Congratulations to Paul Stephens-Wood! We at the library are especially proud of him as he is also a volunteer at our library!

With Paul’s permission here is his entry that won him the third prize.


I’m reading my world.

I’m reading the stones. What stories they tell, as they lie beneath protecting glass in their wooden cases.  In the whorled and pressure-flaked flints I can see human intelligence honed over millennia. I can see people in small groups hunting across the barren tundra. Their sharpened flints, hafted into wooden spears with the stringed entrails of their prey are razor sharp. Even now they can cut and slash as they did hundreds of thousands of years ago. In a case further down the room lie crumpled, ill-stamped coins from a Roman hoard buried two millennia ago. The owner sought to protect his wealth from thieves; whether neighbours or raiders we do not know. But he never came back, and I feel his insecurity across time.

As I move through the museum’s galleries, I read the stories of other objects. Objects of clay, iron, gold and miraculously preserved textiles. Some express a sense of the divine; others tell of the daily drudge. Some are beautiful; others plain and utilitarian. Some speak of aggression and death; others of the care and love that binds communities.  Whatever stories each object has to tell, I return from these hushed galleries with a better understanding of what it is to be human.

I’m reading the flight of birds. The migrating geese, cackling in a wedge as they drive westward across a cloudless sky confirm the beginning of the year’s rhythm.  Soon the buds will peel open and bees will hang from the heavy scented flowers. New life erupts. The geese will graze and breed in the year’s fullness. Then as the days lengthen, swirling murmurations of starlings bring an Autumn spectacle. Through the winter thousands of birds gather on the wing and swoop in unison across a red tinged sky in freewheeling, pulsating curves. Rooks and Jackdaws also fly from their foraging grounds to mass in huge numbers on a winter roost, filling  the air with a raucous cacophony. Each of these great gatherings shows me the forces that bind the natural world in a constant fluid state of movement and renewal.

The evolution of the year can be read in small things: the appearance of the first butterfly; an annoying gnat’s bite; the scurrying beetle across a dusty path; a dew sparkled spider’s web; the brown leaves trodden black. Each observation has significance. It opens a thousand stories.  Stories about the rhythms of life; about death’s terminal blow; about our place in a world we only partly understand.

I’m reading my children’s eyes. In gestures they tell me what they feel. From the pouting sulk of frustrated desire, to the tiny contraction of a cheek muscle – a fleeting glimpse of fear and uncertainty; I gauge their moods.  Their faces are a barometer of the windy emotions driven by momentary impulses. These I observe with a protective love and care. At work I read my colleagues too.  The drumming of finger tips, or the unfocussed eyes scanning the ceiling; the stiffened jaw, or the open palm tell me what can be done, and what will never be done. On the open street I protect myself by an acute sensitivity to the way a stranger tilts his head, or how a hooded glance flashes from a passer by.

Just as the evolution of the year can be read in small things, so can we measure ourselves by the  gestures of others. We see and explore the place we hold in our families and communities. It often speaks of love and acceptance, but sometimes of loneliness and rejection.  In gestures we have an affirmation of the joys and sorrows of being human. 

I’m reading words. Thousands of words. Each one part of a structured dialogue across countless pages. The books that stuff my bookcases are an eclectic collection. If people look closely at the titles they can to see who I am. They will see books about archaeology, birds, and the histories of peoples and nations. There are books on science and philosophy. Some are on art and photography, and there’s  a row of carefully arranged poetry books. There are novels in crisp modern paper covers alongside classics with ripped and torn spines: I’m the last reader of many others across the generations. Some I will donate to charity shops when I have finished them. Some have given me great pleasure and enriched my world, so I will keep them.

I have read the objects in museums. I have read the pulsating forces of nature. I have read the moods of friends and family, and felt the pulse of community life.  And, I will always do so. But, it is what I read in books that instruct me more than anything else. I know of the sharpened flints because I have read about them. The starling’s swirling flocks have been studied, and I read of a growing understanding of why they gather in their thousands. Bronte and Dickens, Heaney and Hughes have observed the gestures, emotions and passions of others. The novelists stories dissect their characters private thoughts and the conventions of the societies that give them meaning. The poets give lyrical form to a shared experience, and explore the landscapes of feeling.  All these books are accumulated wisdom and experience across many millennia. They have travelled time and space to give me a context and understanding to what I see and know. And, from all my reading, I have learned what it is to be human.

We also have a video of Paul reading his entry out loud.