Category Archives: No man’s land

On being a new father – No man’s land #9

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

Years before I was even considering parenthood, I got seriously concerned about the prospect of being a father. I don’t really know why, but I got burdened by just thinking about the parental responsibility of influencing a growing child by everything said and done in his/her presence. Now, of course, I know better; parents are just not that influential – much of what they say is rarely heard, let alone acted upon!

Which is not to say that our lovely daughter has even gone out of her way to challenge her upbringing; it never ceases to amaze me how lightly we’ve got off as parents. When she was a toddler everyone talked about ‘the terrible twos’ but that never happened. Then people warned us about the teenage years – they came and went. We’re still waiting for the storm…

Which is not to say her birth was without incident. In fact, for my wife it could be fairly described as traumatic. 14 weeks before her due date, my wife’s blood pressure rose alarmingly and two weeks later our very special daughter was born by emergency caesarean section. She weighed in at 2lbs 1.5 ozs – “less than a bag of sugar, but infinitely sweeter” was how I reported the news to my parents (and a surrogate grandmother from Uruguay).

The NHS care our daughter received for the next nine weeks was brilliant. Even at her birth in the operating theatre there was one team looking after my wife, one for our daughter, and a nurse for me – in case I fainted. For the record, I didn’t. I had absolute faith in the doctors and nurses and the bank of life-supporting equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit to which we had access 24 hours a day.

My wife was less calm and with good reason. She’d trained as a maternity nurse and knew too much about the hazardous journey ahead for our seriously premature baby. This, combined with a new mother’s strong maternal bond and hormonal turmoil, made our daughter’s nine week stay in hospital a particularly massive ordeal for her. My role as the ‘supportive husband’ included daily lunchtime visits to get photos developed that had been taken the day before and then visiting the hospital each evening. I felt it was very much a walk-on part and I now wonder whether I really understood what my daughter and her new mother were going through, or acknowledged my own true feelings.

Two weeks ahead of her due date, our beautiful daughter came home and some sort of normality returned to our household. Having a nurse and health visitor for a wife was both reassuring and slightly isolating. I didn’t think to ask questions about our growing child’s development assuming if all had not been normal my wife would have said something. My wife appeared to be in control but I’m not sure I ever thought to check.

I feel our daughter has developed and demonstrated her resilience by surviving those first precarious 12 weeks of her life. That and ‘willingly’ being sent to school at times she was probably unfit to go – that’s what comes from having a nurse for a mother! As parents of an only child with such a precarious arrival into this world, it would have been easy to spoil her, but we’ve tried to leave that to others.

We were warned that lung development might present problems for our daughter in later life (she had an emergency intervention when she was 12 hours old) but apart from a short stay in hospital aged 2 with bronchiolitis, her development has been smooth and untroubled. The medics said she’d be average weight by the age of two and that’s just what happened.

In earlier blog posts I’ve referred to the well-known advice for parents – that they should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’. But all parents will know the mixed emotions as they watch their young ones go off to school alone or with a friend for the first time. We  celebrate their new-found independence while regretting that one more parental tie has been broken. And then comes the recognition that our children have reached an age and stage in their lives when their pain can’t simply be removed by a kiss and a cuddle. I’ve sometimes look on feeling helpless and inadequate not knowing what to say. But then maybe just being there says something worthwhile?

We also want to shield our offspring from the darker side of life forever, but that’s just not possible. I’ll never know how my mental ill health during my daughter’s formative years may have affected her, and I don’t think the health professionals would know either.

So, was parenthood as concerning as I thought it would be all those years ago in my late teens? No – it was much less daunting thanks to the support and love of others. Before taking paternity leave, my then work colleagues reassured me that babies could be dropped without breaking (not that I ever put this to the test). And while parenting was not the number one topic of conversation at the fathers’ nights out after leaving London, we compared notes about sleep deprivation and joked about taking our daughters to football matches in the interests of being politically correct (remember this was nearly three decades ago…)

I know it’s a cliché to say so, but raising our daughter and seeing the person she has become is my proudest achievement. Her love and support have enriched my life and given me strength when I was at my lowest. She has inspired me to take on new challenges, her values, wisdom and approach to life have shown me new routes to a better world. I am truly blessed.

Further reading:

My father’s shadow https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-fathers-shadow-no-mans-land-6/

For other posts in the ‘No man’s land’ series go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

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Back to school – no man’s land #8 part 2

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

May 2000

When I was young, I was lucky enough to be taken to the Liverpool Playhouse. The performances there were high quality because they were warm-ups ‘in the provinces’ for plays before they transferred to the West End. I shall never forget a performance in 1971 – I was 16.

It was Michael Redgrave in The Old Boys a play of the novel by William Trevor centred on a small group of old scholars reminiscing about their boarding school days in slightly nasty tones. I remember Michael Redgrave’s powerful performance more than the play itself. A reviewer of the William Trevor book suggests “It reminds us that at every level of every society there are groups of Old Boys cocooned in smug insularity.” I now suspect the resonance might have something to do with my age and the stage of my own boarding school education and an awareness about my privileged insularity.

In the years immediately after leaving school, I returned for the annual reunions while I still knew people at the school, particularly the teachers. There then followed a long break at the end of which I first experienced clinical depression, eight months before my 40th birthday, with further episodes in the following two decades. The ‘black dog’ can always return uninvited but hasn’t done so for more than two years.

I made a conscious decision to organise a 25th anniversary reunion to try to discover if any of my contemporaries had had comparable psychological experiences in the intervening years that might be attributed to our shared education. It was also a form of ‘coming out’ to my former class mates about my mental ill health. In the event, there was no great revelation at that gathering – we didn’t all start expressing feelings that had been suppressed over the previous three decades.

With my parents retiring to the north of England it was easy to return for the annual school reunions and I took on an informal role keeping our year group in touch with each other in the run-up to each reunion. Very gradually I learnt more about the boarding school experience of my fellow old scholars.

Those who were prepared to talk shared stories of prescription medication for anxiety, of hating everything apart from sport which, perhaps surprisingly, kept them coming back for the reunions. Then there were the night time escapades involving climbing over walls, motorbikes, and girls. These and other more daring exploits now seem like small rebellions against our cocooned existence.

Much was probably quite normal for post-pubescent boys, but I also remember some vicious, physical and psychological bullying (and of one teacher in particular) which seemed at odds with the pacifist ethos that was meant to pervade the school. I think it tended to focus on the intellectual deep thinkers; people interested in cerebral rather than physical exertions. I’ve always felt there were some anti-semitic undertones in some of the more unpleasant confrontations, but I have to say that Jewish friends I’ve asked about this had no such experiences. I once also thought there was some anti-semitism behind the antagonism towards Leeds United supporters (of whom there were many at the school). I now think it probably had more to do with the team’s success and style of play at that time – these were the days of Norman ‘bites yer legs’ Hunter…

Ironically, it wasn’t until I started writing this ‘No man’s land’ blog series that I felt able to ask others about their emotional development while at boarding school. It was as if ‘research’ was a valid reason to ask personal questions, rather than being free to make supportive enquiries of friends of over 40 years (when the first half dozen years of those friendships had been forged 24 hours a day).

One of my contemporaries says of his own wellbeing. I find it difficult to be open about such things [mental health] having been conditioned by years in the NHS where stigma is embedded and to admit to anything marks you out as weak/vulnerable and therefore career limiting. The NHS is not very good at looking after its own people and inclined to exploit them. I did suffer anxiety in my last job in which I worked far too many hours and often felt I was not achieving very much.”  

In loco parentis’ is Latin for “in the place of a parent”. It refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. All boarding schools take on that role, and our school the more so, selling itself on the caring and inclusive environment it claimed to offer the parents of young men through adolescence.

At the time I didn’t consciously feel an absence of nurturing by the school, but I now realise that they didn’t do very well with the in loco parenting. This may not be too surprising as I’ve since learnt from a former Schools’ Inspector that the school was, by current standards of ‘good practice’, under-staffed by 30%. As with historical sexual abuse in wider society, it’s too easy to say ‘we’re talking about 50 years ago’; the impact of those years, and the lack of emotional support, are still being felt by those who endured that schooling.

In my time at boarding school, I can’t recall any members of staff asking me ‘how are you?’ – none of the pastoral support you’d expect from your parents and hope to have from those looking after your welfare 24 hours a day, 30+ weeks a year, for seven years. I’ve recently been reminded that the headmaster’s wife and the nurse in the sick wing did offer some pastoral support (but I had to be reminded about this…)

There was no offer of support to help us through the emotional and physical upheaval that is puberty – the delight and concern associated with wet dreams (what’s happening to me?!)   No one addressing the first flush of love – romances, crushes, infatuations – for either sex, but I accept that this may have been common in similar schools in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Our sexual awakening was not helped by the portrayal as members of the opposite sex as ‘others’ – residing on the other side of the city, protected by a headmistress who tried to convince us that being tucked up in our own beds was the only place to be after dark – probably for life, except for the act of pro-creation. Of course, such a stance made us all the more curious about the ‘forbidden fruit’ as those stories about after-dark escapades – re-told, and probably embellished – testify.

My sex education at school was gleaned from the (anatomically incorrect) graffiti on the toilet walls. The only health education I remember was being told if we combed our hair regularly it would stimulate the follicles. No reference to how the soft porn magazines hidden in those same toilets might stimulate other parts of our bodies!

As regards homosexuality, I think I lived in a bubble. Apart from a teacher and sixth form student leaving the school following an ‘affair’, I was unaware of covert or overt homosexuality. There was no education about homosexuality, let along the associated physical and emotional baggage. Maybe this is not so surprising as some of the teachers were not much older than us – being straight out of teacher training college.

It has taken 45 years for me to learn there were as many as five young gay men in a year below mine. Other than heterosexual marriages, I still have no indication of the sexuality of my contemporaries – such is the repression of expression of emotions and feelings amongst this particular group of boarding school educated men.

Most shocking for me was something I learnt quite recently from one of my contemporaries. He, like a good percentage of our age group, had come to our school in the third year, having previously been at preparatory school (prep school) which often meant boarding from a younger age than I had. This particular friend confided that he’d been sexually abused on a number of occasions when at prep school and that up to that point – more than 40 years after leaving school – he’s never told anyone else about this, other than his partner.

I know my emotional development suffered from leaving home at 11, for others that went away to prep school at a younger age, the impact may have been even greater. A former classmate notes “I was away from home age 9.  In my case I think I missed some family dynamics and goings on I’ve only recently discovered, and I think my sister who was left at home without her brothers considers herself to have been the one who suffered.  And though I’ve never been especially close to my brother, and he never liked boarding school, I probably benefited from his already being there.”

My father had some lifelong nervous twitches which he attributed to his boarding school education (he too had gone to a prep school at an early age). Clearly he didn’t like being sent away to school and his education served his emotional development poorly, so I’ll never quite understand why he did something similar to his only son.

But I don’t want to finish this blog so negatively. My contemporaries have recently pointed to some positives which are no doubt shared by others. Those who describe their prep school days as ‘miserable’ say their later schooling – including the friendship of fellow students and teachers – made a refreshing change. While some point to damaged family relationships from being away from home, others (including myself) pay tribute to the subsequent support of partners with strong, loving and enduring relationships that defy our being ‘cocooned in smug insularity’ in our formative years.

Many who gather on a regular basis at our annual reunions confirm the value of the lasting friendships they made so many years ago. This group is, of course, self-selecting and others may be suffering in silence, not suffering at all, or have come to terms with our shared educational experience. I believe that I owe the school my self-confidence and I know others do so as well. A friend talks of gaining resilience from his schooling but then suggests that very resilience [and self-confidence] may ‘obscure an awareness of natural human frailty and therefore not recognising a need to ask for help’.

Further reading

Part 1 of this blog https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/back-to-school-no-mans-land-8-part-1/

https://buildingboys.net

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

 

 

Back to school – no man’s land #8 part 1   

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

Birkenhead, September 1969

They [the products of the British public school] go forth into the world with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts. An undeveloped heart – not a cold one. The difference is important”                               E M Forster

If you’d asked me on leaving boarding school after seven years what I’d got out of my schooling, I’d have said (and I can actually remember saying it at the time) it was self-confidence and independence. Following a ‘year off’ after leaving school, I felt I was well prepared for further education. The maturity that came from a privileged education, followed by work in Handsworth Birmingham and the south of France was confirmed in my first term at university when I was astonished by the number of people who guessed I’d been to public school. “You just have an air of self-confidence about you” they’d say.

Yes – I had a very privileged education – public school (I’ve never worked out how private schools came to be called ‘public’) followed by university in London in the days before loans. In my defence I would say that, even then, I was well aware of the exclusivity of the education and I made every effort to invest in that education for the benefit of wider society in the years that followed – grand ambitions indeed!

It’s taken the best part of my adult life since leaving secondary school to understand the impact of that period – my formative years. Unbelievably perhaps, it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve really found out about its impact on others with whom I shared those school years. This probably speaks volumes about my own and other contemporaries’ reluctance to think, let alone talk, about it. I know I’ve found writing this blog post the most difficult to date.

If you ask me now – 50 years after starting at secondary school aged 11 – what I feel about my boarding school experience, I focus more on the downsides. It robbed me of an important part of my childhood – the emotional development associated with puberty – I couldn’t be myself. Until my years in the sixth form I was living two lives – at school in term time and at home in the holidays. A school friend came home one holiday and he was amazed to see ‘my other side’; he recently confirmed this observation of my double identity. “I remember thinking that you had two personas – school and home. At school I recall that you were well behaved and rule-bound and somewhat the opposite in your home environment (nothing extreme though)”.

As I mentioned in the previous blog in this ‘No man’s land’ series, it was a single sex school. There was an equivalent girls’ school on the other side of the city and relations between the two (and the school students within them) were carefully controlled. It was almost as if, until the sixth form, we were ‘let out’ at different times by design. But if love does really conquer all, it gave me that tingling-down-the-spine sensation as my mind wandered to thoughts of my first ‘true’ love. When the relationship ended I was devastated. I went into a slump that, looking back, was something more than just feeling unhappy. I seem to remember the girl of my dreams got some sort of pastoral support from her school over the breakup while I was probably expected to man-up. But the love story has a happy ending – we’re still friends, in touch, and happily married (just not to each other).

Did you know there’s a website for ‘survivors’ of Boarding Schools? I learnt this many years ago when helping to organise some of our annual school reunions. I say ‘organise’ but apart from some major gatherings (25 years was the first big one) they organised themselves around the official school reunion weekend. Our gatherings continue to run alongside it and a hard core are regular returners coming back to complain about their time at school – being on tranquilizers in their final year, surviving only because of their love of sport, and other such revelations that have come out over the years. This might seem like a contradiction – returning to the scene of unhappy experiences – but maybe it’s something like criminals returning to the scene of their crimes?

Guardian journalist George Monbiot, who himself boarded from the age of eight, is vociferous in his condemnation of boarding schools for young children brandishing it as ‘child abuse’. He says “We end up with a [boarding school educated] elite, of people in positions of power, who are emotionally damaged. That’s a very dangerous place to be because children who are taught to deny their own feelings, also learn to deny other people’s feelings…

I’ve kept in touch with a good number of my former school mates through our re-unions, but only recently have I made it my business to share experiences of those distant but potentially still influential years. A number have contributed their views, but I’ve assured them their anonymity – we still live in mysterious times when unguarded or misinterpreted remarks can come back to bite us.

So, what have I learnt about inter-actions in the school – in particular antisemitism, bullying, sexual discovery – and being away from home?  To be continued…

Further reading:

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

George Monbiot and Alex Renton on the abuse that is boarding school education https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/08/school-boarding-secrets-crimes-alex-renton-kipling-rowling-dahl-churchill

The Boarding School Survivor’s website http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk  

 

Birkenhead revisited – no man’s land #7  

 

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

I believe Birkenhead has always suffered from being just across the Mersey from Liverpool – with the Beatles, scousers and two top football team. In contrast, Birkenhead doesn’t often hit the headlines and, when it does, it can be for the wrong reasons.

But unlike Liverpool, Birkenhead can boast that it’s on the Wirral. Yes, ‘the’ Wirral because it’s short for the Wirral peninsula – the bulge across the water from Liverpool that’s bordered on three sides by the rivers Mersey and Dee and the Irish Sea. Then there’s the debate about whether its ‘in’ or ‘on’ the Wirral. In 2014, an online poll of Liverpool Echo readers showed that 73% of respondents would use the phrase “on the Wirral” in everyday conversation, as opposed to “in the Wirral” or “in Wirral”.

I was intrigued to see a recent piece in a national newspaper hailing some famous people from the Wirral, with one from Birkenhead. Half, in fact, were not from the Wirral. War poet Wilfred Owen is from Oswestry (not the Wirral), actor Daniel Craig is from Chester (not the Wirral). The late great John Peel was from Heswall on the Wirral, and Jodie Taylor (England and ex-Tranmere Rovers footballer) is a Birkonian!

And I am/was also a Birkonian. For the first 15 years of my life when I wasn’t away at boarding school I lived in Birkenhead. I have happy memories of those years, but have never really felt I belonged there. Despite return visits for family gatherings, including funerals, I’ve never thought I’d live there again. Of course, if the family business had survived I might have been destined for a career in textiles and my life would, undoubtedly, have turned out very differently.

If you don’t know Birkenhead, enough to say my mum said she spent 50 years trying to get away from the place; she used to say you never meet people going to Birkenhead – they have always come from there. To mis-quote comedian Sue Perkins “Birkenhead is less a place, more the punchline for a joke.”

But like the Therfield Heath jewel in Royston’s crown, Birkenhead has its own gemstone – Birkenhead Park – and with it, a place in the record books. I can do no better than the description by Bill Bryson (yes – him again) so I won’t try. It is a typical large Victorian City park, with playgrounds and playing fields, some woodlands, a picturesque lake with a boathouse and rustic bridge… It was a pleasant, wholly conventional urban park on a Sunday morning, but Birkenhead has one special feature; it is the oldest urban park in the world… purpose-built for the amusement of all people.

If Bill Bryson had visited the park on a Saturday morning he might have witnessed Birkenhead parkrun (yes, it’s a lower case ‘p’) – with over 300 runners lapping the park three times from 9am every week at vastly different speeds since July 2015.

Such public access and enjoyment would have delighted American journalist turned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who, as Bill Bryson relates, built more than 100 parks across North America.

Olmsted’s most famous design was Central Park in New York – as Bob Harrison, a Birkenhead parkrunner, was proud to remind me when we bumped into each other (not literally) at Wimpole parkrun in south Cambridgeshire. Wimpole, a National Trust estate, is my local parkrun. As readers of an earlier blog in this ‘No Man’s Land’ series may remember, I spent 9 months of my life trying to set up a Royston parkrun on Therfield Heath but finally ran into a brick wall in the shape of the Heath Conservators (capital ‘H’, capital ‘C’)

Despite the appeal of Birkenhead Park, the Fab Four and various boyfriends, I think it’s fair to say that my three older sisters, like me, have never felt inclined to move back there, suggesting their sense of belonging was no stronger than mine. And my sisters went through primary and secondary education in the town so they had the opportunity to build even stronger ties.

Unlike my sisters, my  exam results weren’t good enough for a free place in a local independent school so, when the possibility of going to a single sex boarding school in York came along, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Getting away from girls, the extra help with my studies and, above all, making a canoe – I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

It would be churlish to criticise my parents for doing what they thought was best for their youngest child, but I now believe my secondary schooling had a massive, and not entirely positive, effect on the rest of my life.

For a well-observed and funny portrayal of Birkenhead, listen to Mark Steel’s in Town – Birkenhead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEgPktmj9Tg 

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

My father’s shadow – no man’s land #6  

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

When I was of an age to be going out into the world – just before secondary school and at the onset of puberty I suppose, my Dad said to me “If you see an opportunity son, grab it with both hands”.

I’ve tried to follow this advice throughout my life and, in the family home, I had every opportunity to do so. I had it easy, my three elder sisters had fought all the parental battles for me – staying out late, drinking in pubs, hitch-hiking. And my parents also had a view that, as a boy, I was that much more able to look after myself, so I was even allowed to hitch-hike [if you’re too young to know what that is, look it up] on my own.

You might think from this that my Dad was a happy-go-lucky, glass-half-full kind of a person, but his approach to own life was more sanguine. More than once he’d say: “I assume the worst is going to happen, so if it does I’m prepared and, if it doesn’t, I’m pleasantly surprised.”

This says much about a man I loved and admired and who had a profound effect on my life that persists long after his death – not least in fuelling my love of words.

The radio, not TV, was ever-present in our house (My Word – a panel game – being a family favourite) as were shelf-loads of books. But I think I probably inherited my love of language and communication from my father; he was a great thinker and a skilled user of the spoken word in particular. He loved deep intellectual discussions – even with strangers and when, in later life, his job required ‘small talk’ he had to work hard (checking in with my mum from time to time to find out how he was doing). If you know about Berne’s levels of communication, my dad was keen to jump from ‘ritual’ to ‘rapport’ in one leap.

His ability to articulate his deeply-held inner beliefs is perhaps best illustrated by his refusal, as a Quaker, to fight in the Second World War. He went before a tribunal with three possible outcomes – imprisonment, work on a farm, or complete discharge. His ability to convince the panel of the sincerity of his pacifism meant he was given a complete discharge, spending the war years voluntarily fire-fighting in the East End of London. My dad was the first to admit that equally sincere Conscientious Objectors ended up in jail because they didn’t have the means to put their beliefs into words.

I’ve often wondered whether, if the need arose, I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty for my beliefs and, if I had the opportunity, whether I would be able to put heart-felt feelings into words. It’s not a thing that most men are very good at – which pretty much explains the genesis of this ‘No man’s land’ series of blog posts.

I’ve never pretended to be an armchair psychologist, and I don’t intend to start now, but that doesn’t stop me looking at the similarities (other than our shared love of words) and differences between me and my Dad, and reflecting on some of the memories that have lingered the longest.

We shared a boarding school education, albeit 40 years apart. Like many others sent away for their schooling by their parents, I’ve often wondered why someone who himself disliked the experience would even consider sending his own son away to be ‘parented’ by strangers. Admittedly my father went to a boarding school when he was eight (I was 11 years and 1 month), but even he attributed his lifelong nervous ticks and twitches to that early schooling. So he couldn’t even use the well-worn refrain ‘well, it never did me any harm…’

Both my parents loved music and sang in a choir – a passion they passed to us four children in pretty much equal measure. Along with the sound of his singing, and guitar playing, I have happy memories of my Dad whistling (why do so few people whistle these days?) I took it to be a sign of his contentment. Only later in life did I realise that it often, but not always I like to think, indicated he was getting agitated; impatient about us not getting in the car maybe, or something not turning out as he’d planned.

If only I’d been more aware, maybe I could have responded to the early warning signs whistling in my ears. But, as I say, males of all ages seem to be conditioned to keep sensitivity at arm’s length and their feelings inside.

That said, a rather more direct expression of my father’s annoyance when we weren’t doing what we were told came in the form of two ‘threats’ that, looking back, were somewhat at odds with his non-violent beliefs. The first warning was a verbal “do I have to hit you to show you I mean it?” (I hasten to add he never did) and the second was non-verbal and arguably more threatening.

For some reason, my dad always had a stash of pins in his jacket lapel. I never knew why but, since he was in the textile business, maybe he picked them up all day at work and simply stored them there. Whatever the reason, if he wanted us to do something that we didn’t, he would make an exaggerated move to pick a pin from behind his lapel to threaten us with it. The pin never came out far, but I’m sure social services would have something to say about this in the current climate.

His application of amateur psychology also manifested itself in more benign ways. When I couldn’t sleep at night, he’d promise me half-a-crown [look it up if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about] if I stayed awake all night. The effort of doing this sent me straight off to sleep of course. I fell for it every time.

For men of a certain age, their paid work often defines them but not, I think, in my Dad’s case. He worked in the family firm until he was 55 when the business closed down. He said he was less upset about this than others. This may be because, as Financial Director, he’d lived with the possibility of closure for five years or maybe it was him denying his true feelings.  The only break from the business – which wove textiles and hand-crafted tapestries – was a period during the war when, through his pacifism, he refused to work there because the factory was making uniforms for the armed forces. Like his conscientious objection to war, this principled stand – in his own family firm – impressed me greatly; something that I believe had a profound effect on me in later life.

My dad seemed to work a pretty fixed week – leaving home around 7.30am for the 20-minute walk to work. He would arrive back in time for tea at 6pm around the kitchen table – an important family fixture in the working week.  After tea, he’d dedicate equal time to each of us four children. For me this might be kicking a football on the rough ground next to our house or helping me with my homework. His patience and dedication were amazing and much greater, I think, than mine was with our (only) daughter.

Weekends we did father-and-son things like going to football matches – Tranmere Rovers, Everton or Liverpool. He also cultivated my love of woodwork and generally doing things with my hands – which I think has ‘saved me’ in later life. All very much boy’s stuff – but I think this was a well-intentioned and conscious effort to counter the female influence in our home.

He was pretty much ever-present at home before I went away to school, all except for an annual six-week business trip around Europe making the most of his foreign language skills. During those sales trips, we took it in turns to sleep next to my mum in their bed. I don’t think she got much sleep during those six weeks, but when it was my turn I was excited all day at primary school. Even now I can remember sleeping soundly, that wonderful feeling of being safe and secure in a warm cosy bed.

Returning to my father’s strict moral code (not that he overtly imposed his views on us children) I remember a summer fair at which there was a ‘guess-the-number-of-currants-in-the-cake’ stall – a fundraiser with the winner having the cake that was there on display. Quakers are against gambling so, rather than guess, my Dad counted the number of currents he could see on the surface, measured the size of the cake and did the necessary calculation to come up with the answer. He duly won the cake with a clear conscience!

The clarity with which I remember things like this – that happened over 50 years ago – is a sign of my dad’s continuing presence in my life (and probably the fact that favourite family stories were often re-told). On an almost daily basis I still catch myself repeating my father’s sayings, but always with credit … ‘as my old dad used to say’.

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

My four mothers – no man’s land #5

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

Family gathering at my grandfather’s funeral 1965. Was my jaunty pose a front and where were my male cousins?

My mum used to say she only ever wanted to be a mother (admitting in the same breath many could not afford to have a similar ambition). She believed parenting was an essential skill and a noble calling for the wider benefit of society. And who could argue with that?

She also said she felt her life’s work was to leave the world a better place than when she was born – so she didn’t limit her horizons to bringing up a family!

My mum’s maternal desires meant that I was one of four children – the youngest, and the only boy. I believe she would have gone on having children until a boy came along, so it’s just as well I appeared when I did (although I think my parents would have considered adoption if I’d been a fourth girl).

I know that in my early years I was spoilt. I was ‘the baby’ of the family (and feel I have remained so ever since) growing up with four mothers. At school, my friends would say how lucky I was to have three sisters at home to do the housework. I was lucky – I love them dearly – but it didn’t get me out of cleaning and tidying up; I had five family members making sure I did my fair share of the chores.

I’ll never know whether, if I’d spent my adolescent years at home with my sisters, my self-image as a boy and a man would now be different. I didn’t have the opportunity to find out as I went to a boy’s boarding school from 11 to 18 years, more about this in a later blog.

What I do know is that living for the first ten years of my life in a house filled with women – not just my mother and sisters, but all their school friends – gave me a pretty one-sided view of the ‘opposite’ sex. Or you could say it gave me an accurate view – of girls as people rather than objects of desire. Obviously I could never see what attracted boys to my sisters, but that’s probably the same for all siblings.

Not that my pre-boarding school life was entirely bereft of male company. My next-door neighbour – a friend until his untimely death aged 52 – was only slightly older than me and we did all the things pubescent boys do. We argued, bust up and made up on a regular basis, dabbled in girlie magazines, talked and watched football, went to see Mott the Hoople surprisingly often across the Mersey in Liverpool, made dens and climbed trees in the woods behind our house.

Of course, parents would never allow unaccompanied trips to the woods these days (I only had one dirty old man expose himself to me) but maybe the fact we often had our two elder sisters with us made it OK. Both those sisters were described at the time as ‘tom boys’ and only recently I read someone’s observation that there was never an equivalent description, that wasn’t derogatory, for boys who liked to do the same sorts of things as girls.

I know I was quite a sensitive young man. Before going to boarding school, I went dinghy sailing with another sister’s boyfriend. I don’t know how or why, but I read a love poem he’d written (someone suggested it might have been referring to my sister but that would be just too romantic…).

50 years on I can just about remember the poem – so touched was I by its sweet simplicity and his use of words

I remember her face (I think)

and a summer evening

standing on the shore

watching the Mersey

turning in its sleep

and the seagulls crying

sliding down the sky

like kids on banisters

while we wrote

I love you

in the sweaty summer sand

with sticks

and skipped across rocks

and both held hands

to keep from falling

out of love

But we couldn’t

That sense of lost love must have struck a chord with me, even at that stage in my life, and yet if you’d asked me to describe love I would have been hard-pressed to do so (but maybe this would be the same for most boys of that age, if not for most girls as well).

I was surrounded by love – my ‘four mothers’ and a father whom I now realise has had a massive influence on my whole life – good more than bad (but more about that in a later blog). Maybe that’s why being ‘sent away’ to boarding school felt like rejection, even though it was done for what my parents considered to be all the right reasons and with my complete agreement.

To be continued…

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

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