“This is something real that we all believe in.” – Jane’s Story
Jane is a volunteer Reader Leader and Shared Reading group member at Calderstones who shares her experience of being a part of The Reader community during lockdown.
I first heard about The Reader from my good friend, back in 2012, and since then it’s metamorphosed from an enjoyable part of my life to a cornerstone of staying connected and positive throughout the trials and tribulations of 2020.
The groups – even though they are all on Zoom at the moment – provide a timetable to the week, a framework. I’m a member of two Shared Reading groups and I also run one myself. I like the structure it gives me: I don’t like having too many days without something that is the focus of the day. When there is nothing else you can do apart from go for a walk, the groups keep that sense of structure, of normality.
It’s something to look forward to and it’s become something I will not miss, not for anything. When I first started coming, it took me a while to get into it – they were reading Middlemarch! – but one week it just sort of clicked: everybody in the group was sharing their thoughts and emotions, there was lots of laughter, and I just remember thinking, “Oh, I get this! I’m so glad I came. I’m really happy being here”. I love the reading – a big part of this is the journey through a book, the fact that you learn to live with the characters and you are wondering what’s happening with them: even when I wasn’t there I’d be thinking ‘I wonder how Dorothea (from Middlemarch) is getting on?’
It’s about meeting new people too – all these different connections between people start to build, and they become friends. The age-range in our groups is probably between 35-85 years, so you get lots of different perspectives. When somebody new joins, they are always made so welcome. It’s very intimate, you would think it would get stale but it doesn’t.
When I retired, I thought, ‘The more Reader Leaders there are, the more groups there can be’ so as part of making a plan for my own future, I decided to do the Read to Lead course. I’ve been running my own group for a few years now.
When lockdown hit, anything I did, in terms of keeping the groups going, was not wholly altruistic! I was the first one to say “I can’t face being without the groups! To get through this pandemic we’ve got to keep in touch and keep reading together.”
When The Reader had to suspend its activities just before the first lockdown, I came to Calderstones anyway because I didn’t have contact details for all of the group members and I didn’t want anyone to come along and then be disappointed. Do you know what, absolutely everybody from the group turned up! What does that tell you? That we were all absolutely gutted at the idea of missing our sessions. We sat in the café, all thinking “God, what’ll we do?”. One of the guys is an IT consultant and he said ‘Look, there’s this thing called Zoom …' and so we had our first Shared Reading Zoom group on 23rd March, the day Johnson announced the first lockdown. And we’ve been doing it that way ever since.
While I’d never want to lose the joining together in person – making the tea and sitting down with the biscuits – I think the virtual groups should definitely be a part of The Reader’s future. It’s brilliant for housebound people. We helped two of the oldest members of the group to learn how to do it, and Sophie (The Reader staff member) kept in touch with us all, because she was leading our Wednesday group at the time. The Reader have been great about letting us have multiple copies of the books too.
We’ve started Whatsapp groups alongside it all – people exchange messages and put up links to things; one person puts up a Thought For The Day. A whole network has grown out of the reading groups and it’s become very much a way of life. The bonds between us all, which were already strong, have grown much, much stronger through the pandemic. Two or three of us do shopping for some of the older people: I deliver big, two-litre milks to one of the gentlemen every Friday morning and I sit on his wall, three metres away, and chat for half an hour. So many group members have said to me ‘I don’t know what I would do without this”. You know, there is a PhD in it for somebody who wants to look at the impact that The Reader has had on people’s wellbeing through lockdown.
Right from the beginning, The Reader has helped to open up the park. I’m sure if you were to get any city council figures you’d see much more footfall in the park over the last few years.
It’s been brilliant watching it all come to life. Before The Reader took over the Mansion House, it had just been a closed door, of no functional value to local people. It’s been wonderful to see it come back to life. And the Café, and the Ice-Cream Parlour too – a big success. If I win the lottery I will give The Reader the money to do up the Coach House next!
The difference all this has made to my life – well, it’s everything. I am in a fortunate position, but there have been times this last year when things were difficult. I had an operation, and at one point my husband ended up in hospital with blood poisoning, and then the gathering storm of Covid, of course. Despite all that I hardly missed any sessions. I think people were amazed that I kept coming here to the groups, but I said to them, “I can put everything out of my mind when I’m here. Things that are bothering me, they can just be shelved – put them in the cupboard, lock the door, put them away”. That’s the thing it gives me.
The Reader is like a community of faith, but without a doctrine. It’s something real that we all believe in.