Monthly Archives: January 2020

Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge

Teesside Advertiser

I used to write a column for the Teesside Advertiser.  It was one of those free newspapers, mostly adverts, which went through every door in the county, apart from Hartlepool, where they always plough their own furrow.

I got the column during the 1980s, when I worked in Middlesbrough and volunteered with an organisation called RESPOND!  R! was the Churches’ Response to Cleveland’s Industrial  Crisis.  The idea was to visit and report on projects that involved the unemployed.  So, I travelled all over Middlesbrough, Stockton and Langbaugh collecting stories, which seem in retrospect to be mostly about wood workshops.  It would have been a bit dull, writing about cupboards every week but what was interesting was the why – why did so many unemployed people invest their time in these projects?

Almost every column I wrote was published.  There was one exception.  This is its story.

R! had just run a course for long-term unemployed with a few church ministers and the like.  It was called “Dark Holy Ground”.  Someone suggested I visit one of the organisers, Robert Gallagher, vicar of Coulby Newham, which is a new estate, south of Middlesbrough.

Robert’s gift was listening, I can’t remember meeting anyone else with this gift to such a degree.  Throughout the course, Robert listened carefully and made notes on bits of paper.  People on the course also wrote bits and bobs on scraps of paper.  At the end of the course, the organisers had a sizeable pile of paper.

It needed sorting and so the three of them, Robert, Keith who was R!’s paid worker and the Catholic Priest based at Middlesbrough’s Cathedral, took the papers to a pub in Guisborough.  They spent the evening utterly absorbed in discussing each piece and deciding which booklet it belonged and where in its booklet it belonged.

Towards the end of the evening, they finished and looked up to find the bar in silence.  They hadn’t noticed customers silently gathering around and listening to their conversation.  These papers powerfully moved hearts.

Robert explained that at the start, each participant in the course told their story.  This simple exercise changed everything.  Story after story was about the pain of long-term unemployment.  Life without purpose, sat in front of daytime TV all day every day.  If not, then blaming yourself.  Lives of bitterness and futility.  Their stories were pretty much the same.

Then someone said, “Hang on, if this is happening to all of us, it can’t be us who are to blame”.  This led to a flood of creativity.  They studied the Psalms together and found a connection with the writers of songs from long ago, people experiencing much the same thing.  Then they found Psalm 139, v11.  “The darkness with you is no darkness at all, the night is as light as the day.”  And someone said: “It’s still dark!”

Their lives were transformed in all respects apart from material.  They were able to say as they re-engaged with the world around them, “Unemployment is the best thing that happened to me.”  Word spread and a few other groups did a similar exercise.  People once ashamed of their story, were willing to tell it in public.

I’ve known since that conversation with Robert, how powerful storytelling can be – their stories shared, transformed lives.  Unable to share their stories, they were isolated in their pain.  Once they were able to share, they took responsibility for the mistakes of politicians and business owners and made their own way.  They found solitude through telling their stories.

I met Robert once more, he invited me to a second conversation a few days later.  His church council meetings would stretch into the early hours of the morning because he encouraged its members to share their stories.  He saw God has a dark face and the truth is we encounter God in suffering.  We can live with and transform the pain if we know God’s dark face.  This should sound harsh or shocking.

He asked me: “What do you think I feel when I hear a story of great pain and suffering?”  I couldn’t answer that.  “Joy”, he said.  “That’s when I’m closest to God.”

Why didn’t the editor of the Teesside Advertiser publish my column about Dark Holy Ground?  Maybe it was too religious or too political.  What do you think?

Day 4/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Whited Sepulchre. Next: Inscriptions.

small white cellar room

A Whited Sepulchre

Very soon after I became a Christian, I met Bill.  He came to mind soon after I started to think of the theme of this post.  I haven’t thought about him for years.  I can remember going to his flat but I can’t remember what it was like!

At the time I was very withdrawn, some people called me “Creeping Jesus”.  I did not interact easily with people although I had made a few good lifelong friends by then.  Bill was not so close and certainly he didn’t set out to mentor me or perhaps he did.  Any road, he offered me opportunities and I took them.

Bill was tall, thin and a chain smoker.  Good looking, loads of girlfriends, charming, charismatic – you know the type.  He was a Quaker and most important at the time, founder of Peace Action Newcastle.  PAN was one of the most active peace groups in the country, in the years just before Greenham Common. 

I had not been involved in anything like it before.  I can’t quite remember how I got involved.  I suspect I picked up a leaflet.  When I became a Christian, I decided to do something about it, so I joined a peace group.  I know you’re supposed to put all your time into church but … well …

Bill blagged use of the cellar in the Quaker Meeting House.  We had a Gestetner, so we could design and produce our own leaflets.  I remember as we entered the whitewashed room, shaped indeed like a whited sepulchre, the heady sent of alcohol from the machine.

I learned how to hand out leaflets, talk to strangers on the street, perform in street theatre.  We were active for 2 – 3 years and I gained Bill’s trust.   I organised Peace on Wheels, a Peace Action Caravan in Cumbria in the summer of 1979.  Fourteen of us toured for a fortnight, visiting towns to perform street theatre and offer training non-violence.  It was Bill’s idea but I organised it, while I was writing my PhD. 

We used the Monster Manuel, a guide to organising.  I’m sure my copy is still somewhere in my house, I’ll find it if I ever get around to tidying.  Bill trusted me to use the Manuel to train others in non-violence.  I remember we ran it in a room in Gateshead.  I set up the room and Bill, who was not participating arrived and insisted that we should not be sat around a table.  We should sit in a circle without a table separating us.  I was not happy because I thought people would want to take notes but the table had to go.

Later Bill returned, I was into the second half of the training session and covering aims and objectives.  Bill interrupted and insisted I had them the wrong way round (I hadn’t).  This turned into a violent row – I knew I was right and would not back down. Why should I? 

This was very embarrassing to both of us.  We shared the ideals of non-violence but we were not so good at it in practice!

I owe Bill a great deal, he got me out of my shell, maybe to the point where I was a threat to his leadership.  Well done, Bill!

Day 3/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject of solitude. The writings are based on a prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Not Washing Up! Next: Teesside Advertiser.

washing up on the draining board

Not Washing Up!

Growing up, I rarely did the washing up.  Neither did my sister.  It wasn’t because we were idle so-an-sos or because we were forbidden to do it.  It wasn’t an issue.  It was something Mum and Dad did together.

It was only after my mother died, my father explained it was their daily opportunity for private conversation.  One would wash and the other dry.  What did they discuss?  Who knows?

We all benefitted I’m sure, because their relationship flourished.   Their relationship was the important one.  Somehow their love for each other was expressed through their love for us.  These were the hidden workings of a good family life.

Maybe there was a downside though.  My mother died of cancer over a couple of years.  We were not encouraged to be involved.  I remember the last time I kissed my mother.  My rucksack slipped off my shoulder and she laughed.  I went to the station and never saw her again.

Early on she had an operation.  My sister and I clubbed together and paid for both parents to spend a week at the alternative cancer place in Bristol, this was their last holiday together.  I think they both benefitted.  My mother wanted to experiment with their almost vegan diet, maybe because it cured my father’s constipation.

My father told me of the last time he saw her.  She was in hospital.  When it was time for him to leave, she said “Remember what I’ve told you.”  He understood her.  You might think she meant, I love you.

Maybe what she really meant was: look after yourself, don’t forget all the instructions I gave you.

Maybe what this really meant was: I love you.

Thereafter my father always set the table, on his own usually, for 15 years. 

Washing up, setting the table, all the routine business of living – these are the things through which we are consistently rewarded.

My father was drawn to Zen: “I chopped wood and drew water, then I achieved enlightenment and now I chop wood and draw water.”

Day 2/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject of solitude. The writings are based on a prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous story: Chocolate Cake. Next: Whited Sepulchre.

Chocolate Cake

Chocolate Cake

My mother’s chocolate cake was the best ever.  I miss it to this day and I’ve never seen, let alone tasted, the like since she died.  It was a simple 444 Victoria Sponge with added cocoa and cooked in two tins.  A layer of melted chocolate on one and then the other on top, iced with more melted chocolate.  The chocolate cracked as the knife cut into the cake.

My mother was a good all-round cook, never afraid to experiment.  The experiments didn’t always go well.  This was signified by my father’s “I’ll be glad when I’ve had enough of this!”

I learned to cook and experiment too.  I could mention deep fried lamb’s sweetbreads (never calves!) with home-made tartare sauce.    One day I decided to surprise my mother by following a recipe I found for vanilla ice cream.  It was very rich, made with several eggs and loads of cream.  Then it had to be frozen, stirred and refrozen several times.  We all sat down to sample it and it was vile.  Not slightly off but inedible vile!  My mother investigated and found that what I thought was vanilla essence was Friars Balsam!  (It’s an expectorant and used on cuts and grazes.  Tincture of benzoin.)

My Secondary School was High Storrs.  Imagine a huge rectangular building with two central quads.  When I arrived at the school in 1966, it was impossible to walk round the building inside because it was split into two halves, a boys school and a girls.  Times were changing and a few years later we went co-ed and the doors were opened.

I wish I could say I enjoyed my time there.  Bullying was unrelenting and brutal.  I lived in fear for several years.  The thing that puzzles me is why, given all this, when they announced boys could do domestic science, only one did. 

I don’t remember much about it.  Not what we cooked, who else was there (the girls probably viewed me as odd) or even how long I did it for.  I risked further victimisation because I wanted to cook. 

Why did I make this choice?  I knew it would leave me further exposed and vulnerable and yet I chose to do it.  I wish I could represent this as an act of courage but it seems to me now, all these years later that it served to further isolate me from others.  I insisted on going my own way but at the same time I was terrified.  My refusal to submit led to fear and isolation.    And yet what other choice did I have?

Day 1/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I shall publish a short piece of writing on my subject of solitude. The writings are based on a prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous is Isolation and Solitude. Next is Not Washing Up!

Man sitting beneath tree

Isolation and Solitude

Way back in the early 90s, I discovered the Enneagram, a personality typing tool.  Over the years it has helped me understand my behaviour.  Why I make the same mistakes over and again.

My type is 5, which will mean nothing to you if you don’t know the Enneagram.  Suffice it to say, 5s are withdrawing types who left to our own devices (yes please!) live our lives in our heads, rarely sharing the wonderful insights, ideas and worlds we hatch in our privacy.

We are plagued by the tension between isolation and solitude, especially as we often don’t quite know which one we’re experiencing.  This is the tension I want to explore and especially how to find solitude and the riches all of us gain from it.

This is not just for 5s, we all handle isolation and solitude in different ways.  So, it is something we need to understand at some level.  So, allow me to define terms as best I can.  I’m no expert in whatever it is I need to be an expert in to understand this tension.  So, I define my own terms and if that annoys you, either ignore me or allow yourself to join the journey higgledy piggledy. 

I use the word isolation in a negative way.  To be isolated is rarely a positive experience, although I suspect many of us attain isolation without noticing and carry on that way for many years.  Even once we notice, it is easy to slip back again.  It’s an everyday experience for most of us.

It’s easy to be isolated in company and indeed if there are loads of people around all the time, it is hard to see your isolation.  Isolated people are insecure and isolation manifests as taking charge, as being in control.  I suspect this is what we mean by individualism.  The top of the social hierarchy can be the loneliest place in the world.

And loneliness is another kind of isolation.  Now you are aware of isolation and can’t bear it.  Television, mobile phones, social media are all means to assuage loneliness.  Even a good book. 

Isolation is in short, a journey centred on myself – my pain and my attempts to assuage it.  We imagine ourselves alone, defiant, people of destiny, resisting the incursions of a world gone mad.  But are we contributing to that madness?

So, what is solitude?  It’s finding a space wherein we can be creative and live not for ourselves but for others.  It’s a space we have to seek and find and maintain intentionally.  It is where our hearts expand and meet the hearts of others. 

We all need this space and many take great steps to find it.  The gardener who perhaps buries herself in an allotment, the writer with a shed at the end of the garden, the rambler, the fisherman.  All these and many others find the space where they can live for others. 

But they’re on their own?  Indeed.  But once you find your space, you can leave it and re-join it as you will.

Just a couple of other points and I’ll allow you to retreat to your space.  This series is about solitude as a creative space.  I’ll touch on the negative side of things but this is not about mental health.  Not mental health because I know little about it and want to focus on the positives (not easy for a Grumpy Old Man).  I am aware that loneliness and individualism can be associated with mental health conditions.  But I want to show how these affect all of us and in the main they are experiences we all encounter in our daily lives.  I’m interested in solitude as a spiritual condition and not a mental condition.

Which brings me to religion.  This is harder to unpick for me because I’m a Methodist Local Preacher and I can see how this topic resonates with my faith.  But I don’t think it matters whether you subscribe to a faith.  We still need to find solitude.  Most of the world’s faiths encourage prayer or meditation.  These are always about finding solitude as a place to encounter … what?  A boring Methodist worship service may be an ideal place to find solitude!

I think of religion as spirituality put into action.  The challenge for all of us is to find the space of solitude and then to turn that positive energy into something constructive.  How we do that is the challenge we all face.  Over the next 4 weeks I shall try to share my journey.  And maybe it will inspire you.

This is Day 0 of a 21 day writing challenge. Every weekday, I shall publish a short piece of writing on my subject of solitude. The writings are based on a prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. View the next: Chocolate Cake.