Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope —Kofi Annan

Aug 03


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Helen Whitten

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Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope —Kofi Annan

Reading is not a Luxury

I hadn’t a clue how to run a business when I set up Positiveworks.  I had to learn about book-keeping, marketing, invoicing, planning and preparing the coaching and training programmes, how much or little to keep in contact with valued clients and much more.  I can’t imagine what had made me feel, in 1992 aged 42, that starting my own business was less scary than applying to a big corporation, especially when there is no sick pay, holiday pay or pension and, with no regular salary, one might earn £1,000 one month and £100 the next!  But part of this decision was based on the fear of going through an assessment centre and having to do mental arithmetic and problem solving.  As I had been a freelance historical and picture researcher alongside being a Mum and housewife, I simply couldn’t imagine being successful going through these processes.  And so Positiveworks was born.

Looking back on it I realize that the work involved in running Positiveworks brought together all the experiences of my life.  I found myself laying up the training tables for clients and greeting them as they arrived, just as I had done for my guests when I was a corporate wife.  The History I had studied at A level and university enabled me to help clients gain perspective when events could be put within themes and trends of time.  Having written poetry since I was a teenager, I read poems to clients – Managing Directors of fish packaging companies, lawyers, bankers and town planners.  I would encourage clients to go to the theatre to open their minds to new ideas and to a deeper understanding of human nature and behaviour.  I took others to lunchtime concerts in City churches to help them find inspiration or to art galleries to create stillness in the middle of a working day.   I don’t know what they thought of it all but I was sharing with them what has helped me to feel happy in my own working life.I would frequently slink into an art gallery for an hour on the way to a meeting and slip into the occasional matinée on the way back.  I would take long weekends in the apartment I had in Nice and I found that I had more creative ideas walking around that beautiful city or sitting in a café watching the sea than I ever got when I was at my desk.   Whenever I could, I would take a walk in Kew or Kensington Gardens or some quiet city square.   I felt a tad guilty but what was wonderful was that my clients seemed to appreciate this ability to run the business at the same time as creating work-life balance.

Time away from my desk together with the arts all helped me to stay sane.  One certainly needs some kind of inspiration when one is often working very long hours for less than the living wage when one is building up a business!   But at the heart of everything was reading.  So I was saddened yesterday to hear statistics that there are approximately five million people, 16% of our UK population, who could be described as “functionally illiterate”.  This is equivalent to having the reading skills of someone less than 11 years old and being unable to pass an English O level.  It made me reflect on the delight that reading has brought me over a whole lifetime and how essential it has been to my sanity and development as I have run Positiveworks.

I’ve never known any trouble than an hour’s reading didn’t assuage. Arthur Schopenhauer

People tell me that they have no time to read or go to the theatre or are too tired to do so.  But I have found that when people do take time to see a play or read a book they actually feel refreshed by the experience.  And reading is an essential ingredient of work and life, not a luxury.   Reading is civilising.  It brings knowledge, thought, ideas, wisdom and innovation.  It stretches the mind, and opens doors to perception that may have been closed.  Is it a dying art?  I hope not.  We witness children acclimatizing themselves to speed – digital games and movies that provide the creativity that reading would otherwise develop.  I thank my parents for the education they gave me where an appreciation of the written word and of music, theatre, poetry and art were embedded within me and I am delighted to see my five-year old granddaughter being introduced to similar riches at her school.

But she and I are fortunate as many schools do not necessarily instil this learning into their pupils.  Some even shrug it off as elitist and so deny children the opportunity to be exposed to the arts.   It need not cost money.  Some schools play classical music during assembly or break periods.  They scatter posters of fine art on their walls at minimal cost or project them on walls for free.  Volunteers frequently support reading and last year I supported and judged a poetry prize in our local primary school for children in Years 3-6.  Children seep in the culture that is offered to them within their educational environment.

The UK specialises in the creative industries.  We gain both wealth and respect throughout the world for our thriving theatre and cultural contributions.  But young people will find it difficult to get anywhere in life if they can’t read well.  It is the equivalent to teaching people fine art without the basics of observation and perspective.  Whatever one might think of Michael Gove as a man, he did have a passion for the basic skills of grammar and literacy and there is a grain of reason in what he was endeavouring to do.

Reading opens the door to all the arts, to science, philosophy and everything both good and bad.   I have trained people in speed reading skills for over twenty years now and it is universal that the experience of reading is to whip the written words off the page and create images, emotions, and sensory experience in the mind.  If one reads of someone being hungry one can feel hungry.  If one reads of the loss of a child one weeps despite it not being one’s own child.  It develops opinion and also empathy.

Reading  also opens up philosophy which is the key to the art of living well.    The thoughts and ideas of philosophers thread through all our lives and I have found them to be particularly important when clients were reflecting on their current lifestyle decisions.  Personal and professional development depends on the ability of each one of us to apply the skill of reviewing priorities so as to be able to live authentically, speak one’s truth and make decisions aligned to one’s values.

And philosophers since the Greeks have advised us to feed mind, body and spirit in order to make the most of ourselves and our lives.  This includes pronunciation and deportment.   All those boring classes of enunciating a,e,i,o,u and walking around the classroom with books on our heads can pay off in helping us stand tall and project ideas in adult life.  If a young person can’t speak clearly then it will be difficult for them even to get a job on a help desk.  Or if they see the solution to global warming but just whisper it then the world suffers.  Knowledge and wisdom are for sharing.

So I wanted to share, then and now, these small practices that helped me stay sane within the busy and demanding world of running my own business.  Client work has always been very fulfilling.  But the admin of filing, the uncertainty of client needs and the juggling of many tasks could be tiring.  So I found I could bounce back by discovering a stimulating new idea in a book or listening to uplifting music and then sharing those experiences with clients.  I suspect they thought I was somewhat eccentric but I hope that they do occasionally still enjoy the beauty of words, the quiet of a lunchtime concert or the drama of a Shakespeare play and, in turn, share those experiences with others.  Life without the arts would be a dull and dry experience.


Emotional Healing for Dummies by Dr David Beales and Helen Whitten (Wiley)


One Response

  1. What a lovely piece Helen. I can totally relate to it, there’s something really special about Ireland.

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