One of the things that people have been doing a lot more of during the pandemic is reading: books have provided us with understanding and escape at a time when it has rarely been more needed. In May, a study found that 41% of people were reading more since lockdown began. But how can you escape into books if you don’t have access to them? For those dependent on charitable donations and libraries, books were yet another source of relief that vanished when Covid-19 struck.
Across the country, though, people have been giving their time and resources to make sure that books reach some of the most vulnerable. Paperbacks and children’s stories have been popped into food packages and given away to the homeless, while audiobooks have been given regular slots on prison radio. The people who have been facilitating this distribution have been risking their health to do so, heading onto the frontline to help.
In central London, Andrew Faris admits that he is “shattered”. The founder of Rhythms of Life, a homeless charity in the city that provides meals, toiletries, sleeping bags and support every day of the year, Faris and his team have been among the few who have continued to help the homeless once lockdown hit the city. “It’s difficult to comprehend what we’re going through,” he tells me. “All the food stations are shut, all the usual places that give us food – such as the cafes and shops – are shut.”
Faris has lived experience of the hardship of being homeless; he lived on the streets for six years in the Nineties. After founding Rhythms of Life in 2008, he now hopes to “make it better” for those still without somewhere to live. Books have long been part of the offering Rhythms of Life provides: Faris “used to get cheap books from libraries” and distributed them, often writing instructions to pass the book in the back pages and numbering them to keep track of which books were making their way around the community.
When Faris tells me which books are particularly popular among those he helps, it’s a quietly devastating reminder of how much is off-limits to the homeless. “People like books with images, artistic books, especially those from the National Gallery, because they can’t go in and have a look,” he explains. Travel books offer a view on the world that impossible to access first hand.
Practical and hobbyist non-fiction, especially titles about survival tactics, are often in demand, Faris says, while entry-level cookery books can really make an impact to those in hostels.
But escapism is welcome too. Faris tells me about John, who is “very lonely, very bored, very vulnerable and in his late-50s”. John lives in a hostel, which is so noisy that he finds peace by wearing construction ear-protectors he found in the street. “He’s a slow reader but he enjoys a good book,” Faris continues. “He took one of the collections of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Now he can read that, and put his mind on being someone else.”
Faris and his team distribute books after handing out food and coffee to the people who come to them every night, where the Rhythms of Life team park their car opposite outside the National Portrait Gallery. “We let them relax with a coffee or tea, and then we get the books out of the car,” he says. During lockdown, between 120 and 140 people were coming for food, company and support. “It’s gone up during this period, a lot of the other charities shut down. But this is the main time our guys need them.”
Up in Middlesbrough, Allison Potter is speaking to me during a supposed week off. As the National Literacy Trust’s Hub manager for the area, she’s been working closely with Middlesbrough Council’s School Readiness team, to get books to several organisations that help vulnerable people during the crisis. Within the first days of the pandemic unfolding, this included liaising with the Children’s Social Care team to get books to children in need, from those in early years education up to teenagers.
In the space of two days, Potter sorted and distributed 1,400 books collected from three different locations in Middlesbrough for social workers to take on their visits to families. To ensure social distancing, the books were laid out on tables in a conference room in the council buildings and sorted by age. Along with a range of Roald Dahl books, from The Giraffe, The Pellie and Me all the way up to titles for older children such as Boy and Going Solo, there were also dozens of Peppa Pig titles and books by Phillip Pullman and Ade Edmondson.
A further 175 were given to looked-after children of Key Stage 3-age; 320 were placed into food parcels for shielding recipients (of which 120 were for isolated adults) and 350 were given out with the Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation’s food bank parcels.
Another 350 were given to a food bank set up by Philippa ‘Pip’ Donegan, a local disabled mother who set up a food bank in her spare room. Astonishingly, Potter did the bulk of the distribution of the near-3,000 books herself in her Ford Fiesta. “I received a letter from the Chief Executive of the Council permitting me to travel,” she explains, having adhered to the council risk assessment as well as sorting face masks and hand sanitiser.
People shared their surprise and gratitude to Potter and The Trust on Twitter. “This is absolutely fantastic,” posted one recipient, “there are some very happy children in Middlesbrough.”
While physical books can bring joy to those who are confident engaging with them, for those people with limited reading ability, audiobooks can offer another route in – especially when it comes to collective reading. At HM Prison Wandsworth, Radio Wanno has been making time for audiobooks as part of its daily broadcasting, offering prisoners an opportunity to listen in to narratives and experiences that contextualise and broaden their own.
At Wandsworth, listenership is high: “we have a weekly reach of 70 to 80% of the prison population,” explains Kevin Field, head of communications (“Radio 2 gets about 30% of the UK population” he adds for context). Much of the radio content is created and broadcast by prisoners and is about goings-on in the prison, but Radio Wanno has become an even more vital source of information and entertainment in lockdown. “The men went from having their activities, social exercise and domestic work on the wing to having to spend 23 hours in their cells a day for safety,” Field says. “We’ve used the radio station as an anchor point.”
“It’s been pretty grim,” one anonymous prisoner told Johnstone in an interview, to which we had access. “One way in particular which has been difficult for everyone on the wing has been the lack of access to entertainment, so lack of access to books, lack of access to DVDs has been very difficult."
"The kindly-donated books which are left on the pool tables are great and I know lots of men on the wing who, when we finish a book, will go and put it there, so it’s become an ad-hoc lending library,” the prisoner continued. “But I do think it is insufficient and if we could have more access to reading materials I think that would be beneficial for everyone’s mental health.”
One of the initiatives has been Life Under Lockdown, a creative opportunity for the men to express – whether by the written or recorded word – how they are coping in lockdown. “We’ve had some brilliant poetry coming through it,” says Field.
When we spoke, Radio Wanno was working its way through Stormzy’s biography, Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far. Previous reads have included Blue Moon by Lee Child and Peter Crouch’s How to Be a Footballer. “There are so many rich audiences within prisons,” Philippa Johnstone, Communications and Events Assistant at the prison, tells me. “The audiobooks offer opportunities to listen in and get that support. A lot of men in prison are black men and might not hear their voice so much outside of their immediate world, so authors who reflect their experience are really important.” She adds that Tyson Fury’s autobiography, Behind the Mask, had offered insight to prisoners who were also from the traveller community; as part of a feedback survey undertaken by the team, Behind the Mask proved the most popular book.
Audiobooks have been filling the gap left by a prison library closed by Covid-19. By running a book club alongside the broadcast audiobooks, men have been able to have their reading experience amplified, says Johnstone. “For those who might not know how to read or write, Radio Wanno is really vital at the moment.”
Even in the most challenging of situations, books can offer a way to think about another world. As one prisoner said: "I have been feeling trapped. But [Book Club] has made me feel like, when the time comes, I will make my life into something better.”