Saturday, September 10, 2005

Gutter Feelings - my summary in two words about a slice of my Youth Work life.


It is the longest blog I have ever clicked to you from The Leaning Towers of Pip Wilson dot com.

It is an out-take from my first book 'Gutter Feelings' ........ it disturbs my comfortable ......

So take a seat and enter in ........... it is about when we travelled first to live in East London and work with Street Gangs there ..............

CHAPTER 3: Axe holes in the door

I remember well leaving St Helens YMCA with tears in our eyes. The YMCA family had taken us warmly into their lives. The granddads in the snooker room right next to our first floor flat loved our little girls, now aged one (Ann) and seven years old (Joy). The 200 pensioners in the lunch club responded generously to my rather loud humour and often repeated one-liner jokes. Now, in January 1975, following the removal van down the M1 in our blue caravanette, we were entering a new life for our family, and new kind of youth work.

I was struck first by the sheer ugliness of the club building. I would describe it now as non-shalom. (Shalom is a Hebrew word meaning peace, but also with implication of wholeness and completeness; I will discuss it again later.) Outside it looked like a square lump of concrete-no windows and steel-lined front doors. I know now why there were hammer and axe hole on the front door of the club. It was non-shalom.

Inside it was painted almost entirely in some horrible green gloss paint that had been donated to Mayflower. It gave me and, I am sure, the member a distinct intuitional feeling. This, coupled with the long Pentonville-type corridors, with solid locked doors on both sides gave me a trapped, oppressive feel. It was totally depressing. What sort of kids can come in here and enjoy it? What does this place do to kids? It was so disheartening and yet it challenged me to change it. (Eventually I had most of it painted matt black and bought a lorry load of green fluorescent tubes and colourful pop music and Christian posters.) It had been built for relief work in the 1930s, and on top of that it was really beaten up. Yet it was big-so big that it had two coffee bars, two gyms and a large outdoor football court, an air rifle range, snooker room and boxing room. There were numerous other activity rooms in various states of disorder including one full of four foot high blocks of Scalextrix car racing track. Another sported a new disco unit and sound system.

One of the few pieces of equipment that was available in the open club was a table-tennis table with a plank of wood nailed across it instead of a net. As two kids played - another walked across ‘the net’.

I make recording of my evenings in the club. I can look back now at my notes from my very first night in the club:

Some friendly contact and interest in my arrival, some busy and interested in football outside, plus snooker, table-tennis. Some silly, bored kids messing about-boys barricaded themselves in the beat-up room and then smashed down the panelled walls to get out. Others jumped over canteen trying to nick sweets and money. Remember a few names. Ro’ a black kid, Maria and Carol (bangaged arm), Jim, Skunkie. . . little kids running. Several groups around – girls standing!
Building far too rambling and terrible to supervise-leaders just policing. Activities severely limited.
Conclusion – No one focal point. No warmth of atmosphere – although some team members have good relationship with kids. Great for positive activity and discipline boundaries.
Decisions – redesign toilets, block main corridor, move all refreshments to coffee bar – ONE FOCAL POINT, develop office. . . .

I notice in my second evenings recordings that ‘Carol’s arm is now unbandaged’ . That sort of detailed observation is important in youth work. The recording of it helps to concrete it in the mind alongside many other personal detail relevant to them. Even now, ten years later, I can remember that Carol, now a local mum with two kids, once had a injured arm. It makes me smile to think of approaching her ten years later and asking if her arm is better! But the point is that the first duty of love is to listen. Listen to your eyes.

There was much love practised at this level of youth work – but what did the kids do in club? For a start, try to imagine holding back up to a hundred kids who want to get in quickly, mostly without paying their 5p. ‘Steaming the door’ meant a lot to most youth workers at Mayflower over the years. First interactions were always hostile, and conflict had to be used as a starting point for relationship. We started the evening with at least three of the biggest male team members manning the door. I still have the ‘reception sheets’ for those early days and the first dozen name who came in were always the biggest and toughest. Now in their late twenties, most of them are professional criminals in or out of prison.

A typical evening might be like this. The oldest and toughest, the eighteen and nineteen-year-olds, took their choice of football pitch. In good weather it would be the outside yard, otherwise they opted for the cage gym, a converted theatre only useful for mad games. The slightly younger toughest opted for the top gym and football there. The youngest males, aged fourteen and fifteen, headed for the beat-up room, which was equipped with ropes and cushions from old settees, and let go their energy and aggression by beating each other up. Youth workers often joined in and it was a great place for making contact (and collecting a bloody nose!). The table-tennis table as , and a large snooker table with slashed cloth satisfied some. Mostly they came, I think, to enjoy and meet with others, get rid of energy and bait the middleclass workers!

Amongst all this - some workers had developed wholesome relationships with some kids. Little groups of kids cam in to do various activities and discovered real love from people who came from very different cultural backgrounds.

My second night in club was my big showdown and I had to be rescued by John Bourne who had been acting leader before I came. Young fifteen-year-old Johnny had handed his knife in and at the end of the club he demanded it back. My reasonable suggestion of handing it back at the door on the way out was met by my first confrontation, and it shook me to the roots. Such power, will, determination, psychological dominance and aggression! In ten years full-time youth work I had never met such psychologically strong kids. There were many more such confrontations to be experienced.

As well as individuals in Club we also has gangs with names. In 1975 ‘The Snipers’ were a gang who dominated club. They were all seventeen to nineteen-year-old boy who were notorious in the community and much wider afield. They were pub and street fighters, football supporter of the violent kind, and Mayflower was their club.

There were many positives about them. They loved good times and had lots of ‘real characters’ among them with genuine humour. There was also a whole range of skills and trades represented. The real hard men, the expert ‘cat burglar’, the quick thief, the quiet handler of stolen goods – the gang could do anything. They were planners and sophisticated. They were also cocky cockneys!

Doug, on of my clleauges, tells of one of his first experiences of taking The Snipers out in the minibus on an ice-skating trip. Approaching the car park and the single arm barrier, Jimmy said, ‘hang on’, jumped out the bus and broke off the barrier like a matchstick.

One member wrote this poem, which will give an idea of the image they hoped to project:

The Snipers Poem

Oh, to be Sniper,
To be feared foar and wied,
To be on the dole for all my life,
To even go inside.

I’d walk around Canning Town,
Right stroppy like you’ll know,
I’d never smile or be kind,
Cos roughness and niceness don’t go.

I’d scare the shit out of everyone,
I’d make them really spit,
I would be the top man,
I really would be it.

We have got no leaders,
What would we do with one,
If anyone tried to rule us,
We’d get him with a gun.

The Snipers are the bravest,
The Snipers are the greatest,
If you mess around,
Then they really put you underground.

I don’t want you to think I am exaggerating or confused due to a ten year time lag. I’ve always recorded on paper the activities, incidents and people and these help me to give and authentic account now. One particular evening, I went home later after club and spoke into a tape recorder. The purpose was to give the Christian Publicity Organisation an idea of our situation at Mayflower, as they were producing material for us. But I started off by telling them of that particular evening’s club. . .

I have just got in from club, and just to put you in the atmosphere tonight, we had all members come in, and a big gang from the club called ‘The Snipers’, and every one of them was armed. Some had hammers, some haad breadknives, and one had a bayonet, one and axe; other had all sorts of ‘tools’ as they call them. They came into club, paid their subs. I was on the door and didn’t see one of them with a tool, and yet when they were inside they were brandishing them, flick-knives and breadknives. . . They stayed for an hour, and then they went down to a local fun fair to ‘fight the blacks’. It isn’t unusual, of course, to have this sort of trouble; we have run trips to football matches and people have got stabbed, and we’ve had fights in the club, and three weeks ago someone faintly resembling a ‘Paki’ got beat up just outside the entrance. And all these are members. Not that I’m bragging about it – because I am ashamed. But it is people who are real, real members, real Canning Town kids-and we work with them.

It is absolutely horrible to work with them, love them,and yet see the sorts of things they do. We work with them all the time, and it makes you so sad.

The last time we were open before tonight was Friday. They were talking about how the night before they had jumped on a little Pakistan boy at the same fun fair. Only little, nothing to fight against really, and yet they jumped up and down on him, on his face, so that blood spurted out.

What we have to offer in club, the game and facilities, cannot compete with the thrill and kicks they get out of the violence with makes us feel repulsed, and yest to them is the really exiting thing in life.

When all the lads went out we decided as leaders to do something that we had never done before - because it was such a dangerous situation . We phoned the ‘Old Bill’ (the police, that is) anonymously, and told them that there was a big gang, armed up to their eye-balls, on their way to the fun fair. The ‘blacks’ did not turn up and the Old Bill actually nicked one of the lads for carrying a breadknife. All the rest of them came back having got rid of their energies in a way, just the tension of doing that sort of thing. They enjoyed it.

One of our other members got stabbed during the evening, in the arm, but we don’t know the whole story.

I am telling you this really so that it will fill you in with what is happening night after night, and facing this tension night after night by going to clubs in my relationship with; others you do not. And if they carry a knife it is very difficult to lovingly discipline them, and still keep a relationship. I hope you will pray with us in this. It is such a burden.

Just tonight I was talking to on of the girls. She and her boyfriend are both regular members, but he was picked up a week ago in an armed robbery (he’s only seventeen), and I was telling her how I had written to Billy and sent him some comic strip booklets. She said she thought they were good. When we sent them to Borstal, everyone reads them, not just one lad.

Late on , when the lads came back form the fairground battles, they were picking up literature.
One, called Shortly (whose probation offices is a Christian) was reading Run Baby, Run and he was very interested; I told him that it was a true story. One of the other lads said he’d seen the film. When we turned the lights off at the end of the club, one of the lads swore and ran to the bar where there were lights so that he could carry on reading – and this is what happens with something that is readable.

The first year and more was full of incidents like the one just described in the club.

From my side there was physical change in club, more direct Christian input from films, visiting speakers, Christian posters, comics etc. These regular inputs were supplemented by irregular special evangelistic efforts. Alongside this was a whole social education of films, discussion and, of course, stretching physical activities. There was lots of interaction between all of us with attendances running up to 100 each night.

The lads were difficult to communicate with, They knew little about Christianity and tended to treat Christians with coolness and suspicion. But one of the most effective ways we found of stimulating and challenging the kids, and communicating the gospel to them, was the ‘ Ten o’clock Newz’. This was something established at the ‘Y’ Club, in St Helens, to provide some Christian thought-provoking stimulus to the kids, and we introduced it to Mayflower.

Ten o’clock Newz was held at 9.50 pm in Senior Club. All machines: pin-ball, video, juke box etc. were turned off and lights dimmed. Kids were encouraged to come in to the Coffee Bar, and most did, rather than continue table tennis and other sports or go home.

The speaker stood in a central raised position and spotlighted, using the microphone to communicate. The message had to have real impact and relevance to the kids’ lives if they were to listen. We told our speakers to keep it very short- unless the kids were obviously gripped.

Response was sometimes shouts and abuse from a minority or sometimes comments from the floor, which could be used to build on the message.

We have had some incredible times at Ten o’clock Newz-and, of course, many disasters. The kids, generally speaking, love it. ‘What’ on News tonight, Pip?’ they would say towards the end of the evening and a good discussion would often result from just that. Sometimes a theme would run for weeks and the kids would continue the debate in every corner of the club. Jesus must be news to our kids. Good News too.

One particularly effective method of helping young people to know where they are in relationship to God is the Football Pitch’.

Hanging on the Mayflower club wall is half a table-tennis table painted white with this diagram drawn on it. The question is: Where are you on the pitch? Where are you in relationship to God?

- are you on the terraces, just a spectator?
- are you in the changing rooms getting ready for action?
- are you perhaps even closer to God, on the reserve bench?
- or are you a Christian, on the pitch- where the action is?

Others may place themselves in the showers -cooling off from the action of being a Christian. Some youth workers have placed themselves here -feeling tired, battered, soiled and needing refreshment before returning to the pitch.

In the club, during Ten o’clock Newz this pitch has been used to get kids to think and publicity declare where they are. I always remember Ingrid, one of our beautiful black girls, walking from the disco area across the social area to place herself on the terraces. Others have said, ‘I’m in the pub on the corner of the next street!’ or, ‘I’m on the terraces with my back to the pitch!’ (That says a lot, doesn’t it?) Bones, an eighteen-year-old boy, placed himself on the terraces, but a week later in the midst of a chat pointed out that he had moved to the changing rooms - getting ready!

This device is used a lot in the youth club to make it easier to talk about Christian things. Kids easily respond or bring up the subject without any feeling of threat. Among Christians it is also a very useful device for cultivating spiritual self- disclosure. Often in our full- times’ daily ‘Feelings Meeting’ (a share and prayer time together) we ask, ‘Where are you on the pitch at the moment?’ ‘I’m on the pitch- the touch line, but no one is passing me the ball,’ said a keen Christian. What does that say? Here are other responses I’ve heard during the years:

‘I’m on the pitch, but lying on a stretcher.’

‘I’m on the pitch, but with shins bleeding, playing defence all the time.’
‘I’m scoring goals!’
‘Mid- field distributing the ball and keeping abreast of the game.’

‘I’m dirty, knackered, sweaty- but ‘I’m on the pitch.’

In the Rolling Magazine Fun Tent that I head up at Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival every year, ‘The Pitch’ is used effectively to cultivate sharing in small groups as well as to challenge the know Christian celebrities and artistes.

In the club, nasty incidents continued to happen. A worker had his hair set on fire, a radiator was pulled from the wall and the club flooded while a chair was set on fire at the same time. The kids physically harassed workers and I had to develop new skills of responding physically too, but in a non- threatening manner. Sometimes in the early days when I was being verbally abused I used to give the boy a sharp kick in the shins and smile. It was usually unseen by his mates and yet it was felt by the offending young man with positive results. I would be criticised by many for this sort of action and I wouldn’t do it now, but it did get results and respect in those early days of ‘Who’s that fat slob with the funny voice?’

This links with what I now call ‘Get lost theology’. Let me illustrate. During 1984 we had a great deal of disruption and physical attacks from a gang called ‘the Smithys’. They had ‘steamed’ the club, swinging iron bars and broken cues, attacking kids and youth workers. Some time later they turned up when Margaret and Deb were on the door. ‘Can I nip upstairs and get a light for my fag?’ said one infamous member of the gang who was currently charged with burglary and arson- burning down a local corner shop. ‘Get lost!’ said Deb, ‘I’ll get one for you.’ Three years before that, she would have let him in, with the whole gang, and it would have been goodbye quiet evening. The ‘Get lost theology’ is basically being wise enough not to get conned.

Patrick Butler, one of our long-term workers, who has now left us for a professional Youth and Community Work training, speaks of his most memorable lesson which happened early during his Mayflower time.

Oddball, Murph, Pete, Micky and a few others chatting were with me by the coffee bar. Murph pulled me aside and whispered something in my ear. ‘Ask Micky how his mum dances.’ I was reluctant, feeling very unsure of my ground, but not wanting to appear a spoilsport. His persistence soon won over my uncertainty and I asked Micky how his mum danced. A deathly hush fell amongst the group and Micky grabbed me and thrust’, me against the wall. I heard murmurs of ‘the bastard!’, and ‘fancy asking him that’. Micky, with a first held close to my face warned me colourfully and in no uncertain terms what would happen to me if I ever said anything like that again, and it was only confused that Murph explained that Micky’s mum was in a wheelchair and hadn’t got any legs!

It was just a ‘wind- up’, as it is known in Canning Town. His Mum had legs and it was just part of the aggressive fun!

A teenager approaches me in club and says, ‘Pip, I want to become a Christian.’ ‘Get lost,’ I say. That has happened so often. That question, the most incredible, exciting question a person can ask, and yet I say ‘get lost’. The reason is that you become culturally aware, and therefore understand what they are really saying, gaining respect in the process. Otherwise you are written off as a ‘wally’, as Patrick described in another incident.

One evening I got talking to Kev and a few of his mates. Kev told me he was unemployed and we talked for a long time about how he felt about not being able to get a job. He described his frustrations, staying in bed until lunch- time, having no money. My heart went out to him. I therefore felt humiliated when later I discovered that Kev in fact did have a job and that our whole conversation had just been a joke.

Another wind-up!

‘Get lost theology’ means loving kids so much that you learn how to communicate within their culture. When someone really asks how you become a Christian, ‘Get lost’ is never the reply!

This ‘Get lost theology’ can also be reversed and the kids themselves develop a ‘rubbish philosophy’. I can remember someone fifteen years ago coming up to me after a Ten o’clock Newz at the ‘y’ Club and saying ‘That what you said was a load of rubbish.’ What he was really saying was, ’Tell me more about Jesus.’ It was a question! An aggressive approach that was followed by an earnest conversation about Jesus. That night the young man believed that Jesus followed him home as he walked the dark streets. Some days later he committed his life to his Creator as we sat at the club coffee bar together. That same ‘Rubbish’ approach has been made to e much more recently at the Mayflower too.

During 1984 we had a particularly difficult boy who came into club on his own, but attached himself to the most troublesome gang at that time. He was about sixteen, well-built and very well dressed, like all of the kids. His particular behaviour was not only being abusive, throwing chips, bashing equipment etc., but also deliberately approaching leaders and challenging them to physical confrontation. He used to approach Patrick, who himself is young and physically fit, and push him and kick him to force some reaction from him. Often I had to have eyes in the back of my head to be able to intervene and place my older, less muscular, and less threatening frame between them. He would never disclose his name to us. He signed in as Donald Duck or the current most popular West Ham player, so when we talked about him in the de- brief meetings after club we used to call him ‘£98 Jumper’. That was because the only disclosure he had made about himself was that his sweater had cost him £98.

One disco night he was being particularly obnoxious and, praying the club through- as you have to do for safety and sanity- I spied my chance. I was pushing my way through the crush near the coffee bar and £98 Jumper was perched on a stool. As I passed I gently punched him in the testicles, paused briefly, smiled and walked on. It hurt him, I could tell. He said nothing then, but later on the next evening he was in, and he took trouble to chat with me. It was a stand-up chat giving him the chance to discontinue the conversation at his will, yet he disclosed much of his life that night, about his school experiences, home, friends, clothes, in fact it was a breakthrough. I had made contact with him. Physical contact that demanded to be noticed. This was surrounded by love, warmth, smiles and appropriately shown willingness to talk.

You don’t handle everyone in that way, in fact, that was unusual. Sometimes you let things go because there are more important priorities. In that first year, in 1975, I wrote in my Youth Report: ‘As I walked past a corridor in club last week two teenage boys were fighting with knives and I just walked on by. It was a friendly fight. A few seconds later I paused, “What am I doing?” Here am I getting conditioned into the ways I know to be wrong….’

Atypical response form people who hear about these sort of incident would be, ‘Does the club create these sort of incident and thereby these sort of young people?’

....... I will end here, there is more in Ch;3 and remember .......... sometimes you cannot handle two young men fighting with knives because there are greater priorities ............ that was real folks .. ..... ...... and remember this book was 'out of print' (see link to updated new edition below) - published 20 years ago and I am a very different human now - but all this was real then ............

.... I must read the book again .....

Updated version - much more in than the original 1985 version.