All Posts by Chris

gas ring hovering over a hand

Cooking on Gas?

In 1997, we launched Burngreave Community Action Forum.  This was not a part of my work, it was a Forum for residents in my own neighbourhood in Sheffield, UK.  It was interesting to be guided by two community development workers, employed by the local authority. 

Over the next few years we set up a Trust that obtained funding for premises and four staff.  I managed the staff for a year or so.  We were as someone said, “cooking on gas”.  Others noticed too.

I suppose it was meant to be encouragement.  The city-wide Quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) (don’t ask!) made up of local authority, police, education, big business, big voluntary sector who regularly changed their name, were interested. 

We got New Deal for Communities.  Nobody asked us.  The Quango made a short-list of neighbourhoods that might be suitable and then decided which would get it, all without speaking to anyone who actually lived in these places.

On the evening they announced Burngreave was to receive £50 million over 10 years, I went to a Forum meeting.  Several new faces were there, local residents who made a point of telling us the Forum was not going to get their hands on the money.  The Forum might have had a chance of becoming accountable body but given the vocal opposition, the role went to the local authority.  Maybe if we had had a couple more years to consolidate the Forum, things would have turned out differently. 

New Deal finished 10 years later in 2012, just after I was made redundant and wondering what to do next.  In some respects New Deal was a success.  Burngreave came third in the country in terms of revenue spending.  There were notable gains at the time for housing, education, health, policing, etc.  However, there was no legacy.

Compared with the other neighbourhoods that had been considered for New Deal, Burngreave had no Forum, no Trust, no partnership, no premises.  Everything we had built at the turn of the century was destroyed and has never recovered.

This experience is a major example of something I noted at the time as common in the places where I had previously worked and where my colleagues had worked.  You would think £50 million would make a massive difference.  It did but not in a positive way.

Why?  The reason was the money was not invested.  It was given away as grants.  As soon as the national government money ran out, the partners disappeared.  They were interested in spending the money and not in local regeneration.  I don’t blame them, the scheme itself was ill-conceived.  In the end, most of the partners had no skin in the game.  They don’t live here – why should they care when they have their own responsibilities. 

What makes a successful neighbourhood?  There’s more than one answer to that question but my answer is, it is a space where people encounter one another.  In theory cities, towns and villages are based upon spaces where business concentrates, which brings in non-commercial activity such as schools, places of worship, libraries, etc – which increases footfall and so encourages more business development. 

Community organisations assuredly have their place but they cannot regenerate a neighbourhood without businesses playing a central role.  Most obviously retail but other businesses bring activity into the area.  Even self-employed workers tend to spend locally.

There’s a lot more to this but the question I want to answer, is how do businesses come into being?  New businesses start all the time and interact with one another, often across a city or region.  They start with a vision, not necessarily about urban regeneration and begin to market it.  They are often islands offering something of value that withers and dies because they cannot make themselves heard.  But it is that initial vision that fascinates me. 

When someone takes the risk of going into business, they have a vision of some change they want to see.  For many there is a kernel of genius that can and does make a difference.

When I started on this writing journey I believed solitude was the key to this.  I wrote about how solitude is a stance that looks outwards.  It creates the space where creativity happens.  This is a space that can be shared to a degree but a business owner with a vision is someone bringing a gift to the world that can be accepted or rejected by the world. 

The business-owner is on their own, even when they employ staff.  Maybe especially then.  As businesses grow, their responsibility grows and maybe solitude becomes more like loneliness.  It is hard work and unrelenting. 

The emphasis on making money is understandable because it is essential but it is never the reason why the business exists.  All the technical solutions to the myriad problems businesses encounter, easily overwhelms our solitude and diverts the business from its original trajectory. 

We need to remember our businesses.   That’s remember in the sense of put back together.  We use stories to do this.  Stories about all aspects of a business explains to potential customers and especially the business owner, why they are there, why they persist and how they bring an iota of hope to a painful world.

Day 21/21 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: Shared Solitude

woman on sofa, facing window

Shared Solitude

Coaching is the art of bringing two minds together in conversation, to see what is not immediately apparent.  If it’s going to work, it has to be built on solitude.

Let’s try an analogy.  You want to move a sofa from your back room to your front room.  It’s too heavy to lift on your own.  You ask a friend to help.  Your friend can’t lift it on their own either.  But together you can lift it and carry it.  So, far so good. 

Then your friend asks why you’re moving it.  You reply, you want to put it in front of the window so you can sit in it and admire the view.  Your friend asks why you don’t move it upstairs, where the view will be better.  Who decides?

Coaching brings together two minds that together can do more than either can independently.  Ultimately, the decision must lie with the client.  Coaching assumes the client is the expert.  This means the coach can help, even if they are not familiar with the client’s area of work.

This is how I use storytelling in coaching.  I tried a brand new coaching offer with a client who has a very technical online business.  The offer was to build a portfolio of 12 stories for the client to use to market their business.  The stories would cover 5 basic business elements: branding, products and services, proposition, problem, market.  The stories also serve at various stages in the client’s sales funnel.

I used prompts for each of the twelve stories.  The client had to write a story in advance of our meetings.  They were on their own to do that.  They had to send me the story at least 24 hours before our meeting.

I would read the story a few times and make notes about anything that struck me as important.  Usually I would find a model that fitted the story and put it into new light.  Then I would sleep on it and finish my notes the next morning.

What surprised us both were the results of the conversation.  We thought we were looking for stories the client could use to market their business.  We did that but discovered so much more.  The stories led us into deeper conversations about the client’s business.  It was impossible to predict what a conversation would be about until we had it. 

For example, the client was pitching the business to potential customers while we were meeting, with little success.  We agreed to use one of the prompts to tell the story of one of the failed pitches.  The conversation we had led to the success of the next pitch.

The stories opened up a space where two minds met and interacted.  But there was more to it than that.  Each story was a product of the client’s solitude.  My initial analysis of each story was in solitude.  When we met, we found we were working together in the same space, shared solitude.

Yes, we had both prepared in advance but what is preparation if not use of solitude to build up familiarity.  Meetings go better when everyone is prepared.

This is the key difference between solitude and isolation.  Solitude is work done for the benefit of others.  It puts the other at the centre.

This is the genius of any business.  It is centred on the customer and so the business owner has to visualise what the customer needs.  Marketing is how we find the customer we visualised as we developed our business.  Of course, this does not guarantee success but it brings something new into being.

Not all businesses are obviously innovative.  But it is worth asking what it is about this specific business that makes it extraordinary.  Don’t assume it needs to change, maybe all that’s needed is to spot the genius latent in the solitude of every business owner.

You may be wondering whether it’s possible to experience solitude on your own.  Maybe this is something to ponder in solitude!

Day 20/21 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: Run Sugars Next: Cooking on Gas?

icing bags, 4 colours

Run Sugars

Design is a key word for me.  It is something all business owners must do.  Identify what their customers need and then find a user friendly solution that meets or exceeds that need.  You might sell something off-the-shelf but where’s the fun in that?

I wonder whether the reason I bang on about design so much is because I feel left out.  I come from a family of designers.  My father was a sheet metal worker, finding unique solutions to his customers’ needs for machine guards and ducting.  My sister’s family between them cover fashion, industrial, communication and three-dimensional design.   I’m the only one with no qualification in some aspect of design.

Sheffield has, believe it or not, an annual food festival.  Dispel those prejudices.  This is not an exhibition of faggots and ha-penny duck.  It is an opportunity for local gustatory innovators to display their wares.

A few years ago, I decided to sit in on a display of cake decorating.  For reasons that will become clear, this is not something I’d want to do myself but it was something in which my mother developed expertise.  I couldn’t believe what I saw at that display.  All the torment has been removed from cake decorating and so there’s less scope for creativity.

These days there’s something called sugar paste.  You roll it out, cut the right shape and cover your cake with it.  Simple!  Back in the late 60s, when all the trouble started, there was only royal icing.  You had to smooth it over the cake (covered in marzipan) and then keep smoothing it until it was perfect. 

My mother went to night school and learned all this.  If she ever met sugar paste, I’m sure she’d took a dim view of it.  She was a real cake decorator and gradually she recruited a crack squad of assistant cake decorators and together they worked miracles.

At weddings my mother would sit us all down and lie in wait with her piping bag!  (The infinite variety of parental ways of embarrassing their children.)  She would scan her cake for damage and then dash up and do swift repairs.  A common problem was when someone lifted the cake, they put their thumbs through the filigree icing between the side of the cake and the base.  These days we would speak of ninja cake decorating.

Royal icing was the bread and butter of cake decorating.  You can make anything with it.  Take a piece of greaseproof paper, fasten it down at each corner with royal icing.  Draw the outline in icing.  If it’s to be multi-coloured, demarcate each area of colour with icing.  Now use bags of coloured icing to colour in each area.  A palette knife moved beneath the paper causes the icing to flow and so fill in the spaces.  There’s a knack to it.

The Christening cake was the point where things got out of hand.  My father was allegedly heard to murmur “run sugars” in his sleep, so immersed had his life become in this single cake.  The idea was as centrepiece a baby (a small doll, fortunately flesh-coloured sugar paste did not exist and hopefully still doesn’t) inside a cradle.  The cradle would be made of filigree leaves, that’s leaves whose outline and veins were icing and the rest space.  Of course they all needed to be curved so that together they would form a cup to hold the doll.

The house filled with washing-up liquid bottles on their side.  Each one sported 2 or 3 squares of greaseproof paper, each one carrying a single leaf.  They needed a huge number because they broke so easily.  It took forever.  And then one day, she winched the doll into place and everyone was allowed to breathe again, albeit gently.

I’ve no idea who the baby was, they’ll be over 40 by now.  But all the above shows why design is so fascinating.  It’s not just coming up with a great idea, it’s working out how to implement it. 

In any business it’s not just what we deliver but how we set about it, both behind the scenes and before the customer.

You could think of strategy as design through time, working out the sequence of events, the decisions to be taken as something develops.  Design is the equivalent in space.  If you have something that works better, you have an edge over your competitors.  Hence, sugar paste. 

Whilst you set about a new design, you also need solitude.  You need the space to work it out.  How am I going to produce those filigree leaves?  It is about thinking through each step in detail, dreaming up new things to try, so you can find an approach that works.

Creativity is messy and glorious – it is only in the broken leaves that we find true gold.

Day 19/21 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: Good Housekeeping Next: Shared Solitude

Table set for meal alone

Good Housekeeping

A few years ago St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sheffield, UK, underwent major structural changes.  As a result, they had to reconsecrate the building.  The Chair of the Methodist District was unable to attend their service and so he asked me to represent the District, as their Ecumenical Officer.

The whole event took a lot longer than I anticipated mainly because the service was followed by a massive reception at the Cutlers’ Hall (the city’s go to destination for civic receptions, Sheffield’s known for its knives and forks!).  The three course meal with various wines was a complete surprise but I was able to take it in my stride.  (A similar Methodist event would be followed with tea and cake – which I could equally take in my stride.)

Where was I?  Oh yes, the service was amazing.  I suppose as a seasoned non-conformist, I was bowled over by the religious razzamatazz, Methodists take great care not to be too exciting in case it draws attention.  I was quite starry eyed as I watched all these men in amazing costumes wondering around with incense, sprinkling us with water and hang on, what exactly were they doing? 

My eyes might have been starry but my mind was still working.  When the penny dropped, I had to suppress my laughter.  I was delighted!  They were setting the table!  It had to be ritualistically cleaned (presumably it was properly cleaned early by …) and then various cloths put on it, each with some significant meaning.  They transformed a mundane activity into something else.

There is something delightful and profound in this.  If it raises issues for you, then it is doing its job.  It transforms the stuff of everyday life and makes it sublime.  And the one objection I can think of to that is the stuff of everyday life is already sublime.  Except when it isn’t.  At a deeper level it causes us to question everything we do and everything we depend on.  Who does your cleaning?

When my mother died, my father lived for 15 years in the same house, a shrine to my mother.  Despite MS, he looked after it and kept it clean.  He made a point to set out his knife and fork, even when eating alone.  He was right because daily tasks help us through our days, our grief, our frustrations. 

My own house is more chaotic and in urgent need of decluttering.  I have no idea where all the stuff comes from.  But even so, I structure my life around routine.  My typical day is desk work in the mornings, walk in the afternoons and meetings or more work in the evenings.  This means I don’t have to think about what to do next, I just do it.

It’s coming up to 1pm now and so I’ll have to finish, so I can do the washing up.  Here’s a verse from a Methodist Hymn which perhaps does something similar to those priests, setting the table.

Praise in the Common things of life,

Its goings out and in;

Praise in each duty and each deed

However small and mean,

Horatius Bonar, Singing the Faith 73

Day 18/21 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: Imbricated Roles Next: Run Sugars

lion in a business suit

Imbricated Roles

I was made redundant in 2011 and since then I’ve startied my own business.  I attended basic courses about starting a business with Business Sheffield, decided I was fed up with working for other organisations and wanted to see what I could develop on my own.  I liked the sound of the lifestyle and so I went for it. 

You may have spotted a flaw in this plan.  No-one starts a business just because they like the sound of the lifestyle.  Do they?  I mean, don’t you need something to sell?  Looking back, I was starting on a journey of discovering who I am and what I stand for. 

I knew I was closer to the end of my life than the beginning.  Whilst I’m likely to be around for a while yet, this was my last chance to build on what had gone before and make sense of my life by offering something of value to others.

It was a big risk but I look back now with regret I did not make the decision earlier. 

My problem has always been fear.  It’s hard to be certain where it came from but my best guess is the bullying I experienced at school.  I’ve recently given it more attention than I have in a long time and reached some new conclusions.

I was very stubborn and refused to conform at school.  I hated sport and had my own interests and pursued them without regard for what others thought.  They thought I was fair game.  I suppose I viewed them with a mixture of fear and disdain.

It was all rather petty but what stands out for me is that I refused to conform despite the fear.  I always worked something out, whatever fix I was in.

But also looking back, I see how ill-equipped that fear made me.  I had no trust in others and was ambivalent about making friends.  I made many good friends eventually but it was always difficult.  I always expect to be let down.  There’s mostly downsides to that attitude except perhaps that positive feeling when someone unexpectedly delivers.  (Some argue Grumpy Old Men (and Women?) are the happiest people for this reason.)

It’s always about being prepared to take a  risk.  That’s what stopped me going into business earlier.  Once I’d understood business was not against my radical theological beliefs, I still needed the courage to take the plunge.

It’s odd though because looking back, I stood up to bullies time and again throughout my career.  One thing my bullies at school taught me was to stand up to them.  Once I see something happening that seems to be bullying, I will not let it go. 

One of my stories I’ve told before was the conflict in Attercliffe.  This was perhaps one of the most devastating experiences in my career.  It ended with a rift with people I’d worked alongside of for 5 years, people I thought of as friends.

On reflection, I at last understood where I’d gone wrong.  To put it bluntly, I was really bad at relationships.  I confused private and public relationships.  Friends are private, the people you work with are colleagues, customers or clients.

Some of the problem is endemic in the world of community development.  Development workers talk about imbricated roles, where life overlaps with work.  You could live in the community where you work, participating in everything that’s going on or else go home at 5 o’clock. 

This debate has gone on for years.  I’m sure some people have made a success of fully imbricated roles but my observations as I moved on from Attercliffe to work in Maltby was that trying to be one of the people is a big mistake.  Certainly for me, being different was a big advantage.  It reinforces the reality that I am there to help.  They need to know it and I need to remember it.

My solution was simple.  I started to wear a jacket and tie to work.  This simple change aligned me with the people.  We both knew where we stood and apart from all the usual arguments, I found this worked well for me.

Now, things have changed again.  I’ve found a place for myself in Sheffield’s business community and during the last year have started to draw a pension.  This means I no longer need to find my main income from my business.

They say that for many people the years aged 65 – 75 are the best of their lives.  I can see why this is.  Now I can explore the things that interest me and try “the things that are worth trying, even if they fail”.  Maybe there’s less risk but if that’s a problem, I can choose to take risks of my own choosing.

Day 17/21 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: Maltby Next: Good Housekeeping



Maltby is a small township, of about 20 000 souls just outside Rotherham in South Yorkshire.  There is a High Street, which is a bus route and a non-stop procession of lorries that rarely stop and so contribute nothing to the local economy.  I worked there as a development worker between 2000 and 2003. 

The local residents were well organised.  There were 11 community groups based in each surrounding estate.  Once a month, they met to discuss issues that affected the whole town.  It is a coal community, which meant the solidarity in the pits spilled over into the community, by which I mean men were just as active as women.  This took me by surprise, my experience had largely been in steel communities where community engagement was women only,

Just like most places, the churches were not doing quite so well.  The Methodist Church closed the summer before I arrived.  There were three Anglican churches when I started and two when I left.  The one that closed was based in White City, which was not a city but an estate.  When you entered the church, you were confronted by two brass rubbings, one of a monk from the nearby Roche Abbey and the other of a coal miner.

They held a service to close this church, and they were joined by 3 or 4 people they had never seen before, who sat on the back row.  Over tea, the newcomers explained they were the remaining Methodists, who knew what it was like to experience their church closing and wanted to offer their support.

I was employed by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council as a development worker.  One of my tasks was to help the Maltby group of groups write a community plan.  This was part of a national government initiative.  Maltby’s was the first plan in the borough.

I arranged for training in the principles of Participatory Appraisal.  PA is an approach that combines community development with research.  It has about 20 methods that help groups of local people map or draw their views about their community and its future.  The principles underlie the use of these methods.  The aim is help everyone express their views and a lot of the work for the coordinators is to make sure leaders don’t cut across followers.  The aim is to hear everyone’s voice. 

After the training, we split into teams and set out to find out what people wanted for the future of Maltby. 

Older people were fascinated.  I remember we persuaded the organiser of a Bingo Club to allow us access.  We were offered 15 minutes, during tea break.  Woe betide anyone who interferes with Bingo!  We prepared carefully to make the most of our access to people who would not normally participate.  We actually found it hard to get out and so threw their Bingo into chaos!

One thing I noted among the elderly was the difference between the 60s-70s and those in their 80s and 90s.  The latter had a very different perspective.  They remembered White City, when open sewers ran through the streets!

Children were great too.  We gained access to some schools and asked them to draw their ideas.  I remember feeling uncomfortable because so many children drew their recreational facilities surrounded by security cameras. 

How young you can go?  Could toddlers contribute?  There must be a minimum age but if they can draw a picture of something they would like, that’s a contribution.

Probably the most difficult group, were the social workers.  They were not keen on drawing stuff and addressed everything to me.  When we left, the others on my team pointed out that when we entered the council building I had put on my badge and so became the person of authority in our team.  This is the real power of PA, it helps you see how you slip into controlling behaviours.

At the time I reckoned at least 400 people contributed to the plan in some way.  We had a Saturday Community Event, once we had a draft and over 100 people took part. 

Some of the plan was overambitious but it represented what people wanted.  We all knew there was no chance of a by-pass to get those lorries off the High Street but the proposal was backed up by an excellent account of the problem.

I moved on in 2003 and so I did not see the development of a project that met many of the proposals in the plan.  It was for a community centre with performance space and small business units.  It was state of the art with integrated ICT systems and loads of security cameras that could monitor the centre from people’s homes.  All paid for with European funding, which would not have been possible without the plan.

The old Methodist Church had returned to the market, they purchased it and rebuilt it.  One of the features of the old schoolrooms was a foundation stone with the names of the Methodist leaders at the time.  Someone did some research and found the daughter of the then minister was still alive, and living in Maltby.  She was invited to cut the ribbon and open the Wesley Centre, named after the old church.  Everyone, even the atheists wanted to honour the history of that building.

In a town of 20 000, it is impossible to speak to everyone but this story shows how it is possible to hear some who are usually unheard.  The job we did was nowhere near perfect but it was good enough.  Many people have great insights but live quietly and will never share them unless asked – and then under protest – “oh, I don’t have anything to share”. 

I visited The Wesley Centre once and I was delighted to find in the entrance to the building, the brass rubbings of the monk and the miner.

Day 16/21 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: How I Won the Napoleonic Wars! Next: Imbricated Roles

plastic toy soldiers

How I won the Napoleonic Wars!

By the time I reached sixth form at school, I had to some degree resolved the bullying and so had time to make friends.  One of them was PHV – we all knew him as PHV, he chose to be known by his initials.

I lost touch with him when I went to University but at the time his claim to fame was his father who was a well-known local historian.  I still occasionally hear someone mention him or see one of his books in a second-hand bookshop.

I was lonely in those days and so visits to his house were a welcome break, especially during school holidays.  PHV was a model war gamer.  He used Airfix models of soldiers maybe an inch or so high.  He cut off their arms and reattached them into the poses he favoured.  Then he painted them in incredible detail.  Everything was meticulously researched and carefully reproduced.  He had I remember 3 main periods of history: Napoleonic, American Civil War and modern, probably World War 2.  We agreed that the latter was the least successful mainly because tanks made such a mess of the battlefield.

My job was to be his opponent, the troops on two sides were arranged on a contoured battlefield.  Then there were rules, mainly governed by dice rolls and we, over the course of an hour or two, fuelled by his mother’s tea and digestives, attempted to slaughter each other.

I like to think I won these games.  Maybe I did, I don’t honestly remember but I remember PHV’s frustration.   He knew the history and I did not, so as I learned the rules of the game, I did better than I should because I was not constrained by history.

The other thing we did were our lunchtime “top corridor trundles”.  After the school went co-ed, it was possible to walk around the school, doors that were previously closed, opened!

We discussed everything and one of our perennial topics was the environment.  By the early 70s, there was a lot of alarming material in the news about environmental catastrophe.  The scariest thing I remember was the impending ice age.  But it was much more complex than that.  The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth warned of resource depletion, a key point that seems to have been forgotten these days amidst the concern about climate change.  And then there was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that warned of the dangers of pollution. 

PHV would have none of it and so we argued round and round the topic and the corridor, trying to convince each other that we were right.

It was at this time I joined the Conservation Society and worked with a married couple whose names I have completely forgotten campaigning against road building in Sheffield.  This was the time of York 2000, which became Transport 2000 and the ongoing debate about cars and public transport.  I remember the plans for the outer ring road at the time were bizarre; elaborate networks of flyovers were in vogue in most cities at the time.  But in the end, it is PHV I remember and not so much my allies.

I don’t think either PHV or I won our arguments.  But we didn’t lose them either, he helped me hone my arguments and I’m sure I helped with his too.  We’re sometimes told we should avoid arguments about politics or religion.  But I’ve found several times since that where someone who disagrees with you is prepared to walk, it is an invitation to both of us to work towards not victory but understanding. 

In the end, we all have to live with our arguments going round and round in our heads.  It is a precious gift to be offered a patient ear from one who disagrees.

Day 15/21 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: Nothing Propinques Like Propinquity. Next: Maltby

james bond cartoon

Nothing Propinques Like Propinquity

Way back in 1983, six people met to study together.  The Christian Praxis Group still meets, almost 40 years later.  I was one of those 6 and we still meet 2-4 times a year.  Four of us have stood the test of time.  One died, one retired through ill-health and one new person joined.

I’d like to share three words and one phrase that have been formative for the group.  Let’s start with the obvious one – Praxis!

We had all experienced the study year with the Urban Theology Unit (UTU) in Sheffield, UK.  M and R the year before me, H and MV during mine and D the year after me.  We were inspired by Liberation Theology or for inner-city Britain, contextual theology. 

The word Praxis can be found in the Bible, “Preaxeis ton Agion Apostolon”, The Acts of the Holy Apostles.  But some people trace it through Liberation Theology to Marxist economic theory.  As far as I can tell, it was an idea borrowed by Marx, not his invention.

So, what does it mean?  It refers to the cycle of action and reflection.  It’s been widely adopted by churches, who complicate it and call it the Pastoral Cycle.  I once sat in a conference workshop with several theological college principles.  I expressed the view that if you could pass an exam in it, it means you don’t understand it.  Praxis is something you do and reflect upon.  It’s for life, not college.  They were not impressed but not as much as I was not impressed!

Soon after we started R, our resident classical scholar, introduced the idea of anthropagogy.  There’s no point looking it up because R coined it.  I’m sure all my readers have heard of pedagogy.  Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is a famous use of it.  This is the teaching of children.  Adult learning is usually called andragogy.  Which is OK except that the root andre, means adult male.  Hence R, substituted anthropos, which means adult human being.

This was not merely an attempt to be inclusive.  As we discussed anthropagogy over a few years, we saw it implies something more.  A completely different approach to education.  The best analogy is to the distinction between an orchestra and a jazz ensemble.  The orchestra follows written music, led by a conductor.  A small group of jazz players, follow each other’s leads. 

Over the years, I used participative methods in my community development work.  These methods allow participants to fully take part, working on a local problem.    In no small part, this includes tying up the leaders to create a space in which participants can work stuff out together, without someone telling them their definitive answer.

I honour this approach through the name of my business, Market Together.  I’m hopeful to find ways businesses collaborate in their marketing.  This is not so radical as it sounds, businesses help each other all the time, they know collaboration is far more fruitful than competition. 

R explains some aspect of New Testament Greek each time we meet.  One time we discussed exousian, a word usually translated as authority.  “(Jesus) taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes”, Mark 1:22.  This shows how translations mislead generations.  The English word authority implies wisdom handed down from on high, pretty much how the scribes taught.  The Greek word, according to R, literally means “from the belly”.  It encourages us to see teaching engaged with reality and makes no claim to be of God.  The point is, we see the world through reality and not by laying claim to truths handed down by the God we imagine to exist.

These three words: praxis, anthropagogy, exousian together make up my worldview – we meet reality when we work together, by trial and error, to work out what’s really happening.

And then M said the words “Nothing propinques like propinquity.”  We discussed this phrase over several meetings, trying to grasp what he was saying.  The phrase comes from a chapter heading in Ian Fleming’s “Diamonds are Forever”.  It took me a while to realise that propinquity is a real word! Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.  Nothing’s as close as closeness.  Nope, doesn’t really help.

Eventually, M heaved one of his deepest sighs, frustrated at our lack of insight.  He adopted his most pedagogical stance.  “It doesn’t matter what propinquity means”, he explained.  “Nothing X’s like X.”  Nope. 

Exasperated, he said, look the only definition of poverty that works, is that poor people are poor.  It isn’t true that specific ethnic minorities are poor.  Yes, some are more likely to be poor than others but when we talk about neighbourhoods, we need to look at who is disadvantaged.  When we slice the poor into ethnic or other groups we drive wedges between them, divide and rule.

I get it now.  M was spot on.  I have seen neighbourhoods divided into warring factions all competing for the same pots of money, to tackle the same problems for their specific group.  The only certainty in these circumstances is that the disadvantaged do not benefit.

It’s a great privilege to have such long standing friends, who can and do tell me when I’m talking rubbish.  We solitaries need support too.

Day 14/21 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: A Question of Sport. Next: How I won the Napoleonic Wars!

rugby scrum

A Question of Sport

Grozzle, or Mr Hayes, our physics teacher, if you want to be polite, decided on the grounds of my height that I should be anchor. 

I did not understand rugby.

He assumed that like all boys I did understand rugby or possibly he thought I would learn the rules as I played the game.  My strategy for football, keep away from the ball, was not such a good strategy for rugby.  Anchor is in the front row of the scrum.  I’m not quite sure what the scrum is for.  The front row had to link arms, with some other boys bent over behind us and then someone would push a thing that approximated to a ball into the middle.  The rest of the time I was supposed to be somewhere specific on the field for some reason.  No-one bothered to explain all this and I didn’t care enough to find out.  So, I was never in the right place.  I was shouted at but nothing was ever explained.  After about a year of this …

… I still didn’t understand rugby. 

I remember I had to bath after each match because my muscles hurt so much.  I had no idea why I had to do this.  Wouldn’t it have been better to put someone in the place of anchor who actually cared about the game?  You’d think so.  Well, I think so but then …

I still don’t understand rugby.

Grozzle shouted at me because I was never in the right place.  The truth was the right place was the last place I wanted to be.

Others expressed their criticism through brutal and systematic bullying.  I was always rubbish at sport.  I suspect it was because I was never interested in it and so never tried to master the moves.  I believed my own propaganda, I was no good at sport and that was that.  I had no interest in it and that grew into inability.

These days, I’m a school governor at a local first school.  One day I entered the office for a meeting and the senior teachers were discussing an article on the front page if the Sheffield Star.  A headteacher in a neighbouring school had been sacked by Offsted for allowing bullying in her school.

I was amazed and vocalised my amazement, to the disapproval of the staff, about how mild the bullying was.  The headteacher at my old school should have been sentenced to 30 years in prison, by the same yardstick.  I’m sure there’s a lot of bullying still going on in schools and modern technology means pupils can be bullied at home.  Tolerance of bullying today is far less than it was in my day.

Looking back from the perspective of over 50 years, I think I held up pretty well.  If I had to fight, I would.  I gave as good as I got, even though didn’t know why I was fighting.  Or, perhaps I do.  Most of those brutal fights were set up.  Others who were being bullied, were made to pick a fight with me for the entertainment of the ringleaders. 

This brutal pointless charade went on for years until I eventually turned on the ringleaders and it ended almost overnight.  It left me crushed.

My whole career has been marked by the dual strategy of keeping out of other’s way and in time learning to trust them.  On the other hand, standing up for others I see being bullied.  I’m not saying I’m good at standing up to bullies, I tend towards passive-aggressive, which is not always helpful. 

At a deeper level I know that bullies are isolated.  Power over others fills a void.  Just as no-one explained the rules of rugby to me, assuming I knew them or cared enough to find them out, so they have not learned what it means to be alive.  Kindness fills the void, not cruelty.

Day 13/21 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: The Food of Love. Next: Nothing Propinques Like Propinquity.

film projector

The Food of Love

During the 50s and 60s, if you wanted to go to the pictures, you could read through a long list of cinemas in The Sheffield Star” and see what’s on.  Today, you would look for a specific picture but this had diminishing returns when you went to the pictures more than once a week! There were loads of cinemas in Sheffield in those days and to cut to the chase, I’ll mention one, Studio 7.

Studio 7 was on Wicker, for those who know Wicker, it was where Derek Dooley Way crosses the river.  It seems it was the type of cinema that featured, ahem, adult films.  I suppose fathers might have taken their sons along.  Mine never did, except once!

I was probably about 12 years old and I can’t say I was terribly keen.  I had seen and heard this type of thing before and had not been terribly impressed.  But my father insisted and what can a dutiful son do?

What I saw there transformed my life!  It was my introduction to the delights of … Gilbert and Sullivan and classical music in general.  We saw “The Mikado” and although I feared being bored, it was a revelation. 

As ever, science fiction led me deeper into classical music.  A few years later, the film 2001 A Space Odyssey came out and I bought an LP with The Blue Danube and the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra.  I later became more familiar with my father’s passion, opera.  By the time I went to university, I was listening to Wagner, Verdi, Rossini and many others.

I’ve never bought a recording of Puccini’s La Boheme, it always seemed to be an opera to be heard in the opera house.  I remember seeing it live in Leeds on 1 February 1996.  I can be precise about the date because I looked it up.  It was exactly 100 years since its first public performance.  It always makes me choke up, even if I’m explaining the story.  That moment when Musetta enters in Act 4 and announces that Mimi is dying.  It’s so embarrassing if I’m with someone!

But by 1996, I had found another love besides opera.  I was always aware opera was a passion I shared with my father.  But I realised as I got older that I owed just as much to my mother.  Simply because she listened to the radio.  She listened to the light programme and then Radio 2 mainly.  And so I grew up with the likes of Children’s Favourites (Frankie Howard: Now swim said the mama fishie, swim if you can and they swam and they swam right over the damn), Housewives Choice, the Billy Cotton Band Show, Two Way Family Favourites.  Most of these had famous signature tunes; for the latter “With a Song in My Heart”. 

So we were immersed in not so much classical music as what is now called Easy Listening.  In the early 90s I started to wonder where all this music came from.  I knew some of it was musicals and popular music from the 30s and 40s.  We had records we played over and again but they were eclectic and mostly non-classical.

As a result I subscribed to part work about jazz.  This led me to evening classes and contemporary jazz in Radio 3.  This in its turn led me to discover music from the Great American Song Book and the British equivalents such as Noel Coward and Gracie Fields (I’m dancing with tears in my eyes, ‘cause the boy in my arms isn’t you).  

We were immersed in music most of the day at home.  It was the ever-present backdrop to our lives.  It still is for me.  I love these old songs – rough and respectable – popular and classical.  As I walk around the city, old tunes come back to me and I march along or sometimes almost dance, if no-one’s looking,

So, if you’ve read so far, here’s my gift to you.  Look on YouTube for Gracie Field’s “Sing as We Go”, get it in your head and then go for a walk.  “A song and a smile making life worthwhile, so sing as we go along.”

Day 12/21 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: Immortals. Next: A Question of Sport.

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