Yes, writing is hard. But…

There are ways of making it easier but, as Rebecca McClanahan says in this extract, writing is hard work. (Then again, on a camping trip a few years back I bumped into a local farmer who was checking his sheep. Somehow we ended up talking about my work as a writer. He listened to me whining about the difficulties of it all, then said, “So there’s no heavy lifting involved?” He didn’t wait for answer; one of his sheep had got stuck in a ditch). 

Finding a voice

I was away in Northumbria last week leading a Dark Angels writing course.

One area we explored is the different ways of finding “voice” – whether that’s your own voice, the voice of a character or the voice of an organisation you might be writing for.

So, rather fitting to stumble across this piece from poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy

She tells how Caedmon, the earliest known English poet, found his voice…. also in Northumbria. Must be something in the air.

On a seventh-century night in Northumbria, the Venerable Bede tells us, a lay brother and cattle herder named Caedmon had an extraordinary experience. Caedmon was not a literate man, and when social gatherings turned to song he would make his excuses and leave. On this night, when the harp came to him, he rose to tend the cattle and fell asleep in the stable. He dreamed that a man appeared. “Caedmon,” said the man, “Sing me a song.” But Caedmon did not know what he could possibly sing. “Sing about the creation of all things,” said the man. And Caedmon did, singing lines that he had never heard before; lines of such beauty, says Bede, that they moved the hearts of many to heaven.”

Walking, writing, photographing

A forlorn beach hut. I’m writing about Rye Harbour Nature Reserve as part of a residency project with creative collective 26.org.uk.  It’s a beautiful place, but my word is it windy! Hard to hold the camera steady outdoors. And the few notes I scribbled in my book are almost indecipherable. But this process of walking, photographing and writing is one I enjoy immensely, whatever the conditions.

“I just knew he couldn’t break me”

This is Chris. Her father raped or abused her every day until she was 15 years old. “I just knew he couldn’t break me,” she says, when I asked her how she survived. “There was something about me that meant I wouldn’t go under.”

To help other abused women – and, increasingly, men – for the last 35 years she’s run The Haven, a charity that offers free counselling in north London. Chris often works from eight in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week – counselling people, applying for grants, keeping The Haven open as government funding cuts force similar local projects to close.

The childhood abuse has left Chris with life-long health problems. “I’m in pain every day. Constant pain,” she says. “Sometimes you can see it in my eyes. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And what’s the option? To give up? No, you just get on with it.”

I wrote about Chris for the London Community Foundation, one of her funders. more info here.

“You see how happy the young people are. The things they have achieved”

Rachel

Here’s a story I wrote recently, part of my work with The London Community Foundation

 

There’s a worn out pool table. The bar sells Ribena, Mars bars and crisps. A girl in black leggings and a Chelsea football shirt laughs and dances. This place feels like any other youth club. The only difference is that the young people who come here to have fun, make friends, and get a bit of independence from the adults in their lives all have some form of disability.

Founded as a charity in 1948, The Caxton Youth Organisation was originally a safe haven for underprivileged boys – and later girls – in a city flattened by war-time bombing. Today it helps young people with physical or mental disabilities to thrive in the face of prejudice, exclusion and forced dependence.

On the night I visit, Caxton is open to 18-25-year-olds. The younger ones, aged 11-18, come on different evenings. There are maybe 20 people here. They all live within the borough of Westminster. Some have come under their own steam. Others arrive on a mini-bus that follows a one-hour collection route.

In a side-room people are working on their CVs, studying, or using the internet. There are seven computers, a printer and three buckets to catch the rainwater that percolates through the block of flats above. In the kitchen, Kyri and George are preparing the chicken that everyone will eat later. In another room, Billy the Reiki Master is setting up for a yoga class.

The corridor that connects these spaces is plastered with photos of Caxton members busy enjoying themselves. There are trips to the zoo and other days out. These include weekend visits to the wonderfully named Wey Inspired – a 64-foot narrowboat moored on an island in the River Wey in Surrey, which the group leases from the Environment Agency at a peppercorn rent.

Groups of eight young people visit Wey Inspired every weekend from April to October. They hang out together and learn useful skills. They also get to do the stupid stuff that young people everywhere enjoy when their parents aren’t around – like dropping Mentos into bottles of Coke to see what happens.

Showing me around the club is Rachel Akehurst, the 28-year-old who runs the place. After the quick tour, Rachel explains more about the work Caxton does.

Caxton offers four core programmes that help people to develop communication skills; to “enjoy and achieve” more through art, music, sports and volunteering; to learn about health and personal care, including sexual health and coping with stress; and to become more independent, including managing money and staying safe. Last year it supported over 110 people – 93% of them have Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Funding this work is a constant struggle. Two years ago a third of Caxton’s budget came from the local borough, Westminster. But in the 2015 financial year that was cut by 15%. “We saw it coming, so had cut our overhead substantially,” says Rachel. “Then we were told it would be followed by a 25% cut. And then, just before Christmas, we were told there’d be no money at all. It’s not just us. Nobody will get any money from Westminster Youth Services. There won’t be any at all.”

The news hit Rachel hard. “December was a really horrendous time. We were working around the clock on research and funding applications. It was very stressful. We had to change all our financial projections and reduce services. We had to work out how much longer the project could feasibly survive.”

One of the paid staff had to go. “The young people were absolutely gutted, they loved her,” says Rachel. As other services across London closed, requests came in to help young disabled people from other London boroughs.

Caxton’s articles of association limit it to working inside the boundaries of Westminster, Rachel explains. And she doesn’t have the resources to help anyway. There are willing volunteers, but supporting people with complex learning disabilities is skilled work. “What happens in five years’ time when all the skilled workers have gone?” she asks. “Who will help the young people then? It’s a very sad state of affairs.”

If Caxton relied solely on local authority money, it would be closed now, says Rachel. “One of the things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been managing this place is there’s never any financial security in the charity sector,” she continues. “It’s a motivating factor, because everything can just suddenly turn against you, so you can’t take your eye off the ball.”

Rachel started at Caxton as youth worker and has been running the place for nearly four years. Her notional working hours are Monday to Friday, 1pm-9pm. But there are often morning meetings to attend. And she works weekends from April to October.

Her work changes lives, but she’s modest about her role. “We are all about empowering people, so the young people vote to decided what we do,” she says. “They run the club; we are just the pen pushers who make things happen.”

Amid all the budget cuts, knock-backs and worries, what keeps her motivated? “It can be really tough some days, really down and gloomy,” she says. “But you come into work for an evening and see how happy the young people are, those small changes in behaviour, the things they have achieved, because of the work you have done… that’s what keeps me going.”

“I believe we are saving lives”

Sandra Smith
Sandra Smith

Recently I’ve had the honour of visiting many small charities across London, all doing incredible work with almost no resources. I’ve been trying to tell their stories. One of them has just been published. As an experiment, I thought I’d paste the full text here. I reckon it’s a 5-minute read.

*****

“I believe we are saving lives”

*****
Suddenly, Marie’s hands begin to shake. The tears fill her eyes. Matilda gets up from her chair, walks over to Marie, and puts an arm around her shoulder. “You’ll be all right with us,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The ‘boat’ these two elderly Londoners are in is the crippling grief that can follow the death of a loved one. Marie had been talking about her husband, Ernie. He died on September 5, 2015, after nine weeks in St Joseph’s, a local hospice. Ernie had bowel cancer.

“I talk to him every morning,” Marie continues eventually. “I get out of bed and I kiss his urn.” For the two months since her husband died, bed has been the sofa downstairs. She can no longer sleep in the bed they used to share.

The tears just now were caused by anger. Marie feels that Ernie’s doctor missed the signs of cancer, that four months of maybe life-saving treatment were lost. “Sometimes I feel I could kill him,” she says of the doctor. “I could go round there and smash his windows.”

Matilda reassures Marie that it’s ok to feel angry. She talks about her own husband, who dropped dead in the street. Pauline, sitting across from them both, has been there too. Her husband died in an operating theatre, during surgery that was meant to be straightforward. Bill lost his wife. Leon is grieving for his mum. Everyone in the room has felt the same pain.

It was to help grieving people like the ones chatting over tea and cake this morning that Sandra Smith and her friend Olive Brade opened The Bereavement Drop in Centre in Plaistow, in 2011.

Olive and Sandra first came to know each other in an online forum for widows under 50. Olive’s husband, Ashton, died of cancer in 2005. Sandra’s husband, Martin, took his own life two years later. When the two women realised they lived near each other, they moved from online chat to real-world coffee.

“We got so much comfort from each other,” says Sandra. “There was nothing else out there. No counselling. No help. We realised that if it’s working for us, it must work for other people too.” So with no experience of doing anything like it, they decided to open a centre where grieving people could find support.

It took a year to find a suitable space and nine months to get it into shape. In a mid-terrace building rented from T Cribb & Sons, a local funeral directors, they offer one-to-one and peer-group counselling, a range of practical complementary therapies, and drop-in sessions where anyone can stop for tea and a chat. They organise social events too: a Pie & Mash dinner, a talent competition. Today, everyone is excited about a trip to the West End, to see the Christmas lights.

The centre has helped over 500 grieving people so far. Some are referred by their local doctor. Others, like Marie, have dropped in while passing – the location is handy, directly opposite the entrance to The East London Cemetery & Crematorium.

They find ways to cope with the problems that can follow loss – the anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation, anger, and depression. And they find the comfort of spending time with people who know what crippling grief feels like.

“If you’ve been on the journey, you know. It’s a monster,” says Sandra. “This place works because people feel supported and they feel heard. They realise they are not going mad; they are in grief, they are bereaved.”

Sandra offers a tour of the building. The private counselling room has two armchairs facing each other, touching distance apart. A box of tissues on a side table, another box for donations.

A smaller room with a massage table smells of warm, herby oils. Massage can ease grief’s physical toll, explains Sandra. There used to be funding for treatments, but it’s gone now. Yet professional masseuse Annette, who’s here today, has stayed. She offers her skills for no payment. “When you see the difference it makes, you can’t not do it,” she says.

In the back garden it’s sunny. There’s a concrete patio, two blue picnic tables, a couple of benches next to a barbeque. Bill, who was one of the first people to use the centre, now looks after the garden. On the wall is a colourful mural he painted. “It’s better for him than tablets,” says Sandra.

Back in the lounge area, which is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, the group is talking about bus routes, parking problems, the people who left them, how they would all have gladly swapped places. Bill is proudly showing off some seascapes he painted. Leon has made a collage of bus tickets that he found in the attic.

There are laughs and more tears as the conversation continues to flow between trivial topics and those that are heart-breaking. “This is how it works,” says Sandra over the chatter. “We can just let them get on with it.”

Marie says that in her mother’s day you wouldn’t need a centre like this to help you through a loss. “My Mum would have said ‘come in for a cup of tea’. But that doesn’t happen any more.”

Now when her neighbours see her pushing her wheeled tartan shopping basket along the street, “they get in their cars and drive away. You shut the door and think, nobody wants me.”

She has family, but it’s hard for them to understand what she’s going through. The bereavement centre is like an oasis. “I feel safe here,” Marie says. “It’s calm. This is more… oh, I can’t explain.”

It can be hard to find a way of talking about how you feel, about your loss, says Sandra. You want to get back to your old self, but that person has gone now. You have to find a way to become someone else.

When her husband died, “I felt like someone had cut my heart out,” says Sandra. Her daughters were worried about her opening a centre for grieving people. “They thought it would be all doom and gloom, that I should move on. But this is brilliant. A lot of people who come here are suicidal. They would rather die than carry on. We are trying to bring people back. I believe we are saving lives.”

You can learn more about this charity here:

www.dropinbereavementcentre.btck.co.uk

Listening

trees-1

No strangers to photograph today, as I’m back working in the writing shed. So it’s off to the woods to shoot trees instead. Leading a writing workshop in Spain last year, I took a group of students on a walk; we stopped to “talk to the landscape”, asking questions of gateposts, stone walls and – yes – trees. That might sound like a strange activity, but it’s rewarding if you take a chance and go with it; in Spain it produced some beautiful writing, which we read to each other over beers and leathery jamon. Standing in the woods today, the wind forced trunks and branches together. Listening to the creaking wood, it’s easy to imagine that nature is in a conversation with itself: one it’s worth listening to.

trees-2

Enjoying the light

London Bridge walk-4-2

 

Olivier, a French man in London. I was on my way to a board meeting at writers’ organisation 26.org.uk. Feeling knackered; still emotionally drained from a dear friend’s funeral last week. Olivier was leaning against a bollard on Borough High Street. “Are you waiting for someone?” I asked. “No, I’m just enjoying the light.” I enjoyed it with him for a while.

Always apologising

IMG_8422
This is Sarah.

She was standing outside a laundrette in Pimlico, London, waiting for her wash to finish. I was on my way to visit a youth club project. “Can I take your photo?”

“Sure, what’s it for?”

“Nothing, just for my own purposes. Oh sorry, that sounds kind of creepy.”

“No worries,” she laughs.

I realise I’m lost. “Is there a youth club around here? Oh sorry, that sounds even more creepy.”

Us English, always apologising. #streetphotography

Why John didn’t want to be in this photo

London Bridge walk-5
Henry and John are standing on Tooley Street, London Bridge. “Can I take your photo?”

Henry says yes. John says no.

“He doesn’t want to be in the photo because he used to be a professional photographer,” says Henry. “He worked at The Times for years.”

I ask John: “So don’t you like photos?”

“Yes, but I know what can happen to them.”

“Are you worried about being in a paper?”

“No,” says John, “I’m worried about wanted posters.”

Henry chips in: “That’s right, he’s wanted by the Old Bill all over London.”

Experiments in street photography

Andy

I love street photography, especially portraiture. I’ve taken candid shots of people before and caught some interesting moments. But I’ve never gone up to a stranger and asked them if I can take their photo. The main obstacle was fear, I think. What if they said no? Plus there’s that innate English awkwardness: who am I to go around interrupting people?

Then last week I was killing some time in Canterbury, taking a few photos of not much in particular. I was standing next to a friendly looking guy with a beanie hat and a beard. I though to myself, ‘you know, if you don’t ask this friendly looking guy for a photo, I don’t think you’ll ever ask anyone.’ So I asked him: “Can I take your photo?”

He said, “Sure”, and went to take my camera; he thought I’d asked him to take a photo of me. “No, I want to take your photo,” I explained. He said ok again, and went back to what he was doing: looking out across the street.

I fired two quick shots, showed him one of them – he smiled and said “nice” – asked him his name – Andy – and then walked off.

It was exhilarating. Like reading a story to an audience for the first time or performing live-lit in the street.

Mavis2

Having overcome the fear of… well, of whatever I was scared of, I wandered around seeing who else might catch my eye. Pretty soon, I found Mavis. “Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. No questions about why, or what would I do with it, or why her. She just seemed pleased that I’d shown an interest.

Christian and KateThen I went for lunch in the Boho Cafe – cheese and cauliflower soup. When I paid the bill, I asked the owner, who was working behind the counter, if I could take his photo. He said ok, and then his wife, who was waitressing, joined him. They are Kristian and Kate. I was too slow to catch it, but right after this frame he kissed her on the cheek, and they had a quick hug.

I went away reflecting on my first stranger photos. I’d like to be able to take photos that look better than this; improvement will come with practice. But what feels more important to me is that the request to take a photo created an opportunity for me to connect with new people. Without a camera in my hand, I wouldn’t have spoken to Mavis or Andy; Kristian and Kate wouldn’t have had that mid-afternoon kiss.

DSC04034

A couple of days later I was back in Canterbury for a writing workshop. I met Deke, a performance poet. Asking for his photo seemed like a normal thing to do now.

DSC04043

Then walking around town I saw Carol. She was standing outside the Cath Kidston shop, waiting for her husband. Again, I don’t make any claims for the artistic or technical quality of these photos. For me they are reminders; visual mementoes of brief, unexpected encounters.

I walked around a while longer after photographing Carol. I asked one other person if I could take her photo and she said no: my first rejection. But it didn’t feel so bad.

DSC04044

 

 

 

 

Adding a little bit of happiness

DSC03306

This is Mick. He runs a South London charity called the Furzedown Project. Its mission is to prevent loneliness among the elderly. Mick organises activities like singing groups, knitting circles and exercise classes.

He’s 56 and has been at Furzedown for the last seven years. “It’s a nice place to work,” he says. “I come here with the purpose of adding a little bit of happiness to the world.”

Before Furzedown, he worked in residential care, sheltered housing and community development. “There was never much of a career plan,” he says. “But I’ve been lucky enough to work with some interesting people.”

“So is it fair to sum you up as a do-gooder?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” says Mick.

“They’ve got nothing like this in Morden”

 This is Betty. I met her recently at an old folks club in Tooting, run by a charity that tackles isolation among the elderly. She was singing music hall songs. I told her I live in Kent.

“We used to go down to Kent a lot,” she said. “My mother loved it when the apple trees were in blossom. Daddy always took us in the car. We had a Ford 8. A year old it was. He was very proud of it. My sister and I used to sit in the back, giving a queenly wave to all the people we passed.”

When was this? “Well, I’m 87, so it must have been 80 odd years ago.” I show her the photo I’ve taken. “I look like an old granny,” she laughs. “I haven’t had my hair done in a week.”

With Alan the pianist playing the opening bars of the next song, she leans over to whisper: “You know, they’ve got nothing like this in Morden.”

“They called me the Maharaja”

IMG_8035

On a visit to the Imperial War Museum with another tiny charity, South London Cares, I met Oun. He arrived in London from India in 1962 with £5 in his pocket and a selection of his mum’s jewels around his neck. “They called me the Maharaja,” he said.

Walking around the museum and eating a sausage roll in its café, Oun told me about his career in advertising (“I was creative director for Miss World”), the time he met the Pope (“but that was years ago”), his 22-minute audience with Mother Theresa (“she insisted I sit with her”), and how he came to own paintings by the Bloomsbury Set (“I have a Turner sketch, also”).

I asked if I could take his photo. “Why?” he said. “So I can remember you,” I replied. “Then no,” he said. “You’ll just have to remember me.”

When Bob gets up to sing

IMG_8017
They were singing Christmas Carols down at the old folks’ drop-in centre in Tooting on Wednesday afternoon. Quality variable. Then Bob, 81, who’d just been mumbling along until that point, steps up and offers to sing a solo. Oh, gawd. This will be awkward. But he opens his mouth and out comes a beautiful music hall ballad, sung in a powerful tenor. The room was in tears. “You’ve done a bit of singing then?” I say to him afterwards. “Yes,” he says. “1965. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.”

“Every day I hear about extraordinary ways people survive”

Sheila Melzak b&w
The woman in this photo is Sheila Melzak, a psychotherapist. She runs the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, a charity that helps child refugees. Specifically, her organisation works with children who have fled violence abroad, dreamed of finding sanctuary here in Britain, and somehow made it into the country on their own.

These children are all officially classified as “unaccompanied”. That means they entered Britain illegally, often hidden in the back of a lorry, with no family or adults to help them or to protect them.

They include people like Mimi from Eritrea, who escaped to England aged 12 when her father disappeared and her sister was killed. And Fakirzai, smuggled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban murdered his father. Many of them have been raped and tortured. Some have been forced to kill, or watch the murder of their parents. Others have been trafficked into the sex industry.

Increasingly, they come from Syria. Since I met Sheila back in May, the Europe-wide refugee crisis has seen the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Britain and seeking asylum soar. Thankfully, sole children account for less than 10% of the refugees seeking asylum here. But the figure for last year was a record anyway, at 1,861. In only the three months to July the number of lone children making it to my home county of Kent had doubled to 605. Admittedly, Kent includes the port of Dover, which is a major point of entry. But even so.

The beuaucratic asylum process these vulnerable children encounter when they finally make it to Britain is a huge shock to them, says Sheila. One of its most damaging aspects is that they find their stories are not believed. “It makes them feel crazy, completely crazy,” she says.

“It would be hard enough if you were an adult. But they are children. They don’t leap off a boat or jump out the back of a van and say yippee, I’m in England. They are exhausted, often ill and unprepared for the suspicion they experience.”

As they navigate the system, their credibility is challenged time and again. And the threat of deportation is always there. Last year, only about half the children under 17 who asked for refugee status received it. The rest were given some form of temporary leave to remain or had their application rejected, leaving them facing a forced return to their country of origin.

“You may feel safe to stay once you get asylum, but these young people are expected to live with a level of uncertainty that at their age they can’t manage. It’s very hard for them,” Sheila says.

Not only do they children feel isolated and helpless; they are often consumed by guilt and shame about why they left home in the first place and what’s happened to them on their journey. The effects include depression and other forms of mental illness. To help, Baobab offers psychotherapy and therapeutic activities like music making, arts-based workshops, social outings and philosophy discussions – “is it ever right to kill someone?” is a question they are especially keen to debate.

Sheila thinks of Baobab and its base just off a busy road in Holloway as a community, not a clinic. “That’s very important for people who have been forced to leave their own communities,” she says. “One of our aims is for them to find ways of living in a community again.”

When we met, Baobab was helping about 120 people, of whom 60 or so were regularly involved in weekly activities. Most of them were teenagers. The youngest was just six years old.

Working with these brave children is completely absorbing, Sheila says. “You learn so much about survival and resilience. Every day I hear about extraordinary ways that people survive.”

Today, these children are on the margins of British society, trying to get by on £36.95 a week, hoping they won’t get kicked out and sent “home”. But Sheila has high hopes for their future. “Our aim is that they will find a place in the wider community and contribute to this country,” she says. “And I believe that given the right support, they will.”

And it’s worth noting, Baobab gets not a penny of government funding.

 

“I became part of his story”

IMG_7485The guy in the photo above is Mohammed Mamdani. He runs a community food bank on the St Raphael’s Estate in Brent, North West London. It’s called Sufra, a Persian word. The literal definition is of a tablecloth or rug – one you spread on the ground when people eat together. But the word also connotes hospitality, generosity and shared humanity.

On the day I visited Sufra, Mohammed had spent the morning helping a man called Steve. Steve has a good work history and decent qualifications. But he also has mental health problems. When he was discharged from a care unit, he had nowhere to go, so ended up living under a nearby road bridge. He turned up at Sufra looking for a meal.

This is why a group of Muslim charities founded Sufra in 2013: to give free food to people like Steve; people in desperate need. Last year its food parcels helped 3,858 hungry Londoners – double the year before. They included 827 children aged under 18 and 200 younger than five.

Most of the people Sufra helps are going hungry because they’re waiting to get statutory benefits (35%) or their benefits have been disrupted (25%), usually because of a sanction. One in every six recipients is a family that is in work but not earning enough to eat.

“The people who come here have literally got nowhere else to go,” says Mohammed. “They have fallen through the cracks in the system.” Sufra gives them enough food and basic supplies for up to seven days. The size of the pack they get depends on the size of their household. For about two-thirds of the people who come for help, that one parcel is enough. They don’t ask again. They don’t become dependent on charity handouts.

If you can’t feed yourself and your family, that’s often just a symptom of a deeper social failure, says Mohammed. “It would be naive of us to think we can just give someone food and close the door on them. Our aim is to deal with the short, medium and long-term causes of deprivation. The food bank is a mechanism to engage with the most vulnerable. But it’s also a way to regenerate the local community.”

So Sufra teaches people to cook, provides free advice on housing, employment and financial issues. It helps people start their own businesses. It finds creative ways for them to buy cheap food, to grow their own produce, to access preventative health care.

I meet a lot of business people who like to talk about “innovation” and “entrepreneurialism”. But it’s often just talk. They’ve got nothing on Mohammed. “Because we are small, we can experiment and try new ideas,” he says. “We can do things really cheaply. We are a lot more agile than some larger charities. I don’t have to jump through 100 hoops to get something done.”

Sufra is sometimes called a Muslim food bank, but it’s not a label Mohammed uses. Generosity, kindness, humanity – this is his religion. “I meet so many different characters. And I meet these people face to face,” he says. “I see their problems. The homeless guy, Steve. I spoke to him, I learned his story, so I became part of his story. His suffering is now my duty. I don’t have any other reason to live, apart from this work.”

I met Mohammed as part of my work with The London Community Foundation, where I’m writer in residence. It was an honour.

Map of the estate
Map of the estate
Doesn't look like much. But incredible things happen in this building
Doesn’t look like much. But incredible things happen in this building

“People can come together and make things happen”

[A story of mine for The London Community Foundation]

The closure of their local library shocked the St James Street community. But out of the ashes they are building something incredible…

In April 1997 Alison Griffin, three-months pregnant and with a toddler in tow, took a two-week holiday in Libya. When she got home, she went straight to the local library, five doors along from her house on St James Street, Walthamstow, to return her borrowed guidebooks. A sign on the door said the library was closed. Permanently.

“I felt disbelief, and anger,” she says now. “How can you just take that public facility away? We hadn’t only lost the library, we’d lost our community space.”

Other local people felt the same way: Alison’s lounge quickly became the headquarters of a campaign to get the library reopened. But Waltham Forest council wouldn’t budge. In 2010 it decided to sell the building to a property developer.

Yet all was not lost. A sympathetic local councillor – Clare Coghill – negotiated an eleventh-hour chance for the campaign group to find a viable community use for the building. A contact suggested they apply to Nesta for funding under its Neighbourhood Challenge scheme.

“I filled in the Nesta forms as best as I could, in the hope that if we got on the shortlist, we could at least delay the sale of the building,” says Alison. “But that was all I could realistically hope for.” Much to her surprise, the application was successful. Nesta promised the group £150,000.

Surreal start

So it was that in April 2011, four years after she returned from holiday to find the library closed, Alison and others from the campaign team were standing on its doorstep, holding a Tupperware box full of keys.

“It was an eyesore,” she says. “A boarded-up, sorry building. The roof was leaking, there was water seeping everywhere, the boiler had long since gone. But it was very nice to get in, very exciting. If a bit surreal.”

Through the spring and into the summer local people worked to refurbish the building and get it open. Along the way, they constituted themselves as a charitable body, The Mill, with Alison as the first chair of trustees.

“None of us had done anything like this in our lives before,” says Mo Gallaccio, arts coordinator at The Mill. “We were constantly making it up on the spot. Problems would crop up, we’d have a bit of debate, and get on with it.”

Opening day in September 2011 was complete chaos, says Alison. “It was amazing, exciting, with a lot of people involved – but I think we were all pretty much exhausted by that point as well.”

Making stuff happen

The Mill’s purpose today is the same as it was when it first opened: to be a place where “people can come together and make things happen.” It has a children’s room full of books and toys; a large open space where people can meet; two smaller rooms for events and workshops; upstairs office space that provides some rental income; and a small honesty library – a touching and well-used nod to the building’s history.

Anyone can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat with friends or with the volunteers who are always on hand. There are events and classes in everything from yoga to baby massage, from gardening to chess. Most of these sessions are organised and led by local people themselves.

“The good thing about the Mill is it is so bottom up,” says Mo. “It’s not about us telling people what to do, it’s the community – everything that happens is because of people coming in with ideas.”

Growing ideas

Indeed, The Mill acts as a kind of incubator for micro-businesses. It makes small grants – often just £50 – so people can try things out on a small scale. One group of elderly residents formed Waltham Forest Community Radio, to celebrate and archive the lives and experiences of older people in the community. Another created the Asian Women’s Support Group.

The radio station secured funding under The Mill’s “Older People’s Pop Ups” scheme, which encouraged people to offer activities for older residents. The women’s group came from the “Grow Your Idea” scheme, which backed ideas that could connect people, help them to share their skills and experience, and build their self-confidence. Another project, “Mill Mentors”, recruited and trained volunteers who would then help local people set up groups and activities of their own.

“These schemes are an important part of our ethos,” says Alison. Dipping a toe into self-employment, trying to start something new, takes money, confidence and resources, she argues, even if you are doing it unpaid to start with. “If you can take away those barriers, people can try things.”

Some of the ideas piloted at The Mill have gone on to become very well established – the women’s group, for example. Others haven’t worked as well as everyone hoped. “But if you can experiment at low risk, people can learn from the experience.”

Bright future

Despite its early success, at the end of The Mill’s first year the outlook was darkening. The initial funding was about to run out. It wasn’t clear how long the centre could stay open, or whether it would have to slash the services on offer. “It looked like it was going to be extremely difficult,” says Alison.

The Mill turned to The London Community Foundation for help. It applied successfully for a small grant that provided enough money to employ an admin officer for a year. “That grant from The Foundation was essential. It gave us the time we needed to find more income,” says Alison.

The part-time admin officer has since become a full-time centre manager, with an assistant working under her. They make sure The Mill’s office tenants are properly looked after, and keep the centre running smoothly.

Looking to the future, there are plans to create more office space for rental income and to build a kitchen. Then people would be able to eat together, teach each other to cook, and experiment with pop-up restaurants. That could create new business ventures, while giving people skills to combat food poverty.

Many of the people who’ve benefited from The Mill are coping with big structural problems, like social isolation, discrimination, and poverty. “But as a small community project, maybe we can take the edge off that?” says Alison. “People have got somewhere to come now, somewhere friendly where they know people – where they are more likely to ask for help, if they need it. As a community, we are a lot more empowered.”

Alison

How a simple ‘what if?’ question is helping Hackney kids do better in school

[A story I wrote for The London Community Foundation…]

Lots of great ideas start with a simple “what if…?” question. For Catriona Maclay, the moment came when she was talking with friends over dinner.

As a secondary school teacher in North London, she’d noticed how easily young people could fall behind in their studies. Catriona asked herself: what if you put those children in a learning space like nothing they’d ever experienced, gave them a fun, real-world project to work on, gave them lots of support from community volunteers – could you turn their lives around?

To try and answer that question, Catriona created Hackney Pirates, a charity that develops the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney.

After four years of hard work, fundraising, and life-changing success, the project now has a home of its own – a magical shop, café and learning space in Dalston, aptly called the Ship of Adventures.

Local young people aged 9–12 — known as pirates —   are referred to the project by their school or social services.  A typical visit will see each young pirate paired with a volunteer who will spend 45 minutes helping them with homework or reading books from the ship’s library. They then work together on the pirate’s creative project, which changes each term.

One project involved the pirates in making a CD of motivational speeches. They read a range of speeches, got a feel for how they were written and how they were best performed, and then wrote, performed and recorded speeches of their own.

Making a CD or creating a book is “really important because the children work towards real-world consequences,” says Catriona. “We noticed that a tangible objective is really motivating and exciting for young people.”

It’s a year since Hackney Pirates moved into the Ship of Adventures, a step that has been “completely game changing”, says Catriona. “When we were moving all the time, we were never able to completely focus on growing our social impact. Now we have stability, we are able to focus in a positive way, working with more children and allowing us to double the size of our learning programme.

“We now have shop where we can sell the young people’s work, underlining those ‘real-world consequences’. They now get to see their work, published on shelves every time they walk in here. It’s also our face to the world and a step towards putting our mission of learning adventures on the high street and promoting that anyone can come be a part of it.”

Hackney Pirates have benefitted from two rounds of funding provided by Dalston Bridge, a fund managed by The London Community Foundation. This helped to finance workshops for the pirates in their school holidays and paid for iPads they use for their creative projects and homework. It also funded some of the inspiring staff who’ve enabled the project to grow, to work with more children, and to make the most of its new home.

Impact studies show that 96% of the pirates’ teachers say children involved in the project show improved confidence, with 78% seeing better engagement with writing and attitude to learning. As for the pirates, 94% of them say coming to the project helps them at school.

The vision is for Hackney Pirates to become a community hub for learning, recognised as a place on the high street that has resources and volunteers to support young people, teachers and families — a kind of halfway house between schools and communities.

“Schools in Hackney are fantastic and we’ve seen incredible improvement over the years. We are not trying to replace school, but supplement it,” says Catriona. “We do the bit that schools are less able to do, and that’s give personalised attention to those who need it most, whether that’s because they’re statemented or there is some kind of intervention going on at school. We help with the building of confidence, perseverance and positive attitude to learning.”