Why Shared Reading matters

Five years ago I started a new job with Sandwell Libraries and Information Service. I was the Community Development Manager for the Big lottery Community Libraries Programme.

Two libraries, Smethwick and Bleakhouse were to be refurbished as part of the programme. My remit was to deliver the outcomes of the Community Engagement Plan. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? I don’t do boring, I do creative, I do fun. This was probably the most fun I have ever had at work. I think I may have been a bit of a shock to some people who worked there, and a breath of fresh air to others. 

New community space and new ways of using the libraries, activities to bring the community together, engage with the wider community and improve health and well being. Work with staff to understand how community engagement could change libraries. All part of my remit.

And together we created libraries with vibrant spaces for new and fun things to happen.Vegetable shows, laughter yoga, pizza making, gaming, art groups and shared reading.

Julie Mckirdy, supervisor at Thimblemill Library, really understands how to make a library a creative, vibrant space. She works very closely with her community and constantly looks seeks for opportunities and innovative ways to bring new activities and people to the library. Bearwood Pantry, a local food co-operative use the community room once a week, and Utter Bearwood, in partnership with Black Country Touring celebrate the spoken word with a series of storytelling events.

Yet, while the veggie shows and yoga were fun, my proudest achievement, and what I want to be remembered for was being part of the team that brought shared reading to Sandwell.

I came across the idea of shared reading groups after reading an article about a project led by The Reader Organisation. As soon as I read about it I knew that I had to find a way of weaving this into delivering some of the outcomes of my project. I wasn’t really sure how it would fit in, yet I had a gut instinct that I needed to do this. I always listen to my gut!

A meeting with a fantastic woman from Sandwell PCT, who was already delivering a series of activities in libraries to improve mental health and well-being in libraries further convinced me that this was something I had to make happen. She had read about the impact that shared reading had on people and had been looking for a way to introduce it to her portfolio And then I came along and she found the way to do it. Professionally and personally we clicked, she agreed to fund a ten week pilot and in Autumn 2009 Make Friends with a Book, Sandwell, was launched at Smethwick Library.

The ten week pilot got extended for a year and then a second group was commissioned by the PCT. The impact on people who came to the groups was transformational. Five years on from my first meeting with her there are now five Make Friends with a Book groups in Sandwell Libraries. One other group is in a care home, specifically for those suffering with dementia.

But the future of all these groups is under threat. This is because they all rely on funding to continue.

The groups at Bleakhouse and Smethwick will have to stop in March 2014.

Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) commission most of the hospital and community NHS services in the local areas for which they are responsible. 

Following the reorganisation from PCTs to CCGs, the responsibility for promoting public mental health has been passed to local authorities. Local authorities who are experiencing substantial cuts in their overall funding.

Interventions have to be evaluated, graphs have to be drawn, numbers need to be crunched. Evaluated. And services cut.

And that makes me sad. I know that funding is tight, I know that tough decisions have to be made, but how do you explain this to people in the groups? That the NHS would rather prescribe you happy pills than fund an activity that gets you out of the house meeting new people. Take away the weekly session reading poetry to people with dementia, and offer them bingo instead? How do you explain that the woman who reads to you isn’t coming any more, even though you asked her to read Daffodils by Wordsworth, a poem you remember reading at school?

How do you explain that the groups will stop to people who before coming to the groups would normally spend Monday morning alone watching day time telly and Thursday morning with Jeremy Kyle?

The groups have enjoyed theatre visits at the RSC and Birmingham Rep, watched films together, read Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Elliot. And having come to the library for one group, Make Friends with a Book, they subsequently have become actively involved in other activities in their library, including volunteering to look after the garden, creative writing, IT and painting and drawing.

Looking at the data, Sandwell is not doing very well to ensure people live longer lives. Of cause a lot to do with this is that there are pockets (big ones) of high deprivation. And yes money needs to be spent on working with people at risk of life threatening and preventable illness.

I am not saying that shared reading cures cancer or helps people to stop smoking. I do know that it makes people feel better. Just read these testimonials to see how shared reading makes a difference.

Good health is more than having a heathy body. Shared reading improves mental health and well being. I see evidence of this every time I go to a group. I don’t need statistics or produce pretty graphs to know this. If you came to a group you would see the difference it makes to people’s lives.

Good mental health can lead to improved physical well being. Just by getting out of bed, and dressed and getting on a bus to the library once a week can make a big difference to a person who otherwise would see no one all day. To someone like Gordon or Edith or Sylvia who I wrote about in All the Lonely People.

It makes a difference to the person who lives alone, to carers, to the bereaved. To those suffering a terminal illness.

It makes a difference to someone who has been made redundant, to someone who is job seeking.

It makes a difference to someone who likes listening to other people read, to someone who has loved literature all their life. And to someone who has never read a novel before.

It makes a difference to someone like me who is still grieving after losing someone close to them. To someone who is sometimes so sad that she cannot get out of her bed or remember to eat. Make Friends with a Book is my time to nurture and look after me. And to meet up with people who knew and loved my mom.

It made a difference to my mother, who had been diagnosed with an incurable disease, with a unknown life expectancy. A woman for whom getting out and seeing the world, meeting people and reading were her main pleasures. Those and a mixed grill.

Mom had lost her appetite, her sight and her mobility. Yet at Make Friends with a Book, Sylvia, a former actress, had a new audience. She met new people who were interested in her life on stage and the stars she had met. She had another fifteen minutes of fame.

When I sat in that PCT office five years ago, making the case for funding this project; talking about the impact it would have; who the beneficiaries would be; how it would achieve shared outcomes; all the things you have to do when justifying funding a project, I didn’t know that two of the ‘beneficiaries’ would be me and my mom.

And it was her new audience, who were there at her funeral, dressed up in bright colours. They made the last few months of her life a bit more bearable. And she would never had met them if it wasn’t for Make Friends with a Book.

Now, go evaluate that.

Refelections on hearing ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?


I first noticed Gordon standing on the steps of Winchester Library. It was hard to tell his age, older, well dressed, wearing a Trilby. He wore the hat confidently. I was sitting in the Black White Red café opposite, which was filling up with families with young children on this very wet and windy Sunday morning. He glanced at his watch a few times as if not sure about what to do. The library was not yet open and perhaps he thought of returning home as the weather was so dreadful. I was willing him to come to the café and not be alone.

He crossed the road and came into the café. There were just two tables left and he chose the one next to mine. Once he had settled, I asked him if he was waiting for the library to open. It was by then only 10am and the…

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All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

I first noticed Gordon standing on the steps of Winchester Library. It was hard to tell his age, older, well dressed, wearing a Trilby. He wore the hat confidently. I was sitting in the Black White Red café opposite, which was filling up with families with young children on this very wet and windy Sunday morning. He glanced at his watch a few times as if not sure about what to do. The library was not yet open and perhaps he thought of returning home as the weather was so dreadful. I was willing him to come to the café and not be alone.

He crossed the road and came into the café. There were just two tables left and he chose the one next to mine. Once he had settled, I asked him if he was waiting for the library to open. It was by then only 10am and the library did not open until 11 he informed me. We chatted, about how few libraries opened on a Sunday and how being in a warm café was preferable to waiting in the cold and wet. It was his first time in this café. My brunch arrived, he said he had already had breakfast. I suggested that maybe this could be his new Sunday routine, brunch before the library, he thought it could be.

The café was busy, dripping umbrellas, soggy Barbours and wellie clad children whose parents in Hunter’s with Cath Kidson changing bags were busy juggling babies with lattes and pancakes and catching up with friends. I was probably the only one who had noticed him standing on the steps earlier. We were at separate tables, Gordon and I chatting with little eye contact as we were next to each other. Always a good way to start a conversation, I find, sitting next to one another, like on a bus. Or when the unexpected question that children ask in the car while you are driving. Lack of eye contact helps the conversation along. 

Silence fell as I ate and he warmed himself with his coffee. Yet we knew this was just a lull in conversation. He had just moved to central Winchester as a stroke just over two years ago meant he could no longer drive. Now everything he needed was within walking distance. He never thought he would move, not after losing his wife to cancer six years ago. He wells up with tears, as so mine. As I am now. A few days back it was the first anniversary of my mother dying and I am reminded of this, as he sits and remembers his wife. We share our grief in silence. I say I am sorry, how sad, it is clear he misses her so very much.

He told me she had been a nurse, but after they lost their second child, she decided to change career as she found it too much to continue to work in a hospital. How dreadful to lose a child and now he has lost his wife I thought. He was a teacher too. I told him that my mom had taught and that it was the anniversary of her death. He knew. He knew.

Somehow the conversation switches to other things, to cheer ourselves up, and I find out he has grandchildren. I talk about my children. We don’t mention names.  Mine had had to do chores from early on and do their own washing from age 15 while his grandchildren still get it all done for them.

I tell him how we left the youngest to cope for 5 months when I went around the world with my husband, back packing. His eyes lit up, what an adventure, he said, they had travelled a lot he said in Europe and in 5 star resorts. His wife liked more luxurious holidays you see, as she reckoned they both worked hard so needed the rest. I said we had just been to Marrakesh. He tells me that they had had to cancel a holiday to Morocco when they found out she was ill. I got the impression that he had not been on holiday for a while. Four years after she had died he had had a stroke. Maybe he goes with his daughter now. He didn’t say.

Yet he was making the best of his new life. Living in a smaller and more manageable house by the river, involving himself with activities in the library and concerts at the cathedral. I told him that he was brave and wise to make the move to the city, and asked if he had made new friends. He had but seemed to be meeting people younger he felt he was like a father figure. Yes I thought. You are the father I wish I had had instead of the one I never had.

He had taught English, oh, I said,  was so lucky to have had inspirational English teachers. I told him what I had studied. I told him about how my last proper day out with my mother was to Stratford to see The Tempest with Make Friends with a Book. I showed him the photos of us all, on my iPad. He had not heard of shared reading groups. I told him what a difference it had made to my mom in her last few months, stories of how it had changed people’s lives. How sad I was that they were under threat due to withdrawal of funding. He read through the website, listened to what we had read. As an English teacher he understood the impact that great literature can have on people. 

I gave him my email details and we said our goodbyes. And I realised that there was so much more he could have shared with me. I was guilty of using the worrds I and me too much, of not listening.

And then I recalled a post I had read a few days ago. About Edith and how TV was her best friend. This is the paragraph that stood out for me.

And be interested in our lives … I may be confined to a chair now but I used to own three motorbikes, you know. Let me share some of my stories – not just so I can talk but so you can get to know who I really am. I know that takes time but all relationships do.

How many older, and younger people live like that? Only seeing carers or not even that, just a neighbour who gets your shopping once a week. Alone in their chair with only Corrie for company.

Like Edith they may have ridden motorbikes when young, what is certain they all have a past. We all do.

I have shoe boxes of photographs and letters that my mother kept, but no one now to ask ‘who is this and when was this?’ Mom had a story to tell, and I have snippets of her life as an usherette, and actress, my dad, and how Michael Caine bought me an ice cream. Yet I don’t know her story, not really. I asked her to start writing it down years ago, she never did. Perhaps I could have had Tuesdays with Sylvia and got her to talk to me about those days and recorded it. Perhaps I needed to listen more. Perhaps we all need to listen more. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

I took it for granted that she would always be around to share her life story. That there would be another day to listen to them. Today is that day to listen to Edith, or Gordon or to your mom.

And I reflected that one of the great things about a shared reading group is that they give people like Gordon, Edith and Sylvia a safe place to share their stories. Talk about who ‘they used to be’ before they got old and invisible, blind and in a wheelchair.

On Monday we read a short story called Powder by Tobias Wolff. It is a story about an young boy and his father on a ski trip. A dad who is a risk-taker. 

Just before Christmas my father took me skiing at Mount Baker. He’d had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonius Monk.

One person in the group said how it reminded her of her husband, who was a confident driver and who had a love for motorcycling. She was in the moment, when her husband was young, seeing him as he was then. Like Gordon had recalled his wife, eyes shining with happiness. He husband  had recently passed after a long illness and she had nursed him, like Gordon looked after his wife, but as she listened to that story all she could remember was the young man she had fell in love with.

And that was what I had told Gordon about, that Make Friends with a Book is that safe place, to share memories and anecdotes, happy and sad. Shared reading is powerful like that.

It reminded me of my father who was an unreliable risk taker. A wall of death cyclist. Who never made me feel safe. I think Gordon made his children and his wife feel safe.

And when the group closes after four and a bit years, where will those people go to share their thoughts and memories, over tea and a good book? Many will go back to their lonely cold houses with the telly as their best friend.

And that makes me sad.

So if you met a Gordon, and Edith or a Sylvia, talk to them. And listen too.

Edith, Gordon and Sylvia, we know some of you are lonely, so talk to us, and share your memories. Don’t close the door and cast your bitterness and your regrets for what may have been, your if onlys over us. Don’t be an Eleanor Rigby who ‘Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’.

And you, yes you, before you become Edith, and can still see, and hear and walk and talk and travel, and build a life of memories to share, do it. Notice what is around you, gasp at the rainbow and smell those spices and breath that sea air. Paint that picture.  And share it with us.

The last gifts I gave my mother were some audio books. On clearing her stuff I discovered she had listened to only one. Tuesdays with Morrie. I had debated whether to give it to her as it is about the time a man spends with his much admired terminally ill professor. And he puts his life on hold, and gains so much insight to his own life by listening.

Just what Edith, Gordon need and what Sylvia wanted.

We have one mouth and two ears for a reason. To listen twice as much as we talk.

I probably will never meet Gordon again. I was meant to meet him that day, that I know. As it says in The Celestine Prophecy:

“I don’t think that anything happens by coincidence… No one is here by accident… Everyone who crosses our path has a message for us. Otherwise they would have taken another path, or left earlier or later. The fact that these people are here means that they are here for some reason”…”

If I lived in Winchester I would spend every Sunday with Gordon. And listen more.

Is there someone you need to spend more time with? Go visit them while you can.