Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Leaving St Helens YMCA in 1975 to live and work at The Mayflower, Canning Town, London E16

I remember well leaving St Helens YMCA with tears in our eyes. 

The YMCA family had taken us warmly into their lives. 
I was leaving my principle work at the YMCA working with/loving the 87 residents in the Hostel - so much need.
Also leaving behind the programme rolling with bands/gigs and a Saturday night weekly ‘Fish Rapper’ full of live music poems personalities and passion.
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). 
Also 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.

Mayflower Youth Work Canning Town London E16.
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.) 
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 colourful mind stretching 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 written recording of my evenings in the club & other Youth Work. 
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 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, 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.

An extract from my first published book 'Gutter Feelings’.