A couple of weeks go, I was left feeling very low. I’d just finished a course about sustainable living and it had left me thinking I’ll have to make some radical changes to my life, such as not buying new things straight away when the old ones start to wear out. I will have to learn new skills like darning my socks or replacing the loo seat without smashing the bowl. I felt the clenching knots in the pit of my stomach. How could I do this? If there’s one thing the thought of which makes me sick, it’s DIY.
Then a week later, my spirits started to lift. I was at my first workshop for avpbritain as an apprentice facilitator. The first session, the whole weekend, in fact, was about a group of 19 of us building community, whatever that means. I might not be so good at changing a washer on a tap or putting new fuse wire around a blown fuse but, it seemed, I was good at offering and making cups of tea and coffee when people arrived. I just took this for granted but was it a skill?
The workshop was a very positive experience for me but it still left me with an overriding foreboding, a feeling of failure. Whatever lies ahead of us in trying to create a more sustainable future on this tiny blue marble of a planet, it will take more than me throwing my hands up in the air. I hear of some groups working towards living more within our means but, for most of us, me included, it’s business as usual and somebody else’s problem. Except it isn’t. Aren’t people just worried about how to get by at the moment? Christmas is just around the corner and, while this should be a happy time for friends and families to get together, you can’t help but wonder how we will all pay for it. How much will it cost this year? How much will I owe? I heard on the Good Lives course that the fourth Sunday before Christmas is known in the retail trade as ‘Black Sunday’, not because it is bleak, far from it, but because it puts many shops back in the black and helps keep them there for the rest of the year.
Then, my spirits lifted a little more and I wasn’t even doing anything, save worry about the world and how much Christmas was going to cost me. ‘Why me?’, I moaned. Unbeknownst to me, one of my workmates had written something to go in our Spring brochure. She said she’d began writing about holding ‘Topical Lunches’ and ‘Sustainable Living residentials’. ‘It just all came out one morning I woke early’. I’d ran something myself called ‘Eco-psychology’ and before that something on Peak Oil. Was the wheel turning?
Then, at our last team meeting, the three of us in our team agreed to pool our resources to organise an event in the summer. We hoped this will bring together lots of people interested in this area to find out who is doing what in Liverpool and share our stories over a hot cup of tea or coffee and some very nice biscuits. Next, see where it leads…before I know it, she is contacting Incredible Edible Todmorden to see if someone would be willing to give a talk. At the same time, we are looking at how we can raise more funding to support these developments. So, if you know of anyone with money, tell them to get in touch!
And then, the other evening, I attended a wonderful event, organised by the Kenyan Community Association (KCA) to celebrate 49 years of Kenyan independence. The theme for the afternoon was ‘Health and Wellbeing’, so eating my apple, banana and tangerine, cut up into small pieces, for lunch seemed entirely fitting. I made some interesting, new contacts. Karen, for instance, who works for a large housing association, was very concerned about the impact the introduction of online payments will have this coming April. She was looking for educational providers such as WEA to help with IT support. I remembered one of her colleagues. Last time I’d spoken with her, she’d been looking at how she might brighten up and help cultivate the ‘dead’ space, made by installing security gates at the ends of the alleyways. One thing led to another and Karen told me of a community garden scheme in Liverpool 8 with multiple partners, already involved with growing more food in gardens and open spaces. Then, Sonia joined us. She was an unemployed graduate, gaining experience while volunteering for a local social enterprise training organisation. ‘Who are you and what do you do?’, she asked me. That’s young people for you. I had seen her earlier, engrossed in her social media pages. Guess what, she came from Todmorden and told me a funny story about rummaging one day outside the local police station for the best sweetcorn cob. I can’t possibly tell you the ending.
And I met Ben who runs a Community Interest Company, recycling computers, teaching people the skills they need to rebuild them. He spoke of the needless waste of throwing away mobile phones and computers. ‘Where do the raw materials come from? How do we get them out of the earth? And what happens to the people living there?’, he asked. He is also a leader of a local charity which helps people overcome feelings of hopelessness and isolation. I showed him my retro Nokia. It did phone calls and texts, nothing more. ‘I am still becoming addicted to social media’, I told him. ‘I have to find a better balance, doing things which interest me.’ We were making full eye contact as we spoke. Both of us agreed that face to face conversation was needed now as much as ever. Were younger people less able to talk in this way, we wondered, given the amount of time they seemed to spend on multimedia gadgets?
His company is based in Walton. ‘Oh, I know Walton. I was born in Walton hospital…and Everton football club, where my heart lies… He had lived and studied ‘A’-level law in Bootle, he told me. Bootle! My shoulders sank. I grew up in Bootle and had heard stories of many black people, facing hostility and prejudice, moving quickly away again. He must have read my face. ‘It was a very happy time for me. I made many friends and had good neighbours. I liked studying at the local college. The people were friendly. I only moved out when new people came in to the area, dealing drugs at all hours. It wasn’t good.’
It was an uplifting conversation for me and we spoke of hearts and hands and minds, collaborating in future. We exchanged contact details and I also gave him details of the woman from the Housing Association I’d met earlier.
I left the afternoon session, walking home through the parks as the sun went down. I enjoyed the fresh air and the stillness of the trees. I texted my ex-wife to see if the car I still share with her was available that evening. Yes, it was, meaning I could get back there unhurried after my tea (that’s dinner in Liverpool!) for the evening celebrations. And it meant I would be able to bring the PA system we’d loaned to them back with me rather than leave it there. During the evening, I met and talked with many people about our courses and answered as many questions as I could. I was enjoying the speeches. I learned about a sponsorship scheme in Kenya for young children to go to school. There isn’t any free schooling in Kenya. Two of the older men spoke about having an education because some unknown figure had sponsored them. This reminded me of passing the 11-plus and going to grammar school while most of the kids around me went to secondary modern. I had felt even then how unfair this was. While I wouldn’t want to deny any child a life chance like this, especially when there isn’t anything else on offer, my own experience of comprehensive education was fine. I had also wanted my own children to go to a comprehensive and they’re doing well. Better a good education for all than just for some of us is how I feel about it.
I watched as the man chairing the event made a B line towards me. I knew what he was going to say before he reached me. ‘Just a few words, on behalf of the WEA, please…’ in front of an invited audience of 80 plus people, including the Kenyan High Commissioner’s Representative, sitting right in front of me. No problem. I looked at my sleeve cuff. It was blank. I just had time to hand the camera to a couple sitting next to me, ‘Take a picture, please, for evidence.’
‘Amjambo!’ I said in Swahili. Welcome! How happy I am to be here.’ I had spent most of the evenng watching everyone mingle. There were four or five generations of Africans in the room. The children were talented, judging by their singing and their exhuberant, warm-hearted friendliness made me smile. They also were blessed with a love of writing, judging by the quantities of WEA pens, flying off the table. ‘I am happy to be here on behalf of the WEA North West Region’, I began. ‘We have organised several courses with KCA over the last few years and a good partnership is developing.’ I only had a couple of minutes…there was a noted storyteller from the Kenyan community sitting at one of the front tables. I spoke of the value of sharing our stories and learning together. I invited everyone to come and talk to me later, if they had any questions. ‘If you only do one thing before you go to bed this evening’, I always finish with this line, ‘tell someone a story. Or listen to one.’ And I was off to tumultuous acclaim (well, a polite, generous round of applause, let’s say).
Later on, a man came over and sat down by me. He was a dad, he told me. He had a sick daughter he cared for at home and he also had a diploma in animation. He would like to animate a number of Kenyan children’s stories. ‘Would this be possible?’ On the one hand, I was feeling increasingly excited by the prospect of animating these stories, as I listened to him. On the other, I felt a tinge of sadness. How strange life is. One of our tutors, an animator, an artist as well as a teacher, had died suddenly. Among my thoughts and feelings about this, one had been, well, that’s the end of all those wonderful animations she has made with her students. And then, along comes this man…we exchanged contact details.
A young boy came over, eyeing another butter mint. ‘How many have you had?’, I asked him. ‘Two’, he replied. ‘and how many can you have?’ ‘Two’, he said. ‘Then, that’s your lot!’ I said. He passed the sweet to his sister. ‘Do you understand Swahili?’, I asked him. ‘No’, he said, ‘it’s embarrassing…’. He had a lovely Liverpool accent. ‘Learning another language,’ I started, ‘is so important and Swahili could well be really valuable in the future. And you’re a young boy and Africa is…’, and then the raffle started…and he ran off to play.
I was starting to think about packing away. Would Enoch, the young man, who helped set the PA system up be on hand to help dissemble and carry it back to the car? Suddenly, another man sat down beside me. Like many parents here, he told me, he had put his children through university. Now, he was wondering about himself. He was thirsting to study but didn’t know where to start? So, very quickly, we discussed a number of options, including volunteering, part-time study and adult guidance interviews. I thought we’d finished and was watching another small hand make its way over the table towards the butter mints…’I come here tonight because I am Kenyan’, he said. I looked at him with curiosity. ‘There is a second Kenyan group in Liverpool which is the one that I belong to.’ I looked at him. ‘We keep apart but I am here because it is Kenya’s national birthday and I am Kenyan.’ ‘Bloody, hell’, I thought, recalling the news on TV a few years earlier of beatings and burning property and even worse. I realised at least one of the options I had given him seemed suddenly shut off. He went on, ‘I would like to see the day one day when I say I am Kenyan; I am not this and I am not that. I am Kenyan.’ I said without the faintist idea of how, ‘Maybe, we can help? We are a learning organisation, after all, which brings people together who want to learn, building community.’ There’s those words again, I thought. And again we made eye contact and smiled at one another, exchanging contact details.
Ask a Kenyan their name and they may say Mary or Francis or Elizabeth. Ask them their African name and you will get a completely different answer. As a friend of mine told me recently, ‘There’s what you learn at school and college, then there’s real learning.’ I felt like I was beginning to understand something proper good this night.
It took me only a few minutes to unload the PA gear and pack it away in the garage. Three friends of Enoch had brought it down for me in the lift and helped put it in the back of the car. Quietly, I put the seats back down in the car. Looking at the time, it was close to midnight but, instead of wanting to rush home, I felt a feeling of warmth flowing through my body. Closing the gate behind me, I set off to walk the few minutes home. It was dark but not cold. Not freezing, as it has been lately. Everything was calm and peaceful. My senses started to take in more of my surroundings. Suddenly, I looked up. The sky shone, lit up by the Great Bear, beaming down on me, my street and all the streets around me. It felt like a gift and it raised my spirits and gladdened my heart. I must write about this, I thought, trundling home….I wonder, what if…I thought…what if I ask Anne in the office to ask her husband, Billy, who is a builder, to show me how to change a washer without having to buy a new sink afterwards? And the lads could come along and learn too…and didn’t I grow up learning from my nan about repairing stuff and not throwing good money away on what we didn’t need. Saving for stuff till you could afford it, that sort of thing. I used to laugh at her. Then, we grew rich, richer, anyway, compared to how we had been and it became easier to borrow. Did I know something, something I’d forgotten that was worth passing on to my kids? Whatever next? I’ll be baking my own bread soon and planting vines. Even global warming has to have some advantages. This could even turn out to be fun. Now, I really was dreaming, wasn’t I?