Category Archives: No man’s 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 

 

 

Leaving London – No man’s land #3

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

In the wider world, Royston is a place for arrivals, departures and intervening connections. House prices reflect good transport links via international airports (two within 45 minutes), motorways (two within 15 minutes by car on a good day) and 10 minutes by train to Stevenage for rail links to the north and Scotland, and south to London.

royston-to-london-milestoneIronically, Royston is more connected to the rest of the world than the rest of Hertfordshire, and, in fact, the rest of North Hertfordshire. I know at least two 20-somethings in Letchworth who have never travelled the 12 miles to Royston (11 minutes by train). I think Royston and District (that’s the SG8 postcode) should be declared an independent republic. Most or the one million inhabitants of Hertfordshire have never been to Royston. Even work colleagues in the other corner of the county used to ask me whether I actually returned to Royston at the end of each day; for them it was another world (‘there be dragons…’ etc)

Unlike in the trading days of old, many more people have driven past Royston without stopping – it’s on the A10, the old London to Cambridge route before the M11 was built.  Even for us, our first visit from our home in North London to Royston was for house-hunting. I had sworn I’d never commute into London but my wife convinced me that it needn’t be difficult as I was working near Kings Cross station at the time and her family lived in Norfolk – making Royston a much more accessible place to live.

I could say that we finally decided to leave Hackney when we heard someone being shot dead on their doorstep after a late-night party bust-up. But that wouldn’t be true; we heard the fatal shooting but we’d already decided to move out.

In fact the final push for me was returning to London after a weekend in Norfolk. Our two-year-old daughter was fast asleep in the back of the car, my stress levels were rising with every mile we travelled, then crawled, towards the city. I could almost smell the air as we arrived home. Like many before us, we moved out of London for the fresher air, reduced congestion, and affordable property when our toddler needed her own bedroom.

clissold-park-cafe-2I have never regretted the move although I do miss the cakes in the Clissold Park cafe (since tarted up and, no doubt, now selling… tarts).

During 16 years studying, living and working in London, I never made the most of the opportunities on my doorstep. In our first week at university, our tutor warned us we’d put off discovering London until it was too late.         She was right.

It wasn’t even about money; I just kept putting off the sightseeing to a later date that never arrived. I got to know only very small parts of the city (Willesden Green, Finchley, Islington, and then Stoke Newington) feeling most connected in the final two years there when our daughter was born and we got to know other new parents.

While working in London, my professional and personal lives were kept quite separate; a practice that has helped me, apart from some notable lapses, to sustain a sort of work/life balance throughout my career. I say ‘sort of’ because my work has been less a career path more a lifelong cause – something I’d probably do whether or not I was paid. This was illustrated by my young daughter, at a time when I often worked from home. She asked me one Saturday morning “Are you working today Dad?“No” I said, trying to be helpful, “I’m doing what I did yesterday, but today I’m not getting paid to do it”. I think that confused rather than clarified the situation for her.

In London I lived at various addresses north of the river. For a couple of years my MP was Margaret Thatcher and her signed response to my complaint about the state of the roads for cyclists (I was one then) was a treasured possession for at least a week. I spent two years in Islington living with a journalist who, I later learned, was charging me 90% of the ‘shared’ rent to pay for her drug habit. I also learned she’d chosen me as a flatmate because she’d heard I’d travelled in South America and (wrongly) assumed I’d returned with, at the very least, a handful of coca leaves.

The move to Hackney was to move in with a Bart’s nurse who was to become my wife. We lived in a terraced road off Stoke Newington High Street for several years. It was wonderfully quiet but this didn’t stop thieves stealing the bonnet from a neighbour’s car across the street on a hot summer night when everyone had their windows open – that takes skill. All we had stolen were headlight surrounds, a car radio, and a Vauxhall bonnet badge from my wife’s Chevette (much sought after for spares…)

prince-of-wales-n16The pub around the corner was good for the odd drink after a busy week; a semi-regular two pints on Friday evenings almost made it our local. The real regulars would prop up the bar night after night. I assumed they were loneIy old men (one looked just like Lord Snooty from The Dandy kid’s comic) seeking solace in a pint at the Prince of Wales, or the POW as it was known. Then one evening, after a couple of years, I heard one of the regulars saying he was off home because his missus would have his tea on the table. Maybe I was right after all – lonely old men in loveless long-term marriages, more at home in the pub than at home. (The POW has since been tarted up and re-named ‘The Prince’ – Lord Snooty must be spinning in his grave.)

Compared to Hackney, Royston was a backwater. We’d landed in what seemed like a quaint and quiet corner of little Britain, not unlike TV’s Royston Vasey made famous by The League of Gentlemen. The crime scene was more The Bill* than The Sweeney – the town’s mayor was being exposed on national TV for wrongdoing associated with his estate agent business, and the Royston Crow newspaper’s crime reports were about parked cars being ‘keyed’ – annoying, but hardly life-threatening. Then there were the quirky couples – two local councillors Deborah Duck and Ted Drake and, sometime after we’d settled in, two married couples swapped partners. This was life in the slow lane – in the unhurried-and-interesting, not traffic-jam-crawling – sense. Life in Royston was to serve us well.

*Some TV trivia – an actor from The Bill bought our house in Hackney, and Sun Hill police station in the TV series was named after Sun Hill in Royston where creator Geoff Mcqueen lived.

To be continued….

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

On the line – No man’s land # 2

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

img_0039For 25 years, I’ve lived in a kind of no man’s land, on the boundary between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Home is Royston, which also happens to sit on the Meridian Line alongside a wealth of other intriguing geographical and historical features including, some say, ley lines.

Royston hasn’t always been wholly in Hertfordshire. The county moved north in 1890s.  The northern boundary is now the A505 – a major east-west artery linking the M11 and M1 – which was upgraded north of Royston by, among others, a civil engineer friend from my school days in York.

When we moved to Royston from Hackney (the second highest home insurance bracket in the country) the estate agent told us we were moving to the second lowest insurance bracket. He unhelpfully said we’d have paid even less house insurance had it not been for our SG8 postcode connection with Stevenage 15 miles to the south.

The estate agent’s local knowledge might not be 100% trustworthy; he failed to mention a town asset that I regard as one of its greatest – the jewel in the crown – which is not as clichéd as it may sound given Royston’s royal connections.

We had bought our house by the time we discovered Therfield Heath – 143 hectares of open grassland, woodland, and managed landscape which entertains golfers, teams of young and not-so-young sport enthusiasts, walkers, revellers, and runners of all ages and abilities. The area was designated as ‘common land’ in 1888 – which some regard as a historical first in environmental legislation.

On reflection, my love of off-road running and the places it’s taken me physically and emotionally probably explains my affection for Therfield Heath.

If the 353 acres of Therfield Heath isn’t enough, it’s also an area of Special Scientific Interest, a Local Nature Reserve, and it boasts a scattering of barrows (ancient burial mounds) burrows (the rabbits breed like… rabbits) and rare purple Pasqueflowers. In olden days, the Heath was the hunting ground for King James 1 – whose former palace is an understated building in the town centre (with the Royal Buttery a listed fish and chip shop alongside).  The Royal connection extends to the local community cinema – the Royston Picture Palace – the winning name in a competition three years ago.img_0029

Travelling the 43 miles south to London non-stop by train is just 35 minutes, making Royston a predominantly commuter town. When the line out of Kings Cross was first electrified in 1850, Royston was the furthest commuters could escape from London without needing to change trains (this was extended to Cambridge in 1866) so the transient element of the town’s population is easily explained. I was one of those commuters for six years, spending much of that time in yet another kind of no man’s land – suspended between home and work.

Some literary trivia for trainspotters – Royston Station is mentioned in the novel ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby, and another bestselling author, Bill Bryson, writes about “a [rail] depot at Royston or some place equally desperate and unwelcome”. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – that he was referring to the depot, not the town – because I love his books.

In fact, we don’t have a rail depot in Royston, but we do have Johnson Matthey (JM) one of only two significant employers in the town. I was once told there was more gold in Royston than the Bank of England thanks to JM – a company that deals in precious metals. This was not quite true, but Royston did have the world’s second biggest gold refinery until a decade ago when it closed after 200 years.

If Royston’s very own yellow brick road has attracted commuters to start and end journeys there for decades, then its location has made it a place for stopping, resting, refreshing and moving on for traders and travellers for centuries. Being at the crossing of two ancient thoroughfares – Icknield Way east-west (now the A505) and Ermine Street south-north (A10 from London and A1198 to Huntingdon) – gives the market town its reason for being. It also explains the 48 inns and pubs that flourished until as recently as 1900. Sadly, there are now 40 fewer pubs in the town.

img_0042The ancient crossroad location may also explain Royston’s bell-shaped underground cave, in the centre of the town – adorned with mysterious carvings and possibly used as a secret meeting place for Knights Templars (members of a medieval Catholic military order).

Officially, the real origins of the Royston Cave are a mystery which, of course, makes a good story to entice visitors. This is handy as Royston residents seem to know very little about it; many have walked over the cave for decades on their way to the shops without ever venturing underground. The exception is the local cave expert who lived at the bottom of our garden (in a house, not a cave) for many years.  I suspect she knows the real origins of the Royston Cave but, despite my considering her a friend, she’s not letting on like she’s signed the Official Secrets Act.

Another theory is that the Cave is located at the intersection of two ley lines. I was at a meeting recently when someone suggested the lines could explain the loss of radio signals at that point in town. I countered that it was probably the broadcasts from race courses around the country feeding results into the two betting shops also at the crossroads. Not so romantic an explanation perhaps, but nobody knows – it remains a mystery.

To be continued….

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

A spot of bother – No man’s land # 1

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

tedxtalkI’m standing on stage, on a circular bright red carpet. 80 strangers, spotlights and cameras are watching my every move and wanting to hear what I have to say. Silence – my mind has gone blank and I’m thinking ‘Uh-oh, I’m in a spot of bother here. What now?’

I’m tempted to run and hide, but I don’t. I stare at the carpet for what seems like an age and suddenly I’m back on track – not fluent, but continuing to talk about being male, stale and in a shed.

I’ve been a fan of TED Talks for many years (I’m amazed that many of my contemporaries haven’t yet discovered them) which is why I helped organise a TEDx event in Bedford in June 2013 – a local ‘little TED’ that uses the big TED branding and talks format and rules.

My chance to give a TED talk came three years later when I learnt that a TEDx Chelmsford event was being planned for June 2016. It’s not just a question of turning up; I had two auditions with feedback from the organisers to meet the big TED requirements, including having ‘ideas worth sharing’ – the TED strapline.

The appeal of TED Talks for speaker and audience is that none are longer than 22 minutes and many are shorter than that. My own TEDx Talk, including the pregnant pause, came out at around 14 minutes 30 seconds and was then edited down to 12 minutes 55 seconds.

When invited to submit a subject for consideration, I had no hesitation – reflections on being an older man, associated issues around health and wellbeing, and the role of sheds in men’s lives. ‘Male, stale and in a Shed’ was born – an important step in my mission to help keep older men (including myself!) healthier and happier for longer.

To start at the end, I had discovered a very special kind of shed – the Men’s Shed – nearly five years earlier. There’s no such thing as a typical Men’s Shed; most are not even sheds. In Maldon in Essex the local Shed occupies a former mortuary, in Bedford the shared workspace is in a community arts centre, while in Bristol their sports pavilion premises means they don’t disturb the neighbours.

The common theme is that the facilities are communal and accessible to men (and increasingly women) of all ages and abilities. Most shedders (as we are known) tend to be 50+. I call them NIPPERS (Not in Permanent Paid Employment, or Retired) because they’re so young at heart. Many are returning to, or learning afresh, woodworking, metal working and other making and mending activities. The most important elements of a sustainable Men’s Shed are tea and a table for planning and playing around the particular skills and interests of the Shedders. In other words… DIY at it’s most human – self-organised and mutual-supported in equal measure

I’ve been interested in woodworking and doing practical things with my hands from an early age. We always had a workshop at home and one of my dad’s best friends was a master builder. I played ‘chippy’s mate’ from primary school age and into adulthood I’ve made functional furniture (with a specialism in beds) that won’t win any prizes but works. Five decades on from my initiation into the wonderful world of woodwork, and two and half years after helping to set up The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead, I realise that my relationship with Men’s Shed is as the best mortice and tenon joint should be – a great fit.

man-on-the-spotBack to that red carpet in Chelmsford on 16 June 2016 and, soon after my first, faltering and frustrating experience of giving a TEDx Talk, I made two resolutions. First, given my difficulty in memorising (a TED rule) even a 15-minute talk, I would stick to talking with notes in future. Secondly, I would write a series of blogs that could shelter under a ‘no man’s land’ umbrella; you’ve just read the first in that series.

Further information:

Male, stale and in a Shed  http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Male-stale-and-in-a-shed-Chris 

When doctors prescribe sheds instead of meds  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/chris-lee/no-mans-land-when-doctors_b_13073266.html?1479745146

UK Men’s Sheds Association www.menssheds.org.uk