the stock market
"He follows the stock market." Had the comment been "He reads books on brain surgery as a hobby," the intonation of surprise in the voice could not have been greater.

To many people, anything to do with shares is not only considered a mystery but is also regarded as deadly dull. Of course many subjects are also considered uninteresting until we find out more about them.

Many people switch off when financial matters are discussed because they think the subject is beyond their comprehension.

Here is a different view of the stock market: "It is like a real-life soap opera with a cast of thousands. It has star players, the occasional unknowns achieving overnight fame, births, marriages, intrigue, success stories, feuds, dominant personalities, weak individuals and power struggles."

Around 3,000 shares are quoted in London. In this on-going real-life drama there may be good news, a little intrigue or a report of a boardroom power struggle.

Failing demand for a company's goods or services, or a worsening economy may cast a shadow.

Just as with a soap opera, it takes time to become conversant with the market's vagaries. It is possible to do so without spending any money. Indeed, it is advisable to buy only when you feel comfortable and confident.

Create an imaginary portfolio of shares in the companies which appeal to you. They could include the brewery which owns your local pub, the supermarket chain which you favour or the manufacturer of your favourite toothpaste. Provided they are quoted on the London Stock Exchange, the choice is yours.

Follow their fate by looking at their share price each day and reading reports about them in The Independent's business pages. A company's annual report not only contains financial information, it will also tell you a great deal about its activities. Companies will always send a copy to anyone upon request.

Do not restrict your researches to the financial press. Follow the general news and look at what is happening.

If a company has developed a new product, is refurbishing its chain of shops or is generally improving its image, you may consider that its profitability will increase. Add companies which attract your attention to the list.

It is by following the coverage of company news that you become familiar with the stock market.

"Where to get Share Information" is ProShare Investor Update No 5. It is available by sending an A4 stamped addressed envelope to: ProShare, 13-14 Basinghall Street, London, EC2V 5BQ.

John Andrew is the author of "How to Understand the Financial Press". His book is published by Kogan Page at pounds 9.99 and is available in bookshops.