Belonging: people, place or something else ? – No man’s land #4

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

I have an interest in ‘new’ communities. In my first year at university studying Geography, we had a field trip to Harlow (a much newer town then than now) and I semi-seriously asked our guide which was higher, the murder or suicide rate. At the time, we were standing outside the front door of a home in a low-rise ‘Spanish-style’ apartment block surrounded by grey concrete with petrol fumes from an ill-designed car park wafting up from below through an equally badly-positioned grill beneath our feet. To be fair it was a grey wet day; we weren’t seeing Harlow at its best.

Later, as part of my university course, I studied a community that had been de-canted from Handsworth in Birmingham for a ‘better life’ on the edge of the city. I was looking at whether those residents had been able to re-create the old community in their new location – the right mix of people and place. I interviewed those who had moved and those who had stayed and concluded, of course, that the sense of community is more to do with the people than the place (but I also detected some latent racism in my interviewees which may have distorted the findings).

Fast forward four decades from my university studies and, 20 miles from Harlow and 100 miles from Handsworth, my office base is in another new town, Stevenage (or St Evenage as we like to call it). Across Hertfordshire’s county boundary, I also work with young people in a newer new town – Milton Keynes (and however many times I go there, I’ve never worked out how to get from A to B without a map)

My other half works in Letchworth – the world’s first Garden City and, as some may know, the site of the first roundabout dating back to the early 1900s.  On the edge of York, my mother spent the last ten years of her life living in an innovative ‘continuing care community’ (Centreparcs for the over 60s I called it) which was itself located in New Earswick – a community created to house the makers of Rowntree’s chocolate. [I also lived for two years near another model village founded on cocoa – Bournville in Birmingham. And Royston is the HQ for Hotel Chocolat; the confectionery community connections go on!]

After making the decision the move from North London, from the largely anonymous neighbourhood that was Stoke Newington, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was interested in getting to know the ‘new’ Royston community as soon as possible after arriving.

As in London, having a toddler was a wonderful way to meet others in a similar position and many of those new parents we met over 20 years ago in Royston had also recently arrived from other parts, so we had much in common. The ‘newcomers group’ gave us access to a group of potentially like-minded people and, in fact, many of them have become and remain good friends. The mothers (and it was primarily mothers) who met for coffee with their offspring soon extended their socialising to regular ‘girls’ nights out’. The fathers who had less opportunity to meet in the working week, were not to be outdone – with monthly ‘lads’ nights out’ at one of Royston’s eight pubs (for a record 23 dads on one notable occasion).

But just as there is a world of difference between the pain of loneliness and the joy of solitude, so ‘residing in’ and ‘belonging to’ a particular place are very different experiences.

Belonging (and love) is level three in Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs. My personal definition of belonging in Royston is quite simply meeting someone I know whenever I walk to the shops. For a town with 16,000 people where I’ve lived for more than 20 years, that’s quite common now. I also say ‘hello’ to people I don’t know, most often when I’m running and they’re doing the same or walking the dog. [What is it about people thinking you strange or worse still, threatening, if you try to be friendly, unless it’s obvious why you’re both out and about at the same time?]

But I reckon it took around five years after arriving to feel I belonged in Royston and could say hello to strangers. And on the subject of ‘stranger danger’, I refused to bring up my daughter to see every man as a potential rapist.

And that confidence and familiarity only came from going out of my way to do things that would help me connect and be good for my health and wellbeing – running off-road with friends (and trying to set up that local parkrun) and singing in a choir being just two.

There’s a Quaker proverb that says ‘It’s better to light a candle than complain about the darkness.’ It speaks to my condition (to use another Quaker phrase) and has done so from an early age when I had it on a poster on my bedroom wall. But it’s only really in the last 15 years I’ve really taken that idea to heart as a way to feed my longing to belong and to feel as though I’m making a difference, however small.

Since 2000 I’ve tried to connect people in Royston (including myself of course) with some success, by starting things. Community-building is how some might describe it; for me it’s more self-interested than that if I’m honest.

First it was the Royston Time Bank which traded time to make the point that we all have something precious to share – our time – and that give and take is good for us. Free exchange is at the heart of another initiative – our Royston Recycle network of 6,500 people keeping items in use for longer through the giving away pre-loved-but-now-unwanted items. This freecycle group spawned the Royston Repair Café – quarterly gathering to assess and, where possible, mend broken items – bikes, clothes, furniture, electrical and electronic items.

A friend in Bedford introduced me to cash mobs. The idea is a wonderfully simple, social-media-assisted direct action to help revive a local economy. A semi-randomly selected independent high street shop is targeting for a surprise spending spree (£5 each) by the gathered ‘mob’. For me, the demonstration effect – it’s better to light a candle etc – is as important as the financial benefit to the particular shop, so publicity before and after is essential. When one of the gathered mobsters asked if I’d got permission to organise the event (‘permission to spend money in local shops?’ I asked) I realised what I was up against. But we organised four cash mobs in all – descending on a different retailer each time – with indirect benefits in abundance.

Then there’s the Mill Road Little Library. The first 15 years of my working life I sold books (with a book distributor, then a publisher) and although I’m a slow reader, I’m sure it’s parental influence that explains my love of printed books and reading.

In our early years in Royston there were two bookshops – one run by a traditional bookseller in a malodorous shop, the other run by a malodorous bookseller in a clean and fresh outlet. Both bookshops are now gone and the popular and well-run library (a treasure trove for our growing daughter) has had its funding cut and is now largely DIY and run by volunteers on reduced hours. Opening a new bookshop is not on the cards of course, but the Little Library outside our house – on a commuter route – has a steady turnover of real books as copies come and go. A ‘tiny library’ – to catch ‘em young – is the next development.

To be continued…

For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

For more about cash mobs, see https://www.facebook.com/RoystonCashMob 

 

 

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