So why didn't they ask me?

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
THE NATIONAL Year of Reading is "a community celebration in which we can all take part I a great push to encourage everyone to share in the joy of reading. " I know this because Liz Attenborough, head of the whole enterprise, told me so herself.

What I should have said, but didn't, because my mind was elsewhere at the time, was: then why has no one asked me to join in?

Because despite all this talk of communal partying, it is plain that a key task must be to coax failed and reluctant readers back to the written word, and to do that you must have people to do the coaxing.

Cue me: practically an identikit picture of the kind of foot-soldier a campaign like this must surely need. Not only am I a volunteer literacy tutor with a 34-hour training course under my belt, plus experience of working with adults and children, but I'm also self-employed, and therefore free to arrange my own timetable, and in addition have just about enough of a social conscience to be a pushover for anyone administering the right prods and nudges.

But where are those prods? Where are the posters in the library? The leaflets at the supermarket? The pleas on the radio to help? Is there, indeed, any public sign whatsoever, down here in the rural South-east, that the National Year of Reading is under way?

But perhaps this is unfair. The Year is still young, and readers of its regular newsletter will know that hundreds of local events are planned, based on schools, libraries and local authorities. Alas, though, try as one might to applaud these efforts, the overwhelming impression that remains is, not of a joyous national coming-together, but of something municipal and dull.

I didn't ring Liz Attenborough back because I knew she would merely direct me to my local authority. And, anyway, I know I could track down the people to talk to about teaching literacy, if I felt any compulsion to do so. But I don't. Which is precisely the point.

I trained as a literacy volunteer not from a desire to do good, but from a desire to avoid the embarrassment of doing nothing. In the American suburb where I then lived, if life had treated you well, you were expected to "give back", and everyone did - young and old, men and women, employed and retired. They ran soup runs, became mentors, or worked to renovate old houses. A Manhattan lawyer I knew left his office every lunchtime to soothe and rock drug-addicted babies in hospital, while a woman who ran her own restaurant chain, gave up an afternoon a week to do breast cancer counselling.

Added to which, there was simply no escape. Every time you set foot out of the door, posters and fliers implored you at every turn. Inside the house, public-service radio ads clamoured for your attention. And then, when your nerve finally cracked, and you made that volunteering call, people fell over themselves to gather you in, clap you on the back, train you up, and send you - well supported - on your way.

How different it is here, where, as Carol Owen of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, has pointed out, our media images of volunteering centre on the WRVS canteen, and the experience of the voluntary sector are repeatedly trampled underfoot by journalists en route to becoming "experts".

Volunteering, many of us still think, is a kind of societal floor sweeping - small jobs for village busy-bodies. Certainly nothing to do with the young, the busy, the powerful. With us.

Yet in adopting that attitude we are not only doing nothing for others, but nothing for ourselves. Numerous studies have shown that altruism and compassion are sure-fire triggers for better physical and emotional well-being, not least the work by psychologist David McClelland, of Harvard. He showed that stimulating students' feelings of compassion, by showing them a film of Mother Teresa's work in Calcutta, increased the levels of immunoglobulin-A, an antibody that can help to fight respiratory disease, in their saliva.

But many of the old routes by which we helped each other - church, family, settled community - are gone or going. We badly need new ones. Because unless we all start to get involved, with the best will in the world, campaigns such as the National Year of Reading will never become the "inclusive, highly participatory, whole-community celebrations" their designers dream of, but will always remain something merely instigated by the authorities, and foisted on us by their functionaries.

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