On turning 50 …

1.50am on Saturday 22 August was a momentous occasion for me, as I crossed the threshold from the age of 49 to that of 50. I had been looking forward with great eagerness, anticipation and enthusiasm for weeks to that precise moment, as I awaited the descent of omniscience and wisdom, in a Damascene-like moment of enlightenment. That didn’t quite happen, but I expect that this is merely due to the global pandemic; it will all have been delayed in the post. Even the Tooth Fairy has had trouble delivering of late.

I have always found moving from one decade to the next a milestone of optimism. I loved turning 30, just about to take up my first school Deputy Head’s post, and very shortly (although I didn’t actually know it at that moment …) my first role as a school Principal. When I turned 40 – with 3 young children and leading a wonderfully successful school – we threw a glorious tea party for the entire school community and had cupcakes galore. My forties have been a decade of phenomenal career shift and global outreach, and I marvel at my good fortune (underpinned, I will point out, by resilience and hard work …) at being able to do what I do now, as a Board Chair, Education Advisor and Executive Coach, in an amazingly varied portfolio which continues to evolve.

Along the way, of course, I have learned that wisdom grows when we water its living roots, and look after ourselves and others. I have learned that knowledge – omniscient or otherwise – is a construct which we must keep interrogating. I have learned the joy of living with an authentic purpose and a sense of responsibility to the world, and I have learned the power of walking in other people’s shoes. I haven’t yet learned that I can’t change the world overnight, or even by next Tuesday, even though a wise coach once told me to remember that I wasn’t God. That was a little deflating to hear, but perhaps she was right. Maybe I will learn that next decade.

I turn 50 with a powerful belief in the children and young people of today, who are the future of the planet. I have a deeper commitment than ever before to the importance of learning and education in every corner of our lives, and I have more courage than ever to speak this truth. Being authentic, challenging, kind and impactful all matter hugely to me. Generating velocity for change in organisations, and empowering leaders, are outcomes of my work which bring me enormous satisfaction. ‘Onwards and upwards’ has long been my mantra; now I live this daily with ever greater joy.

Above all, I have an intense sense of gratitude for everything I have learned and experienced to date. So thank you, world, for giving me all these opportunities. Thank you to my parents, who have nurtured me, and who I know are deeply proud of me. Thank you to my husband for his stalwart support and belief in me over all these decades. Thank you to my children for the love they have brought me. And thank you to all my amazing friends, colleagues, wider family and my diverse group of acquaintances for your tolerance, good humour, friendship and encouragement.

So – now, on with the next 50 years …

School Boards … keep a clear head

If school leaders and Boards are honest, there is a little corner of their minds which wants to say ‘please, just make all of this go away …’. The stresses on school enrolment, the spiralling costs – in time as well as in money – of measures to protect against Covid-19, the uncertainties of the year ahead and what learning will actually look like … each of these alone would be enough to send many a normal human being scurrying for the hills; moreover, after the debacle of the IB results this year, and the uproar around SQA results in Scotland, school boards in England are waiting with horribly bated breath for the A Levels and GCSE results to emerge.

Add to this the astonishingly impossible task of meeting local and national government requirements, which boils down to – ‘you must socially distance, but not if you can’t, and if you can’t, on your head be it’. The pressure on schools is approaching the limits of tolerability: Covid-19 hasn’t gone away – and no, we don’t absolutely know what the exam diet will look like next summer. In fact, we don’t know much about anything as far as the year ahead is concerned – although schools do know that they have students who need to be taught, and a community that needs to be nurtured, and they have proven themselves remarkably resilient and adaptable in doing so over the past few months. School leaders and teachers are the absolute unsung heroes of the crisis, keeping learning going and spirits high, often at their own expense. School Boards may have had the anxiety of keeping the school afloat, and they may have had to make some very difficult decisions, but the credit for keeping school communities alive goes firmly to the staff.

This said, school Boards should beware of allowing the pendulum in their governance to swing too far towards simply agreeing with school leaders. A worst case scenario for this new academic year for schools is not so much a further spike in the virus, but rather the implosion of leadership and governance, where, for example, Governors start issuing decrees, and leaders are so busy managing, and so driven to distraction that they don’t have the time to take part in measured strategic discussion informed by their expertise. The relationship between leadership and governance is akin to a beautifully tuned stringed instrument; when the right amount of tension is applied, and when all the parts align, then the sound which emerges resonates strongly and clearly. Slacken the tension at either end, or neglect its rigorous upkeep, and the whole project fails. Governance and leadership need to work in tandem, as partners, for a school to thrive, and it is incumbent upon Boards to lead the way.

So, as the new school year approaches, my advice to school Boards is to keep a clear head. Remember that you are there to provide oversight and insight, and to do so in a reasonable manner, neither unhurried nor (usually) demanding of immediate response. You are there to hold the vision of the school – the strong oak tree in the middle of the storm, so do not flap your leaves in despair at lower grades, or the first sign of parental dissatisfaction next term, but take time to consider carefully. Support your leaders, but do not give them carte blanche to make decisions for which you are responsible. By all means lessen the load of expectation around papers for Board meetings (a good thing, in any case), but do not stint in your incisive interpretation and analysis. Ask as many questions as before – more, probably – while supporting as much as before … again, more, probably.   

School Boards exist for a reason. They are not there to lead the school; they are there to ensure the leadership of the school functions appropriately, and to provide a wider perspective born of diversity and distance. The skill of a great school Board is to challenge without upsetting, to be clear and decisive without being narrowminded, and to act with wisdom in all things.

Remember that clear head …

‘Hiding behind unconscious bias’: a huge challenge for NEDs from Romeo Effs

I was brought up short while listening into a Changing the Chemistry Graduate Group Meeting last week. These meetings are regular member-only events, intended for existing non-executive directors and trustees, and they deal with topical issues, with the aim of supporting boards to ensure ever better governance. This month, the topic was ‘Increasing diversity on Boards: The BAME experience’, and the speaker was Board advisor Romeo Effs. While the conversation itself was entirely confidential, so I have no intention of revealing who else was there or who said what, what Romeo had to say was so important that it needs to be broadcast.

Romeo was there to talk to us about the importance of the Black and Asian perspective on boards and to share his Board experience and knowledge. The impetus afforded to ‘Black Lives Matter’ given by the horrific killing of George Floyd in the US, and subsequent illumination of decades – centuries – of discrimination, which we all knew about but had side-lined, means that we have one of the most important opportunities in our lifetime to ensure that change happens at Board level and throughout the organisations for which we as NEDs and Chairs are responsible.

I have long spoken about unconscious bias when I talk to my coaching clients or to boards, and I am clear when I speak that this is a bias which results from our assumptions that are influenced by the lenses through which we have been taught or encouraged to see the world. It can be very hard to spot this unconscious bias, but the first step is always to recognise that we have it. Some of our biases are healthy; many of them aren’t, because they position us as somehow superior to others, and they leave us closed to appreciating the power of diversity of thought which is more and more widely recognised as a central element in the success of Boards and their organisations.

What Romeo said that brought me up short was his exhortation to us all to ‘stop hiding behind unconscious bias; plain and simple, it is just bias’. He is completely right – it is so easy to say ‘yes, I am sure I have unconscious bias … I just don’t know what it is … so therefore this excuses me.’ On the contrary, the appreciation of unconscious bias does NOT excuse us; our recognition of unconscious bias is only the very first, baby step in making a change, of dragging our bias to the surface, examining it and then rejecting it, in order to contribute to making this world a fairer, more equal, more gloriously diverse and therefore much more creative and effective place.

So, what do we do? Well, start with Project Implicit, the Harvard Project which brings to the surface our unconscious biases, so that they are no longer unconscious, but we have awareness of them. And specifically, read ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was recommended to me by an amazing black leader I admire, and which contains not only a devastating critique on the UK’s approach to race over the past 100 years, but also practical, strong direction on how to move forward. ‘Use your anger’, she says, and points out that ‘being anti-racist in your personal or professional life, where there’s very little praise to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful’. 

We all need to face up to our unconscious bias. And we need not to hide behind it. Board Chairs and NEDs should lead the way for their organisations.

Dr Helen Wright is an experienced NED, Board Chair and Advisor, as well as an Executive Coach who is deeply committed to global competence. Her most recent book, The Globally Competent School: a manual is available on Amazon.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse – and the art of savouring reading

When I studied French at school, one of the books we read was the classic Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and I remember still my slight feeling of perplexment about why we were reading what seemed, to all intents and purposes, a simple children’s book. I was an avid reader as a child, as my parents will testify, and was used to tearing my way voraciously through lengthy novels; I could understand that we might need to read something a little simpler in a foreign language which we were still learning … but really? A children’s book?

Le Petit Prince, of course, is not really a children’s book at all, but an opportunity to reflect on the absurdities of the human race – a realisation which I acquired to a limited extent while studying the book, but which it took me several years more really to appreciate, and which coincided with my (still dawning) understanding that reading is an art best indulged in slowly. Reading quickly still serves me very well in most of my working life, from board papers to books containing intriguing perspectives on ideas about how the world/humanity/education/society/business could function better, many of which occupy my bookshelves. When faced in my holiday reading with the recommendation from a friend of a beautiful book like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, however, to read quickly would be entirely disrespectful, and a deeper savouring is not just recommended – it is obligatory.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is an indulgence in the senses, from the texture of the cover to the size and weight of the pages, and from the fluid ink drawings to the simple – and profound – words and interactions. There is no plot, no thesis, no structured plan for action … it offers itself to the reader as an enticing and compelling world which has a moral framework, but in which we must engage and allow our imaginations to meld and mesh with the words and pictures in order to create meaning. I laughed and felt sad, and when I had ‘finished’, I knew I had only scratched the surface and am already drawn to return. Slow reading uncovers, gently, meaning, I am (still) discovering.

Upon revisiting Le Petit Prince recently, on a trip down memory lane, I was surprised to see that it contained many more words than I had remembered. The core simplicity of the messages, though, had remained with me throughout all those years. Fewer words, deeper meaning … maybe that was one of the most important lessons of all from my French studies at school.

The best kind of pride – pride in others

I have had a week of feeling proud – proud of so many school leaders I know, who have risen with grit and resilience to the challenges they have faced, proud of my executive leadership coachees who have reached the end of their programmes and who are evidently stronger and more focused … proud – insanely proud, in fact – of my 17 year old son. I hasten to say that this pride does not mean that he is some sort of angel, or that he doesn’t make me cross sometimes, or that he doesn’t upset me … and it certainly doesn’t mean that he would appreciate me writing this blog, but as he resolutely does not follow me on social media, then I reckon I am fairly safe in writing this, as long as you don’t tell him. And if he does find out, well … I don’t mind. I am too immensely proud for that, and I became his biggest advocate and supporter when I gave birth to him. There’s no changing that.

So, why am I so proud? Well, for the first month and a half (at least) of our lockdown here in the UK, he chose not to go outside at all. We talked about this, and I respected his decision, as it was a very reasoned thought process based on his strong desire to protect the rest of our family from any contact with Covid-19. With the advent of June, however, he decided to take on a challenge set every year by one of his teachers at Broughton High School, Edinburgh, namely DARED – Do A Run Every Day for charity. Harry decided that he would do this; I, meantime, was careful not to show too much of my enthusiasm, in case that might jinx his intentions (a choice which many parents of teenagers will recognise…), so I simply signed him up and started off by contributing to his sponsorship goal, which he set at £50, raising money for Circle, which supports families in need across Scotland.

The original plan was to do 5km a day, and he set out to do this, every day without fail. Then, within a few days, he started running for longer distances, and then longer. By 15th June he was running over 10km a day. He ran around Arthur’s Seat one day – 15.8km – and then another day to Cramond and back (18.5km). Then he ran to Portobello and back (18.8km), and then he ran to Fairmilehead and Mortonhall – 21km! His longest run to date was this one, towards the end of last week –

I asked him why, and in his typically dry manner he just said he did it because he could, although I know by some of his comments posted beside his runs, that he was striving to do just that bit better, to reach the next goal, be it 10k or 20k, or to achieve the longest run to date. What he has yet to appreciate, perhaps, is quite how much of an inspiring example this sets, and what a delight this is for educators to see, as well as for parents – and, indeed, for other fellow human beings. Determination, commitment, a growth mindset, a belief that everything is possible if you set your mind to it … this is an attitude to lift the soul of us all, especially when these qualities are employed in pursuit of a goal to support others.

So far – and I am writing this on 28 June, so with still 2 days to go – he has run over 275km and has raised over £800 for Circle, thanks to some absolutely amazing donors, who have commented on his JustGiving page that they are feeling inspired and proud of him too. I share in their delight.

Pride in another human being’s achievement – the best kind of pride. And if you want to see Harry’s runs, and experience Edinburgh vicariously, then do visit his page – https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/harry-wright-dared

A call to action: become a school governor

I was delighted to see Julie Robinson’s call to action last week, encouraging people to apply to become school governors, and I urge you to watch it. Julie is the CEO of the UK Independent Schools’ Council, representing the organisations which support the vast majority of independent schools throughout the country, and she is also one of the most committed advocates I know for social mobility and community engagement through education; her call to action is equally on behalf of state as well as independent schools. If you have ever considered being a school governor – or even if you have never considered it – then now is the time to apply, to support schools and their leaders as they navigate some of the toughest and most challenging times they have ever experienced.

What, though, do school leaders need from their board members? While coaching and supporting school leaders across the world over the past 6 years, since leaving school Headship myself, I have noted the emergence of a number of crystal-clear themes – themes which apply to every single type of school, wherever they are on the globe, and whatever structure they have. The following lists draw together some of these observations …

School leaders need a board which:

  • collectively has a deep, shared and coherent understanding of a vision for the school, as well as its current reality and challenges;
  • contains a group of people with diverse perspectives and a range of backgrounds, so that they can bring a range of viewpoints and spot areas or gaps or assumptions which might not be evident to the leader or others on the board;
  • is unafraid to use its voice, but which recognises the equal importance of appropriate support and keen, insightful challenge;
  • channels active energy effectively into what really matters, usually supported in this by sensible structures such as committees and the guidance of a board chair who is wise enough to know that they are only a part of the structure;
  • recognises that its purpose is not to manage the school, but to provide governance for it … and so which has been prepared to learn what good governance really is.

What they don’t need is a board which:

  • panics;
  • is swayed in its decision-making by board members who bring what they hear in the playground into the boardroom and define this as ‘fact’;
  • believes that its role is to invent multiple initiatives and expects them to be adopted by the school leadership team, without due consideration of the impact of these, and whether they properly further the vision;
  • is negligent, not challenging the numbers and statements made by the leadership team – appropriate and strong challenge is one of the vital elements of the value that board members bring; 
  • which does not build a sense of their corporate responsibility, part of which will almost certainly include connecting either with each other and the school leadership beyond attendance at meetings.

Over the past few months I have heard tales of two extremes of governance in schools … and the best of these have been of boards which have taken their responsibilities for the future of the school seriously, meeting regularly online, adapting their processes to work around the pressures on their school leaders, and stepping up both their level of scrutiny and of support. As most governors do this work entirely voluntarily, this has been a huge ask of them – they have been playing a very real and valuable part in the worldwide crisis which we are all experiencing.

It is almost certainly a fact that crises will tend to bring out the best and the worst in people; schools – the engines of our society, which have been dramatically affected by the restrictions imposed as a result of the fight against Covid-19 – deserve the absolute best from people.

So – watch Julie’s call to action, and, if you can, step up to the mark.

Resilience and belonging. Ensuring #blacklivesmatter

Last week, a fellow Light Up Learning Board member came across this 2016 article from The Atlantic, and I thought it was particularly apt at this moment to share it in our history, as we all try to work out how to move definitively away from systemic, ingrained racism in our world. Written by Paul Tough, whose 2009 book ‘Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America’ profiled the black American educator, Geoffrey Canada, this article is a long but perceptive and well-reasoned read, exploring how children and young people learn the resilience we believe (and know) they need in order to thrive equally in the world.

Its key message is that young people need 4 important mindsets or beliefs if they are going to be able to persevere:

  1. A sense of belonging – ‘I belong here’
  2. A growth mindset – ‘my ability and competence grow with my effort’
  3. A sense of self – ‘I can succeed at this’
  4. A sense of purpose – ‘this work has value for me’

Children who grow up in adverse circumstances, however, often don’t believe any of these things. Schools can make a difference, and I have seen schools do fabulous work in mindsets 2-4 especially. It struck me, while reading the article and reflecting, and while reading heartrending accounts over the weekend of the exclusion felt by black and minority ethnic people, that where we can all do so, so much better is in developing and sustaining a real sense of belonging. Schools, families, mentors, coaches … everyone can play their part in making this happen. We are all in this together, we are all genuinely equal, we should all belong … And we have to stand up, say this, mean it, and do something about it.

Change often happens not as a smooth evolution, but more akin to the movement of tectonic plates, with a build up of intolerable pressure until they can stand no more, the earth gives way in a resounding earthquake, and new land is formed. George Floyd’s death released the tectonic plates. let us regroup on the new ground, as equals, where we all belong together.

There is no going back in life, only forward. Let’s do it side by side, listening to the hurt of the past, illuminating the real stories, redressing the issue of privilege, with humility and sorrow, but with hope for the future, and a determination to ensure we all, all, all have an equal sense of belonging in this world.

A tale of root ginger, hope and determination

Once Upon A Time, roughly 9 weeks ago, when everyone in the UK was instructed to stay at home, there was a mini (but nonetheless confronting) crisis in Edinburgh, when root ginger for purchase was nowhere to be found. ‘Sorry, not available’ were the words stamped across online orders, and even kind neighbours who ventured out for shopping reported few sightings. Great was the rejoicing on our (newly created) street WhatsApp group when a neighbour returned triumphantly from a foray to a local shop, clutching a rhizome or two to divvy up and post through our letterboxes.

Before you snort, and dismiss this search for scarcity as a ‘first world problem’, do let me remind you that while, yes, none of us was about to die if we did not acquire this food, ginger is in fact a staple spice used for culinary and medicinal purposes across the world, at all levels of society. Widely valued for its anti-inflammatory purposes, it falls into the ‘this is good for you’ pile of foods. Besides, it has an ancient history and is what might be described as a ‘globally connecting’ food, given its journey across cultures, and across human history. Should you need more information, Wikipedia reports that:

“Ginger originated in Island Southeast Asia and was likely domesticated first by the Austronesian peoples. It was transported with them throughout the Indo-Pacific during the Austronesian expansion (c. 5,000 BP), reaching as far as Hawaii. Ginger is one of the first spices to have been exported from Asia, arriving in Europe with the spice trade, and was used by ancient Greeks and Romans. …  In 2018, world production of ginger was 2.8 million tonnes, led by India with 32% of the world total.”

A global food indeed. Moreover – and critically – our communal hunt for ginger in our small street brought us closer. The gratitude and sense of ‘we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other’ that the search for root ginger epitomised felt incredibly important at the time, and still does. As a community, we are still all being asked to play our part in supporting the fight against Covid-19, and knowing that we are not alone, and that there are people close by to help and support us if needed, was (and is) really significant in being able to sustain this. Besides, I have many lovely new friends now, for which I am hugely thankful.

Anyway, the ginger story did not stop here, even though root ginger – to everyone’s relief – soon became widely available again. The experience of its scarcity, however, made me wonder whether it might be possible to grow the plant at a latitude of 55.95°N, to sustain us in lean moments ahead. Extensive research online and with friends suggested an ambiguous response to this question, hovering around the ‘possibly yes, possibly no’  mark, so I decided to apply a filter of positivity and plump for ‘well, let’s try’. I tracked down a company in the north of Scotland which sold ginger rhizomes for planting (because shop-bought root ginger is usually treated to inhibit growth), and when it arrived, I planted it. I watered it, placed it as close to the window as possible, so it would receive some warmth, and waited.

Nothing happened.

I waited another week, then another week, then another.

Still nothing.

A little deflated, I moved the plant pot away from the window, to make space for the chilli plants and basil, which were exploding in their growth, but from time to time I checked the soil of the ginger plant pot to make sure it wasn’t drying out.

Still nothing happened.

And then …

A few days ago …

I spotted a tiny, tiny, tiny green shoot, breaking through the surface. It was so tiny that without a very close inspection, you would miss it. And yet, it was undeniably there. The ginger plant was growing! Very, very, very slowly, admittedly, and almost certainly at such a fragile time in its lifespan that its existence hovers between life and death. But it is there, a triumph of nature and a living metaphor for almost too many aspects of our current situation to list – including the power of patience, the importance of learning to trust what we cannot control, and how it is within our own grasp to turn, resolutely, loss into positive action.

I am inordinately delighted with my living metaphor, so much so that I wanted to share this experience as a fable. Were I still a school leader, I would have material in this one story for several of next term’s assemblies; watch out for its resurgence in my motivational talks. You heard it here first.

After all, when we determinedly turn negatives into positives, draw on the support of those around us, and share, then – and I do absolutely, tenaciously and unwaveringly believe this – we take one step closer to living, as the fairy tale says, happily ever after.

(Not yet) The End …

E-learning around the world: creating, not simply following, best practice

I very much enjoyed leading two virtual professional development sessions at the Lasswade High School Learning Festival for staff on Monday of this week – I wish I could have stayed longer! I spent the time sharing – as swiftly as I could – some of the experiences I have gained from working internationally with school leaders over the past 4 months especially, as teachers and school leaders everywhere have navigated the shift to online learning, and managed the continued, ongoing, demands of responding to student needs virtually, through the digital medium. Teachers all over the world have proved themselves incredibly adept at making this shift; the teachers I met on Monday were no exception.

I referred in my presentation at Lasswade High School to John Hattie’s latest article on the effects of the Christchurch earthquake on student attainment, and highlighted that – contrary to expectations – the grades of students who missed considerable time in school because of the disaster were, in fact, by the following year actually higher than anticipated. The students appeared not to have suffered at all academically, and the reason for this became clear to the researchers when they delved deeper into how teachers had responded to their students’ needs. The teachers had, it was revealed, worked out exactly what their students really needed, and had provided the interventions that matched these needs; rather than concentrating on teaching them what it previously generally thought that they needed (ie the scheduled curriculum), the teachers identified gaps in their students’ skills and knowledge, and helped them fill these. Motivated by the first principles of teaching – ie enabling young people to develop and thrive – they broke free of prior expectations and did what really worked.

Quite apart from reassuring teachers who are worried about the future of their students, this research should also embolden them. In this week’s TES, John Morgan writes in an excellent and thoughtful article about studies into the risks of re-opening schools, that “there is no ‘the science’ – no single point of scientific consensus”, and exactly the same applies, I would argue, to the ‘science’ of e-learning. There is no single method of e-learning that can be described as a magic bullet – although there are plenty of examples of interesting practice; what is emerging more and more clearly, however, is an understanding that when teachers identify the specific needs of individual students, and work with these, then progress happens.

Sound familiar? Well, this is exactly what teachers are superb at doing – understanding their students and then working out what they need in order to fly. These aren’t always conventional, off-the-shelf methods, and they certainly aren’t applicable to all. All that holds teachers back is a lack of resource and trust.

So let’s give this resource and trust to teachers, let school leaders make decisions which work for their own students in their particular communities, and let educators – quite simply – all just do their jobs.

Reading and the intensification of experience

My calendar reminded me this weekend that I should be headed to Sydney in a month’s time for my annual business and coaching trip … obviously cancelled for this year as borders remain firmly closed for the foreseeable future. I was also reminded, however, of one of the many enriching experiences I had when I was in Australia last year. Last June, I popped into a bookshop in Manly, and happened to come across some detective fiction books by an Australian author whose work I hadn’t come across before, but who had obviously achieved some acclaim, as at least one of her books had featured in The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller List. Her name was Jane Harper, and while her books looked fascinating, I knew that I wouldn’t have space to carry them back with me, so I reserved them online on the City of Edinburgh Libraries website, and picked them up almost as soon as I returned home.

I finished all three – enjoyable light reads, with stimulating twists and quirks, and I was particularly struck by the evocation of the Australian wilderness, of which I have had some experience, albeit temporary, fleeting and superficial … even to glimpse it, however, is to be awed. Once seen, never forgotten.

One phrase in Jane Harper’s The Dry struck me between the eyes as soon as I read it, and has lodged itself in my brain; I cannot shake it. Breathtakingly unsettling, it captures exactly the stifling experience of apparent nothingness in the unimaginably enormous, dry Australian desert, made more poignant because of the subsequent bushfires in the country only a few months after I read the book. The phrase comes in this passage, where the author describes how newcomers feel when they move to a property out in the country …

“On arrival, as the empty moving truck disappeared from sight, they gazed around and were always taken aback by the crushing vastness of the open land. The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.”

“Crushing vastness” …. words on a page, yes, but also a powerful blow to my consciousness, recalling and intensifying previous experiences, and giving words to shape them and draw meaning out of them. In that moment of reading, there was a fusion of past and present, real and imaginary; and a truth emerged. I’d like to think that everyone who has ever read has had this experience; if not, keep reading until you do …

Reading works the other way round too; think about the times when you have read a book, and then – months or years later – have had an experience which triggered the memory of the words on the page, by which suddenly made sense of them. Again, if this has not happened to you yet, keep reading!!

Reading books opens doors to new worlds and to parts of our existing world which we have not yet fully explored. Especially at this time in our history, when physical travel is impossible, I cannot imagine a world without the richness of reading and books. Can you?