Lois read Seamus Heaney’s ‘Scaffolding’, and spoke bravely and openly about the ways in which building this tremendous project had changed her. ‘I’m a better person now than I was 5 years ago,’ she said. Not many jobs offer us that kind of personal development. Sitting reading poetry with homeless people was one of the things Lois thought had changed her for good.
I feel as if we’re changing our model from a small fleet of busses driven by professional drivers to an enormous caravan of people on foot, on bicycles, rollerblades and scooters. There is a support team and there are some busses in the caravan too, but they are no longer the only mode of transport. The support team don’t have enough bicycle pumps or blister plasters or rucksacks or spanner sets or oil yet. But we’ve got the people, and they are moving, and that’s the only thing you really need. Love will find a way for everything else.