Make tear stains of the past

Credit © Marcello Castellani

I remember feeling comfortable and warm. Sat up in the nose bleeds, looking down on rows of heads facing the stage, my seat was red and padded, almost regal; armrests added balanced ease, absorbing the weight; the acoustics bounced effortlessly. I sat with good friends, two beers had gone to my head, the evening was just beginning.

I was crying, uncontrollably. I didn’t care who saw. I wasn’t able to feel embarrassed, I’d lost control.

The band played; the crowd cheered; the drinks flowed; as did the tears. Something in me changed that night. I felt it take hold with each wrenching stomach twist, every jumper sleeve nose-wipe. Something clicked.

I’d lived in London for around four years by this point and going to gigs had always been my thing. Since moving there in 2011, I’d often gone to see bands on my own, if none of my mates fancied it, but it got to a point where I needed a gig buddy. Someone who was into filling weeknights with music and beer. I was too young and self-conscious to keep standing there on my own.

I met Fran through my job. She was older, cooler and obsessed with gigs. We went wherever the bands were playing. Some she’d recommend; some she’d trust my judgement on; others she’d flat out refuse. Blunt but polite. Sometimes she’d trust my judgement and regret it. She was less polite about those ones. I didn’t care, I’d found a gig buddy and I was chuffed. We struck up a unique friendship. We didn’t just gig, either. We went for brunch in Bow, walked around food markets in Hackney, wandered up the canal in Camden; generally hung out in the capital. I tried to shorten our partnership to ‘Frike’ (cos ‘Fran’ and ‘Mike’ ). She was having none of it. I was her annoying little brother character, chewing her ear off about dating and sex and idealistic career paths in far-flung countries. On reflection I guess I was her disconnected release; someone to have moan at, share a laugh with, distract her from the day-to-day. Her day-to-day being a busy job in a PR agency and a life-limiting diagnosis of secondary cancer.

We’d not been mates for long when she sent me a link simply saying “check this out — it’s right up your street”. And it was, literally.

On Fran’s recommendation I started volunteering with North London Cares in September 2012. I befriended a lady in her 70s called Mitzi: struggling with loneliness, she had no family and very few friends and lived just down the road from me in Finsbury Park. In no time, we were thick-as-thieves. I’d visit her once a week for a cuppa and a chat — she’d listen to my dramas involving work and relationships and money — I would help her with tech, listen to her reminisce about East End tales and other juicy anecdotes, and I’d make her laugh. While my own Nanna was way up north in my home-town, Mitzi became my London grandparent.

Mitzi and Me: when my hair was less grey

Fran died in early 2013.

She’d recently married and thrown a hell of a wedding party (featuring a number of live bands, of course).

She wrote beautifully, befriended passionately and kindled ideas that have changed people’s lives long beyond her own.

The date that changed my life was 16th June 2016.

As days in the office go, it had been a good one. My colleagues and I worked until around lunch before heading to the local pub, ordering chips to share and setting our stall out in front of the big screen to watch England vs Wales in Euro 2016. There was no danger of it coming home back then — we were crap — but we won.

Back at my desk, news was breaking on social media about an MP being attacked in Leeds. The live feed described witness accounts in graphic detail and soon after it was announced that Jo Cox had been murdered.

London blurred as I walked. I arrived at the Royal Festival Hall on Southbank with no recall of the journey. There was a pint in front of me, I don’t remember ordering it. Friends arrived, we didn’t talk much. As we settled in our seats the theatre was audibly subdued. I remember feeling heavy, not numb; the warm atmosphere pressed me into the cushioned seat and there was the old theatre smell, fusty-familiar but not unpleasant.

As the band started I wasn’t paying attention. Before the second song, Richard Hawley dedicated it to Jo Cox. His voice mellow and soothing, the sentiment empowering. It was ‘Tonight, The Streets Are Ours’. It was Fran’s favourite.

That was me done. Broken. So lost trying to understand that I just gave up and wept.

On Monday morning, following the gig, I handed in my notice. I’d decided I was going to leave London, leave my friends and the life I’d built and do something that meant more to me. I had no idea what, exactly, but I’d been sucker punched by events and was waiving a white handkerchief. I wanted to go home to a safe space and take stock.

If you disconnect from everything and have moments of silence this is the vital time in which your brain processes information. It’s why we sleep. The hippocampus part of our brain is in charge of consolidating memories and dealing with emotions. It looks a bit like a seahorse but, without periods of respite, the little chap sometimes just cannot deal with everything that’s going on. My seahorse was knackered.

After some downtime, I started to look into things I was passionate about. It didn’t take long to research local support for older people in my home-town of Doncaster. Mainly because there wasn’t much support at all. There was no befriending similar to the one I’d done in London. I met with key staff working with older people who all said the same: it’s a gap and it desperately needs filling. But I had no credentials: no experience in health or social care, never worked with the elderly, no idea where to begin. So it started small. I moved back in with my parents to the bedroom I had until I was 18, made a makeshift office in their garage and set to work.

The aim was simple. Identify some isolated elderly people and find someone that lives nearby to visit them once a week. If I befriend, and a couple of friends do it, we’ll at least be helping a few lonely older people. We called our project b:Friend — does what it says on the tin, really.

Within a few weeks it was clear this wasn’t going to be a small project. Through social media people across the community applied to volunteer. People of all ages and professions, some with a young family and others just retiring. They realised there was a disconnect in their community and saw the value in supporting their older neighbours. For the next 18 months my sole purpose was to socially engage the isolated. I was a volunteer, unpaid, skint and working hours I didn’t know existed. I was lucky to have a roof over my head, no bills to pay and support from friends and family, without all of which it would have been impossible.

Today our charity supports around 150 older neighbours each week, we’ve made 70 befriending pairings and last year alone clocked 2,930 hours of volunteer contact time with isolated older neighbours. That’s equal to 5,860 episodes of Corrie!

It’s a start. The issue is huge but we’re facing it one cuppa at a time.

Befriender Jacqueline with older neighbour Cecily on a day out in Doncaster.

Back at the time of the gig I was reading a fantastic book called The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It creatively depicts the life of British scientist, Joseph Priestley. Back in the 1700s he discovered how to separate oxygen from the air we breath through a fortunate accident — as many scientific discoveries tend to be. The book is really interesting: from his ramshackle failed experiments in a crappy makeshift laboratory to finally making a notable discovery to influencing politics in America through science; the man’s energy to just get on with it and achieve his goal was unwavering.

I happened to finish the book the day after the gig on the train back up north for the weekend. While nearby, I visited friends in Leeds and decided to go to the memorial for Jo Cox to pay my respects. As crowds lay flowers and cards, and TV crews captured the mourning, I stood towards the back of the square having a quiet ‘seahorse’ moment. There were so many flowers. You could hardly see pavement. They all collected at the base of the statue in the centre of the square, the place of the murder itself.

As I peered up at the statue, Joseph Priestley was staring back down, looking over the scene. Unbeknownst to me, he was Batley’s most famous son, there to just give me that final, coincidental nudge. “Go on then, get on with it!”

It’s been a team effort. I wrote a little thank you…