Tag Archives: belonging

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

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 

 

 

Men’s Sheds and male identity

Red BikesApparently there’s a higher than average incidence of depression in retired posties. I can’t find the research but you can see why this might be true. They have a physically active job, they’re well connected in the community, have unusual working hours and  wear uniforms associated with their valuable, but increasingly threatened, role.

When all that’s gone – what’s left?

Of course posties are not alone in being in danger of drifting when cut loose (by redundancy or retirement) from structures, routines, and the status often associated with paid employment.

Any yes, the uniform – even a suit or a high-viz jacket – can be incredibly important in confirming identity and self-worth, boosting self-confidence.

Which is increasingly understood by the burgeoning network of Men’s Sheds around the UK which offer a half way station between workplace and home.

In Australia – the home of the global Men’s Sheds movement – they found that workers from the emergency services and the armed forces were particularly vulnerable after losing their uniforms (alongside many other, more traumatic, experiences no doubt).

In the not-for-private-profit world of charities and social enterprises there tends to be much less adherence to the idea of hierarchy and uniforms (the Scouts and Guides being honourable exceptions). That said, there are still pay differentials and efforts to foster a corporate identify in most organisations – which may or may not include a dress code.

Closer to the grassroots where organisations, including Men’s Sheds, are largely volunteer-led and run, it’s important to recognise that people giving up their time for free need to feel valued and useful, and able to identify with a worthwhile cause. In fact, because volunteers can simply walk away, it’s essential to get this right.

Meanwhile, at The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead, we’re just about to order some branded fleeces for our members. This is primarily about keeping bodies warm and reducing wear and tear on other clothes, but it will be interesting to see if the new uniformity adds anything to our collective sense of belonging and self-esteem.

For more about UK Men’s Sheds go to www.UKMSA.org.uk and The Repair Shed is at www.communityactiondacorum.org/the-repair-shed

Of related interest…

Men’s Sheds and lifelong learning https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/mens-sheds-and-lifelong-learning Men’s Sheds and enterprise  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/mens-sheds-and-bird-boxes