Q & A with Professor Alison Baverstock MBE, Reading Force Founder & Director

//Q & A with Professor Alison Baverstock MBE, Reading Force Founder & Director

Alison founded the Reading Force initiative in 2010 on a shoestring budget. What started as a pilot has gone from strength to strength and today Reading Force is a tri-service charity with worldwide reach. We are thrilled to congratulate Alison on being awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to military families in the King’s Birthday Honours list. Here she shares her Army and Reading Force life…

When you decided to set up Reading Force in 2010 you were an Army wife, mum of four, author, and academic (in no particular order!), and now you are a veteran’s wife and granny. Can you tell us what spurred you to pilot Reading Force among the military community?

I’m a publisher by background and have always been firmly committed to the value of reading and sharing stories. As we were posted to different places – in total we had 18 postings in 30 years – I had always done talks for local schools on why reading matters and how books get made. But the opportunity to live in one place for a reasonable length of time – my husband was posted to Aldershot – was a great chance to work on a community shared-reading project. Living there gave me the chance to reach a large Forces population, many military units and lots of local schools.

Reading Force was very much based on personal experience. Our family had found that sharing books between family members gave everyone something to think about in between phone calls, and to talk about when we had the chance to speak.

There can be an initial difficulty when you first hear the voice of someone you are missing on the phone. But talking about a book can offer common ground and get the conversation started – and we found this worked with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – as well as deployed service people.

Since we began, while life has moved on, we still find the process works – in particular with our three grandchildren, who are scattered between Mexico and Cyprus.

It must have been amazing seeing your idea come to life. What stands out in your memories of those first days of Reading Force in 2011?

Well, having the first lot of scrapbooks delivered was pretty special – seeing something physically exist that was previously only an idea. The boxes all came to our house in Aldershot, and blocked access to the back door!

Also seeing the first lot of scrapbooks come back from families was wonderful. Hattie and I reviewed them, with our printer Paul, and we all ended up in tears. People had written such lovely things about the joy they had found in reading together.

We still ask families to return their scrapbooks to us, so we can tell our funders how their money has been used, and there is a freepost envelope in the middle of each to enable this. We return them by registered post, to ensure they arrive safely, along with a certificate of participation and another free book.

You have achieved so much in the last 14 years – Reading Force has expanded to all members of the military family and is used overseas. Are you able to pin-point a couple of developments that have particularly meant a lot to you?

I think the reason Reading Force has spread is that it’s a very simple idea, that is easy to understand. So it works well across different locations and cultures. The issue of how you keep in touch with wider family when life is constantly changing is an ongoing one for the military community.

More recently I have particularly enjoyed working in Northern Ireland, where we had served, and producing an individual reading record for veterans. We made many friends in the province, and love going back there. Also the launch of our Reading Force book clubs, which connect military people of all ages, was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. Finally meeting military families arriving for our event with Michael Morpurgo, was very special – having conversations with those who have used us since we began. It made what we do feel so real.

Do you have particular ambitions/ideas you would still like to see in action for Reading Force?

As we are constantly in touch with military families, and many of our Reading Force colleagues are from that background themselves, we see the day-to-day reality of Service life, the issues faced and the competencies and skills that those who live this life tend to have. I want us to continue using that information and understanding to represent military families more widely: we understand them.

Can you give us an example of what a typical day is like for you?

My life is quite varied, but I find everything I do cross-pollinates! So what I have learned through one experience tends to influence how I can contribute in others.

I have a role at Kingston University as Professor of Publishing, and my longstanding research interest in the value of reading was of fundamental importance to the launch and development of Reading Force. We remain committed to analysing and learning from what we do and how it is received.

I also like to support the wellbeing of military families in the workplace, or as students, and at Kingston I am about to become the first chair of Kingston’s Armed Forces Support Group (do join us!). My research into how reading groups work, and the benefits of self-publishing have been very helpful in driving Reading Force’s new involvements in these areas. At weekends I am an (unpaid) priest in a local parish, and I’ve conducted weddings, baptisms and funerals. Life teaches you about life.

Reading Force welcomes veterans to get involved, and I know this is important to you. What is your take on veterans’ lives in the UK?

When my husband retired from the Army, it was quite a surprise how little the employment market seemed to understand about the role of our Armed Forces, and the skills veterans have developed through their training and experience. He was constantly having to explain his role and the range of his involvements in management and leadership. I want us to work towards changing this.

Veterans have served their country, and military service has a profound impact on the life patterns and opportunities of their partners and wider families; in the process they develop skills, competencies and values that are so useful to both society and the economy. It’s in everyone’s benefit to recognise this.

If you had to summarise Reading Force in a sentence, what would you say?

Shared-reading to keep military families close and connected.

You are a military spouse, what’s the best and worst part of being in a military family?

Well the endless change was pretty challenging, but as I look back I think it was formative – the ability to manage change is very helpful. For our four children, we never had the scan and the baby in the same hospital, always having moved mid-pregnancy. But in the process we lived in many interesting places and had fascinating experiences, and formed some really deep friendships. So I wouldn’t change a thing.

Huge congratulations on your MBE for services to military families! What does the award mean to you?

It’s a great honour, and the prospect of a nice day out! But the most important thing is the acknowledgement it gives the team who are Reading Force, without which none of this would have happened.

Thank you for answering these questions! One last question, can you tell us a little about a book you’ve read recently (children’s or adult) and would you recommend it to the Reading Force community?

During lockdown I had intended to read War and Peace, but it’s still unread. Instead, I started on books I read as a child, and have now moved on to books I could have read then. I am currently loving Anne of Green Gables having just finished the What Katy Did series. The thing that amazes me is how much I remember of books I have not read for a very long time.

Thank you so much Alison, and HUGE congratulations!

The role of Reading Force Ambassador in Scotland is generously supported by Annington Ltd.