Leeks so green

The Edge is buzzing. There’s activity and excitement. Those not helping to load the van are standing at the top of the stone steps in the sunshine. Sammy poses for me with a plastic crate full of Ferrero Rocher. Jeff steps outside pulling a pair of protective goggles off his face and covered in green dust. He says he’s spent the last hour in the workshop shaping 16 foam pyramids for tonight’s game.

“I’m going to the hairdressers now,” Rhianan says to me as I walk back into the main space. “Are you coming?”

“Tell me where it is and I’ll be down later, promise.”

She gives me directions. “My nails are killing me,” she says.

I get myself a bowl of Mara’s mixed pepper soup from the café counter and sit with Laura and Ayrden who are deep in conversation. It’s clear they have known each other for a long time but, with the age difference, it can’t be from school days. With a common interest in catering they are discussing the best greengrocers in town and which of the local farms has the best produce.

“Their vegetables,” Ayrden is saying, “are incredible. I’ve never seen leeks so green or carrots that orange.”

“But they are pricey,” says Laura.

“Yeah, but beautiful veg, fantastic quality.”

I’ve heard talk this week of a community allotment. Sarah, the charity shop manager, told me about it and someone mentioned that Sean, another of the Challenge winners, was running with it as part of his ‘upcycling’ project.

“It would be great if we could cook our own locally grown food,” says Laura. With all the innovative projects I’ve heard about so far this week: the theatre group, the craft classes, sports sessions, the training and mentoring, I can’t believe there isn’t yet a community allotment here in Brixham. It can only be a matter of time.

Read Mark’s story on Monday at 2pm

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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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“I’m wearing one with my dickie bow”

Angela is taking me to meet the Brixham Berserkers this afternoon, and Laura is coming along too. I’m not sure how much she is able to glean about my working method, I hope it’s worth her while. Angela leads us through the charity shop and out the back door where her little car is parked. Once inside she briefs me on the Berserkers. “They are a live action role play group,” she says. “About eight years ago Casey – the Canadian guy you are about to meet – went on a role playing weekend up north and came back raving about it. He then started the Brixham Berserkers down here.

“They are all volunteers and have set up a not-for-profit group. Its basically fantasy gaming where they create their own characters and have a set of rules they play to. They do a lot of work with kids at community fun days and in schools.

“For the Challenge the group set up a project called Forgotten Crafts which was about encouraging people to take on traditional crafts like leatherwork and chain mail. They wanted to make their own weaponry out of foam and latex, life-like looking weapons that look dangerous but aren’t at all. Today we are going to call in on their weekly drop-in session.

“They are a lovely bunch of people,” says Angela driving us further and further out of town. “What you would call, salt of the earth. Most aren’t working, some have health issues but they are the happiest bunch of people because they are all doing what they love. They were one of the six Challenge winners and are on the cusp of creating something big – maybe setting up a social enterprise – and that is making them nervous.”

We’ve turned off the main road, taken a right and then a left and are now heading uphill with housing on either side. “This is the area of highest deprivation,” Angela is saying. “But you wouldn’t think so looking at some of the lovely bungalows. On this road in particular many of the families have a lot of services supporting them.”

Laura says that when she and Ntembe were looking for social housing they were offered a place up here. “I turned them down,” she says from the back seat. “I told them I had a baby in a pushchair and no car. Why would I want to be this far out of Brixham, stuck on a hill?”

I haven’t seen a local shop yet but we do go past what was once the local primary school. “It’s been closed because of falling roll,” says Angela. “But there is an adventure play park – Indigos Go Wild – which worked with the community to reclaim a scrap of land and now there’s a fairy cabin, a fire pit, totem pole and a little amphitheatre.” This is where Rachel will be running some of her sessions and I find out later that it was Angela and a friend who set it up. Angela’s 21-year-old daughter, Millie, is helping out here this week.

We’re at the Chestnut Heights Community Centre now. It’s nothing special. A two-storey brick building attached to a block of three-storey flats. There’s a decking area outside with two or three wooden picnic tables. Although we passed no one on Chestnut Drive coming up here, inside there are a dozen or so people engaged in different activities with plenty of banter flying across the room.
Against one wall is a table top set-up of a Second World War battle surrounded by photographic flash lights. I’m told it’s a recreation for some war gaming magazine. Across the room, on a table against another wall, someone is joining metal rings together with a pair of pliers to make chain mail. I take out my tape recorder.

“And how many rings does it take to make one suit?” Actually it’s more like a waistcoat.

“About 40,000.”

“40,000! How long does that take?”

“The first one I ever did took me about a year because I was doing other things, this one will take me a month because I’m on it more or less full time. There are machines that will do it now.”

“Would you sell them? For how much?”

“You could get anything up to £250.”

Casey and Angela come over and he puts a completed waistcoat over his head. “What would this have stopped, in a battle?” I ask him.

“Sword strikes basically. This would stop it cutting into you but you would always wear a gambeson underneath. Like a padded jacket which absorbs the blow and stops it being as devastating as it might have been.”

“A gambeson?”

“Yeah. I’m wearing one tonight,” says Casey, “with my dickie bow.”

More from the Berserkers on Monday

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The complete jigsaw

This is the second part of Aryden’s story…

On our way back up Bolton Street I ask Aryden about his own experiences.

“I’m sure Dad won’t mind me telling you that we haven’t always had the most amazing relationship at times. I moved out when I turned 18 and for the first couple of years on my own I really struggled finding work, making ends meet and claiming benefits. I experienced how difficult it can be for young people to engage with the system.”

“Did that get you down?”

“At the time it did. It was awful. I found it very hard in the benefits trap and I think that’s a particularly ugly reality for people across the UK just now: would I be better off working or better off claiming benefits. It’s very confusing. Advice can be hard to come by. Certain agencies won’t tell you some things, it’s almost like a labyrinth.”

“Do you think that period of your life inspired you to do BYTES?”

“Oh yes, completely. When I was in that situation I wished someone would just tell it to me straight, I wished someone could just put it all into perspective. I wanted to see the completed jigsaw and not just the individual pieces. So when a young person is referred to us from the Job Centre, say, we can sit them down, tell them how it all works and what they are entitled to. We then tell them how to get out of that situation, feel better off, more productive. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yep. I know exactly what you mean.”

“I find it disheartening when you read in the media that people prefer being on benefits. No they don’t! Why would you prefer to be in that rut, in that trap? It’s so patronising to suggest it.”

We’re back in the kitchen now and Aryden is congratulating Steve – a regular volunteer at YES – on his chopping abilities. “That’s amazing,” he says genuinely. “I’m going to drop loads more on you. Here, have these spring onions and leeks.” And now to me: “So that’s why I wanted to do it. To create a space where people could get advice, maybe some training, have a bite to eat and chat to someone about getting an action plan together and put some perspective back into their life.”

There’s a young woman chatting to Aryden’s dad, Mark, on one of the sofas. “Do you think she’d mind if I took a photo?”

“I’ll ask,” says Ayrden.

Turns out she is from Paignton which is about five miles away. “Don’t they have any advice sessions over there?” I ask.

“They don’t have any appointments until the end of next month, so I’ve come here.”

Angela comes in with half a dozen copies of the local paper. “We’re on the front page!” she exclaims. Sure enough there’s a photograph of all the Challenge winners posing on the steps outside. Ayrden and Steve pour over the article.

‘Six community groups and organisations in Brixham are celebrating after winning cash prizes as part of a national social experiment,’ it says.

‘Each of the successful groups has been awarded £3,500 thanks to the Brixham Youth Enquiry Service Neighbourhood Challenge project. Five local judges spent hours deciding which projects would best meet the themes of the national project, which is to bring communities together and foster relationships between different age groups.’

Rhianan comes in, uninterested in the positive publicity and instead keen to show Angela how her preparations are progressing. She’s already had a spray tan and her nails done. This afternoon it’s the hairdressers.

“Are you coming to photograph me at the hairdressers?” she asks. I think it’s a question.

“Would you like me to?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll come.”

“How are you having your hair done?” Angela asks. “How much are you having taken off?”

“I’m not sure,” replies Rhianan. “It depends what mood I’m in later.”

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The false fruit gâteaux

There’s a discussion in the kitchen. “Shall I do the pasta bake or shall I do nachos?” Ayrden is asking Angela, although he’s really just thinking out loud. “No, I’ll do the pasta bake,” he says, not waiting for an answer. “Bacon and mushroom pasta bake. Mixed pepper soup for starters and fruit gateaux for afters.”

“Shall we make everything £1.50?” asks Angela to nobody, before she goes outside to write the prices on the chalkboard. So, not much of a discussion then.

Ayrden is half of BYTES, another new community project that started because of the NESTA Neighbourhood Challenge. It’s a combination of food and employment advice and the other half of the partnership is Ayrden’s dad, Mark. They come down to The Edge every Wednesday, Ayrden takes over the kitchen for the day and Mark does consultations over a plate of pasta bake… or nachos.  It’s a another simple idea and was, rightly, one of the Challenge winners.

“Can I sit you two down for 15 minutes after lunch and have a chat?” I ask.

“You can do it now,” says Ayrden. “Follow me into town and we can do it on the move.”

“Ideal.”

On the way I hear that Ayrden is a trained chef and he works part of the week at the Sprat and Mackerel down in the harbour. His dad has spent his career supporting young people, particularly around employment. Across the bay in Torquay they have been running a weekly breakfast club where jobseekers would follow their egg and bacon with a consultation with Mark, or with someone from the Job Centre. Like a mini jobs fair but with a free meal throw in. It worked.

Hearing about the Challenge and aware of the potential of the new café at The Edge, Ayrden had the idea of extending the project to Brixham.

“I’ve always thought food was a very good way of breaking down social barriers,” he says. “I wanted to aim a Brixham project at younger people specifically as the statistics for 16-24 year-olds in the town are awful.”

“Really, why do you think that is?” Ayrden describes the seasonal nature of the economy: low paid work in hospitality and catering. The only well-paid industry is pretty much a closed shop. If you’re lucky enough to be taken on as a deckhand as a teenager, you’re a fisherman for life. A case of dead men’s oilskins.

“Where are we going?”

“We’ll head up here first,” he says as we turn the corner into Fore Street. “First I need to get some fruit and veg for today and then we might pop into Tesco and get a few more bits and pieces. I’m going to cheat today and make a false fruit gâteaux.”

Ayrden speaks precisely, enunciating every word. He could easily be doing a commentary for a TV cookery programme: Brixham Beach Barbies. He’s in the greengrocers now, filling paper bags with mushrooms, leeks, courgettes, tomatoes. Mara has already made the soup they will serve today so Ayrden has to reciprocate and have one ready for tomorrow, potato and leek, he thinks.

“Are strawberries still a pound a punnet?”

“£1.49,” is the response, the cashier a bit bemused by this customer who has a photographer in tow, snapping his every  move.

“So what’s false about your fruit gâteaux?” I ask when we are outside the shop.

“I use flan bases and a fruit yogurt mixed with extra thick double cream and lay that on top followed by a layer of fruit and another flan base and then repeat it so I have this tiered creation. It’s just a quick way of producing a tasty, relatively healthy sweet.”

“Relatively healthy with all that double cream?” I tease.

“Relatively, I said.”

We’re in Tesco now looking for the extra thick double cream. Ayrden is excited about a course he is about to do which will allow him to establish his own courses, teaching an NVQ in food preparation and production to over-16s in the kitchen at The Edge. And he’ll be good at it, too. He’s an incredibly open, friendly young man who will make a good teacher.

Peep. Peep… peep. Aryden is scanning his own items.

“We also want to link up with the guys in the workshop and offer some basic engineering and woodworking courses which could make someone really employable for an engineering apprenticeship. Marine engineering is a big trade down here. If we could train someone so they can be taken on as an apprentice then that would be a great achievement.”

Please take your change. Notes are dispensed below the scanner.

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Out of the comfort zone

This is the continuation of Rachel’s story…

“These are the courts now,” she says, leading me onto four Tarmaced tennis courts. “I badgered the council to repaint the lines – I told them I would do it myself if they didn’t – and to replace the nets. They did the lines and we’ve got one new net. Where do you want me? Must I smile? Can I carry on talking?”

As I start shooting, Rachel explains how Outset, a business support and advice service, has helped her with the BEST project. “They are also based at The Edge, so I can ask them anything, any time of the day. They have helped me write a business plan, a sports development plan, all that sort of thing.” Click. Click.

YES came at the right time for Rachel and so did the Neighbourhood Challenge. After graduating she spent two years looking for a job in sport, without any luck. Demoralised, she started to work at the diner feeling as if she had wasted £15,000 on her degree and was on the way to waste another £10,000 on an ongoing master’s. When that job collapsed and compulsory voluntary work was on the horizon, everything was looking desperate.

“I had no confidence. I couldn’t find a job and had effectively given up on the sports stuff, and that all dented me really badly.” Click. Click.

“Just put one hand on the net.” Click. Click. Click.

“I must admit I was so low when I first came to YES… but they have completely changed my life.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to look into the camera.” Click. Click. “So, what has been so special… what has been the single factor that has made the difference?”

“I would say friendship,” says Rachel. “When I was in town I wouldn’t have known anyone. But now, as you saw then, I said hello to two people just as we were walking up here and it was never, ever like that. I’ve put my name out there, people know who I am and what I do and that’s more important to me than money. Some people are really shocked when they hear that Sarah and I volunteer for another 30 hours each week after the 16 we get paid for, but I’d rather have this 16 hour-a-week job that I love than a 40 hour-a-week job that I hate.”

I’ve finished taking pictures now. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?”

“No, fine. Much better than you asking me to stand there and smile.”

“How is your confidence nowadays?”

“I’m slowly getting better. Two weeks ago we had to do our final presentations for the Challenge and I decided not to use any visual aids, no PowerPoint or anything, just me standing up in front of everyone, talking. I think I’d made myself so worried about it, I’d blocked it out, but all the next week people came up to me and said what a passionate presentation it was.”

We’re walking back through the graveyard now, with the church looking like a picture postcard. “It’s that comfort zone thing, isn’t it?” I say. “Each time you step out of your comfort zone, it gets pushed further and further out.”

Rachel impressed the independent judges with her presentation and BEST became one of the six winners. She tells me she’s getting a bit nervous of having to get up on stage tonight to accept her £3,500 cheque.

“What will you do with the money?”

“I’d already started to develop a programme of weekend outdoor activities with the young people from The Edge. Can you believe some have never been crabbing, never been down to the beach? So we’re going to have some fun: making dens, lighting fires in the woods, picnics, maybe some orienteering, a kick-about on the beach, nothing too serious.”

Rachel has already trialled some ‘soft tennis’ in the main area at The Edge and some hockey upstairs – the young people called it ‘death hockey’ – which has led to monthly sessions at Brixham College. She has negotiated discounted swimming sessions at the local public, but privately-owned, pool. The town’s play project, Indigo, has commissioned her to run some sessions for them; and, once they are 16, she is planning to put some of The Edge’s young volunteers through a Level 1 football coaching course. It’s all happening for Rachel now, but despite still only being paid for 16 hours, she doesn’t intend to use any of her prize money to pay herself.

“And now just fast forward, what might you be doing in five years time?” I ask as we get back on the road back done to The Edge.

“I hope my sports programme will have grown much bigger by then,” she pauses to give someone directions. “But my passion for YES has grown so great that even if I eventually get another job, I’d still go back there every day to see them. I’d still be volunteering 10 hours a week.”

In no time we are walking up the stone steps together, back into the sanctuary.

“So, how was that? Was that okay?”

“Yeah, it was okay. I dread to see what the photos look like.

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“She’s a celebrity”

For the third morning on the run I am woken by gulls shrieking, cawing, squawking. Actually I’m now convinced it’s only one gull, a particularly nasty one that’s got it in for me. But maybe that’s just 5am paranoia.

Rachel is ready, waiting as I ascend the stone steps. The main hall is cluttered with boxes and equipment soon to be taken to the Berry Head Hotel for tonight’s Brix Awards. Just inside the door there are a couple of black suits and ties hanging up, back from the dry cleaners.

“Is that your pink tie?” asks Rachel.

“No, no. I’ve brought my black dickie bow. I’m coming as a paparazzi photographer.”

“Ah, cool.”

The local tennis courts, Rachel has already told me, are significant in her life and so we are taking a walk up the hill to photograph her ‘in situ’. It seems like a good idea to do the interview on the way and so she is now threading the wire for the small microphone inside her sports hoodie.

We start to walk and within 50 yards, just as we reach the chippy advertising battered creme eggs for 85p, Rachel stops to chat to a woman walking down the hill.

“Where are you off to?” the woman asks.

“Up to the tennis courts for me to have my picture taken. This is Len Grant, he’s a photographer, here for a week, finding out all about YES.”

“I’m photographing Rachel this morning, she’s on tape,” I say, pointing to the microphone below her chin. “She’s a celebrity for the morning.”

“Ah, brilliant,” says the woman. “Have a good time.”

“She volunteers at the shop,” Rachel explains after she’s gone.

I ask how she started with YES and she tells me about the Job Centre’s insistence on voluntary work; about how she and Sarah reluctantly approached The Edge, and about how their lives have changed since.

“We were going to own up and tell them how much we didn’t want to be running a charity shop,” she says. “We really were not enjoying it and then one day it just clicked. We were meeting new people every day and when we were in town these people would say hello to us, which was really nice. Before we started with YES, we hardly knew anyone.” We cross the road where the diverted traffic re-joins the route it wanted in the first place.

At first the shop was run by both Sarah and Rachel. There was lots to do at the beginning to get things started, but their duties at The Edge – welcoming, cleaning, IT – were being neglected and so Rachel was brought back up the road and Sarah was left to manage the shop on her own.

“I get in now at around 8.30 each morning and start by cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the floors. Although I am only paid for 16 hours, I’ll be there five days a week and leave anywhere between 4 and 7 o’clock. On Saturdays I help Sarah at the shop and on Sundays I’ll do my sports programme.”

It’s the sports programme I’d like to hear about but first, knowing that Sarah is also only paid for 16 hours a week, I ask a rather personal question, “Are you two surviving financially?”

“Things like the Brix where we’ve had to go out and buy a suit jacket, or a shirt, haven’t helped this month. But, mostly, yes we are getting by.” The annual Brix Awards have a different theme each year, chosen by the young volunteers. This year it’s ‘posh’ which probably isn’t the most appropriate choice considering the extra money that’s being spent by some of the party-goers.

Rachel is saying hello to a young woman walking down into town.

“Where are you going?” this woman asks. They’re certainly a nosey lot in Brixham.

“To the park to have some photos,” says Rachel.

“Why?”

“Because I am a celebrity!” she replies.

Before NESTA’s Neighbourhood Challenge even started Rachel had found a way to use her Sports Development degree. Torbay Council were planning to close the tennis club in the local park and replace all but one of the courts with a basketball court and a skate park.

“None of the local people wanted that,” says Rachel. “And so I decided to try and drive up participation by setting up a Saturday morning tennis session for four- to 15-year-olds. I made posters and put them around town and in schools. On the first session I think I had four kids, by the end of the summer, four months later, I had 38.”

“And you did it all voluntarily? Every Saturday?”

“Yeah. You don’t mind walking through the graveyard, do you?”

“No, I love graveyards. And you did this all by yourself?”

“By the end some of the 15-year-olds who were training to be young leaders helped by ‘feeding’ for the younger ones, but yes, I did it all on my own.”

When she heard about the Challenge Rachel thought she would carry on with the tennis coaching and make that her project but, being qualified in other sports and with the winter approaching, she spent her NESTA seed money on sports equipment – nets, racquets, baseball stuff – and persuaded the local leisure club to hire her an indoor space at a discount.

“I just needed 10 kids to turn up each week to break even,” she recalls, “I was charging £3 for two hours, which everyone loved, and before long I was getting 20 kids at each session.”

After much consideration she named her project Brixham Edge Sport Tasters, or BEST for short.

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Everyone is a beneficiary

This is part two of Victoria and Jade’s story…

A young girl comes over to our sofas, sits on the floor by the heater and rests her head in her arms on the low table. “And what do we call it Toni?” asks Jade, by way of including her in our conversation.

“Juicy Theatre,” says Toni with a tired smile, then gets up and heads back to the café.

Apparently the first Saturday morning session wasn’t that well attended, just Victoria’s daughter and her friends. But then word got round and numbers picked up. Once they entered the Challenge competition they had a little kick start cash and could afford to publicise it more.

“Who does what?” I ask. “How do you split it between you?”

“I’ve always been a bit shy,” says Victoria, “and I’ve got a bit more self conscious as I’ve got older. For me this project has been about getting involved and learning new skills… I’m really loving it.”

What’s easy to miss about these projects is the effect it has on those running them. On paper Juicy Theatre is about what it can do for a young person’s self esteem and yet every one of the Neighbourhood Challenge competition entrants – whether or not they were a winner – has commented on its confidence-boasting effect on them as individuals. As Andrew said to me last night, everyone at The Edge is a beneficiary. Continue reading

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Sister act

There’s a scaffolding tower outside The Edge when I walk back in, back to base. Angela’s husband Jeff is erecting the large wooden Y-E-S letters he has made in the workshop, one YES on either side of the doorway.

My final interview for today is with two sisters whose theatre workshop for young people is one of the six Neighbourhood Challenge winners. They both work during the day and so Angela has arranged for us to have a chat at 7 o’clock and Mara, getting a measure of my larger than average appetite, has prepared two enchiladas as my evening meal.

I mention to Angela how busy the place is, even at this time in the early evening. “Everyone’s preparing for the Brix Awards tomorrow,” she says. And so they are. I’m introduced to Harry, another of the Young Volunteers who is pouring over his laptop preparing a PowerPoint presentation. Chris is sitting next to him, clutching the running order.

“So, with less than 24 hours to go, how confident are you that everything will go well?” I ask Harry, mischievously.

“About 70%,” he says, “because not everyone has given me what they are supposed to have given me. It’ll be ready though. I’ll make sure it’s ready.”

“Victoria and Jade are here,” calls Angela, leading me outside where she introduces me to the older of the two sisters, Victoria, rolling a cigarette. Just to be friendly, I ask if she can roll me one too and, as Angela is called back inside, I start to tell her about what I’m doing.

It’s properly dark now and Jeff is still up the scaffold securing the second ‘E’ in the second ‘YES’. Jade joins us and says hello. “I’m going to make a coffee,” she says. “Do you want one? There’s only instant left.”

With our mugs we position ourselves on the sofas in the main space where, moments earlier, some of the young woman had been practicing their pieces, imagining Simon Cowell had just walked into The Edge.

I start by asking about Brixham. Were they born here?

“We moved here first when I was 16,” says Victoria.

“I was just seven,” says Jade. “Do you remember I had my birthday at Paignton Zoo?”

“You weren’t very happy about coming down here, were you?”

They talk almost as one, knowing what the other is about to say, intertwined.

Jade: “Dad had retired early from teaching. He’d had enough. He was a frustrated rock star really, he wanted to open a new business. He was passionate…”

Victoria: “… but depressive…”

“… he was really unsettled…”

“… he moved us all over the place.”

“When I was nine we moved to Edinburgh for six months, when I was 12 we moved to Canada for two years,” says Jade.

Angela comes by and positions an industrial-sized bar heater next to us as we’re talking, similar to the one upstairs keeping Carl warm in his tiny space. When she plugs it in it sends an appropriately-theatrical bright red light across both their faces. Perfect for a photograph. “Is that too much?” she asks before she disappears again.

“How did you feel about moving around the whole time?”

“I loved it,” says Victoria.

“When you move a lot I don’t think you learn how to deal with conflict,” adds Jade. “Do you know what I mean? If you fall out with a friend you don’t bother trying to sort it out because you think it doesn’t matter, you’ll be moving again soon. I found it hard with relationships when I was a teenager.”

“So what happened after Canada?”

“Mum just put her foot down. She’d had enough,” continues Jade. “So we moved back to Brixham and Dad died of a heart attack a few years later. That was 12 years ago now.”

Since they’ve settled down Victoria says she has worked in catering, at festivals, in pubs and has brought up her family. She now runs a Fair Trade ‘hippy shop’ up near the harbour. She explains where and I say I must have walked past it already as it’s on the way to my fisherman’s cottage. “It’s got a nice vibe,” she says.

Jade did a degree in theatre at Dartington College of Arts and got pregnant with the first of her two children at the age of 20. She got into youth work, co-ran her own youth club in Kingsbridge for a while which she found ‘all consuming’ and then ran theatre workshops as a freelancer. For the past three months she’s been enjoying a new job as a teaching assistant.

There’s a clattering of metal poles as Jeff and Ross bring in sections of the scaffold tower from outside. The final ‘S’ will have to wait until tomorrow.

The sisters’ Neighbourhood Challenge project started before the competition was launched. They were already keen to do something for their community. “There wasn’t much to do in Brixham when we were kids,” says Jade, “and there still isn’t.”

“As a young person you get bored and you start dabbling,” says Victoria. I’ve been hearing a lot about ‘dabbling’ these last two days: the no-so-underground drug scene in Brixham which feels at odds with the idyllic seaside town image.

Jade: “I’ve been wanting to do a workshop in improvised theatre for a while…”

Victoria: “… but we didn’t have a space…”

“… and so we talked to Chris who showed us the upstairs space…”

“… and said we could use it for free…”

“… and that’s how it started.”

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Not the way the world should go around

Rather than in installments, Becky’s story is published in full. You’ll see why…

A few minutes later Becky has made us all hot drinks and we take them upstairs to her living room on the first floor. It looks out over The Edge.

Her baby daughter is having a nap and so we have time to chat. Becky and I sit on the expansive settee and Laura takes up a position opposite so she can take pictures. “What’s your daughter called?” I ask as an opener.

“Erin-May. She’s a little beauty, she’ll be nine months old next Friday.”

“Erin-May?”

Becky is used to having to explain. “Erin after Erin Brockovich who I really admire – an amazing woman – and May because I was having a conversation with my mum one day and she mentioned her birthday being in May and that just sounded nice: Erin-May.”

“You don’t live with her dad?”

“No, we split up in October.”

The conversation is not going in the direction I had intended. My fault. I change course.

“I’m really keen to hear how your involvement in YES has changed you as a person,” I say.

Becky doesn’t hesitate. “It’s changed my life,” she says, straight out. “But it’s not YES, it’s the people who work for YES. For me, it’s been about the people who work there.”

I ask Becky to start at the beginning.

“When I was 11 I got thrown out of primary school.”

“Why?”

She laughs and pauses for a moment or two. “People are going to think bad of me.”

“You don’t have to say, you don’t need to tell me.”

“No, I will. My father had just been sent to prison and the whole school knew about it.
I turned into a bit of a rebel and one day beat up a girl in the playground. I was sent to the headmistresses’ office and she told me I’d turn out just like my father and so I attacked her, trashed her office and got thrown out of the school.”

“Are you happy for me to write about this?”

“Yes, anything. I don’t mind.”

“Take me back at bit,” I say. “Before your dad went to prison, you were living with both your parents?”

“… and my three brothers and my sister. When Dad went to prison the whole family dynamic changed. One of my brothers decided to become a traveller and just set off. Another brother moved in with my grandparents in Malden and the other brother and sister stayed at home. I rebelled and was put into voluntary foster care for my own safety although, at the time, I didn’t see it like that.”

“What was foster care like?”

“Eventful,” she says with a smile. “Emotionally it was not rewardIng, financially it was extremely rewarding.” I’m left to read between the lines. “As a young person who was part of a big family to then find myself in someone else’s family… I felt as if I’d been abandoned. You know, like the black sheep. It’s possibly the worst feeling I’ve had in my whole life.” Continue reading

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