By Mary Weston, our Mental Health Project Manager
I’ve been visiting our sister organisation in Denmark, Læseforeningen, (The Reading Society) – one of the most exciting trips I’ve made in a long time. On Monday I joined Mette Steenberg, Karen Marie Larsen and Nanna Holm at the residential training they were delivering at Hald Hovedgaard near Viborg. Hald is a beautiful 18th century manor house next to a wooded lake, now used as a writers’ and translators’ retreat. Like Burton Manor in Cheshire (where we have run our Residential Training Courses in the past), it’s charming and peaceful and isolated enough to keep you focussed on the task at hand. The trainees were ‘librarians and others’ (as they put it), all there because they had been enthused by the shared reading idea, and keen to set up groups in mental health and dementia settings, with young people and with immigrant groups.
Laeseforeningen is structured as a membership organisation, and most of the work is being done voluntarily. On the drive back to Aarhus, Nanna explained to me that this is the way they are most likely to gain credibility: people are joining them (and supporting them financially) because they have been inspired, and out of a sense of wanting to shape a ‘civil society’. That phrase seems to me to capture something important about the Danish ethos: their comprehensive health and welfare system doesn’t seem to have undermined their sense of social responsibility. Quite the opposite. The Danes have the most economically equal society on the planet; as far as I could tell their health service is well-funded and rationally ordered.
It was intriguing, and a bit counter-intuitive to learn that having good things in place did actually make it more difficult for Laeseforeningen to find funds. Applying for a grant to work in, say, health, they are sometimes met with the notion that ‘the health service already has plenty of public funding’, although the Danish public sector is facing cuts and restructuring.
Our colleagues in Laeseforeningen may need to find new ways of sowing the seed in Denmark’s well-cultivated soil, but it was wonderful to see that the essential ethos – the faith that sharing literature is a way of building a civil society (remember that phrase ‘community glue’?) – can inspire people in such a different place.