Tears of a clown

As I’m talking with Sammy I’m aware the café is filling up. An older woman has come in for the first time and I overhear Chris telling her all about The Edge and what they do here. I suspect every newcomer is welcomed and, if they want, engaged in conversation. Many of those who now see The Edge as their second home will have become engaged in this way. It’s often the very beginning of a new relationship.

Although The Edge is run by dozens of volunteers, and some sessional and part-time workers, there are three women in particular that are at the hub of YES. Chrissy is the full-time administrator, responsible for keeping track of what little money the organisation has. With all the turmoil and uncertainty around the cuts she has taken voluntary redundancy and will finish her 10-year involvement at the end of this month.

Chris – at first I confused her and Chrissy until they were both in the same room – has been at YES the longest. Nearly from the beginning. Although a council employee, seconded from the local authority’s youth team, she is the antithesis of a council stereotype. She has young people’s needs uppermost and I am sure there have been many occasions when procedures and policies have been circumvented to help a troubled teenager. Keeping a characteristically low profile, Chris gets things done.

And then there is Angela. It is Angela who has sought the funding and commissioned me to come to the South Devon coast and immerse myself in YES for a week. She and her family are ‘grockles’, outsiders who moved to Brixham from London 11 years ago looking for something new, something different, a slower pace of life.

We first met last November at a two-day conference in Manchester where I’d been the conference photographer and she’d been an enthusiastic delegate, soaking up every word about ‘asset-based community development’ (ABCD), a new way of working that builds on what already exits within the community rather than focusing on deprivation and parachuting in services to the most ‘needy’. To me it sounded like a ‘bottom up’ version of the Big Society, taking as a starting point a community’s strengths rather than its needs. It’s asks the basic question, ‘How can you know what you need, until you know what you have?’

ABCD is fascinating stuff, imported from Canada and presented on this occasion by two charismatic speakers who, at the end of each day, had the hair on the back of every delegates’ neck standing to attention such was their passion for this new approach.

Angela and I got talking in one of the coffee breaks and, on the second day, I brought her some of my books. After she left to get the Plymouth train at the end of the conference I didn’t think much more about her.

I remember exactly where I was, two months later, when I took the first in a series of calls from Angela. Wythenshawe is a sprawling ex-council housing estate, south of Manchester city centre and close to the airport. Created in the 1930s as the idyllic garden city to rehouse inner city slum dwellers, the estate has had some success in its recent campaign to challenge negative perceptions. With the exception of some parks and open spaces it has nothing of Brixham’s natural beauty and, indeed, with its homogenous housing and its population of low income families there is a stereotypical expectation of the social issues that residents here might face. In contrast Brixham, with its sea-facing restaurants, pretty holidays cottages and ferry trips across the bay, puts on a different public face, a persona that conceals the challenges of homelessness, unemployment, poverty and loneliness experienced by a surprisingly large part of its community.

If Wythenshawe’s anthem is Heart on My Sleeve, then Brixham’s is surely Tears of a Clown.

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