From Aldershot to Afghanistan - bridging the miles with books
Dr Alison Baverstock explains how her unique reading scheme helps Forces families to share experiences, despite their separation.My career in publishing has been conducted against a shifting backdrop; moving every 12-18 months as an Army wife. Luckily the publishing industry has a tradition of relying on external labour, and freelance work was facilitated by the arrival of the internet, which meant that wherever we were posted I could carry on researching/writing for/about the industry.
When I left my first full-time job (HEB in Bedford Square), if I did not fully anticipate what my life would be like, those at my first leaving drinks seemed to have an inkling. Many were downright nostalgic; a number of the directors at the time had done National Service, and whatever they thought of the experience, it had clearly influenced them.
Today, publishers with first-hand experience of Services life (James Heneage, Philip Blackwell) are rare; the industry does not produce many TA recruits. While publishing the memoirs of Forces personnel may have increased understanding, and temporary crises put the military in the public eye, the day-to-day life of a Services family can be hard to understand.
For those separated by overseas tours/extensive training, there are regular phone calls, but what to talk about can be more difficult. It’s common to feel regret on putting the phone down, for not using the precious time better. The absent partner misses out on ordinary family bonding (meal-times; bath-time; bedtime stories), and for older children, focused on negotiating new freedoms, the chunk of communication missed can be even more significant. Homecomings are exciting, but reintegrating a family that has not lived together for six to eight months is much harder than it looks.
Reading can help. Having been involved with several "reader development" projects (I set up Well Worth Reading in 1987) I know how shared reading can bridge a gap. In 2010, one of my former Kingston MA Publishing students and I were given starter funds to trial a reading scheme in Aldershot, home of the British Army. Reading Force was the result.
The essentials of the scheme are simple. Families decide to take part, set up an informal book group, all agree to read the same title - and then pool their thoughts in a free scrapbook (circulated through schools and Services information centres). Discussion over which book to share, and thoughts on what was read (whether through text, letter, email, drawing, photographs), provide common ground for conversation - both while families are divided, and when they return.
One of the big revelations of the project has been the permission afforded to enjoy reading something outside your usual comfort zone. Education has perhaps conditioned us to think that the reading experience has to be progressive, but there is such value in sharing material you would not normally read, in order to discuss it with others - boosting empathy and understanding. One father departed for Afghanistan with Horrid Henry to read at the same time as his wife and son; we heard of children reading over Skype to their deployed mother. A grandmother confessed to not particularly liking the book chosen by her grandchildren, but she did like knowing they were reading it too. Services families have often moved far from their original homes, leaving grandparents and wider family feeling distanced - Reading Force offers new opportunities for conversation (other than "how’s school?").
With support from the MoD, Kingston University, Hampshire County Council and Rushmoor Borough Council, in 2012 the scheme expanded into four counties, and we hope to extend nationally/internationally in due course. Publishers benefit, of course, from the scheme’s essential philosophy that reading connects people, but also from the associated sale of books. Families taking part choose the book they decide to share, and it can be one they already own, or a new one they decide upon together. But for those looking for guidance, the RF team (now three) does make suggestions - this year’s list can be seen at www.readingforce.org.uk.
We’d like the publishing world to be aware of what we are up to, as supportive as possible (free books for prizes; funding to help us keep going?), and would be pleased to receive recommendations for next year's selection to email@example.com.
Dr Alison Baverstock is Course Leader for MA Publishing at Kingston University, and Director of Reading Force
Photo: Aboard HMS Warrior, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, left to right: Colonel David Cartwright, Wing Commander Steve Hewlett, Rear Admiral John Lang, Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Hampshire, Colonel Celia Harvey, Sara Starbuck, author, and Alison Baverstock withYear 5 pupils from Milton Park Primary School. (Credit: Ray Routledge, MoD)