Footpath Chatter – This month, we spoke to Alison, who coordinates a book club at Northcott public housing estate in inner Sydney.
Alison has lived at Northcott for the last 22 of her 83 years. As a retired high school teacher of English, History and Film & television, she is a voracious reader, and has been instrumental in making sure that tenants of Northcott have access to books and reading.
‘When I first moved to Northcott in 2001, the shelves at the community centre were full of old books that had been donated through deceased estates, and they smelt a bit musty and the pages were yellowed, they were all in poor condition,’ explained Alison. ‘There were old sets of encyclopedias too, with volumes missing, so some of us set about sprucing the collection up and making it a bit less formal so that people felt comfortable to browse the books, take a few to read, and no one was going to ask them to put them back.’
Alison, and other tenants, wanted to ensure that people at Northcott had access to books, recognising that many on the estate could not afford to buy books, and others may not borrow books from libraries because of the time limits imposed on reading.
‘We just wanted to encourage people to feel very relaxed, to take books, and also to bring down books of their own so others could read and enjoy them,’ said Alison.
Northcott is a multi-storeyed housing estate of 1,000 residents behind Central Station. In the late 1950s, it was touted as a bold social experiment, constructed by the State’s Housing Commission. By the early 1960s, Northcott housed more than 900 low-income tenants and was regarded as a showpiece of modern, high-density living.
By the 1980s, the bold social experiment had faltered, and the community faced challenges with the arrival of new tenants, and waves of drug and alcohol addiction and crime. Today, Northcott is home to a whole mix of people.
‘People don’t really understand public housing, how people can end up in social housing if they weren’t poor and struggling throughout their lives, but people have things happen and their lives can be totally up ended through illness or marriage breakdowns, and all manner of things,’ explained Alison. ‘Things of chance we encounter can have good or bad impacts on our lives.’
In 2017, the book club was the brainchild of a community development worker who asked for volunteers to coordinate it.
‘Nobody put their hand up,’ said Alison. ‘I thought it was a really great idea so I said I would help.’
The group normally has about eight to 10 readers and they meet on the first Tuesday of every month. This club is run differently to a traditional book club in that people do not have to read the same book; they read whatever they want and then bring that book along and talk about it with others.
Barbara McKellar, who volunteers regularly at the reading group and is a Board Member of The Footpath Library, provided some insight into the Club. ‘Everyone talks about their book without giving too much away, it’s less about ‘this book is about…’ and more about ‘what I loved/enjoyed about this book is…’. And the books are all there in the middle of the group so if a book grabs your interest, then you ask if you can borrow it and then bring it back to the next meet up.’
The Footpath Library heard about the book club at Northcott and began donating books for the group as well as setting up an Indigenous children’s book library for kids who came along from Sydney Koori kids.
‘In 2019, Barbara – from The Footpath Library – came along to the group, and she arrived with this fantastic cake she had made herself, so we fell in love with her immediately, and she has come to all the meetings since and is a wonderful participant in our group, bringing regular donations of books with her,’ said Alison.
Alison likes to keep notes about who has recommended which books and their comments on books, and believes the reading group is a terrific model for social connection; bringing people together who have a passion for reading.
‘By not reading the same book, all sorts of books are read and talked about, and it’s a wonderful way to find books that other people enjoy as well as to form connections with people and build friendships,’ said Alison.
Northcott’s residents are from diverse backgrounds, concentrated in this estate of high-rise buildings. For some people, this may make their world even smaller, choosing to stay isolated from others. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated social isolation, with the book club not able to meet due to lockdowns and restrictions.
‘We tried to move the group online for a time but not everyone had access to computers or smartphones, and we didn’t want to leave anyone out,’ said Alison. ‘I went for six months during COVID seeing no one except the grocery and chemist delivery people. Seeing two people a month isn’t very good for mental health, there was not much joie de vivre during that time.’
‘After so long apart, we did a lot of chatting because there was so much to catch up on,’ said Alison. ‘But we got to talk about the books we are reading too.’
The reading group is an opportunity for people to connect, nurture trust and build friendships.
‘I have learnt so much from being involved in the reading group,’ said Barbara. ‘We’re delighted to be able to provide books, and our involvement is appreciated by the group, but it’s the people that I have met who have opened my heart and mind as well; it’s a wonderful group of people.’