Maverick and anarchic

…continued

With all the busyness and chat, I decide to take Casey outside where we sit on one of the picnic tables. Their Challenge project started with making leather belts and pouches, teaching others the traditional methods of this particular forgotten craft. These sessions merged with a coffee morning and became the informal craft morning from which we have just escaped. After the leather, people wanted to try new things: embroidery, sewing, knitting and costume-making. “We helped a whole load of young people make costumes for Halloween birthday party last year,” says Casey. “Malice in Wonderland, they called it.”

“But these sessions are very much social get-togethers, aren’t they?”

“It kinda grew, and grew. We had older people coming down, young parents – there’s always a baby or two being passed round – and a lot of people who admit to having no artistic aptitude who just come for a chat.”

“So, what are they making today?”

“I have absolutely no idea, anything they want! No, actually I know Julie is making a couple of dickie bows for the awards tonight.”

One young woman, who Casey says has had a ‘really rough time’, at first lacked the confidence to come to the sessions. “It took a lot for her to get here,” he says, “and then she started to look forward to coming and now she’s got herself a little online shop selling the jewellery bits that she makes. And that’s all from just coming down here.”

“Now you are one of the winners, what are you going to do with the prize money?”

“The Berserkers started as a board game club, then a live action role-playing group and now we run this craft session and do community-based workshops. So we’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long list of things we’d still like to accomplish. Yes, we’ve got £3,500 but it’s only £3,500, not £10,000 so we have to look at priorities. We’ll get more leather to make more props and costumes and we’ll donate our old stuff to Indigos; we’ll get some new kit, sort out the storage area in there,” he nods towards the building, “and some of us are planning to take a space at the back of the charity shop in town to set up a kind of social enterprise: making weapons, costumes, T-shirt printing, stuff like that. We couldn’t do it individually, but together we can make a go of it.

“The Neighbourhood Challenge has been good because it’s inspired us to come up with an idea that seems to have grown to become everything you see in there and more. I think there’s a lot more to come from it.”

Back inside, and before Casey takes me on a tour, I take some photographs of people stuffing heart-shaped pin cushions, sewing what look like lace curtains and stitching green felt Christmas tree decorations.

“We nearly lost this place a couple of years ago,” says Casey as he leads me upstairs to a function room. “The previous manager had gradually been stripping the place of all its furniture and fittings and taking them to another centre she was involved in. Then she told us to move all our stuff out because the building was being handed over to the council at the end of the week. We were furious, told her she couldn’t close it down, didn’t have the authority to move what were charitable assets and, well, we staged a sit-in. The police were called and we explained what was going on to them. Instead of throwing us out they took her keys from her and allowed us to occupy the place over the  holiday weekend until the council intervened the next week. I was a rebel for four days… it was awesome.

“In the end, the locks were changed and the building was kept open for us and the other users. The council even donated £1,000 for us to buy some new furniture, which is all this stuff.” There are some stacking conference-type chairs and folding tables leaning against one wall.

“What happened to the manager?”

“Not a lot. We complained to the Charity Commission but they did nothing. And so the building now belongs to the council who are looking at giving us a lease. We hire it out to whoever wants to use it and we make sure the rents are really low. If a new group is starting up then we’ll give them the space for only £7.50 an hour and see how it goes.”

Angela and Laura find us and Angela joins in. “You do need to think about how you constitute yourselves,” she says. “I know you don’t like the idea of trustees and all those formalities,” and then to me she says, “people are drawn like magnets to whatever Casey is involved in. When you get someone who’s a bit maverick and anarchic, that’s very appealing. His charisma is very natural and sometimes,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek, “he can be quite funny!

“You don’t want to lose that,” she says, turning to Casey, “but… it’s a time of change, isn’t it?”

“Come on then,” I say, conscious of needing to get back to The Edge to speak with Ayrden’s dad and conscious too of Angela having to get things ready for tonight. “I’ll see you at the awards, look forward to photographing the dickie bow!”

Read more on Friday at 2pm

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