Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Mike Dickson Interview

On the eve of the Volunteer Reading Help reception at the House of Commons, we have one more interview for you at Books and Adventures.

Charities like VRH depend on the generosity of businesses and individuals giving their time to a good cause. Just a few hours each week can help a child who is struggling with reading to develop confidence and a love of books and stories – but when money is tight and our lives are so busy, it’s sometimes hard to imagine giving up our time for others.

Mike Dickson is the man with an answer to this dilemma. A founder of the children’s charity Whizz-Kidz, he is an incredible, energetic advocate of generosity and philanthropy in the UK and beyond. His first book, The More You Give, played an important part in shaping my corporate outreach work; this summer sees the release of Please Take One, “a call to lead a more generous life, to maximize our life not our income.”

Mike kindly took time out of a busy schedule to answer a few questions on the benefits of volunteering at the individual and corporate levels.

Why should individuals and organisations be thinking about giving at a time when we are all tightening our belts?
Well these are two separate questions.

Organisations, quite simply because employees, customers, and shareholders now expect a business to have a life outside of just making a profit, to be actively engaged in their communities and aware of their environmental footprint. Buying clothes made in India by children who should be at school, or mowing down rainforest to produce palm oil is no longer acceptable. Especially among young consumers.

Individuals should give their time – by being generous to their families, their friends, their communities and to their planet – for it is ours/ theirs.

The forthcoming cuts are going to have a staggering impact on our communities – so it is up to us to become engaged and involved where we live – by helping, caring, teaching – as John Kennedy said ‘Ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country’

Two pleasant side effects of a more generous approach to life are that companies will become more intelligent and better places to work; and individuals will become happier through contributing to others – there is lots of research to prove this.

What are the benefits of volunteering one’s time as a way of giving?
It gives you a sense of purpose; introduces you to other lives and worlds; stops you whinging on about what an awful day / week / time you have had – it is very difficult to remain fixated on your own problems when helping others are less fortunate. And it actively helps to improve the community you live in and the charity you are volunteering for.

What advice could you give people looking to volunteer their time with a charity or other organisation?
Go local, or if you are helping an overseas cause look for an association – e.g. if you love India help an NGO there.

Think about what you are really interested in, even what makes you angry. Then focus on finding charities or NGOs that work in those areas. Research them online, ask friends about them. Ring the charities up and ask them what sort of help they need, go and meet them – this is well worth it – see if you like the work, get on with or are inspired by the people working in the charity and so on.

Don’t get waylaid by City folk banging on about leverage, and Return On Investment – most of it is hubris and harmful. I have heard of NGO’s asking about gender equality policies in Africa – in the good old days they would have been captured and boiled alive in pots!

Your new project is all about generosity. Can you tell us more?
The book is called Please Take One - one step into a more generous life. We have all been living in a daft way for the last 20 or 30 years in the ruthless drive to accumulate material goods, and been encouraged to become individuals, independent etc. And we are now in a mess.

Please Take One is a call to lead a more generous life, to maximize our life not our income. There are chapters on happiness, enough, poverty in the UK (truly shocking), global poverty (how to help the bottom billion), and about the threat to our environment which.

There are some great stories, quotes and facts and list of ‘steps’ – suggested actions to lead a more generous life.

Please Take One is being soft launched at Ted Global in Oxford in July when we will also be starting a global movement to encourage generosity. For people to record generous acts they have done or witnessed and ones have happened to them. All of course ‘on line’ through the web, Facebook, Twitter etc – I have even had to learn to tweet! I am hugely looking forward to reading about people’s actions.

As the Talmud says ‘to save one life is as if you have saved the world’.

You can find out more about Mike’s writings, his charitable activities and his work advising companies about their charitable giving at

The final interview in the ‘VRH Trilogy’ will be with Julie Nixon, Director of Services at Volunteer Reading Help.

After that, Books and Adventures will be heading down under to investigate Pacific mythology, Australian children’s fiction, and the magic of landscape...

Monday, 21 June 2010

Volunteer Reading Help: Anne Loftus Interview

On Thursday 1st July I will be speaking at the House of Commons reception of Volunteer Reading Help, the UK charity which supports children’s literacy development through one-to-one mentoring.

You can find out more about my experiences with the charity here, but today we’re joined by Anne Loftus, who wears two hats as a Volunteer Services Manager and as a Reading Helper in her own right. Anne is based in Kent and was responsible for training me as a Helper way back in the day!

How did you first get involved with VRH?
My involvement with VRH started in November 1993 when I was lucky enough to be taken on as a Volunteer Services Manager in Kent. My role involved recruiting and training volunteers who would then give individual help to children who were struggling with reading and in need of some 1:1 support. It is the best job in the world as you meet such wonderful, caring people who want to give something back to their local community and help children with their reading and confidence.

How long have you been working as a Reading Helper?
I have worked as a VSM for almost 17 years and became a Volunteer Reading Helper myself 4 years ago. I worked with a Looked After Child, Ryan, after school for just over a year and when he moved on to secondary school I worked with his younger brother, Tristan.

What were your first experiences of the programme like?
Although I had been training volunteers for many years it was very different becoming a volunteer myself. Ryan had a lot of problems and could be quite difficult at times. Without the knowledge of the VRH training I think I would have found him very difficult to cope with. Through playing games I was able to calm him down when necessary.

How have things changed at VRH in the intervening years?
The content of the training has not changed very much, although it has been updated regularly. Our volunteers have always been carefully selected; we still interview all volunteers, take up references and run an enhanced CRB check before training. Our main way of working – giving children choices, making the sessions fun and relaxed, putting no pressure on the child – this has not changed since VRH began in 1973.

What is your proudest achievement as a Helper?
My proudest achievement as a VRH Reading Helper is the day Tristan stood on the podium at the House of Commons last year and read his poem “I Like Lambourghinis”! I thought I would burst with pride!! I have worked with Tristan for 3 years now, following him to secondary school last autumn (his choice!) His confidence and reading ability has grown immensely.

How have you developed personally as a result of your involvement with VRH?
Working as a VRH Reading Helper is so rewarding and fulfilling. To see a child’s face light up when they see you and to share the very special time with a child – sometimes just chatting or reading the child a story. My own confidence has grown and meeting such wonderful people is a tonic.

Why should people volunteer their time with VRH?
If a person likes the company of children and enjoys reading, it is the most perfect form of volunteering. Plenty of patience and a sense of humour are quite important too. Just 3 hours per week and you can help to change a child’s life forever. The work is rewarding and great fun too. I truly believe that our volunteers get as much from the sessions as the children.

There will be more on Volunteer Reading Help at this blog in the run-up to the Commons event.
If you’d like to get involved with VRH, or just find out more about their incredible work, go to

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Star Wars, but with bees

Late last year I entered the New Scientist science fiction competition. My story told of Chilean beekeepers sabotaging New Zealand's honey crop while being chased by wildlife protection robots.

I have to admit that one of the winning stories, about genetically modified burgers, did the whole sci-fi-food-nightmare thing a LOT better.

But I feel quite pleased to discover that just like in my story, where the robots used lidar (like radar, but with lasers) to hunt down Chilean bees by scanning for wingbeats, the latest bug-zapping technology uses lasers to scan for, and identify, insects. See here!

Almost like I was writing proper science fiction!

All of this is on my mind because a swarm of bees is shifting from tree to tree in the back garden, neither settling nor moving on. Sometimes I hear the buzzy vuvuzela horns being blown at the World Cup matches on TV and think that the swarm has invaded the kitchen.

But have you prepared for an killer BEES?
There will be more science fiction coming to this blog soon when Books and Adventures is joined in July by Professor Mark Brake and Jon Chase the Science Rapper, who are touring the country to promote this year's Summer Reading Challenge.

Until then, you can find out more about the challenge here.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Steve Killick Interview

This week we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Steve Killick. Steve is a storyteller and clinical psychologist whose book Telling Tales, written with Taffy Thomas, is a great practical guide for people interested in education, storytelling and emotional literacy.

You can find out more about Steve and his wide-ranging work here.

What does storytelling do that stories in books can't?
I think what is happening when a story is told and heard is very different than when it is read. When told the teller is able to engage the listeners by their creation of the story, they can bring many aspects of non-verbal communication in, such as tone-of-voice, gesture, facial expression these all provide stimuli for the imagination. Most importantly the storyteller can modulate the delivery depending on how the listeners are reacting. Reading stories are good for us but by telling a story we bring it into the social domain and increase the usefulness of the experience.

One reason for this is that we think in story terms anyway and often socially we are telling each other stories, the everyday kind, what’s happening to us, our successes and achievements. By listening to stories we understand a lot about people, our imagination is stimulated and we can think more flexibly and creatively and we also learn how to tell stories by listening, and that is an important social skill. Reading fiction can help to develop social and cognitive skills in children such as language and empathy. Hearing stories can help children not only become more interested in reading but also it directly develops important interpersonal skills particularly speaking and listening.

How does storytelling benefit us, as children and as adults?
I think storytelling is one of the most beneficial activities human being can engage in but the evidence to support such a claim is limited. We know stories can certainly develop language and other cognitive skills. Stories also just inform us about the world around us, our history (or hi ’story’), they tell us what is socially valued, what’s good, bad, moral and so on. Basically they tell us about life. They are powerful things and can be abused as well. As a psychologist, I am most interested in how stories develop social and emotional skills, to understand feeling, to get in touch with them and learn how to deal with them, they help with motivation and in getting on with others.

For children stories really help us develop the key skills of what we call emotional literacy. For adults they too are very important. Many people are drawn to stories in drama on TV or film or in reading fiction. Keith Oatley, a leading psychologist in the study of emotions, feels that is because they help us attune with emotions. Being involved in a story is like a work-out at the gym for our emotional mind. However, many adults have not had the experience of listening to a good story well told and dismiss it as something for children. They are missing a wonderful experience.

Do you need special training to become a storyteller?
As an art form storytelling is one that is relatively easy to learn. It is a natural capacity and can be developed through practise. It’s not about learning how to do voices or anything like that, more about finding a style that works for you. Much can be learned through listening and watching people tell stories especially skilled and professional tellers. If someone is really interested in storytelling and especially performance storytelling then doing some training is certainly recommended and many storytellers offer training. I think most people can learn the basics of storytelling easily and find ways to use them at home or work. To become a professional storyteller needs a lot of study and isn’t for everyone.

What does "happily ever after" really mean?
Great question. Its major function is to say simply that’s the end of the story – all the issues are now resolved and it is over. Like ‘Once upon a time’ which starts a story, the phrase marks out the boundaries of the story world. It is, of course, symbolic rather than literal. Jon Kabot-Zinn felt its really meaning was almost the opposite to ‘ever after’- rather it refers to happiness in the here and now, the present – and of course the present moment is the eternal moment. I liked that! I also think there is another symbolic meaning in fairy tales for often these stories are about growing up. When the hero or heroine marries and receives untold riches it is really saying they have had an experience which has taken them to maturity and they are now able to live as mature adults. This is why many fairy stories send optimistic messages, even the least favoured smallest child can grow up to succeed.

Do you have an all-time favourite story to hear, or tell?
I don’t know about an all-time favourite but certainly a story that has obsessed me for the last few years is the ancient Indian story of King Vikram and a corpse he is fated to carry. However, his burden is inhabited by a spirit who instructs him in wisdom in living through a series of tantalising riddling stories. I have been tracking down different version of this story for year. I also tell it and am trying to rewrite my own version and I’m always finding new things in it.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Spies and Maltesers

I was mistaken for a spy this week.

I was waiting for a friend in Blackheath, reading a newspaper and trying to keep out of the rain by standing under a tree.

When we finally met up and went for dinner at a restaurant overlooking the heath, our waiter accused me of being a secret agent. Luckily I was able to talk my way out of it and my cover wasn’t blown!

Over on Stories from the Web, mechanimate has written about another spy, Alex Rider – or rather his creator, Anthony Horowitz.

I’ve never read one of the Alex Rider stories, but I’ve been a big fan of another Horowitz book, The Falcon’s Malteser, ever since I read it aged 10. It's part of his series about the Diamond Brothers, hapless private detectives in London.

South Americans, cemeteries, gangsters and chocolate, all with a light honeycomb centre: that's my kind of story!

Check out mechanimate’s post on Anthony Horowitz here.