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Volunteering with Caring at Christmas 3: Supervisory responsibility and learning more about homelessness

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Caring at Christmas is a homeless shelter in Bristol, which provides people with warmth and safe accommodation over the Christmas period. My first experience of volunteering in 2011 left me let’s say, philosophical, about homelessness in the city and my contribution towards relieving it. After returning for a second time in 2012 I felt more optimistic. So what did my third year volunteering at the project yield? – an opportunity for growth. This year as well as being a general volunteer and gaining experience in different areas, I also undertook the responsibility of being a supervisor. It was an on-the job learning experience and at times I definitely felt my heart in my mouth. Despite this I left feeling like I had made a valuable contribution. So to keep up with tradition, here are a few thoughts on my third Caring at Christmas experience and why I value it so highly.

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Caring at Christmas

Providing approximately 50 beds for homeless people as well as around 300 hot meals a day for residents and other guests the shelter operates over the peak Christmas period providing for Bristol’s homeless as other support services are reduced for the Christmas holidays. In many cases this is the only time a guest will have access to the same bed for 7 consecutive nights and are guaranteed a safe place and a hot meal for this length of time (not to mention the all important Christmas Dinner!). In addition, snacks, cakes hot drinks and entertainment and services are provided such as arts and creative activities, first aid, live music, companionship, counseling, showers and laundry service, hairdressing, footcare and recreational opportunities such as DVDs, pool, table football, ping pong, board games and jigsaw puzzles as well as the provision of clothes, toiletries, sleeping bags, blankets and rucksacks. For the rest of the year the shelter is operated by the charity The Julian Trust who provide around 90 hot meals and 18 beds a night for 5 nights a week. Caring at Christmas also research and produce the survival handbook an annually printed resource and support services guide for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness in Bristol. Whilst having a core component of staff, approximately 700 volunteers support the charitable project and it’s funded by donations and contributions from a wide variety of sources including individuals, groups, schools, communities, companies and businesses. For me this year was slightly different as in addition to companionship and spending time with guests, I also gained experience and an insight into working the on staff door/donations, the kitchen, admin and working the night shift.

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Volunteering and on being a supervisor

Whilst I have previously been a general volunteer, to be in a position of responsibility and an identified person people sought in an emergency was a daunting prospect. There were always numerous volunteers on shift but the nature of the environment can occasionally be dynamic and this was in the forefront of my mind when I first applied. A supervisor assists the lead supervisor in maintaining the smooth running and safety of guests and volunteers at the shelter. This can be anything from answering queries, dealing with resource issues to assisting with first aid incidents, fire evacuation and managing conflict.

Whilst professionally, I’ve previously been responsible for managing small projects, assisting directly in an operational capacity and being responsible for people, particularly those who could be described as vulnerable (or in a vulnerable condition) was a new situation for me. The shelter is an environment which demands that you be reactive and whilst there are regular tasks to be performed on every shift, it can also be difficult to predict what sort of things will happen each time. For the most part, the only way to learn is to turn up each day and gain the experience. I was fortunate enough to be in a supervisory team of three serving alongside experienced staff so I was never made to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility and always felt supported. I also took part in the St John’s ambulance first aid course that was offered and undertook the shelter’s own supervisory training session. During my time volunteering I had to draw on things I learnt during both these sessions, but even so, it’s hard to be fully prepared for the first time someone faints on you!

It’s true to say it seemed there was less time to become absorbed in the individual stories and lives of the guests, less time for the fun or creative activities I’d become used to (although I did manage to squeeze in a few turns at monopoly and some clowning around at the ping pong table). Instead I began to gain an insight into what it takes to run a project, learn more about the experiences and expectations of the volunteers and begin to understand the resources, processes and vast numbers of people needed to make it all possible. Once again I was amazed at the generosity of so many donating time, abilities, money and resources to Caring at Christmas. It seemed that no matter whatever skills people had there was a way they could contribute, from local groups knitting clothes, to businesses and community organisations donating fresh produce, to individuals and groups contributing their annual secret santa presents or children sacrificing their months pocket money.

I also got the opportunity to witness how Caring at Christmas has grown and developed over the past few years and how it continues to evolve. The need to be reactive is necessary not just operationally (working and managing more efficiently) but also organisationally (maintaining sustainability) as particularly so in times of austerity when the risk to charities which rely on donations can be a significant one. Additionally harder times will often mean there are even more people who rely on those organisations which meet a social need or provide a social service. The issues of homelessness are not unique to our time, however, the ways in which these can be addressed are always developing. One of the best things about working in an environment with volunteers is that people participate to honour a cause they believe in, help others or develop specific skills and its exactly that motivation and passion which forges an environment where innovation can happen.

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Homelessness in Bristol – improving services and understanding need

As ever the experience of Caring at Christmas perhaps illustrated both the best and worst of the human spirit. The shelter provides a glimpse into the existence of homeless people in Bristol, but after 3 years of volunteering I realise that beyond the immediate provision of food and shelter there is a lot more to understand about the complex nature of homelessness and the associated social problems that can be both a cause or a consequence, as well as the varied pathways and means to solutions (presuming that a solution is desired at all as this is not always the case for each person).

Walking home from my shifts at Christmas, I discovered that there were others on the streets that chose not to stay or eat at the shelter, and I wondered why this was and how many others or ‘hidden homeless’ there were out there. Whilst the Christmas spirit may be a motivator for many people in making a contribution to the shelter and there is a pragmatic need for additional support services over the Christmas period, the reality is for many of the guests is that homelessness persists all year round.   So it follows that so does the need for support and services as well as the funds and volunteers to make them happen.

Hello 2015! From Caring at Christmas to Caring in Bristol

The face to face shelter environment can be an intense one and for me its always necessary to take a few days after the experience to reflect on how things went, the stories I heard, the decisions I made and what I could have improved upon. My supervisory experience amounted to just two shifts but it was enough to install within me the significance of the responsibility, which is the main thing I will take with me from this year. No matter what training you receive in many ways to succeed in a dynamic operational environment there is simply no other way to learn other than working as a team, relying on others to guide you and doing the best you can. Whilst the Caring at Christmas shelter has now closed, the good news is that this year, the journey doesn’t end on January 1st.  As Caring in Bristol (the shelter’s parent company) develops, there are further opportunities to get involved throughout the year, whether this is through fund and awareness raising, taking part in sponsored events, developing projects, skills and knowledge or gaining practical experience, all whilst working with a committed team and volunteers dedicated to making a positive difference and responding to homelessness as a community issue.

I’ll be continuing the journey by, amongst other things, jumping out of a plane.

Challenge on.

Caring at Christmas is a project by Caring in Bristol, a charitable company which delivers and develops vital support to homeless and vulnerable people all year round through effective, volunteer driven projects. Visit the Caring in Bristol website for more information and to find out how you can contribute.

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Mayfest: Nightwalk by Tom Bailey and Jez Riley

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Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers.

It takes a leap of faith to follow a stranger into Leigh Woods at night. Often we are told that the darkness of the woods is to be avoided. When walking in darkness, the mind might lead you to ghost-like imaginings. Perception can be heightened in the darkness, sounds seemed more vibrant, smells more potent.

The gift of Nightwalk was an opportunity to wander, listen and re-imagine.

Nightwalk is a woodland journey through space and time where layers of sound create and connect previously unseen worlds. A choir sing a psalm, children play, bridges are built, arctic bees buzz and glaciers melt. The environmental, social and industrial history of Leigh Woods is brought to life through audio and text. At one point you can hear the world turning. The darkness was enveloping yet comforting, and the spectre like apparitions spotted were those of the participants illuminated by the screen of an i-phone as we listened to the performance through headphones.

The lamplight serves to focus attention guiding the way, and at times highlighting small micro-moments of woodland life at others, illuminating a cathedral cavern of trees. Entering a clearing and looking up at the light from the night sky was beautiful and something that other cities can’t usually provide.

The historical and geographical elements of Nightwalk made it difficult not to draw parallels with contemporary times – the performance made me think of the crisis of global warming and also how communities respond to events. Having walked across the suspension bridge to get to Leigh Woods hearing it being built really gave my experience a new dimension and it was definitely a different walk on the way back.

I felt that there was sometimes a bit of tension between wanting to experience the sounds and the space and then reading the text on the iphone and having to balance looking up and out as well as down. However this also reminded me of this need in ‘everyday’ smart phone use in relation to really connecting with the outside or natural world.

The performance left me with an enhanced sense of place and interest to explore the history of Leigh Woods. It emphasised the value and importance of Bristol’s natural environment and gave a memorable reminder of our human impact on the landscape. The performance provided an opportunity to walk and explore Leigh Woods in a way I probably never would have had. Walking in this way definitely leaves you with a sense of being blessed to live in Bristol and being part of something greater.

Nightwalk  is part of Mayfest Bristol’s unique annual festival of contemporary theatre and is happening on the 17th, 18th and from the 21st to the 25th of May.

Theatre Reviewing and Theatre Bristol Writers

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For the past few months I have been one of a team of people reviewing theatre shows in Bristol as part of Theatre Bristol’s Writing in Residence project.

We recently had our first public meeting to talk about all things performance-related in the city.  There was some good discussion and debate.  I first became involved in theatre through watching work and writing about it. As with most things you often ask the question: Why bother? So here’s a bit more about what was discussed at the meeting, what theatre reviewing is and why I think it’s a good thing.

Why review?

Reviewers are writers. Writing starts from a place of personal passion –  this could be about the theatre work being made, writing itself and/or the city that it is situated in. Regardless of the approach of the writer, reviewing is a creative process.

Theatre reviews start and connect conversations and people- they can build bridges between audience, makers, theatre communities and venues.  They raise awareness and provide a written response to the work, acting as a source of feedback for artists, companies and makers as to how their shows have been received. All artists need feedback on their work, and reviews can extend the conversation beyond the performance – whether this is about the performance, the process behind it or the themes and issues of each particular show. Reviews via social media can create an open platform for debate and discussion about theatre to which anyone can contribute – from enthusiastic audience member to the professional performer. They can also serve to strengthen the existing theatre community.

Reviews have an afterlife providing a historical account of the performance as it was experienced. They can be read as a source of contextual information such as a reaction to the cultural or political issues/ideologies at the time revealing broader information about the show, how it was received and how it was programmed by the venue. They can also be used as an indicator when making decisions to program future work or used by makers for quotes about the show to promote to audiences.

Theatre reviews are also valuable to theatre practice and practioners as they can be helpful in determining where their work sits in the world and can help situate the work in the wider artistic landscape. They can inform the development of a piece of art/theatre and all responses may be complicit in the shaping and sculpting of new and existing work.

Another advantage is learning. Following an individual artist or companies work can provide shared knowledge on both sides as the work and the writing develop. Certainly for me critical writing is also a way for the writer to articulate their own response and thinking around a work. In-depth reviews or critical writing pieces can also serve to widen perspectives and open people up to new possibilities, whether that’s considering how things can be interpreted or encouraging and promoting more interest in theatre and theatre-going.

What is a review?

The traditional theatre reviews have been associated with a specific format and published in broadsheet newspapers. Social media means this format is changing, and it can often be down to the individual writer as to how they position their own writing… it could be – theatre criticism, critical writing, review, response, praise, feedback, judgment, reflection, assessment, analysis, entertainment, art –  even a tweet can be a review.

Ultimately, I think a review should be the start of a conversation between a range of different people about a piece of work. In the case of  specialist websites or professional publications, it’s also worth remembering that the type of review written will often be indicative of who it is being produced for i.e what type of publication, where it is published and the specific publication/commission requirements.  This also will have on an influence as to how it is received and its ‘reach’. Reviews can happen instantly via blogs and Twitter etc which is a format that can have greater influence with the general public and possibly be more accessible to non theatre going audiences or people outside of the theatre community.

Who is the reviewer?

There are several existing established theatre critics whose work have a national following and whose influence/review can impact on the future life of a show. However anyone can join the conversation as social media has given an open platform to anyone that wants to comment on or review work.  The established experts are now situated within a multiplicity of voices.

Ultimately a reviewer is someone who has responsibility for the feedback they give. They have the opportunity to be transparent, authentic, engaged and deliver critique or response that is considered, analytical, constructive and which acknowledges its own subjectivity as far as possible. The review is as much a reflection of the attitude of the writer as it is about the work being reviewed.

I really feel that there are equally many benefits to reading personal perspectives blogs or tweets from new writers/theatre goers, or hearing opinions of those from different backgrounds or with no knowledge of theatre as there are to receiving critique from an expert and experienced peers.  I think every response has value in it in different ways.

I’m learning all the time and as my own writing has developed I’ve obviously experienced some of the problems that inexperienced writers can encounter.  It’s all a learning process though.  If I was going to give advice to new writers, some good writing advice I heard recently that I think is worth sharing went something like this:  ‘It is essential to write in the way that you want and from your own perspective, whatever that is. Not to be afraid of your own experience and background as it will be valuable in informing your writing and how you see the world’.

So. That’s a bit of information about theatre reviewing, why it’s important and what’s been happening over at Theatre Bristol Writers. If you want to get involved you can join the facebook group.  Or contact tomw@theatrebristol.net

Culmination – a Mayfest journey from audience to stage and how to fall off a precipice

‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.  

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Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over.  At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly.  I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.

To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long.  Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.

These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.

However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?

I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:

Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.

I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space.  I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances  around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds  around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.

I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.

Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response.  It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.

A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals.  This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities.  For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?

You can’t stop the passion

Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate.  I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity  in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.

Changing direction and starting again

There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of  ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’  new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago.  Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.

Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.

The show

The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people.   Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.

I hope you can come to see it.

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‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s   ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com to reserve your seats.

The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.

On remembering and sharing – reminiscing with the older peoples group at Windmill Hill City Farm

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The Sharing Memories, Sharing Futures project

Windmill Hill City Farm is an independent community project situated half a mile south of Bristol city centre, which aims to meet the needs of local people through a wide range of social, environmental, educational, recreational and economic activities.

I’ve been working alongside community development and volunteer coordinator  Jules Allen and artist in residence Joe Nute to develop work with various local groups and local people and finding out about their personal stories for the shared memories, shared futures project. The first project topic is that of food.  It is intended to create an exhibition with illustrations, photos, stories and poetry. We spent some sessions with the Windmill Hill City Farm older people’s group  asking them about their memories of times past. As we began to discuss food, in the process, many other stories emerged, from work to play to the challenges faced day to day.

The benefits of reminiscing

Reminiscing is about reliving and sharing aspects of the past with others. Often our memories can be triggered by a song, smell, object or some other anchor which reminds of some aspect of our past experience.  Through reminiscence we can connect and relate to what’s gone before. It is not about cataloguing the past chronologically (such as you would on a CV) but about connecting with past experiences in an engaging and vivid way. This can help to foster self esteem, express individual identity, deliver a sense of achievement and self worth and provide perspective in relation to a life review.  In a group setting reminiscence can increase awareness of the uniqueness of individuals, highlight shared problems or concerns and increase a sense of belonging and acceptance.  Additionally sharing stories can help to increase understanding and widen perceptions of others experience and often encourage audiences to examine their own views with a realisation that we are all different and similarly, all see each other in different ways . Reminiscence is often used to help with dementia however in this case it was intended that we shared space, connected, had a nice time together and used the inspiration and stories to contribute to the arts project.

Lots of things were discussed but here is a mini – collection of accounts we heard from our group members.

Specific food memories:

  • ‘I loved corned beef stew – we never had any proper meat so we used to have corned beef stew – I liked it’
  • ‘No fruit, no bananas’
  • ‘I remember being in the shelter, eating a saucepan of stew with a wooden spoon and sitting on a plank of wood’
  • ‘My husband came from a family of nine – he used to eat a lot of offal’ (‘I guess you have to be quick with a family of nine’).
  • ‘In our day we only had two veg shops and you had to queue up. You took home whatever was there’
  • ‘I remember having to get up at 4am to go to the meat market so we could get some fat so we could cook chips’
  • ‘On VE day, the Americans would pass you in the street and pick you up and put you on the lorry… they were always chewing … they would always say ‘got any gum, chum?
  • ‘We used to do a lot more ourselves, keep chickens and have allotments for veg’
  • ‘I don’t remember ever learning to cook – I think it just came naturally’
  • “Bread and dripping it was very bad for us but oh so good……better than sex really!”
  • “Bath Chaps, they are pigs cheeks, oh so tasty, I would love to eat them again.”
  • “My nan used to take her chicken for a walk in the pram….I can see her now, the chicken with a bonnet on it”
  • “You would have a piece of wedding cake and a cup of tea, we couldn’t afford a buffet. We would sit round the piano and sing ‘Nelly D’ The men would have a beer, no beer for us”
  • “The cake was made up of one layer of cake at the top and the rest of the layers were made of cardboard with icing on it”
  • “My mother in law taught me how to cook, I grew up in an orphanage you see, no mam and dad, and I had no one to teach me. Chickens was a luxury, my mother in law would hang the chickens on the washing line so all the blood ran out. They showed me how to be a family, I had all the love from my husband’s family.”

Memories of work and leisure:

  • ‘I used to work with ammunition up at Avonmouth, testing the tins, the ammunition came in a tin like a petrol can, you used to have a big tank and you put the tin in and if it bubbled you knew there was a hole in it so you couldn’t use it. We did shift work and our days off we used to go to the Barclay tea dances on a Wednesday or to the cinema’
  • ‘I left school at 14 and I had several jobs, I worked with my brother in law dipping pokers. You needed to dip the ends in black paint so they could be safe to stoke the fire, and I worked in three pet shops’
  • ‘We didn’t have Halloween in my day, I remember May Day being a big celebration, the whole town would come out and dance around the Maypole, everyone and the Brownies and the Guides –  you would have a dress that matched the colour of the ribbon you had and you would all have to work together to plait it and keep the ribbons straight.  Someone would always get it wrong though or get a knot, we didn’t have much to do during the war ’

From past to present:

  • ‘We go to a lunch club for older people that’s really good, I don’t cook that much now, I’m not bothered, I might do a jacket potato. I’ve got family that see me, yes but only for a couple of hours a week. It’s not the same as coming to the farm or going to lunch club, it’s important to be part of a group – it’s good to have people to talk to’
  • ‘I like a roast dinner now or a piece of fish – the lunch clubs I go to are really good I don’t cook so much for myself these days’
  • ‘I’m on crutches so I can’t get out and about without the bus and groups like these. If they were not here well I wouldn’t go out’
  • ‘I like coming to the farm, going to the hairdressers and the lunch club it’s good to get out and about – before the community bus service and the community groups I didn’t really go anywhere – I didn’t go out at all’
  • ‘My scooter has been a god send since giving up driving – it’s good to get out and about and up to the church hall – people couldn’t believe it when they saw me zipping around on it’

The sessions were very enjoyable and we had a lot of fun. It really brought home to me the privileges we have today despite the current economic climate, and we picked up on lots of ‘make and mend tips’ and other bits of info including a recommendation for a brawn recipe for pigs trotters  . Also how our lifestyles have changed was emphasised, with many people in the group reliant on growing their own vegetables/raising livestock, shopping  locally and cooking slowly in comparison to today’s hectic consumer lifestyle.

Whilst we collected lots of stories and memories I was left with an overwhelming sense of the value of the wisdom that an elder’s perspective can often bring, as well as the importance of this specific community group and the benefits of community activity in general. I was grateful and privileged to be a part of the sharing.

Do you have a recipe passed down through generations, a favourite childhood food or thrifty idea to share with us? – Please get in touch – we would love to hear from you!

Windmill Hill City farm also runs a variety of volunteer projects from farming to radio – read about them here and contact Jules Allen for further information and to take part in our project.

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Ujima Radio interview – more Caring at Christmas

Here are the links to the Ujima Radio interview we did about Caring for Christmas. Thanks to presenter Rhianan and co interviewees Ellise Scourse and Tommy Popcorn. Check out Ujima Radio for some fresh tunes 98 FM Bristol. http://www.ujimaradio.com

Part one: – starts at around – 20:24

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-16_1358179206.mp3

Part two:

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-17_1358182807.mp3

ujima

A Christmas made visible (altruism is dead, long live reciprocity -) a second experience of ‘Caring at Christmas’

As with many things (a song, a poem, a sample of data, a performance) a blog post can represent a glimpse, a single account and perspective of a specific moment in time. I wrote about my first experience of Caring at Christmas in 2011 having volunteered the previous year.  Despite having enjoyed my time, I left feeling cynical. I completed only three shifts but the memories of the people I encountered stayed with me, as did the knowledge that their lives would not change radically. It seemed the shelter provided an all too temporary respite from the realities of an often harsh everyday existence. This I now understand is a common ‘first timers’ reaction, referred to fondly as ‘The Florence Nightingale effect’.  Whilst I never ever set out to assist with any kind of life ‘intervention’ I left feeling frustrated at the ways of the world, at the cycle of poverty, crime, addiction, prostitution that it was possible to get stuck in, at the ‘system’ which was struggling to support people with complex needs and which often could not, and also particularly with cases of addiction, the inevitable inability of many people to help themselves.

Yet, in spite of this, this December I was back at the Shelter and in it for the long haul. So what was different? Well my circumstances for one. Due to a change of career direction I found myself, to begin with, with a little time on my hands. This year it wasn’t possible to make the long rail journeys to visit family scattered around the UK. Whilst I probably I could have blagged a place somewhere local for dinner on the 25th, as I am sure many others could testify there are few things to make you feel  more like an alien appendage than being tagged onto someone else’s family dinner on Christmas day. I’d been keen to get more experience working directly in frontline positions with people and I felt time at the Shelter would provide this.  I wasn’t done with this topic of volunteering and my ongoing quest to understand if altruism really existed, but mostly I was just cheesed off with the ‘same old, same old’ engine of (often conspicuous) consumption Christmas had become.  I can’t say I’d previously given religion that much thought (and caring at Christmas is not a religious organisation) but I’m pretty convinced had Jesus ever had the misfortune of witnessing two grown women locking horns like stags in a trolly fight over the last figgy pudding in Asda, it’s fair to say our bearded friend he would be ‘turning in his cave’.

Having had some experience of Caring at Christmas my expectations of the overall impact I might have on the lives of guests were lower, but perhaps more significantly I’d been forced to admit, that this year as a volunteer, I needed the Shelter as much as the Shelter needed me. This year I completed just under 12 shifts. From set up on Christmas eve I was there until we said goodbye when the shelter closed on New Years day.  My task was the same.. a ‘general’ assistant – which meant working in the day room alongside the guests – companionship, tea drinking, talking and listening, toilet duty, some housekeeping tasks and ‘mucking’ in with anything else that was needed.

The stories I heard and sometimes the scenes I witnessed could often be challenging… serious abuse, rape, extreme self harm, multiple addiction  (in some cases) but also something as simple as needing company, a joke and a nice cup of tea at an often emotionally testing time of year.

I could relay their stories to you, as I did in my last blog post, but truth be told.. this year I decided they are not mine to tell.  From my experience I can say however that the terms: homeless, vulnerable, mentally ill, in crisis, addicted, psychotic (I could go on) often melt quickly into insignificance when you realise the person you are speaking despite their circumstances is just like you.

The shelter gave me an opportunity to apply my clown training in a way that I had not anticipated. I didn’t perform, mime or roll about with a red nose on, but the skills I learnt through clown enabled me to engage with guests at the shelter.  To be able to see the humanity beneath behaviour and context is vital and clown training helped me to do this. A guest told me that life on the street is ruled by the ‘laws of the jungle’ and it was perhaps this primal basis of clown communication which often helped me engage with people comfortably in a way that I couldn’t have done before.  Additionally the potential of the creative arts was emphasised as I was amazed at how a painting, drawing and often rap or poem could have such power as a tool of expression, understanding and source of discussion and meaning.

I put in some hours this year, and I also learnt the need for ‘care of the self’ in an often emotionally demanding role. I managed effectively and only really began to feel emotional towards the end during the last few shifts. As I had previously questioned the impact of the shelter years before, I was humbled when a guest shared his view with me. Yes, he said, the shelter was temporary, but for those few days it was often the only time of the year that the guests knew where they would sleep, were guaranteed a hot meal and most significantly, he said tearfully, a safe space.  As a performer I know that the need for a ‘safe space’ in order to create is vital. Whilst the context was radically different I could suddenly comprehend the daily roulette wheel that life on the street could be and that this short term provision over Christmas was vitally important and meaningful to our guests, particularly when other support services were shut.

My experience at the shelter gave me so much this year. It reminded me of the necessity and experience of everyday and simple work, gratitude, friendship, teamwork, companionship, and acceptance. Whilst all of the 300+ volunteers each had their own reason for being at the shelter this Christmas I learnt the potential of goodwill en masse from people of varying and also no religion. In short, I discovered that those long forgotten perhaps more traditional principles of Christmas were still very much alive, when I gave Cribbs Causeway and the EastEnders Christmas omnibus a miss and actually bothered to go out and look for them.

I also learnt more about the organisation – how it acts as kind of broker for other charities, how none of the donations received are wasted and are passed on. I found ways to continue to help beyond the Christmas period both with ‘Caring at Christmas’ and associated new charity ‘Safe Stay Bristol’ – a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for 16-25 year olds.

My choice to volunteer with the homeless at Christmas could be met by others with bafflement around my own motivations or expectations, and its true not everyone could see the value in such an activity. So I will admit now that its not altruism, in fact I am a very, very selfish person. I volunteered because amongst the communitas and Christmas spirit, this experience allowed me to see further potential in my own skills and abilities, and gain confidence in their application.  It wasn’t always easy, and I accepted that my impact on the lives of the guests is unlikely to engender any measurable or significant change. However if I have learnt anything from the guests I’ve met its the ongoing daily need for hope, companionship and laughter in the face of great adversity.

The real truth is that I had a choice to be there, in that moment, and hold the hand of a rape victim while she recovered from her ordeal… or not… and this time I chose to be there regardless of the outcome, in the knowledge that she was holding my hand too.

So,

next Christmas,

you’ll know where to find me.

Caring at Christmas is a registered charity that helps homeless people at Christmas and throughout the year

Please visit the website above for further information about the organisation and volunteering. I’ll also be running the Bristol 10K in May so keep your eyes peeled for my Justgiving page coming soon – Happy New Year!