Daily Archives: February 10, 2020


Keep Off the Grass

Looking back to the 50s and 60s, it seems a different world.  Perhaps a defining character in that world was the Parkie.  Often the nemesis of cartoon characters such as Dennis the Menace or Buster, they nevertheless existed back in the day.

These days there is no such thing as the Park Keeper.  Council operatives arrive now and again in a van to do some maintenance work but the park’s left to its own devices otherwise.  The Park Keeper’s job was to watch out for anyone, especially children, who broke the park’s rules.  If a sign said “Keep Off the Grass”, it meant exactly that.  These signs were reserved for the posh bits of the park.  Woe betide anyone who set foot on them, they were likely to be severely shouted at!  Riding bikes on the paths was another serious infringement.  Does scooting on the pedal count as riding the bike?  We tried it and got shouted at. 

All of this made some sort of sense.  It was fairly obvious why these rules existed and were enforced.  Walks through parks in Sheffield these days would be much improved by the absence of bikes! 

I suspect the main reason for the demise of the park keeper was financial and not so much changes in social mores.  Although I suspect it would be hard to reintroduce the same roles, given concerns over safeguarding and more pertinently, people not liking being shouted at (especially self-righteous cyclists – but I mustn’t rant!)

My point is though we did try scooting on the pedal and we were shouted at.  We were testing the boundaries.   How do you do that in a world where nobody cares?

Just like most kids, testing the boundaries is something we naturally did.   Would that more people carried this into later life.

Back in the early 80s, my first proper job as a development worker was with a Methodist Church in Middlesbrough.  My time with the Peace Movement in Newcastle plus a rather traumatic time in my last appointment, meant I arrived somewhat bolshy. 

When I left, one of the church members told me they had seen my lapel badge that read “Question Authority” and concluded I needed support.  They agreed this and provided it.  They’re the reason I stayed with Methodism, Methodist’s are mostly supportive of the awkward and angular.

In my own defence, if I may, the badge didn’t say ‘disobey authority’.   During the 90s, a friend introduced me to Thomas Cullinan’s “The Passion of Political Love”.  You don’t have to read beyond the first page.  Cullinan was a Jesuit and so made vows of obedience.  But he asks straight out, what is obedience?  The obedient are those who listen, who pay attention.  The opposite of obedience is not disobedience, it is acting inappropriately. 

During the 90s I learned how to use participative methods in my development work, methods such as Participatory Appraisal and Open Space Technology.  These methods worked brilliantly with local residents, not so well with professionals and worst of all with religious!  Actually, religious are OK with these methods unless someone with authority is present.  People at the level of Bishop, for example.  I found it was not necessarily their fault but when they speak, everyone stops listening to each other!  This is most likely true in other walks of life. 

I became self-employed about 9 years ago and started out offering website design.  My problem was I could see that whether a website works depends on the organisation that owns it.  My first customers did not welcome my approach, “we asked you to design a website, not tell us how to run our organisation”.  This is what led me to offer marketing coaching instead.

The problem is business owners, do not know their own business.  This may sound arrogant but when did you last have an in-depth conversation with someone about your business?  Not a sales pitch but the sort of conversation where you leave seeing things differently?

I’ve found over the years people with problems approach me with solutions.  “We need a website” is a solution to what problem?  It is essential to understand the problem first.  People spend too much money and time implementing solutions that are brilliant for someone else’s problem. 

We see the same tendency in politics.  What is the problem HS2/Brexit/changing the party leader is meant to solve?  Knowing the problem, not the immediate issue but the deep seated reasons it exists, is far more important than finding a solution.

We avoid doing this properly because it is likely to be uncomfortable.  It’s a good job I don’t much mind being shouted at!

Day 10/21 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: Tale of Two Cities. Next: Immortals.