It’s been six years since I left my teaching career and set up The Red Tent (Heart of England) – an organisation for women in Birmingham, meeting monthly to discuss important issues, celebrate and learn together. I had just been diagnosed with cyclothymia: a version of bipolar disorder that involves rapid cycling from high to low, and times when a high and low occur simultaneously. I describe this ‘mixed state’ as like hopping from one foot to the other.
I was encouraged to read that my hero Stephen Fry had the same thing. It helped me get through periods of deep despair and radical adjustment, and to believe that I could live a useful life, in spite of the restrictions placed on me by my condition. I lost my career and my home, but moved to a sheltered housing scheme, where I met the amazing man who has been my husband for the past year and a half, Terry McCarthy.”
Terry had been working in restaurants on the island of Fuerteventura for 10 years, and had not long returned to the UK. He was organising events for the 70 residents of the housing scheme (all over 50), and trying to generate community spirit. I came alongside to support with the admin, secretarial and liaison aspects of the voluntary work, and it wasn’t long before romance was in the air. Terry inspired me, and together we’ve raised £20k in funding and run over 200 events over the past three years. With his charm and my behind-the-scenes contributions, we’re transforming the place – including the green space round the two tower blocks where we all live, which is now a lovely garden. We grow flowers and vegetables, and more of the neighbours are getting involved as time goes by. This year, we won an RHS Heart of England in Bloom award, a Timberland Earthkeepers’ Award, and an ‘Inspiration Street’ prize of garden vouchers from David Domoney, the ‘Sunday People’ gardener-in-residence.
When I arrived on the housing scheme, Terry was working alone, but now there’s a dedicated, enthusiastic committee of seven involved in planning, organising events, campaigning for better facilities and equipment for the communal facilities, and talking to the neighbours about what would make life better for them.
One of the things I find as I get older is that people tend to go one of two ways. The first – I believe – happens when they become tired of conflict, compromise and trying to be understood, and then they tend to withdraw from collaborative projects. Here on the housing scheme, we get the classic ‘I prefer to keep myself to myself’ phrase when we invite people to our events, for example. OR, and this is great: people learn to give and take, becoming not just tolerant but compassionate and positive, almost glorying in the variety other human beings around them. That’s when the magic happens!
Looking around the room at one of our musical events recently, I spotted the following people: a man with Aspergers Syndrome who makes endless cups of tea for whoever wants them and is the most non-judgemental person I know, a man who in spite of still working full-time in industry and looking after an elderly parent is there whenever the projector or karaoke machine goes wrong, a lady who gives us plants for the garden because she has such bad arthritis in her hands she can’t garden herself, a lady who suffers from depression who gives people lifts whenever they’re stuck, and a man who walks bent double on two sticks, who is our financial wizard.
Without these neighbours – who have, as the saying goes, ‘become good friends’ – nothing would happen here. And I’m not just talking about formal events and organising them. Those who reach out to others and are prepared for them to be ‘lumpy and bumpy’, weird and wonderful, make our lives worth living, whatever challenges we’re facing. Margaret Thatcher may have said ‘There is no such thing as community’, but I disagree. For those who make community happen, right where they live, I give thanks every day.
Last year I won a grant of £10k from Awards for All, part of the Big Lottery Fund for a social inclusion project which allowed us to open an IT Club that’s still going strong. This resulted in me being chosen by Age UK to be one of two Internet Champions last March,and the highlight of the year in ‘office’ was an invitation to attend a gala evening in the presence of HRH Prince Charles last month. It’s amazing what can happen when people collaborate for a worthwhile cause.
Terry’s efforts have been an inspiration to so many of us, and when you have someone like that to galvanize you, and a small group of people who catch the vision, the sky’s the limit. We are such different people in many ways, thrown together on our housing scheme by the vicissitudes of life, but the atmosphere at committee meetings is electric. Our combined energy and will seems to make us more than the sum of our parts! Not a conventional team by any standard but one that works, with compassion and understanding. I’m really looking forward to what’s going to happen in 2014!