Last Monday I went to Derby to talk with the AGE UK ‘Friendship Centre’ group there – and so they duly became part of my family of Grandees. I invariably come away from these sessions piled up high with material, ideas and anecdotes that make their way into the book’s content wherever they relate to specific topics. But what I don’t get the chance to do is write about what actually happens at these events, so this is that.
A quick reprise of the story so far.
Age UK has Friendship Centres all over the country. They are essentially small communities of older people getting together to do things or learn things or ‘just’ to have some fun. Ages? Hard to say, really, but it always seems to me to range from 60ish to 90ish. At this latest event I met a rather intimidating art teacher who is proudly 85 and trying to get a publishing deal for her hand-sketched book on botany. How often the group meet or what activities they do seem to be very much up to them. I’ve been told about walks, lunches, theatre trips, and this Derby lot were looking forward to an upcoming game of skittles. There’s always a monthly meeting at which there’s a speaker, and that is my spot.
Except it isn’t really. The point of my time with them isn’t that I go on about how brilliant my book is. The point is to get the Grandees talking about some of the topics that the book will be covering in order to get their unique personal insights and memories. It always feels a bit like a talk-show with me as Oprah trying to extract their memories. Not, I should say, that they take much extracting. Invariably they arrive claiming that they can’t remember anything at all about their childhood. Ten minutes in and I am struggling to hear and keep order as they’ve become volubly excited when a friend’s recollections spark their own.
And so to Derby and a welcome as warm and light-hearted as I now expect from these wonderful groups. As I walked in one bloke shouted out that “We were expecting some little old lady!”, so the tone was pretty much set from the off. I know that I’m guilty of going on about it in my tweets, but I really can’t go on too much about how much fun these groups are. Always so ready to take the mickey out of each other but there’s no doubting how much they get out being part of a community.
Before the meeting proper I’d been told a story by a Grandee who remembered as a boy his mum complaining to his dad that her ponch was broken. A ponch being a wooden tool – a bit like a plunger – which was used to do the laundry and needed quite a lot of elbow-grease. Helpful lad as he was had said ‘no worries, mum, I’ll fix it for you’. For which he later on got a sharp clip around the ear. His mum didn’t want it fixed and in any case it almost certainly wasn’t even broken. What his mum wanted was one of those newfangled electric washing machines and who can blame her.
A great story. But also one which highlights something which can be tricky about these events. Sometimes the participants just want to reminisce and they’re not always things that are directly relevant or useful to this book. I have to gently steer the chatter towards and through certain topics. Having said that, I am always aware that sometimes they just want be able to tell a story they haven’t thought about for years, to someone who is interested. When I am there before and after the main workshop, I always just let someone talk for a bit about old times if they want to.
When I first did one of these events I thought it would be super-organised of me to take flip charts and big marker pens – none of which were used at all. Now I know better and take homemade cake and biscuits. Usually madeira loaf and choc/nut cookies. I’ve never claimed that it’s a subtle tactic: I want these people to be a little impressed not so much by the baking – although obviously it’s better if they enjoy and I think they do as I very rarely have any to bring home – but that spending this time with them is so valued by me that I have put more effort into it by baking for them. They seem to subliminally get the point.
There were 26 Grandees in Derby (I couldn’t coax them all into the pic). That is slightly at the higher end of what works well. I introduced the book, a little on what it’s about and the first topic: tell me about going out fruit-picking when you were a child. And they’re off.
There was the usual talking over each other which I try to referee. Hilarity at the couple who told us all that last year’s crop of elderflower champagne burst its bottle and the cork shot up through the kitchen ceiling to their bedroom above. One woman was talking to me about bilberries and a bloke chimed in that in Wales they call them winberries. Her riposte: ‘Well we’re not in bloody Wales are we!”.
I hope I’m not being (too) self-congratulatory to say that the people who come to these events really get a lot out of the sharing of memories, the fun and the involvement. As usual, a fairly hefty portion of what they talked about simply could not be done these days because it would be illegal or just plain dangerous. But then they were growing up in very different times.
That was the thought that I decided to end the event on. I asked them what they think are the main differences between their own childhoods and for kids now. The answer was immediate, unanimous and really not what I expected. This was the first time I’d asked the question of one of these groups and I had presumed Daily Mail-esque ‘kids-today-are-all-violent-and-on-drugs’ comments. Well, it wasn’t that.
They believe that our young people now are suffering from not having the same freedoms that they had. Freedom to go out and play without anyone worrying about all the dreadful things that could happen at the hands of other kids or adults. Freedom to just have fun and enjoy being young.
Second on their list – and equally felt across the group – was that young people now don’t use or need to use their imaginations like they used to. I wonder how connected the loss of imagination is to the loss of freedom.
So Crosby – you’re next. I’ll be baking away for you the night before and really looking forward to doing an event that is nearish my roots in Lancashire.