Why I No Longer Dislike Book Clubs 

Book groups have never really agreed with me as I’m obsessed by mainly reading slow-burning, suspenseful novels. Think The Push by Ashley Audrain; Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. Ask me to stray away from that kind of story and I can get a little tetchy — at least I used to.  

Nine months ago, the fantastic charity that is Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston upon Thames – which I have been volunteering for from the beginning of the first Covid lockdown until now – asked myself and Melinda McHugh, their Media and Communications Officer, to set up a book club for the unpaid Carers that they support in the community. We agreed.  

I have to confess, I’ve been in book groups before and have never been very committed to them — I was too busy reading books of my own choosing. The one good thing about any of the book groups I had been a part of in the past though was that they had been food for thought for characters in my novels. 

But this book group — the Carers Book Group — has turned out to be different to the book groups I have attended in the past. It’s there to bring like-minded people together, develop friendships and importantly give Carers a much-needed break. We started small – just four of us — and due to lockdown, our meetings took place over Zoom at first. We laughed, we discussed, we spoke over one another sometimes, such as Zoom is, but nobody dominated.  

And then finally, we met in person. We got together in the charity’s office in Teddington after hours where a Crossroads therapist gave us head massages while we put the fiction world to rights. What a relief it was to be in a room with people.  

Next came a pub meet-up with a new member. We talked feel-good fiction. We talked Matt Haig. We like Matt Haig. We decided we very much like ‘dippable’ fiction – the type of stories that you can simply read a few pages of, then put down without feeling as if you’ve lost the plot. 

And so we have carried on, our number increasing a little bit more, but still we are a small unit. Quite often we read books that tend to veer away from what I might ordinarily read, but instead of feeling tetchy, I feel inspired. I am reading more widely than I used to and often I have two books on the go at the same time.  

I like watching our group of quietly invincible Carers taking time out and talking books. I like that friendships are building. I like listening to the chat and the laughs. I am not collecting personalities for anything I might write in the future (I promise), I’m just, for the first time in my life, enjoying being part of a book group. 

So thank you, ladies of the Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston Carers Book Group. What fun it is to be one of your number. 

The Surprising Benefits of Volunteering

For the past months, I’ve been volunteering as a delivery driver for Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston which supports carers in the community. During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity expanded its remit temporarily and started looking after other people too – anyone who was shielding and unable to go out and pick up their medication and shopping. 

I’ve started this blog post a couple of times now, but each attempt sounded so worthy that I ended up throwing them into the bin. My contribution has been small really in comparison to the other volunteers in the team. I’ve been doing one or two days a week whereas there are women and men who’ve been delivering food and medicine to people all day, every day for months. Then there are the two incredible women who took many of the hundreds of phone calls that deluged the charity office as the pandemic took hold. They set up filing and computer systems; they got to know every single client by name and by need. It is a strange sign of the times that it was only yesterday that I saw the full face of one of those women because every time I have been in the office she has been so diligently wearing her face mask. 

I have answered phones and listened to people with no one else to talk to, so that the sheer relief of chatting had made them cry. I have delivered food bank parcels and medicine. I have stood outside a block of flats talking to a man suffering from dementia who could not remember how many children he had. When I asked him whether he needed me to guide him back into his flat, he snapped: ‘I’m not that bad!’

There are many other moments that I will carry with me too. Chatting to a couple in their 90s with their arms around each other at their front door; two proposals of marriage from a grumpy old man. Whenever anyone says, ‘you’re so good to be working for a local charity,’ to be honest, I feel a little bit fraudulent – you see, I’m getting far more back than I am putting in.

I have been freelance for many years now, first as a feature writer then as a novel writer and editor of books, but how I have missed people. Through volunteering I have got people back.

Volunteering has given me something entirely unexpected too. Meeting so many people is stimulating in a way that sitting at a desk on my own just isn’t, so now when I do sit down to write, ideas for stories keep dropping into my head.

I had thought I’d only be volunteering during lockdown, but working for Crossroads Care has been so rewarding that I’m not planning to hang up my lanyard any time soon.