“It should be called Keith”

… this is the second part of the story about the Creative Café…

On the opposite side of the table are Rhianan and Millie, both, I guess are about 14. They were at my talk last night and I had a brief chat with Millie as she was leaving. She told me she had a ‘hybrid’ camera – she rattled off some make and model – and that she wanted to be a photographer.

“Bring it to the ‘do’ on Wednesday,” I’d suggested.

“Can’t,” she’d said. “It’s got no batteries. It takes four double-A’s and I can’t afford them.”

It’s not quite school finishing time and so I ask Millie why she wasn’t at school today. Rhianan answers for her.

“She’s home-schooled,” she says, “by her mum. She only has to do two hours a day.”

“Three,” says Millie.

Rhianan doesn’t offer an explanation about her own absence from school and I don’t ask. Instead, as she models a clay creature, she tells me that she spends about 20 hours a week at The Edge, gets stuck into anything and everything and likes to meet new people. She and Millie have become friends after meeting here.

Rhianan is very confident for her age. There’s a maturity there that some adults might find challenging.

“So, what’s this?” I ask as I photograph her creation.

“It’s a ‘shocked cat-pig’,” she says. “A cross between a cat and a pig with a shocked look on its face.” I write it in my notebook.

“Are you looking forward to tomorrow night?” Ali asks Rhianan across the table.

She doesn’t answer straight away. She has seen my tape recorder. “What are you doing with that strange piece of equipment?”

“I’m recording everything you say,” I say, with a smile.

“Oh, don’t, let’s kinda get rid of that, shall we?” I go along… switch it off… then switch it back on a minute or two later. She will get to see this text before it gets published.

Daisy, the spaniel, growls at a couple of schoolboys who have wandered in, checking out the activity.

Rhianan says to Ali: “It’ll be nice to see everyone having a good time. That’s what I like about volunteering here, I like to see people enjoying themselves.”

“Sounds like you’re excited about your new dress.” Ali says.

“I am. I’m really excited. I hardly ever have an excuse for my mum to spend money on me. I never let her spend money on me, ever. I don’t like it at all.”

I chip in: “Is that because you don’t think you are worth it or because there just isn’t a lot of money around?”

“It’s a bit of both. I think unless you really need something, you shouldn’t really spend a lot of money on it.”

There are now legs on Rhianan’s artwork. “It’s a catpiguman now,” she says, “as in ‘human’.”

“Is that hyphenated?”

“No, it’s all one word.”

Rhianan has been around town and found herself a dress for tomorrow’s award ceremony. It’s the first she has bought without her mother’s supervision and she tells us that she haggled the price down to one that she knew her mother would find acceptable.

Like yesterday the café is an after school hub of activity. People come and go. Rachel, Sarah’s partner and my first interviewee for tomorrow morning pops by, apparently a little apprehensive. “I won’t have to smile will I?” she asks me.

“Not if you don’t want to,” I say.

“You’ll need to photograph her with her earphones in,” someone says, “or else it won’t be Rachel.”

Millie goes into the main space to practice her singing and in another corner of the café guitar lessons get underway organised by Dragan, the younger of Mara’s two sons. Having finished clearing up in the kitchen she is now sitting with us, making clay beads.

Judging by the discussion about leaving small vents for hot air to escape from internal cavities, today’s pieces are going to be fired. “That’s amazing,” Ali says to Rhianan, examining her ‘catpiguman’, and then to me, “She’s done amazingly well if that’s the first thing she’s ever done out of clay.”

“Are you going to give it a name?” I ask Rhianan.

“Wally,” she says. “No, wait.” She looks at her sculpture, scrunches up her eyes and says, “Keith. It should be called Keith.”

Laura comes into the café, “Becky’s back now,” she says, “shall we go over?”

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The laid-back art class

Angela and a group of young people are milling about the main space at The Edge debating how to make a Ferrero Rocher pyramid. There are boxes of the chocolates spilling out of the YES office and their inclusion as an activity at the Brix Awards is, apparently, critical.

“Look it up on YouTube,” someone suggests, “there’s bound to be something on it.”

A laptop appears and sure enough there is an official video on building your own Ferrero Rocher pyramid. “We’re going to need lots of that green foam you get from the florists,” says Angela, “and cocktail sticks, lots of cocktail sticks.”

Yesterday I had asked Angela and Chris if I could speak to a YES ‘graduate’, someone who had been through it and come out the other end. A success story, I suppose. Becky, they had both said, we’ll ask Becky. So now I am about to go and have a chat with this 22-year-old young mum who, coincidentally, lives directly across the road from The Edge. Laura is coming along to take some pictures.

“I’ve just been over,” says Laura. “She’s not back from work yet. Shall we try later?”

“Would you go and take a look at the Creative Café while you are waiting,” says Angela. “They do a session every Tuesday with Mara and Ali.”

This is another Neighbourhood Challenge project, a simple idea that’s so laid back it’s almost not a project at all. For a couple of hours people get round the big table in the café and make stuff… and chat. There are no signing-in sheets, no formality, just Mara, who runs the café and ex-teacher Ali with whatever craft material they are using at the time. Today it’s clay.

Over the months they have tackled felt, pottery and next it’ll be glass. Although what I am experiencing is an extremely calm and relaxed arty session there is a more serious side to the Creative Café. Yes, it’s to do with building relationships and self confidence through creativity but there’s also an aim to make The Edge into an Arts Award Centre where young people can use the arts to develop leadership skills and gain qualifications.

Ali asks me where I am from. “And are you feeling the recession in Manchester?”

“It’s hit a different type of people this time,” I say, “council people…  people who thought their jobs were safe. And yes, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been feeling it too because a lot of my work has been for the public sector. What about here?”

“We don’t feel it so much here because of the fishing industry. There are lots of young men with money to spend.”

“What if you’re not in the industry?”

“Then it’s very difficult. You have to be incredibly self-motivated or move away. I have a 16-year-old daughter, a lovely and amazing daughter, who I hope will go to university.”

Ali’s dog, who had been pushing its head over the top of the table to see what’s been going on has now retired to the sofa, disinterested.

“What’s the name of the dog?” I ask.

“She’s called Daisy.”

“I know nothing about dogs. What type is she?”

“A spaniel,” says Ali. Obviously.

I look over at the sofa. “I knew that.”

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A real eye-opener

This is the second part of Sarah’s story as charity shop manager…

“So how long were you meant to volunteer for?”

“It was a 12-week placement and when it was coming to an end we didn’t want to finish. We spoke to Angela and Chris and explained that we really loved what we were doing and didn’t want to leave.”

“What’s so special about YES that made you wanted to stay?”

“They made us feel part of the team, wanted, needed even. They do that with a lot of people: genuinely make them feel welcome and needed. Although we didn’t know them that well, we felt we could trust them. They are very easy to get on with.

“Seeing how they interact with young people, I really began to admire and respect them. It has definitely made me think about a career in youth work, seeing the difference they make, not just with young people but with everyone.”

Having examined their finances YES decided they could offer the two young women part-time roles as sessional workers for three months. “Those first three months came and went and they extended our contracts out of the NESTA money, but from the end of this month everyone’s in the same boat.”

“What will happen after that?” I ask.

“From April I will be paid through the charity shop proceeds as the shop manager. Rachel is taking on the admin after Chrissy takes redundancy. She’ll be paid for 10 hours a week.”

“So the charity shop idea is new isn’t it? Let me get this straight: YES have only had it for a few months.”

“Oh yes, it was some time last November that Andrew [Chair of Brixham YES] walked into The Edge one morning and said, we’ve got a charity shop. This place had been a nail bar for a short time, doing manicures and pedicures, but there was already one well established in town…”

“…and why would a place like Brixham need two?”

“Exactly. So after they closed down Andrew asked the landlord if we could use it rent-free for six weeks if we just paid for the electric and water. And they said yes. I was a bit skeptical at first because there were already, I think, six charity shops in Brixham: Animals in Distress… Sue Ryder… Brixham Does Care… Macmillan… Lifeboats… RSPCA. Yes, six.

“Everyone else was busy creating the Christmas grotto and so Rachel and I were asked to do one or two things to help set up the shop: make a sign, phone someone up, that sort of thing. Then we thought we may as well just get on with it, so we got some clothes rails, worked out a system for accepting donations, and it took off from there.”

It was an eye-opener for Sarah and Rachel to see people were coming to the charity shop to buy their Christmas presents. “It really hit home when you realised that young people and adults, with only a few pounds, were trying to get all their presents from us. That made us think.”

“Has the shop changed your view of Brixham? And the people who live here?” I ask.

“It has. I’ve always been open-minded. I have known there are deprived areas in Brixham and that there are people a lot worse off than me but seeing it first hand… it has made me feel as if I am doing something to help.

“By the end of the six weeks it was doing so well – there was so much positive feedback from everyone who came in – that we thought there was no way we could let it finish there.”

Angela asked them to prepare a business case for keeping the place going, that could be presented to a forthcoming trustees’ meeting. But instead of a conventional plan they highlighted one customer they had got to know, who was typical of their new clientele.

“He’s a guy in his late 30s with a five-year-old boy. He’s raised this little boy completely on his own since he was three weeks old, when his mother left. He came into the shop one day wanting to buy a few toys for his boy. He was quite open and honest and said he hadn’t got much money, and could he give us 50p for the toys instead of £1. So we said yeah why not? Not many other charity shops will do that. So we thought this isn’t about how much money we are making, it’s about benefiting the community, giving them a service. Anyone can come in with £2 and go out with two bags of clothing… which you can’t really do in other charity shops.”

“And that plan went down well with the trustees?”

“Yes it did. I’ve been appointed the shop manager and am getting paid for 16 hours a week although I work 36 hours a week minimum. I have Wednesdays off but work on Saturdays.  I do the books, count the takings, design posters and make phone calls at home after work.”

“Are you making enough money to cover your salary, the rent and expenses, and have enough profit go back to the charity?”

“Yes, easily. They have said if we make more money I can increase my hours but I am not the sort of person who will take more salary at the expense of the donations to the charity. I’m determined not to put up prices, we don’t see ourselves as competing with the other shops, we just have a different ethos… we’re doing this for the community.

“It’s strange. I never thought I’d be working in a charity shop, let alone running one and, yes, I really do jump out of bed in the mornings nowadays. I try not to think about being without a job again.”

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The reluctant volunteers

Sarah is the charity shop’s manager which, she admits as I interview her in the empty back room, has come as a bit of a surprise to her. “A year or so ago I couldn’t have thought of anything worse. I’d never shopped in a charity shop and, when I was a teenager, I’d never, ever have stepped foot in one.”

She chose her A-levels with the thought of studying law but within a few months of college decided it was not for her and packed it in. So, at the age of 17 she got a job as a cleaner at a Pontins Holiday Camp. A year later, when she was ‘legal’, she took up bar work at Wetherspoons and worked there for the next four years.

Three years ago she was helping her friend set up a New York-style diner in the town. She enjoyed the work: employing people, organising rotas, ordering the food. Their first summer was a good one, everything was going well. Then a long winter: “Brixham is like a ghost town in winter,” says Sarah. “The second summer was not good and really you have to have a good summer or you’re not going to survive the following winter.”

While she was at the diner she met Rachel who she had been at school with. Rachel had left to go to university but was now back, looking for work. Sarah offered her a job, a relationship developed, they found a place to share. They’ve lived together now for 18 months.

“Are you okay with me mentioning all that?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah, fine. So my friend decided to get out while she was ahead and so both Rachel and I were made redundant together. I was used to working, had always worked and so hated finding myself on jobseekers’ allowance.”

“What was it like trying to find a job in Brixham?”

“I thought, how hard could it be? I had lots of transferable skills that I had built up through my catering experience but, because I had decided I didn’t want to do bar or kitchen work, and I have no other qualifications, there was nothing.

“My CV was excellent. My applications were always spot-on but, out of probably 200 jobs I applied for, I only got one interview.”

“Two hundred applications?”

“Yes. Either letters, emails or phone calls. It was awful, just to be knocked back and rejected that many times. It really got me down, so much so that I had to start taking antidepressants.”

“Did you think of moving elsewhere to find work?”

“I was born in Brixham and all my family are here. So it would have taken a lot for me to have moved away. But I have no qualifications, I don’t have a degree, so do I really stand more chance somewhere else? It was horrible. I’m still taking the antidepressants now.”

At the time a government initiative called the Community Task Force compelled all those who had been looking for a job for over six months to take on voluntary work. “To keep our benefit we had to agree to volunteer for 25 hours a week and travel to Torbay to do a weekly five-hour supervised job search. Thankfully they realised we were actively looking for work so they didn’t make us go to Torbay.

“We absolutely hated the idea of doing voluntary work. We joked that they’d throw us in a charity shop which is really quite ironic now, isn’t it?”

Sarah and Rachel had noticed that YES were converting their new bulding and arranged a meeting after responding to the ‘help wanted’ signs outside The Edge. “Usually people offer to do a couple of hours a week and we turned up and said we’ve got to do 25 hours a week, each. Angela and Chris said, yes please!

“We were really nervous the first week, it was daunting walking into a new place, not knowing anyone. We were lucky to have got a placement together, at least we knew each other.”

The extra help was appreciated by the YES team. They had just moved in to their converted church and there was lots to do. Sarah and Rachel got stuck in sweeping, mopping, clearing rubbish.

“Everyone was very welcoming and within a couple of weeks we felt part of the team and were given other things to do. Last October we organised a massive Halloween party. Neither of us had done anything like that before, so we’d gone from sweeping the floors to organising big fundraising events. It was fantastic and we could both feel our confidence returning.”

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Daddy Bear

… Carl’s story continued.

Carl is collecting dead, hollow stems, ideal as kindling. “I’ll need this later,” he says with a bundle in one hand.

While his peers were sitting their GCSEs Carl was still living in the quarries and so missed out, but his father, who was a panel-beater by trade, would sometimes encourage his boys to study, even out here. “I remember he throw a book at me once and said, here you go, do a project on Greece.” Some time later Carl went to college to study a GNVQ in Art and Design and came away with a distinction.

As we climb and drop, climb and drop, there’s evidence of previous occupants. A rusting wood saw is left in a fire circle made from bricks and large stones; an armchair, a double mattress balancing on a single base, a blue plastic sheet and a pink counterpane. “Someone has used my sticks and tarpaulin,” says Carl, surveying a makeshift shelter attached to a small tree and sounding a bit like Daddy Bear.

We’ve come as far as I need to. I’ve got my photographs and I have to get back to town where other interviews have been set up. Carl’s in no hurry, he plans to stay out here a little longer, light a fire and chill. Before I head back I suggest we sit for a while – I still have a few questions – and Carl leads the way to a grass patch overlooking the sea.

“I think most people would think yours has been a strange childhood,” I suggest as he rolls a cigarette and offers me one of the chocolate bars he’s brought with him.

“I’d be happy to do it again,” he says as he watches a lone fisherman, bobbing on the swell, tending to his lobster pots.

We talk about his relationship with YES. How he started to use their free internet connection to email his Thai girlfriend. They first offered him a coffee, then a bowl of soup and he repaid them with the odd job around the place. Once the staff realised he was sleeping in a tent and winter was approaching they decided to offer him free accommodation upstairs at The Edge.

“I thought I was in for it,” Carl recalls, “because they asked me to ‘come into the office for a talk’ and it took me back to my dad calling me in for a ‘little chat’ when I had done something wrong! But they asked if I’d like to stay upstairs in return for bits of maintenance and keeping an eye on the place when it’s closed.” He’s been there the whole winter.

I ask about his plans, his future. “I’d like to go back to Thailand,” he says, “and buy a plot of land out there. I’m saving for that at the moment. Lots of people say they want to do something and never do. I don’t want to be like them. I want to have done something with my life.”

Carl points out Paignton and Torbay across the bay and a railway bridge above a shale cliff that carries a heritage steam engine line. “And what about your dad and your brother? What are they up to now?”

“My brother has a family and is settled, my dad is back in Slough. He’s well messed up, very poorly, I don’t won’t to end up like that. I still hitch-hike back every couple of weeks to see him.”

Carl directs me out of this quarry to re-join the coastal path back to Brixham. “Morning!” I say to a pair of walkers striding purposefully towards Babbecombe.

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Thirty ‘homes’

Carl has arrived. We’ve arranged to meet here as it’s on the way to the quarries, the place where he used to camp out before he was offered a space at The Edge.

We set off down a narrow lane leading to some woods. “What would you like to listen to?” he asks, pulling out his MP3 player.

“Oh, you wouldn’t have anything I like on there, I’m sure. My kids tease me about liking Simon and Garfunkel.”

“I’ve got some Paul Simon,” he says, and we head into the woods to the muffled sound of Mrs. Robinson.

We’re on the well-trodden South West Coast Path, a 630-mile jaunt between Minehead in Somerset and Poole Harbour in Dorset. Some walkers will plan their day trips taking in the attractions along the route, others will be trying to complete the whole path in the target of 30 days, having their luggage transferred from one overnight stop to another.

“So when did you first come down here?”

“When we were kids my dad used to bring me and my younger brother here camping.”

“Where from? Where did you live?”

“Slough.” It’s almost 200 miles away.

“We’d come down for a week, a couple of weeks, a month or two. Then it turned into half a year. This went on until I was 16 or 17, my brother a couple of years younger. We were mostly living here.”

We’re walking over pebbles now, across Churston Cove and, if we were going that far, another four and a half miles away from Paignton. I’m intrigued about what Carl is telling me and suddenly there are lots of things I want to ask but am conscious also about taking this conversation slowly.

“Do you mind me asking,” I begin, Carl ahead of me on the path, a lapel microphone attached to his hoodie. “What about you mum? What about school?”

“My dad split with my mum when I was three. He was given custody. He used to make excuses to school for taking us away, lots of excuses. He’d tell them a relative had just died and we had to go away for a while. I had lots of nans who died during my school years. We had to ‘go away to Ireland in mourning’ every time!”

On the path leading out of the cove Carl takes me on a diversion. We’re not following the tourist route any longer, but heading to the quarries that have been Carl’s home, on and off, since he was a kid.

“I reckon,” Carl is saying, “if you live somewhere for two months at a stretch you can call it home. So I was working it out the other day and I think I’ve had 30 ‘homes’ in my 33 years.” He hesitates. “30 or 40 anyway.”

The seven small quarries run one after the other along the shoreline, their stone excavated and brought to the town by boat no doubt. The coastal path follows through woodland behind them and because they are not easily accessible by foot the quarries make ideal locations for illicit parties.

“They’d bring generators and heavy duty sound systems in by boat,” explains Carl. “All night raves to relieve the teenage boredom.

“This next bit is tricky, you okay? Do you want me to take your rucksack?” We are scrambling down a near vertical rock face into the first quarry. There are plenty of footholds and small ledges but still this is no stroll in the park. The degree of difficulty has just gone from easy to challenging.

“So how did you and your dad and brother actually live?” I ask when we are back on level ground.

“When we were small we just had one tent between us but as we got older, and stayed longer, we had more tents. If we were here for a few months my dad would just walk down any road, pick an address and use that to draw his benefit. We didn’t often go hungry. There was one time when we only had two slices of bread between us and we saw a fisherman pulling mackerel out four at a time… and throwing them back. We said to him, we’ll have them, and we went away with a bag of 15 which did us until ‘pay day’.

“I was well into all the survival thing. I had a book on how to feed yourself, what leaves you could eat and all that. But it never got that bad.”

Carl’s story continues in Daddy Bear…

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Keep calm and carry on!

This is the second part of the Brixham Battery story.

Phil answers a couple of questions as he’s handing out teas and coffees. He then leaves the group to David and Rob and leads me outside to a workshop were we can sit with our brews and where I ask a few questions of my own.

“So Brixham Battery got involved in the Neighbourhood Challenge?”

“Yes, we had been doing lots of physical improvement to our site but we also wanted to extend our oral history collection and we saw the Challenge as a way we could do that.”

Their project was called the Cromwell Alert, named after the frightening occasion on Sunday, 8th September 1940 when church bells rang along the east and south coast of England warning of an imminent invasion by German forces.

“In Brixham they actually thought the Germans had landed further up the coast. There were reports of parachutists and of the fifth column being activated. People were suddenly wary of their neighbours, suspects were shot or arrested by the Home Guard and all movement of traffic was suspended for a couple of days. It was a very frightening time.”

The Battery’s project was about capturing personal recollections about the Cromwell Alert and about the war generally. But rather than the regular volunteers conducting the interviews, young people were recruited as sort of community journalists. Workshops were organised where the trainee reporters were instructed in interview techniques and shown how to use the digital recording equipment, paid for by the project.

“There are a large number of older residents who remember the military presence, they remember the air raids, seeing bombs drop. The young people spoke to two survivors of the Torquay and Paignton bombings who had lost brothers and sisters in those raids.

“Local Home Guardsmen, some in their 90s, spoke to us and remembered the Cromwell Alert as a fearful, claustrophobic time, waiting to see what happened next.”

“And what did you do with the material?”

“We made a CD and a one-off memories book,” says Phil, “and we finished off the project with a dance at The Edge and a wartime singalong. It’s allowed us to extend our reach and   work intergenerationally which has been great.”

“And what more would you have done had you won one of the £3,500 prizes?”

“We could have extended the project, published a proper book which would have been an affirmation of the young people’s work.”

One of the Brixham Battery group has, apparently, written a play called The Cromwell Alert and the group were excited about developing the idea into a short film. “We’d done the research, got people interested, it would have been a short step to convert the play into a script. We really could have used that money constructively. It could have happened.”

“How do you feel about not getting the money?”

“A bit hurt. We worked hard and intensively for seven months. But we did get something out of it. We got the digital recorders and we made the CD and book. We could look for other funding to carry it further. It’s a case of keep calm and carry on!”

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One of only seven still intact

Three or four volunteers from the Brixham Battery Heritage Centre are expecting a group of pensioners from Torquay to arrive at any moment. As it’s a Tuesday morning this must be a special visit because the hand-painted sign says the museum is usually only open on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays.

David is about to get dressed up as Winston Churchill. “I think you’re supposed to photograph me before and after I get changed,” he says to me.

“Am I?” I now remember I had mentioned to Angela that photographing the volunteers transforming themselves might be a good idea. I take David outside and we take shots of him standing in front of a Second World War anti-aircraft gun. I tell him I feel like Karsh, the Canadian photographer, who famously photographed Churchill looking furious.

“He’d taken his cigar out of his hand,” David reminds me, “and so he’s staring into the camera with a very stern look on his face.”

“Which is what Karsh wanted,” I say.

“Exactly.”

During the war Brixham was one of several coastal towns that could have been a landing point for a German invasion. The Brixham Battery was equipped with anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and two ‘big guns’, ex-navel 4.7 inch Mark V quick-firing types that were, ironically, built in Japan in 1918. The 362 Battery was originally manned by a 100-strong regiment of the Royal Artillery stationed in what is now a holiday camp. The adjacent Artillery Training Station (ATS) is the heritage group’s museum and the Brixham Battery prides itself on being one of only seven of the original emergency coast defence batteries that remains intact.

But, as Phil is telling me as we wait for the visitors, it’s been an uphill struggle. Ten years ago the place was derelict. The ATS building was deemed a safety hazard and at risk of being demolished; the 14-acre gardens in which the battery is located were frequently vandalised, and the pillboxes were full of needles and, as Phil says, used as a latrine.

A group of volunteers stepped in, battled with the local council to keep the place open, raised funds and eventually persuaded English Heritage to list the gun emplacements, gardens and the ATS building with its corrugated metal roof.

Another volunteer, Rod, has joined us, happy to be quizzed about his motives for helping out. “These guys did what they did so we could be free. You can’t let places like Battery Gardens be wiped off the map because once they are gone, they are gone. That’s our philosophy: to preserve it for future generations. I want people to come here and see what their forefathers did for us.”

“Did you have relatives in the Second World War?”

“My father was in the Worcestershire Regiment and I did 10 years as a regular in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, but that’s not why I do it. I’ve always had a passion for military history so helping this get off the ground has been a dream come true.”

“So what is your day job now?”

“I used to sell militaria, but I’m a full-time carer now.”

The minibus has arrived and Phil goes outside to help. Half a dozen or more older men and woman then make their way slowly into the museum to sign the visitors’ book. There’s a brief discussion about the date.

“It’s definitely the 20th,” says ‘Winston Chuchill’, “because it’s my birthday today.”

If this were a group of schoolchildren they would have been tearing around the place, in awe of the bomb fragments and gas masks. Fascinated by the rifles and machine guns. Maybe asking questions of their teachers about the ration books and small boxes of instant powdered gelatine. But this group seem nonplussed; familiar with most of the memorabilia on display in the same way today’s schoolchildren might be less than impressed with a display cabinet of Xboxes, iPhones and Nintendos when they are in their 80s.

Some are drawn instead to the group photographs of local battalions and fading newspaper clippings from local papers, scanning the captions for names of old friends or family members.

“Good morning!” calls Phil as he brings the pensioners to attention to tell them something about the battery.

“About here,” he says, waving one arm expansively, “was a large table with a relief map of Torbay on top of it. At night, with the shutters down and the lights out, they would do their firing practice. Someone under the table with a magnet would draw a ship or submarine along the table top and they would have two torches: one representing the gun and the other a searchlight. Once the enemy had been located they would then go through the firing routine… it was all very ‘Heath Robinson’.”

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The YES family

The projector has been lined up and the screen erected. As the room begins to fill I am getting characteristically apprehensive ahead of my talk. I get into conversation with a small group and ask about the ‘darker side’ of Brixham, a drug problem that is apparently constantly bubbling under and, from time to time, boils over.

As a port it’s not just the tonnes of sole, turbot, cuttle fish, cod, mackerel, red mullet and squid that are brought ashore each year. “The fishermen work hard and play hard,” someone is saying. “Drugs are easy to bring in, maybe meeting their French or Dutch counterparts mid-ocean. There were three heroin-related deaths amongst the fishing community a few years ago and that shocked the town so the problem has tailed off a little now.”

A woman I hadn’t been introduced to chipped in saying that amongst young people drug and alcohol use continues to be a serious issue because there is so little to do in Brixham. “Boredom plays a big part. The town is geared to entertaining and making a profit from tourists but for a teenager with no money the temptations of the so-called softer drugs are too great.”

As Laura and Ntembe dish out the Kadhai chicken, red lentils and aubergine slices, I am introduced to more people whose names I instantly forget. My quip about needing a roll of adhesive name labels wears thin after a while. I sit at a table with Andrew, the chair of Brixham YES, whose blogs I have been reading in preparation for my trip and so feel I know already. After he explained how he got drawn into The Edge I ask him the question that had been on my mind all day. “What,” I ask, between mouthfuls of nan bread, “is unique about YES?” His response stays with me for the rest of the week.

“It’s an understanding that we are all beneficiaries,” he says. “Yes, there are staff and yes, there are volunteers and, technically there are what the terminology would call service users. But actually we’re all in it together.”


Before I arrived in Devon Angela had talked about the ‘YES family’, a term I had thought a little too grand for a community centre, but, some minutes later, as I stand in front of those 20 or so people and reflect on this first day, I find myself reconsidering the description. There’s a homeless man on the front row who lives in a tiny space upstairs; teenage girls for whom this place is a second home, giggling on the sofa; a young man soon to be a Cambridge undergraduate and another who has been pulled back from a world of Black Ops. There’s an engineer who has been sucked into becoming chair and a young mum who is passionate about sharing her love of photography. But this is no clique. I’ve heard introductions being made and so there are new people here too, interviewees for another day.

And there is Ben, still in his Asda uniform, straight off the bus, dropping in before he heads home.

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The witch in the castle

In the café a young man is inclined on the sofa, typing quickly onto his laptop. Ivan, my next interviewee, is the oldest son of Mara who is still here, tidying up in the kitchen. “Is this his normal pose then?” I ask Mara cheekily.
“24/7,” she says, “24/7.”

For the Neighbourhood Challenge 18-year-old Ivan expanded his passion for role-playing games to start a group at The Edge which has attracted a disparate group of teenager boys and young men including Sammy.

“I started role-playing games about ten years ago,” says Ivan, now talking into my tape recorder. “I’d normally play just with my friends but when I saw there might be some money available it was a good opportunity to get some equipment for The Edge and set something up more formally here.”

I’m still not entirely sure what this game is all about. “So what equipment do you need?”

“Rule books basically.” Ivan shows me three thick books with fantastical illustrations of wide-mouthed monsters battling with sabre-wielding heros.

“So these are your bibles?”

“You could say that. We’ve been able to buy these three for The Edge. This one is essential,” he says, holding up the thickest of the three, “this one is useful, and this one is the icing on the cake.

“And you need lots of paper and pens… and dice, lots of dice.”

“Lots of dice? How many are we talking about?”

“The standard set has a minimum of seven dice: there’s a four-sided; a six-sided; an eight-sided; two 10-sided; a 12-sided and two 20-sided.”

For the Challenge Ivan set up a regular Saturday afternoon role-playing session and, although he is modest with me about his achievements I know his group has brought new friends together and the gaming has taught them negotiation and problem-solving skills that any young person would find useful. His initiative has also inspired fledgling players to set up their own games and, as we are talking, Sam, still in his school uniform, gathers the equipment together for the Monday after-school session. This delegation is crucial to the continuing success of The Edge’s role-playing group as Ivan will be leaving for Cambridge University in the autumn to begin a degree in medicine.

The role-playing project didn’t win one of the six Challenge prizes but, in a way, that doesn’t matter. The 50p per session charge is more than sufficient to replace any lost dice and now with more sessions being run by other people, Ivan is effectively making himself redundant which was his plan.

There is more activity in the kitchen. Laura’s partner Ntembe has arrived and is bringing in plastic containers of food for an evening buffet. Angela has taken up my offer of giving a talk about my work and over 20 people are coming along for 6.30 to share curry and then listen to this grockle from Manchester. Outside Laura is spray mounting photographs from her project to display around the café, hopefully enthused by our conversation. Elsewhere I hear snippets about party frocks and preparations for the award ceremony on Wednesday.

On a large table at the back of the café Ivan, Sam and a younger boy – Dan – are beginning their game. With a page of hieroglyphics in front of him, Dan tells me this is only his third week and he still needs advice from some of the more experienced players.

Seeing that I am finding it difficult to follow, Ivan attempts to explain. “There’s a witch in a room in a castle and we are all trying different ways of killing her. I’ve waved my fingers and cast a bad luck spell on her,” he says.

“And I’ve attempted to kill her twice with a longbow and once with a hammer,” says tonight’s ‘ringmaster’ Sam, his blazer and tie now stripped off.

Although I am none the wiser, I’d put my money on Sam.

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