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Never be Bored – Find Where you can be Useful

As you will have discovered if you have been following my ‘Monday Memories’ series I have, throughout my adult life, done stuff other than paid work. There are hundreds of organisations without which much of what we take for granted in our communities would simply disappear. Every one of them depends on people giving their time and talents free of charge. So I was delighted to see Sally Cronin’s blog post yesterday in which she extolled the virtues of volunteering. If you didn’t see it on her site, here is a link.

Sally included a link to the website that acts as a ‘clearing house’ for voluntary organisations in the UK. My ‘Monday Memory‘ yesterday included one to Volunteer Ireland. Wherever you live in the world, entering ‘volunteering’ into a search engine will take you to a host of opportunities from which you can choose one that suits you.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement #2: Back to Work.

The person we appointed as manager of the Services to Elderly People Project was due to commence work at the beginning of September. In August he notified us that he would not be able to leave his current employment as soon as he had originally supposed. As manager of a group of insurance collectors he was engaged in the process of winding down the operation which was transitioning to telephone and internet.

Completion of the process was not going easily and was now expected to take until December. He would have to withdraw his acceptance of our appointment. The steering committee met and decided that, rather than go through the whole recruitment process again, we needed someone to fill the gap as temporary manager, until our designated appointee was available. Delaying the start of the project would mean losing a significant element of the funding. I was asked if I would be willing to fulfill that temporary role, subject to a successful interview?

The upshot was that I found myself in full time paid employment once again, albeit for a short period. I took part in the recruitment of the first employees, each of whom had experienced a long period of unemployment and would be engaged part-time so that they could continue to receive welfare payments whilst also working on the project. I purchased tools and equipment, prepared and distributed a publicity leaflet, set up a task recording and scheduling system and, at the end of February, handed over a fully operational service to the new manager.

Late in the summer of 2009 I received a call from the manager of the community development organisation telling me she had nominated me to take part in a course being run by Volunteer Ireland. At the end of it I and the other man she had nominated would be qualified to deliver the same course to community groups around the county, the aim being to enable them to better manage their volunteers.

Image shows a modern single story building surrounded by trees an lawns.
The Cuisle Centre in Portlaoise – support for cancer patients and their loved ones. I’ve been a volunteer here since April 2010.

One of the participants on the first course I delivered, in January 2010, was manager of a cancer support charity. I asked her about the work that volunteers undertook at the centre they run. “Right now I’m looking for a gardener,” she said. When I told her of my interest in gardening she suggested that I arrange to meet with her in the spring to talk about it. Nearer the appointed date I suggested to Freda that she come with me. Maybe there were some tasks she could undertake as a volunteer there.

As a result of that meeting we agreed that I would work in the garden twice a week and that Freda would run a weekly knitting and crochet session for clients. Thus began an association that would last until the present day.

Meanwhile my efforts with the paint brush were continuing. The group held annual exhibitions and I sold a few paintings. I mostly painted landscapes, working from photographs, sometimes my own, sometimes from published images, especially from calendars. I had also taken tentative steps toward my other proposed activity, writing. Sometime in 2007/8 the local council offered a series of writing workshops which I attended one evening a week for 8 or 10 weeks.

Later in 2008 they appointed a writer in residence. Although I did not attend her workshops, I did answer her call for submissions for stories for inclusion in an anthology she was to publish at the end of her term of office. To my surprise and delight the story was accepted and duly appeared in print.

My first “in-print” short story appeared in this.

Then late in 2009 I saw an advertisement on the internet for an organisation offering opportunities for would-be writers. I e-mailed a sample piece and was instantly accepted. In hindsight that should have flagged a warning. Over the next year or so I submitted several articles with varying degrees of success.

The business model was what has come to be known as a “content farm”. Articles are produced with the deliberate intention to attract advertising. People clicking advertisements produce income for the organisation, some of which is shared with the writer. Articles are peppered with key words targeted at specific readers thereby attracting advertisers who also want to appeal to those readers. The research required can be time consuming and the business model was earning a bad reputation.

There were several attempts to change the model but eventually the business collapsed. The principle benefit for me and many others was the opportunity to “talk” to other aspiring writers via the forum. I have since been able to watch as the careers of several blossomed following the demise of the company.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement: #1 The first two years

In the run up to retirement I was repeatedly asked “What are you going to do with your time?” I was in no doubt, and told anyone who asked, that writing and painting were things I’d always wanted to do. Colleagues very kindly presented me with retirement present consisting of a selection of artist’s materials – acrylic paints, pastels, an easel and a pad of art paper.

The first weeks in the new house were taken up with creating a garden in the small space at the rear, shopping for furniture, and carrying out various DIY tasks to provide features that the developer had not covered. My daily routine included an hour walking to the town centre to purchase a newspaper and returning. This took me past a new senior school still under construction. By January 2007 the school was open and offering a range of evening classes for adults.

I joined the art class, Freda the flower arranging group. By the time the 10 week course was over I felt I was not learning anything of value. A brief item in a local newspaper indicated that a local group of amateur artists, who met weekly, were looking for new members. I contacted the lady whose number was provided in the article. I became a member of the group and remained so for the next 5 years.

I also wanted to resume providing my services as a volunteer. In April, in Ireland, a “Clean up week” takes place, the idea being for volunteers to participate in the collection of litter and a general tidying up of the local environment. Freda and I joined in with this event and were thereby introduced to the “Tidy Towns” group. Evenings during the summer were then spent planting up, and maintaining, various containers and hanging baskets around the town.

Tidy Towns is a movement not unlike the “Britain in Bloom” initiative in UK. Groups of volunteers in every community work hard to improve the appearance of their town or village through the use of planting and the clearing of weeds and rubbish from all those untidy corners; streams, lakes or canals. An annual competition is held to award certificates to those communities deemed most successful in these activities.

As keen gardeners we enjoyed both the physical activity involved and the camaraderie (the “craic”) that accompanied it. We would often end an evening of hard work with an hour of relaxation in one or other of several pubs. We continued as active members of the Tidy Towns group for the next 4 years.

Also that summer, 2007, a music festival, grandly entitled “The World Fleadh” (pronounced flaah), took place in the town. They appealed for volunteers with the offer of free entry into some of the concerts due to take place. I offered my time and was assigned the task of looking after the festival camp site. This proved to be not very onerous as there were only a handful of caravans, motor homes and tents.

The atmosphere around the town during the festival was electric, with stalls selling street food, cheap jewellery and clothing lining one street. The music on offer majored on Irish traditional music but included some mainstream popular genres also. I remember watching Katie Melua, for example, as well as a Manchester based Irish folk Group I had first seen, and been very impressed by, in UK a few years before – Flook.

All of this activity took up the summer but autumn and winter loomed with little by way of daytime activity to occupy us. Then, in January, a newsletter was distributed around the town by a semi-state organisation involved in community development. They were responsible for several projects, all described in the leaflet, which also indicated that some of those projects needed volunteers. I contacted the organisation and, after a brief interview in which I pitched my background and skill set, I joined as a volunteer administration worker carrying out various tasks over 3 hours each Wednesday morning.

The organisation had applied for funding for a new project, this one concerned with helping elderly people with simple tasks in their homes. The application had been rejected because it included certain activities which were already within the remit of the national Health Service Executive. It was necessary to submit a revised application with that element removed. This meant completely re-working the financial justification and cash flow predictions. This task was assigned to me.

In the summer, with funding for the project approved, a steering group was established to kick start it, recruiting staff and finding premises. As a member of the target demographic I was co-opted to that committee as chairperson.

Monday Memories – an unexpected legacy

Some people thought it was all over after last week’s entry. If you have been paying attention you will know that there was always more to my life than work.

Shortly after I began work at Brough I received a letter from a tracing agency asking was I the same Frank Parker whose father, Frank Alfred George Parker, was an airman killed in action in 1943. If so, I should get in touch in order to learn something of benefit. At first I thought this was a hoax, perhaps orchestrated by my son or my brother-in-law, both of whom were fond of practical jokes. Nevertheless I responded and was informed that a brother of my father’s had recently died intestate. The agency had been engaged, by the solicitor handling his estate, to locate next of kin.

In the years immediately following the war, and my father’s death, my mother had fallen out of favour with his family for reasons I never fully understood. It could be that the arrival of my sister more than 2 years after his death made my mother persona non-grata with my paternal grand-parents. There was, also, my mother’s belief, which she shared with me in a letter when I was in the process of moving from Hereford to Coventry in 1968, that my father was conducting an affair with another woman at the time of his death.

Whatever the reason, I can recall only two contacts with any of my father’s kin. The first was when my mother, my sister and I undertook a trip to London shortly after her mother’s death in 1948. We visited several of her prewar friends and relatives and I have a vague recollection of an elderly couple in a dark and smokey kitchen who I assume were my grand parents. The other memory is of a couple of about the same age as my mother who came to stay for a few days with us at around the same time.

This consisted of a brother of my father’s (not the one to whom the letter referred) and his wife/girl friend who was evidently suffering from some sickness of the mind, perhaps alcohol induced. I can remember a lot of shouting and the use of bad language, after which the couple left.

Whilst I had occasionally wondered about my relatives on my father’s side, the discovery that I might be entitled to a small legacy came as a surprise. The legacy arrived in two installments, one from his liquid savings, the second from the sale of his house.

There was a third amount, lodged in the account of a woman who had, it was said, looked after him for a number of years. What, I was asked, did I want to do about this? Should her right to keep this sum be contested? This question was asked of all the qualified inheritors.

I have no idea what response the others made to this question, but mine was to the effect that before receiving the letter from the tracing agency I had no idea the man even existed. I had no intention of depriving someone who not only knew him, but cared for him, of a sum which, so far as I could tell, he had intended her to have.

I used part of the money to purchase an annuity in Freda’s name since she would, if I were to die before her, receive only half of my pension entitlements. When, on my 60th birthday, I began receiving my Courtaulds pension, I began making regular payments into that annuity. The other anticipated advantage of providing this future income in Freda’s name was that her total income would likely be below the UK personal tax threshold, whereas mine would not.

Meanwhile, through my membership of the CVS management committee I became involved in a project to convert a disused school in the town of Goole into a facility for community groups. When I first heard about the plan I was scornful, believing it would be impossible for the small community to raise the amount of money required. The National Lottery had not been in existence for very long at this stage and ran several different funds tailored to specific objectives. One of these was the celebration of the Millennium. Our project qualified for that and one other objective.

The locally raised element of the total cost could be represented by voluntary labour as well as cash fund-raising. A small team of volunteers, including myself, therefore set to work carrying out whatever demolition work was required – taking down false ceilings, removing shelving and timber panelling, digging up tiled floors and removing tiles from walls.

Image shows a two story Victorian brick building with  clock tower in the foreground.
The former Victorian school in Goole which, at the end of the 1990s became “The Courtyard” community centre

The project was finished well before the millennium and provided office space for several community groups, a community hall, a community games room and a couple of seminar rooms, all clustered around a courtyard, which gave the building its new name – The Courtyard. Both the CVS and the Talking Newspaper, which I was still leading, had their base in the building. Having been a member of the project steering committee during the construction phase, I, like the others, now became a member of the board of trustees managing the facility.

I had taken up cycling, partly as exercise and partly as a means of exploring a wider area of East Yorkshire than is possible on foot. In 2002 the government granted an extra holiday in recognition of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. I undertook to spend that day cycling 100 miles to raise funds for the talking newspaper. I was accompanied by a friend of one of our committee members, a life-long member of a local cycling club who regularly took part in cycling holidays in continental Europe.

We began at 8:30 am in the market square in Howden. Following the Eastern section of the Trans Pennine Trail, we cycled to the coastal resort of Hornsea, arriving around 1pm and stopping for a picnic lunch before setting off again to arrive back in Howden around 6pm.

Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #4: In Reverse

I had one month’s salary in-lieu of notice. I began the weekly search of the “Situations Vacant” columns in the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph, sending my CV to various companies in need of men with my skill set. Christmas came and went with no offers of employment. I contacted the mortgage company and they were sympathetic to my plight. The bank, less so, when it came to my maxed-out credit card. Freda offered to sell some of the cheap jewelry she had accumulated over the years. She got a job on the housekeeping staff of a nursing home.

My former colleague who had worked for Pertmaster contacted me to say I might be able to work for them on a casual basis training new users to use the software. I presented one such course successfully, but it meant travelling to Bradford on each of the three days of the course.

In March I was contacted by a man I had worked with when he was a member of the CEGB’s planning team at Eggborough. The privatisation of the CEGB had now been completed and he had left to set up a recruitment agency. One of the power stations operated by National Power was installing a new stores cataloguing system and needed suitably qualified individuals to verify the data being transferred from the old to the new system. It was a six month contract at a relatively low hourly rate, paid for a basic 35 hour working week, with a £1000 completion bonus.

I took the offer despite the low wage, in the belief that after 3 months I would be able to take on a summer season with the power station overhaul company. That did, indeed, happen and the longer hours more than made up for the loss of the completion bonus I would have received had I remained on the other contract.

This time the station to be worked on was at West Burton in North Nottinghamshire, a 90 minute drive from our new home.

When the job finished I let the agencies I’d previously worked with know that I was once again seeking work. This time I had a call within a week, from the agency that had got me my job at Tioxide over 3 years before. Was I available to attend an interview that day? He would like to recommend me for a vacancy he had been asked to fill at short notice. I responded in the affirmative and he rang back half an hour later to say the interview was 20 miles away at 1:30pm.

At the end of the interview I was informed that a contract launch meeting was scheduled for the following morning in Grimsby. I would need to attend, along with the director, and the project manager who had, together, conducted the interview. I later learned that the project manager had also been recruited the same day via the same agency.

A view of the suspension bridge over the Humber estuary
Having crossed the Humber bridge many times during my 4 years as a county councilor, in 1992 I began crossing it daily to work back in Grimsby. Image from Wikipedia

So it was that, having moved away from Grimsby 15 months earlier to reduce commuting time, I was now commuting daily in the opposite direction!

Meanwhile, I had made enquiries about a Talking Newspaper service for visually impaired people in the district and discovered there was none. Goole District Hospital’s broadcasting service needed volunteers, however, so it was not long before I was hosting a Friday evening “Country and Western” show and the Sunday morning request show.

Sunday mornings we also had a pre-recorded religious tape which I played whilst visiting each of the six wards in search of requests to play later. After a while hospital management introduced a policy whereby people who were not desperately ill were sent home at the weekend so that the only people present on a Sunday morning were in no fit state to make, or listen to, requests.

In the school summer holidays a small group of young people began using the Hospital Broadcasting Service’s facilities to produce a talking newspaper as a community project. It was only a temporary project, but demonstrated the need for such a service. I found out that the mother of one of the boys was the local social worker with responsibility for the welfare of visually impaired people. I contacted her about setting up a permanent service, telling her of my experience. She put me in touch with a small group of friends and relatives of blind people in the district. This group were the core of the local branch of the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind).

Recently the RNIB had changed its policy, insisting that funds raised locally could no longer be spent locally but must be remitted to HQ. Branches were then supposed to request funds for specific projects. It makes a certain kind of sense, ensuring that funds raised in the more affluent districts are distributed to poorer areas. The local group in Goole were not happy at this policy change and welcomed the opportunity to support, instead, a new service for local blind people.

We had our committee, we could use the Hospital Radio studio – at least for the time being. All we needed was funds to purchase some tapes and recording equipment. Once again I undertook a sponsored walk – this time from Snaith to Howden, dressed as an emu!

I also contacted the CVS (Council for Voluntary Service) for advice and help. Before long I found myself seconded to the CVS management committee and appointed as treasurer.

Goodbye to the Seventies Part 2

Of course, it soon became clear that the job would take longer than six months – there were at least six lines to do, at three months each that meant the project would last at least a year and a half.

It also meant, of course, that I was away from home from Monday morning to Friday evening. I had the use of a car from the company pool and my accommodation in Grimsby was paid for by the Courtelle Division who also paid Courtaulds Engineering for my services. I discussed with my ex-colleague the possibility of my becoming a permanent member of his team and he agreed that it would make sense, but for some reason I never fully understood, the divisional board considered the possibility on a number of occasions over the succeeding months but it was fully one year before they finally said “yes”.


Cleethorpes Pier in the background from Dolphin gardens
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Steve Farehamgeograph.org.uk/p/3888454

My lodgings were in a small boarding house on one of the short streets running back from the promenade in Cleethorpes. Run by a Scottish former sub-mariner and his wife there was a clientele that mostly consisted of company representatives who made visits to the area on a fairly frequent basis and I got to know them all. There was also, for a while, a chap who was in the same position as me; from Newcastle, he had been appointed manager of the local branch of Lucas vehicle electrical equipment and needed to stay in the boarding house until he found, and completed the purchase of, a house in the area. We’d often stay up until quite late after dinner playing darts and “chewing the fat” with these men and the proprietor’s Scottish friend who was the PR Officer for the local council.

A full English breakfast every morning (very similar to a “full Irish”), two courses for lunch in the staff canteen (staff were separated from shift workers!), and two further courses for dinner back at the digs, washed down with two or three pints of beer, saw my weight climb from 10 stone to 11 stone for the first and only time in my life. I took note of this and cut back on some of the meals and the booze.

I also spent some evenings taking long walks on the beach south of Cleethorpes. There were miles of mud flats exposed by low tide. I remember one occasion when I had walked a long way towards the sea and suddenly realised I was looking up at the horizon and the string of container ships and tankers awaiting the tide before entry to Hull, Immingham or Grimsby ports. That is certainly how it seemed. It was definitely a disconcerting feeling and I quickly turned round and walked back! I can fully understand now how people get caught out by fast incoming tides in similar situations.

In the summer of 1978 I booked us into a chalet in the nearby holiday camp for two weeks so that Freda and Ian could have a taste of Cleethorpes. Back in Coventry at weekends I helped out with the collection of old newspapers for recycling as part of the local Scouts’ fund raising as well as continuing my voluntary work with the Community Broadcasting Service. Ian joined the cast of the Gang Show. I’ve written elsewhere about the snow that made it difficult – but not impossible – for me to get back to Coventry to see the show in March of 1979.

In May of 1979 the company finally made me an offer of permanent employment at Grimsby. They would continue to pay the boarding house costs for three months. As I was no longer working for Courtaulds Engineering I had to return their car and purchase one of my own. The salary I was offered was considerably more than I had been getting and there was a lump sum allowance to help with the cost of moving.

A Renault 10 like the one I purchased in the summer of 1979. Image found at https://barnfinds.com

We found a house in the centre of Cleethorpes, a narrow Edwardian terrace that had been constructed with four bedrooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. The two back bedrooms had been knocked together and the bathroom made larger. Downstairs the door connecting the first two rooms had been taken out and replaced with an archway. Beyond that was a small dining room and a good sized kitchen. It would be our home for the next nine years.

We arranged the move for the middle weekend of Ian’s two week camp in the New Forest with his Coventry scout group. We learned later that he had asked his best friend’s mother if he could stay with them after his mother and I moved to Cleethorpes!

Marlborough, Wiltshire, Englnd. Image copyright © of Barry Samuels

We drove down to Bournemouth on the last weekend of the camp to bring him back with us – the whole group had traveled down from Coventry by mini-bus and were returning in the same way. I had purchased a car from Freda’s brother – a white, rear engined, Renault 10. Although I’d driven it between Coventry and Cleethorpes several times by then, I had never before taken a short break during a long journey, setting out to continue before the engine had properly cooled.

We stopped for a food break in Marlborough, parking near the town’s Market Square. When I turned the key in the ignition on our return to the car the engine emitted a loud report and a puff of smoke. After the initial shock, and having checked that everything looked okay in the engine compartment, I turned the key again and the car started as normal. We learned that this was a “standard feature” of the car and sometimes took pleasure in watching people’s reactions whenever it happened.

Monday Memories – The Eager Volunteer

One day in November 1976 I got a message summoning me to Coventry for a meeting with the Technical Director. Frank, the Site Engineer, he told me, had angina and was not permitted on site. It was now up to me to take on the Site Engineer role. This announcement was followed by a memorable conversation in which my request for an increase in pay, to match the increased responsibility, drew a response to the effect that I was paid according to what I was capable of doing, not what I actually was doing – and, of course, he would not have asked me to do this job if he did not believe I was capable of doing it!

Construction, installation and commissioning continued throughout 1977. There were many problems with getting the pipework within the plant to fit together properly. The detail design of the pipework had been carried out by the Dutch company but we had many arguments about responsibility for work that had to be re-done on site. Was the error due to the contractor not following the Dutch company’s drawings? Were the drawings wrong? Had the piece of plant to which the pipe was supposed to connect been installed correctly? Between Frank, the pipework foreman and myself, we had many altercations as I decided whether or not I could sign off on extra expenditure, often dozens of such adjudications each day.

I was also responsible for site safety, implementing the new regime introduced by the Health and Safety at Work Act that resulted directly from an industrial disaster that happened in Lincolnshire whilst I was in South Africa.

The iconic image from the original video that accompanied the first release of Bohemian Rhapsody

I had acquired the habit of taking a beer or two with my lunch, originally in Coventry with colleagues. I remember it was one lunch time in that Coventry pub in 1975 that I first heard an amazing piece of music: beginning with something that sounded like an operatic aria then segueing into heavy rock and back again, it was much longer – and very different – to most of the material on the juke box. I had to know what it was called and who it was by. Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of the subsequent output from the band Queen, have remained favourites ever since.

Working alone in Derby I did not bother with lunch time drinking, for one thing the pub was too far away from my work site. After I was joined by an assistant, as the construction work progressed, we went to the pub together every lunch time. Thus it happened that one afternoon we were surprised by an unannounced visit from a government Health and Safety Officer who asked me to conduct him around the site where he was able to observe various, in his view, unsafe practices. Back in the office he berated me for my lack of attention to such matters, no doubt noticing the smell of my breath. Not an experience I want to repeat.

I should probably add that the new ethylene manufacturing facility at Derby never did produce much ethylene. Whilst we were installing our small plant, BP were installing a much bigger unit at their Hull site. Once that was up and running it became cheaper to buy ethylene from them than to operate our own plant.

Meanwhile I increasingly wanted to involve myself in the community as a volunteer. Ian had joined the scouts and I participated in various fund raising activities for them, notably the collection of bundles of old newspapers from the front doorsteps of homes in the neighbourhood. This was undertaken on Saturday mornings once a month, the bundles stacked in a shed at the back of the scout hut until sufficient had accumulated to make a load for the recycling company that paid a good price.

I applied to join the suicide counseling service, Samaritans, but was rejected after completing a psychometric test. Then I read about a new organisation, just starting up in Coventry, that intended to produce a talking newspaper for visually impaired people and a video magazine to be distributed to nursing homes and day centres. That seemed to be just right for me and so it proved to be. Soon I was writing scripts for mini-documentaries, operating a simple black and white video camera and reading aloud my own scripted voice-overs. I was also elected treasurer for the organisation.

The Spinners – Image from Wikipedia

I produced a short film about the Coventry fire station and its personnel; another about the refuse incinerator that provided hot water to the adjacent automobile factory. We filmed at events like the Royal Agricultural Show, held just a few miles from Coventry and where I recall operating the camera whilst a fellow volunteer interviewed the Liverpool based folk group “The Spinners” and (separately) Animal impressionist Percy Edwards. We also videoed school end of term theatrical productions. And we videoed a monthly news report as well as the audio ‘talking newspaper’ which was distributed by post on cassette tapes.

But that all came to an abrupt end early in 1978 when I began commuting, not to Derby, but to Grimsby, in a career move that would prove to be life changing.