Tag Archives: masculinity

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

Advertisements

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