You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 13) – Beach Life

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker

Before we move on as it’s been a few weeks since the last ‘You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids‘ blog, just a quick catch-up as to where we are. Brian and Jean back in England leaving me on my own in the south of Spain with the ten kids; the mini-bus lying in a heap in a gutter somewhere on Costa del Sol and I’ve just made the Youth Office back in Bexley aware of our predicament, they were not ‘happy bunnies’. The wheel had well and truly come off of our expedition and our ‘road-trip’ to Morocco had all of a sudden become a fight for survival in Andalusia. Now I fully accept there are worst places to be stranded than on a beach in Andalusia but believe me when I say that even that has it’s own stresses.

The highest priority for me was to try to locate an AA approved garage and get them to take a look at our mini-bus. Problem was, I’m no mechanic but even I knew the news would not be good. Eventually after a few days I did find one back in Malaga that would do the work and accept our AA money vouchers, I had no choice but to take it but Malaga was a fifty mile round trip and we had access to neither transport or a telephone, which ever way you looked at it nothing was going to be easy.

Our position was made a good deal easier by a piece of luck that presented itself in the bar one evening when some of the kids started talking to a couple from Sheffield. It turned out that this lad Simon spoke fluent Spanish and better still he was happy to act as a spokesman on our behalf in dealings with the garage, and when trying to blag the campsite management. Si turned out to be a godsend and he and his girlfriend became honorary members of our little clan.

Without a vehicle at my disposal my options for getting to and from the garage was either the bus or to hitch-hike. I was no stranger to hitch-hiking back in the day and Spain as a country was very hitch-hiker friendly so I never had think twice about getting out on the main road and sticking my thumb out.

Much to my frustration despite us cutting a deal with the garage it still took five days for a tow-truck to appear to recover the ailing mini-bus, so for five days it just sat there at the side of the road while we were just left kicking our heels

The news of the mini-bus when it came was just about as depressing as it could have been. The engine was knackered they were going to have to fit a new engine which meant we were going to be stuck here for days waiting for an engine to arrive at the workshop and it was going to wipe us out of nearly all our emergency money for the journey home but the truth was we had no option. It was the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’, I sanctioned the garage to order a new engine. If there were any lingering doubts as to our next move once we were on the road again this simply confirmed we were heading straight home, but as I was now the only driver us getting back to Bexley all in one piece  was far from a done deal.

Meanwhile our camp down on the beach had taken on something of a cult status and as the days passed it became a magnet attracting young people from far and wide. It would be fair to say that the kids, who were not having my stresses were having a great time.

Danny befriended these two lads from Leeds in the beach-bar one night, they were on a package tour and living in the Cosmos Hotel, across the road from the campsite. After a few days they abandoned  all the comforts of their hotel room and moved down 0n to the beach with us. This turn of events had a few hidden bonuses. As they were now part of our clan we, that is all eleven of us; had access to the facilities in their their hotel room, including the bed, the toilet and more importantly the shower.

A pattern started to emerge. During the day all of our belongings were stored on the pitch we were paying for on the campsite. I must say our pitch began to take on the appearance of a refugee camp with a stack of eleven air-beds and the luggage of eleven people when all we were paying for was one pitch and four people. The campsite management must have known something was going on but no one ever said a thing. Whilst we had no vehicle the days were spent chilling of the beach, or hitching a ride into Fuengirola for a change of scenery and to break things up a bit. The good thing here of course was because of the age of the group I could give them a lot more freedom, freedom you would not give to a younger group

Most nights after the last of  the tourists had left the beach the night people would start to gravitate towards the beach-bar, out would come the guitars, the light of the camp-fires and the smell of a BBQ attracting young people from all over. I remember a group from Manchester were regular visitors to our little enclave and then there were five young Germans from East Berlin who spent the night with us on a couple of occasions.

There was this one night when we went ahead with the BBQ although the food was pretty sparse when this group of Italian lads with a big stick happened by and started chatting. On seeing the slim-pickings on the BBQ they offered to go off and ‘rustle a sheep’ and with that they took their big stick and disappeared off into the darkness. When they next appeared some time later they were carrying food but much to my relief, it never had the appearance of a rustled sheep

We were happily living the ‘hippy dream’ and if our situation were not quite so serious, I could easily have spent the whole of the summer chilling beside the Mediterranean and doing not much else.

Things at the beach camp  where about to taken a significant turn for the worse, that is if things could get any worse than they already were.

I needed to go into Fuengirola nearly every day to either use the phone, or go to the bank or simply get some food shopping but either way kids were left unsupervised for long periods

One day, right out of the blue, I got back from town to be confronted with the worst possible news; while I was away six of the kids had packed their bags and set out on the bus for Algerciras to catch the ferry over to Morocco, I was mortified. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it. It was a real kick in the goolies. I genuinely never saw it coming and it meant that when they got back our whole relationship had changed, and I could never turn my back on them again.

How long did I give them before I went to the police to report them missing, they were all over seventeen so would the police be interested, so for the time being all I could do was sit and wait.

Turns out, this youth work lark might not quite as easy as if first seemed.

Most disappointingly the six who ‘dun-the-runner’ included the three girls together with Ian; Danny and Richard, this certainly complicated the situation and I couldn’t just let it drift. Sue at sixteen was the youngest in the group and I certainly felt a sense of responsibility towards her.

As you can imagine, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, lying there pondering my next move. It didn’t come much tougher than this. Of the ten young people in my care, six were in Morocco,  and the mini-bus was broken and in the workshop at the garage.

At some point during the night I decided, for no particular reason, that mid-day was the deadline. If I had heard nothing by then, I would need to at least register with the police that I was missing half-a-dozen young people, before that I would need to call in to the youth office back in Bexley and make them aware of the situation, that was not going to be an easy phone call.

The five of us that were left for whatever reason decided to have breakfast in the Cosmos Hotel restaurant the next morning, I might have just been stalling for time because as soon as breakfast was over I would have to phone the youth office. To my everlasting relief, in the middle of breakfast the wanderers returned, looking a bit tired and disheveled but none the worst for wear. It seems they made it to Morocco and hated everything about it, they spent the whole twelve hours they were there being scared and would have been back sooner if they could have got an earlier ferry. But they were back now and I had the problem of deciding how I was going to deal with them, bearing in mind my options were extremely limited and in the end I just had to let it slide otherwise I figured the journey home, when it eventually came, could have been very tense and difficult.

With us all back together again I thought it best not to mention that half the kids had gone off to Morocco when speaking to the youth office it would have been an unnecessary conversation and one at least while we were still on the road should remain our little secret. It wasn’t as if anything could be done about it and I was trying to stop panic setting in.

All i n all we were living on the beach for thirteen days before we got word our mini-bus was ready and we were free to go but that wasn’t quite the end of it

More next week

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 12) – I Think We’re Alone Now

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker

Just a quick recap on the situation I find myself in; In short I’m well and truly stuffed; I’m up pooh creek without a paddle. I’ve been abandoned for no good reason by the two other youth workers Brian and Jean who have just flown back to England leaving me alone in the south of Spain with ten teenagers. On the way back to Mijas after dropping them off at Malaga airport my situation went from pretty bad to very much worse as the mini-bus started making some very strange noises. The sort of noises no self-respecting mini-bus should make.

Put into context, I had been a part-time youth worker for a little less than two years and I had gained my part-time qualification just a few months ago. In the real world there is no way I should have been left in charge of a group of 16-19 year olds in Abbey Wood let alone Andalusia. It was nineteen-seventy-eight, the mobile phone had yet to be invented so I truly was on my own, my options were as far as I could see were to panic and crumble or to man-up and deal with it. One thing was for certain, if it was my destiny to be a youth worker this was going to be a very steep learning curve, but in the words of The Who; ‘The Kids Are Alright’.

Although there were eleven of us living in pretty close proximity to each other I was left feeling pretty lonely not knowing where my support was coming from. To complicate the picture even more, it was Sunday morning and back in the day nothing moved on Sunday morning in Spain so I could forget getting any assistance with the mini-bus either here in Spain or back home in England until offices opened on Monday morning, let’s face it, which ever way you looked at it, I was screwed.

Clunking and clanging the last few miles, the van limped its way back to the campsite in Mijas then with one final gasp collapsed in a heap in the gutter. Our mechanic for the expedition was Si Lane a first year apprentice at a garage in Sidcup, at least the bus was now in a place Si could have a look at it but right from the off I had the feeling the problems with this vehicle were going to be way beyond the page Simon had reached in his ‘How To Fix An Ailing Mini-Bus with a hammer and a box of spanners’ manual.

First things first, so as soon as everyone was up and about we adjourned to the lounge of the Cosmos Hotel for a team meeting. The lounge of the Cosmos Hotel was bound to become our H.Q. while we were stuck in Mijas. Right now I had more problems than I needed and one of the main ones was I had absolutely no idea how long we were going to be stuck here. I’m no mechanic but from the noises coming from the mini-bus even I could figure out. The van was in serious trouble.

That first decision however had already been made for me. There was no longer any question as to whether or not we were ploughing on into Morocco once we had a working vehicle. Truth was we were going nowhere any time soon and then as soon as we were on the road again we would be heading for home. Any other decision would have landed me in even more trouble

My decision to head for home came in for a lot less opposition than I thought it would. Although there was a general disappointment the kids understood the situation and knew it was the only decision I could make. Truth was I wanted to push on just as much as they did but I think that might have been seen as reckless and pretty unprofessional and if anything else went wrong the blame would have landed squarely on my shoulders.

One decision we did make at that first meeting was to pull seven people off of the campsite and set up a camp down on the beach, if we were going to be there for any length of time this would save us a lot of money. We left all of our kit on the campsite for safe keeping so the four of our group that stayed had eleven sleeping bags, eleven air-beds and pretty much eleven of everything else. It must have looked pretty suspicious to the other campers and the campsite staff to have a mountain of air-beds dominating one of the pitches but no one said anything so we just let it ride.

Being a teenager of the sixties I had done my share of ‘kipping-rough’ so now was the time for me to share the skills I had picked-up back then. By the time this trip was over we would have done quite a bit of living-rough adding to the all-round education of the young people not to mention the excitement of it all.

,The scam here was we would keep all of the kit and everyones personal belongings stored on the two pitches we paid for on the campsite, then late at night when all was quiet, seven shadowy figures could be seen carrying air-beds and sleeping bags down in the general direction of the beach, at first light the next morning these same shadowy figures would be making the reverse journey before the campsite office opened. I don’t know who we thought we were fooling, probably no one, but we made friends with the night security bloke who tended to turned a blind-eye to what was going on, and as often as not some of our number would be sleeping-on until long after the holiday makers were staking their claim to their section of the beach.

Monday morning and I wanted to make contact with the youth office and get my side of the story in before Brian and Jean arrived on their doorstep with their version of events. I wanted to make it clear that them returning to England was entirely their decision and had nothing whatever to do with the kids and their behaviour.  OK there was a bit of swearing in the back of the van but generally the kids were great and Brian and Jean’s leaving was not down to them. This was just not the family holiday they had wanted, and if there was any fault it was mine for taking them. They wanted a ‘family holiday’ but this was tougher, much tougher than that.

Things were made much more complicated by us not having access to a telephone; however did we survive in the days before mobile phones; I suppose we learnt to adapt. For this call to the youth office once again I threw myself on the mercy of the staff at the Cosmos Hotel but this was not a long term solution.

So even as I was dialling  I was trying to imagine how the mood in the youth office would change when my bomb-shell hit them right out of the blue. It’s not the sort of thing you are prepared for first thing on a Monday morning, even as the kettle is boiling for the first cup of coffee.

I spoke to Don, my immediate line manager and someone I considered a friend, this phone-call was really going to test that friendship.

Having dropped the bomb-shell, I rung-off to give it time to sink in and for the office to gather their thoughts, I figured we could then have a more sensible conversation. I had already decided I was only going to speak about the things they needed to know; so we spoke about Brian and Jean leaving and the mini-bus breaking-down but I kept to myself the fact that seven of us were sleeping rough on the beach at  night, in my view that would have only complicated  matters and people would have worried.

Next Week: The aftermath of that phone-call and acquiring cult status with the beach ‘hippy’ community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 11) – Sunday Bloody Sunday

Mijas Costa, in the late seventies was little more than a dot on the Andalusian coast squeezed between  the resorts of Fuengirola and Marbella, it didn’t on the face of it seem to be the sort of place life changing events happened but a chain of events over one weekend in Mijas in 1978 had a major impact on me and my future in youth work.

After the rocky start to our journey things had settled down for a few days but I still felt people were walking on egg-shells and you didn’t have to look to hard to find the underlying tension between Brian and a few of the lads. I must say that even I was pandering to him to some degree, in an effort to keep a lid on it. It was the ‘elephant in the room’ that people refused to notice.

Brian for his part tried to lighten up a bit but to me it still appeared he just didn’t get being a youth worker to older teenagers and I must say these lads were not the most difficult to get along with, the problem as I saw it was he tended to talk at them instead of to them. It’s a common mistake I came across all the time with some youth workers.

Soon after we arrived in Mijas, me and a couple of the kids went into town to stock up on supplies, and if possible make some phone calls home. This was the first time I had left the group alone, it would be interesting to see what they made of it I was only going to be away an hour, surely nothing serious could go wrong in an hour …… could it. God how wrong could I have been.

By the time I got back, the whole expedition had fallen apart, I mean fallen apart beyond redemption, open warfare had broken our between Brian and some of the group.

As we were parking the bus, we were greeted by John with his ‘game-face‘ on. He was hunting for Brian with the aim of telling him some home-truths he wouldn’t want to hear about one of his daughters. Brian in turn was seeking out Richard with the intention of ‘knocking-his-block-off’.  Ian was also looking for Richard because if Brian started on him, Ian was going to pitch in on Richards side.  Jean was close to tears and trying to get Brian to calm down

I needed to find Brian as a matter of urgency before things really got out of hand, Mijas was a very small town so they weren’t going to avoid each other for long.

And what was the cause of all this stress, had Richard been found in bed with one of Brian’s daughters or maybe he was caught with his fingers in Brian’s wallet, what on earth could it be that was causing all this angst.

Brian was apparently short three cigarettes out of a packet of twenty and as far as Brian was concerned Richard was in the frame for nicking them. As far as I could see the evidence was pretty flimsy and would never stand up in a court of law.

If you knew Richard you would understand just how ridiculous that was. If Richard was alone in a room with the Mona Lisa and there was a car outside with the engine running, Leonardo’s masterpiece would be perfectly safe. Richard was the straightest person I knew, and would never compromise his good name for three cigarettes.

It was a common wisdom amongst the other kids that one of Brian’s daughters had had  the fags away, but as far as her parents were concerned she didn’t smoke. His own daughter taking the cigarettes was the information John was eager to share with Brian. Luckily I located Brian before John caught up with him, Brian had obviously caught wind of the story because before John could say anything, Brian told him ‘if you accuse my daughter of taking the fags, I’ll deck you‘.

This is a youth worker talking to one of the kids; albeit an eighteen year old. Who took the bloody cigarettes was now irrelevant, Brian no longer had any credibility with the group, I felt the gap was so wide I couldn’t see how it could possibly be mended whilst we were on the road, living in each others pockets. It was only a few cigarettes, I was a non-smoker but those few fags had given me a real headache. I was the leader of this expedition and right now I needed to show some leadership.

I needed to get Brian out of there to try to take the heat out of the situation and give everyone a chance to cool-down. We headed to the beach-bar for a coffee, it was a few minutes walk and that for me was thinking time, after all we still the best part of three weeks left before we were due home and even if we turned around and headed now that would be a minimum of five days..

On the way to the bar I was going over the options in my head, and none of them were good it was simply a question of which was the least bad. Did I tough-it-out and plough on regardless, knowing the next blow-up could be just around the corner. Do I admit defeat and turn back when most; if not all; of the kids had done nothing wrong, certainly nothing to be robbed of their adventure, if anything the fault was mine for bringing a family with us as part of the deal. I could see the signs well in advance but if I hadn’t brought them I had no team and without a team I had no trip and I was letting my heart rule my head. In the end Brian and fate made the decision for me.

Brian went off to speak to Jean  and came back to say they we pulling out and going back to England, this time I took the opportunity to take him at his word. It was the third or maybe fourth time in a week he had threatened to go home, I told him he couldn’t keep holding the trip to ransom and maybe it was best if we cut our losses and they went.

The words slipped out of my mouth quite easily with no thought of the implications or consequences, but once they were out it was a relief for everybody. It was easily said but how the hell do we put it into effect. It was already Saturday afternoon, we were due to sail to Morocco on Monday morning and I couldn’t abandon them in Spain because straight away I would be the one in the wrong.

If we had any luck in this little episode it was that the biggest building in town was the hotel just across from the campsite. It catered for Cosmos package tours so I figured the best place to start was to go and speak to their reps, they’ll know about flights and the way around the system so that is where I went next. They were great, it was back in the day when being a tour company rep really meant something and people took their job seriously. I put Brian and the Cosmos reps in touch with each other and left them to it and unbelievably they came up with four tickets to the UK for the following day. I also gave Brian £100 from our ’emergency fund’ to help with his expenses.

As you can imagine there was a strange atmosphere hanging over the evening, with absolutely nowhere to hide, you were either sitting in the dark back at the camp, or in the hotel lounge or at the beach bar. There wasn’t anywhere to walk to, or simply go and sit, circumstances meant we had to be in each others company whether we liked it or not, in the end I stayed in the hotel lounge with Brian and his family while most of the kids headed for the beach bar where they at least had a pool table

As you can imagine I didn’t get much sleep that night, so much was running through my head. We had passed the point of no return with Brian but then what, tomorrow was Sunday which meant I wouldn’t be able to contact anyone at the youth office. Here’s a classic example of why we needed to update H & S regs. the very things I was belittling earlier in the story.  I needed some guidance but that wouldn’t be available to me until after the youth office opened on Monday.  Several of the kids sat up with me, they were all keen to keep going listing the skills we had within the group but I thought they were severely over-playing their hand. If we went on into Morocco the any misfortune befell me, what would be plan ‘B’, Without Brian I was the only driver.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

You know the old saying ‘it never rains but it pours’, believe me I had a monsoon falling on my head just about now, but ironically looking back it was the making of me as a youth worker and as a man. From here on in I had to make all the decisions and every one of them had to be right, I had no room for any mistakes.

First off I had to get Brian, Jean and the girls back the twenty-five miles to the airport at Malaga. Lisa and Lorna came with us to keep me company on the drive back to Mijas. Everything about the ride to the airport was surreal, then when we got there the saying goodbye. How do you say goodbye to two youth workers who are quite prepared to abandon you to your fate with ten teenagers and a suspect mini-bus in southern Spain some fifteen hundred miles from home, what are the right words to use. But we got to the airport, they left with the minimum of fuss, I put the van in gear and we were on our way back to Mijas.

On the return journey, some quite disconcerting noises started coming from the engine, the further we went, the louder they got and  the more concerned I became, eventually I had to pull off of the road to let the engine cool down. I would have lifted the bonnet to take a look inside but that would have given the appearance I knew what I was doing but in reality I know absolutely nothing about the workings of a motor vehicle. The mechanic on the expedition was Si, a big responsibility seeing as he was a first year apprentice in a local garage. My initial feeling was that whatever was wrong with the van was probably above his pay-grade and  far too much of a challenge for Si at this point in his career.

Next Week: Brian and Jean have gone, where do we go from here

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 10) – Into France (and the fun really begins)

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker

After a year of planning and preparation we were finally on our way; lock-up your camels Marrakech, here we come.

After all that planning and prep it didn’t take long for the wheels to start to come off. The hovercraft got us to Calais by mid-afternoon and we were soon on the road heading south, although we had done a couple of weekends practising making camp back at the youth centre, this time we would be doing it for real.The unpacking of the roof-rack, erecting the tents and most importantly cooking something edible for fifteen people to eat, thank god we never had any fussy vegetarians.  Then the delights of  all the washing-up fifteen make without the benefit of anything that could be considered a ‘mod-con’. Take it from me, we were not practicing healthy eating, we had two large gas-rings and two giant fry pans, you can guess the rest. With all that to do for the first time, we decided to make an early stop just outside the town of Abbeville in Normandy after an hour-and-a-half or so on the road.

There was already a language issue in the back of the van and the atmosphere was becoming a little tense. I had a group of teenagers from a south-east London housing estate, Brian had his wife and two teenaged daughters, some, but I must stress not all, of the lads swore as part of their everyday language, the ‘f’ word and the ‘c’ word had absolutely no meaning to them, they we just another collection of letters that when put together made a certain sound, they were not designed to either offend or impress, they were being used primarily as adjectives. Brian with his family in tow understandably  had a different take on things. He was an experienced youth worker who by the nature of his role would have been exposed to that language regularly but with his family subjected to it as well gave it a different perspective.

If things stayed like this it was going to be a very long month

When we arrived at Abbeville a couple of the lads found their way to the bar before everyone was properly out of the van, and whereas it wasn’t the brightest thing to do, the way Brian chose to deal with it was completely inappropriate, talking down to nineteen year olds as if they were naughty schoolboys, particularly when in their eyes they had done nothing wrong. It was late afternoon, they had been on the go all day, so they went for a beer.

One of the most difficult things when you work as part of a team is when you have to take the wrong side in an argument to support a colleague when you know from the start you are supporting the wrong side of the argument, but there I was lining up behind Brian when all the time I knew I could have murdered a beer too and wished I had been up in the bar with the lads. But Brian was part of my team so he had to be supported, at least in public

So after ‘a swift-half’ it was getting on with the camp building. We had decided on three teams of five and had a rota of who was doing what and when and once we got the issue of the beer behind us everything worked pretty well I thought but there was no getting away from it, Brian and I were going to have to have a chat.

I thought our little talk went off alright but in the morning I realised it never went as well as it might have when Brian told me that coming as a family had been a mistake and unless things changed he, Jean and the girls would be going home.

That gave me my first major decision and a test of my leadership skills. We hadn’t been on the road twenty-four hours, if Brian was to pull out I would sooner be somewhere I could get back home from with relative ease, but to keep going for now, to give me time to think and that evening we needed to have some sort of ‘clear the air’ group meeting. If I thought I was in a difficult position, spare a thought for Jean, she was an extremely nice person and a popular member of staff back at the youth centre, she was indeed on a hiding to nothing. She for sure had to be supportive of Brian so how would that affect her longer term relationship with other members of the group.

We had our meeting, Brian to be fair asked the lads, and it was only the lads we’re talking about, Lorna, Sue and Lisa were not given to swearing, or to drinking for that matter, to consider his position and try to be more thoughtful. As I said my position was to support Brian and for the next few days things jogged along quite sweetly as we followed a tourist trail down through France.

We stopped in Rouen for a quick tour of its wonderful cathedral, that was nearly a mistake, from the town centre the road south was almost too much for our mini-bus with all the weight it was carrying but we huffed and puffed and eventually we made it. One of the best things about the long days on the road was the music, no one else could be bothered to bring any cassettes so the musical choice was simple, it was mine or no music at all.

After a day or two, I was behind the wheel when we found ourselves sitting at a set of traffic lights when I looked up and noticed signs indicating the road crossing us was a section of the Le Mans 24 hour circuit; there was nothing else for it, we had to chuck a right and see where the road took us.

That bit of fun over we were back on the road and heading for Spain. Our night stop was in a vineyard on the edge of a little seaside town called Bidart, the poor relation to the swankier resort of Biarritz just up the road. Bidart did us just fine, none of us had the money to do swanky, we had been on the road for four days and it was already apparent a few of the boys needed some help with their budgeting, if you started with £100 you cannot spend £25-a-day and expect it to last a month but there were those amongst us that thought they could.

We spent a really nice evening; an evening I will never forget; sitting on the church steps in Bidart’s lovely town square, having a couple of beers and just chatting. There was a range of bars to choose from so each to his/her own. The fact that we were such a large group and not always the quietest, drew attention to us and during the course of the evening several people came over to speak to us and were really interested in our expedition and by how such a project could be undertaken by a youth group.

It’s funny how something as simple as sitting on three-or-four stone-steps with half-a-pint of beer, on a warm evening can give you memories that last a life time.

Next morning we drove the few miles to the border and crossed into Spain, The Pyrenees were standing up in front of us, looking frighteningly big. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried. Knowing the trouble the bus had getting onto the ferry didn’t fill me with confidence. It wasn’t until now that I realised just how mountainous Spain was, I’ve since heard the it is the second most mountainous country in Europe but I don’t know whether to believe that

Back in the seventies there were no motorways crossing the mountains in this area, but then ‘Motorways!‘ where’s the fun in that. Brian and I had been looking at the map and had decided a good place to tackle the mountains was via the road that ran between Bilbao and Burgos. It was marked as a ‘red‘ road and with my map knowledge; which I think is as good as the next mans; ‘Red‘ = Trunk Road …… trunk road my arse, it was a bloody cattle track, or at least not much better. On the plus side we got some stunning views but the down-side was it was taking us for ever as the mini-bus struggled with each and every hill and believe me there were plenty of them.

In the end we were forced to give up on our adventurous route and drive twenty miles or so across country to link up with the main road to Burgos from San Sebastian and amazingly ran into the London Union group at the giant statue to ‘al Pastor‘; (‘the shepherd’) by the side of the road as we approached Burgos.

Burgos is a beautiful town with one of those massive cathedrals the Europeans do so well, and it was here we had our first night out as a group, but boy did we earn it. We camped outside the city but we weren’t to sure how far outside until we decided to walk into town that evening. We were in fact over three bloody miles outside, it was a lovely evening and it would have been a nice walk if it wasn’t for all the moaning coming from the group

Anyway we eventually got in to town, did a bit of touristing before finding ourselves in a night club, now I don’t do ‘dancing the night away’ nor it turns out do John or Richard but everyone else was ‘getting on up’ and ‘getting on down’ as ordered by the vocalist in the majority of the songs and before we knew it, it was after two in the morning, this was a mid-week night. The Spanish do keep very late hours, but we had another long day on the road tomorrow so with that in mind we ordered some cabs to get us back to the campsite.

The next morning I was not the most popular person as it was me getting everyone up, in fact I’m sure one or two people swore at me but we now had to put in some hard miles. It was Thursday and our ferry left Algeciras Monday lunch time so better get our arse in gear.

Of the countless millions of British people that visit Spain, no more that a handful ever venture more than a few miles from the costas, I’ve now driven across the middle of Spain four times, this was the first.

As I’ve said Spain is very hilly, other than on the Central Spanish Plateau there are not many miles when you’re not going either up or down hill and some of the hills are very very steep.  The plan was to make it to Granada, then take on the Sierra Nevada mountains then have a rest day at the beach somewhere on the Costa del Sol before crossing to Morocco on Monday but the hills were pushing the van to its limits and not everyone was content to sit in a roasting mini-bus for hour upon hour with very little time to stop and explore any of the places we were passing, once again things were getting tense

Next Week: Sunday Bloody Sunday

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 9) – ‘Let’s Roll’

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker

Nineteen-Ninety-Seven came to an end and then we really were counting down to the departure date. Although we weren’t leaving until August there was so much to do that I knew that time would soon be eaten away. As yet we still didn’t have a vehicle and that was beginning to become a bit of a worry to say the least but I had to push ahead as if I did have one or else time really would run out

I had never undertaken anything like this project before and I was really learning on my feet as I went along what now seems like basic stuff, such as making sure the kids had all the injections they were supposed to have in plenty of time. There was a lot of resistance to the ‘Yellow Fever’ jab; mainly because it hurt; but also we could not get it locally. At the time you had to go all the way up to the ‘Tropical Diseases Hospital’ in Paddington for a procedure that took less than three seconds. Then there was keeping on top of the Malaria tablets, was  everyone taking them when they should be, things that just weren’t on my dial when I took this on. All of this had to be in place months in advance and unless I managed to get a fifteen seater mini-bus from somewhere, it would all be for nothing.

Those of you that have been following the story from the beginning will remember I’d started out two years before at River Cray Youth Club and may also recall that ‘The Cray’      shared a building with Foots Cray Meadows campsite, this proved to be a really good connection. After my move to Royal Park and long before the notion of taking on an overland trip to Morocco came into my head I had kept in touch with ‘Ed’ the campsite manager, principally in case I ever want to do a spot of overnight camping with members from my new club.

As it turned out, I could call upon Eddie to supply us with almost all of the hardware we needed, tents, catering size gas burners and lamps, large cooking pots etc and a couple of extra sleeping bags in case of emergencies.  I can’t even think how much that saved us, it was a god-send.

I touched base with the youth office from time to time but by and large we were left to get on with it locally and as I said last week most of our practical support came from The London Union of Youth Clubs up at Clapham Common and over the month myself and Jean one of the other youth workers involved in the trip were regular visitors. Bexley for their part did underwrite the trip with a book of AA vouchers to the tune of £500 for emergency use, i.e. if the van broke down I could get all the kids home. In this instance AA stood for the Automobile Association but there were times when I think I would have been better off if it was £500 for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Eventually I did find a mini-bus from a company named Centaur Travel, out on the A20, so the expedition was back on. The bus they come up with however looked as though it was on its last legs long before I got anywhere near it and if I had had any alternative I would have turned it down but at the time it was all we had so with fingers crossed I held on to it with both hands. In the fullness of time for what will become apparent later in the story Centaur Travel will deny any knowledge of us wanting to take their bus to Africa, but I can say with my hand on my heart I never once told them any lies.

Another significant thing in the run-up to our departure was we managed to attract a little bit of sponsorship from a few local businesses, I remember one was the builders merchants ‘Rush & Tomkins‘; then there was a local Estate Agents and a couple more. The  sponsors each paid £250 for a photo-shoot with the local press taking photos of the van with kids hanging out of the windows and doors and a banner advertising their company as one of our sponsors. The local newspaper and representatives of the businesses were on hand, together with an array of dignitaries from Bexley Youth Office and what seemed like half of the Albany Park estate to kiss us goodbye on departure day.

So after all the angst spread out over several months we’d reached the point of no return. Me and my big mouth, what on earth had I let myself in for, what seemed like such a good idea; such an adventure; twelve months before, was here and although I would never let on, inside I was shitting myself.

I’d picked up the mini-bus the day before and even though I did my best to get to the club early and unlock before the kids started arriving with all their kit, most of them were there before me. I’d stopped to pick-up Brian, Jean and their girls on the way and from the off I had some serious misgiving about my team. We were off for a month on-the-road rough-camping with the intention of going down into a corner of the Sahara Desert beyond the Atlas Mountain of Morocco.  Jean appeared at her door in a short-skirted party dress and sling-back high-heeled shoes and Brian in a ‘Ben Sherman’ shirt and a pair of ‘stay-pressed’ trousers they could for all the world have been going to a summer BBQ around a friend’s house.  I didn’t really know what we were heading into but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that.

One of the many things where we were short on experience was packing a roof-rack so the load was spread evenly not at all easy when you see some of the odd-shaped bundles we were taking. Then there was the tying off of  the tarpaulin so we weren’t flapping our way down the A2 towards Dover, another thing that I  had to learn on the hoof.

I’m almost frightened to tell you about the first hour of our expedition/adventure but in the interest of honesty I have to own up to it. We rolled out of the youth centre gate with the crowds waving; up Kimberley Drive and off the estate only to cross the railway line and roll back onto a different part of the estate for a farewell pint in ‘The Albany’, the pub outside Albany Park railway station, it was less than half-a-mile from the youth club door  and considered to be our local. This is of course something else that would never happen in these ‘Risk Assessment‘ obsessed days; but before you start ‘tutting’ and muttering under your breath, remember these were different days when different rules applied. No youth worker I knew back then would have considered it much of a big deal. Seeing as a trip such as this wouldn’t even get off the ground nowadays, that doesn’t really count as a black mark against me, Brian or Jean.

Eventually we made it to the A2 and were heading for Dover, back then fuel was much more expensive in France so the last thing most people did when travelling to the Continent was to stop at the garage on top of the hill as you drop down into Dover Port to fill-up

Almost unbelievably while we were in the petrol station the London Union convoy pulled in, it seemed there were hundreds of them, several mini-buses full of young people and staff, two removal lorries for the baggage and support kit, including a ‘field-kitchen’, and not a roof-rack in sight. Their field kitchen with its well stocked larder including a range, herbs and spices made our two-ringed burner and a choice of corn flakes or weetabix for breakfast a bit second division. The LU had their own cooks on board, cooking for fifteen was new to all of us, I wasn’t even a cook back then, another skill I had to learn on my feet.

In many ways the cooking was a good thing because it was a skill we were all learning together and all of the kids had as much input as the staff.

Over the first four or five days we criss-crossed with the LU and met up several times, one of those times however was not on the ferry. In an effort to make this a real adventure right from the start, I had booked us to cross the channel on the Hovercraft, remember there was no Channel Tunnel back then so it was ferry or hovercraft and I felt not many, if any of the kids had ever been on the hovercraft, so why not.

The misgivings I had about the van from the start were beginning to play-out, we had too much weight and the bus kept ‘grounding‘ as I tried to drive it up the loading-ramp and onto the hovercraft so everyone except me, the driver, had to get out and walk on as foot-passengers and even then I spent much of the time scraping the back along the ground. We had only got as far as Dover and I already knew Centaur Travel were not going to get their van back in the condition it was given to us in and we still had another month on the road ahead of us.

Next Week: Down into France and the fun really begins

Appendix ‘A’ – The names of the Royal Park members on this expedition:-

Ian Anderson        Sue Ansett       Richard Atkins       Lorna Butler           John Flynn                        Daryl Gayton        Simon Lane     Danny O’Riley        Andy Shore             Lisa Taylor

 

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 8) – Putting the FUN Back Into FUNd-Raising

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker

In an act of blind faith or mind-numbing stupidity, the powers that be in the Bexley Youth Office had decided that it was indeed a good idea to allow three part-time youth workers, with absolutely zero experience in leading or even taking part in an expedition to Morocco, or anywhere else for that matter, follow through on what was in the end a fairly hair-brained scheme of taking a dozen teenagers away for a month overland to Morocco. But seeing as they were happy to let it happen, and I was to lead the project, what I needed was a plan.

Everything needed to be done from scratch and I mean everything. For instance, we had a perfectly good mini-bus sitting in the garage but unfortunately it only had twelve seats when we needed fifteen, therefore our wheels had to be hired. That proved to be a real obstacle as when the hire companies realised we wanted to take their vehicle down into Africa with a bunch of teenagers on board, we suddenly became persona-non-grata. It looked as if we were going to fall at the first hurdle; No bus = No road-trip.

Money was another big headache. I had absolutely no idea where to pitch it. How much to charge each of the youngsters; how much; if anything; should the staff pay or should all of the costs be loaded onto the kids. I knew for a fact some of the kids came from families that were not too well off so should they be paying to subsidise me on this little jaunt. We had a whole year to engage in a bit of fund-raising but along with all my other short-comings, I was no fund-raiser and people were looking at me to take a lead

The youth centre programme of course had to run alongside all the Morocco stuff, after all only a handful of our senior members were involved and of course there was alway my ‘day-job‘. I was an electrician at the time, this also needed to be serviced.

So armed with a long list of questions, my first port of call needed to be the London Union of Youth Clubs (LU) to cry ‘HELP’!!!, after all it was them that got me into this mess by dangling the carrot of a trip to Morocco in front of me. As I’ve said after doing their best to put me off, when it became clear that was not going to work their support became invaluable, telling me the sorts of things experienced people knew, things that were way beyond me and my team.

Things like the order in which to approach things, all the paperwork we would need, all the injections we would need, the best routes to take and places to stop, the list was endless but it all needed to be done, checked and then re-checked.

Although I said I was no fund-raiser, the one thing I wasn’t short of  was imaginative ideas for fund-raising. Obviously, the more money we raised the more we could keep down the cost to the to the young people.

At the time as well as being an electrician and a part-time youth worker, I was also a DJ on a ‘mobile disco’; ‘Party Tunes for All Occasions’, so it seemed quite natural to organise a benefit-gig to try to raise a few bob. Where it did depart from the normal perhaps was that our fund-raising disco went on for ‘Fifty-Four Hours’ (that is 54 hours); dancing the night away, then dancing the following day away; then the next night and so on, you have to remember that this was in the days long before ‘all-night raves’ and dance parties when a disco that lasted fifty-four hours was a very unusual beast.

We started a six-o’clock on Friday evening then playing music non-stop through until mid-night on Sunday. Now that’s what I call a disco. Tickets were sold either by the six-hour session or by a ‘season-ticket‘ which allowed the holder to come and go as they pleased. Believe it or not a few of the young people got sponsored to dance for the entire fifty-four hours or at least as much as they could manage before they collapsed.

The ‘gig’ was hugely successful with the Friday night and Saturday night sessions nearly selling out but on ‘the graveyard shift‘ between 6am until mid-day on Sunday there were only a handful of us in attendance.

Part of the reason for the low numbers was that by now the youth centre had a football team that played in the Sidcup Sunday morning league and a number of the lads that were coming with us to Morocco were in the team.  They turned out to play having been at the youth centre since Friday, the result was not good.

The advent of the youth centre football team is in itself an interesting little story. We had a thriving football section within the club with some pretty decent footballers coming along a couple of times a week to play 5-a-side. We had long been talking about forming a football team to enter a league and represent the youth centre. Trouble was a good few of the lads were by now over eighteen so we needed to enter an adult league. Maybe it was a touch of arrogance but we did not want to start life in the 6th Division of the ‘Sidcup & District League, we had a number of players who were playing senior football on Saturday afternoon who were much better than that.

Then right out of the blue one night the lads turned up with this bloke they knew whose football team was ‘folding-up‘ after many years. Now if we could sign on for them en-mass we could take their name and enter the Sidcup League in the First Division, a much better standard of football and saving us years of playing against what we thought would be inferior opposition to gain promotion after promotion before arriving at our appropriate level. The football team we were usurping was called ‘The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen‘ an unwieldy title shortened to ‘AJEX’. As far as I am aware we never had any Jewish kids in our number so we changed the name slightly to ‘Ajax‘, not so coincidently the name of one of the best teams in Europe having won the European Cup three times. We even changed our kit to match that of the Dutch giants hoping the ‘fear-factor’ would give us a goal start.

Back to the disco.  I, with a great deal of support and endless cups of tea and coffee; managed to spend the whole of the fifty-four hours behind the decks, although I do admit to playing whole sides of Van Morrison and other contemporary artists albums through the early hours which have very little to do with disco but did allow me to chill on a comfortable settee with the minimum amount of effort changing vinyl.

One of the fears about the disco running through two nights was that it might attract ‘the wrong sort of punter‘ at three o’clock in the morning when the pubs were closed, the curry houses were closed and there were still plenty of people kicking about trying to find something to do. The gig had been well publicised so word would have been ‘out there’ for miles around, but the gods were smiling on us and we never had any issues.

Although there were times when it seemed it would never end, eventually Sunday evening did roll around and we were on the final stretch. For those last couple of hours it was as if the whole of Albany Park had turned out to see us finish, the club was rammed, with friends and family coming from far and wide. I can’t for the life of me remember how much the whole event raised but I can remember I was well pleased and it meant we could reduce to price of the trip to the kids taking part.

We spent the rest of the year fund-raising but the disco was our ‘high-water mark‘. Only the ‘open/fun day’ came close to it for bringing the money in but we did have a couple of other ‘marquee‘ events

The first of these was a twenty-four hour sponsored pool marathon which I must say I loved, it was indeed great fun. We devised a number of different games to keep us fresh and different ways to relieve those nearest and dearest to us of their cash. Let’s face it, if you do any sponsored event it is those closest to you that cough up most of the money. Very little of it comes from strangers or even acquaintances, you go to the same ‘well’ again and again and again, hoping that it never runs dry. But at least our scheme was a bit of a lottery, where one of our lucky sponsors had a the chance to win a decent amount of cash back.

The players could be sponsored in a number of different ways; i.e. Guess the number of ‘frames‘ we would play in 24 hours, not easy to estimate as we were not playing 8-ball pool. Then each played would see how quickly they could clear the table, with players of widely differing skill levels this was a ‘mare‘. Some of the better players would clear the table in just a few minutes in not much over twenty shots while others were plugging away for what seemed like hours as they were not natural pool players. This was not a gender issue as one of our young women was as good as most of the lads and a couple of the lads were not very good at all.

The Lottery element was in estimating the number of balls in total would be potted in the twenty-four hours. Fifteen balls per frame so pick your number of frames and multiply by fifteen; absolutely impossible. For example if on average a frame took ten minutes that would take it to well over 2,000 balls. So like the lottery pick a number somewhere in that region and just pay your pound, cross your fingers and pray. Mind you it was a prize worth winning as the closest to the actual number got 40% of the money taken on this game, that increased to 50% if the number was dead right. That was a great night.

In a similar vein we had a 24 hour sponsored darts marathon. I remember that was in the dead of winter. Our dart board was in the music room which was nice and cosy but if you stepped outside the club, boy was it bloody cold

Again we were very imaginative in the ways we could make people’s wallets just a little lighter. Each dart player worked as part of a team with their own scorer which meant we needed a dozen extra ‘non-spear-chucking’ volunteers, each with a calculator. Four players would throw in turn for an hour, then rest for two hours before they were on again, as with the pool we had a devised a fiendish  ‘lottery game‘ whereby you paid a pound to guess the total accumulated we would reach between us, the figure would be astronomical as there were a couple of very handy darts players in our number.

All this, together with the proceeds from an ‘open-day’ and a couple of jumble sales served to keep the cost down to the young people who eventually by the time we attracted some sponsorship money from a few local businesses we could round out to £400 for a month on the road; this included; food, accommodation (in tents) all transport costs and even entry to one or two attractions we would pass on the way.

Next Week: As the departure date gets closer, my butterflies get bigger

 

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You’ll Never Do Anything With Kids (part 7) – A Game Changer

Tales Of An Unconventional Youth Worker 

Some people, possibly even most people experience an event that changes their lives. I’m lucky enough to have had a few of these and luckier still to have recognised them, some are instant, you know straight away that things will never be the same again, some are slow-burn and it’s only when you look back years later and put two-and-two together you realise where a certain chain of events started.

By the time 1977 rolled around I had thrown myself into my role as a part-time youth worker, I had completed my basic training and a number of other in-service training courses and although I had only been a youth worker for less than two years I was regularly picking up ‘Leader-in-Charge’ (LinC) sessions which meant taking responsibility for opening the youth centre and for things that went on during that session.

One of the more menial tasks is to arrive early and sift through that day’s post, pigeon-holing any correspondence to the appropriate person and to ‘bin’ any ‘junk mail’. Back then saving the trees was not on the agenda and we had no facility for re-cycling so an awful lot of stuff got binned.

On one particular evening, buried deep in the pile of ‘junk’ was a ‘flyer’ from The London Union of Youth Clubs (LU). Now if a colleague had been answering the mail, this little ‘flyer’ could well have found its way into the bin and been lost on me forever. But luckily it didn’t, I saw it and acted on it and it turned out that this innocuous little piece of A5 paper played its part in determining the future direction of my life.

The LU were looking for young people from the London area to join them on an expedition to Morocco in the summer of nineteen-seventy-eight but better still they were also looking for volunteer youth workers to get involved. I was in, I couldn’t think of anything better. I was thirty years old and in my prime, and my mind was racing ahead. There were one major snag, I still needed to get it passed Angela, bearing in mind the trip was a month-long, and she would be left at home with Matthew who would be just turned two.

At the time my day job was working as an electrician for Angela’s dad and I figured if I could swing it with Angela I could swing it with him.

I set about canvassing the young people in the club. Without any young people to show, my chances of getting on the trip were remote in the extreme but to my surprise I had about twenty young people expressing an interest. That number was always going to be whittled away but it was enough to encourage me that at least a few of them would come through.

Surprisingly Angela was ‘on-side’; but why surprisingly, she has always been ultra supportive, and after a few phone calls and filling in the odd form, Angela and I found ourselves together with a couple of the kids heading for an initial meeting up near Clapham Common. To my dismay this was a London wide appeal and the LU were only looking for one or two kids from each youth centre and because of my lack of experience in this kind of expedition my chances of getting to Morocco were non-existent.

We were all a bit downcast on the car journey back to Albany Park, when talking it through someone and I can’t remember who, except I know it wouldn’t have been Angela, suggested that with twenty people we should be able to run our own expedition. How ‘off the wall‘ was that.

Anyway I tossed the idea around in my head for a few days and quite ridiculously decided it was a ‘goer’. Whatever put that idea into my head God alone knows.

Time for a recap just to help you keep up.  I had been a youth worker for barely five-minutes; I have had absolutely no experience at leading any kind of expedition let alone one to a country with an entirely different culture; as yet no other youth workers have put their hands up to be part of this hair-brained scheme, but, I do have an idea and a bunch of teenagers from Albany Park on board.  I’m off to sell the idea to the powers-that-be in Bexley’s Youth Service, what could possibly go wrong.

Surprise number one was the the youth officers didn’t send me off to have my head looked at, they told me to go away and work it up into a do-able plan and then come back and try again. These were the days when risk-taking was all part of the great adventure.

As time moved on one by one, as expected, the kids started to drop out until I was eventually left with ten, these appeared to be hard-core and determined to go. A good thing as far as I was concerned was they were all loosely part of the same friendship group, they were all kids I knew pretty well and was comfortable with, I had seven lads all aged 17/18 and three girls aged 16/17, the three girls meant my youth work team, if I managed to get one, needed to include at least one female worker.

After a great deal of bribery and the selling of my soul I eventually got another two youth workers to commit to the trip; that was a good thing. The bad thing was they were a husband and wife team, alarm bells should have started ringing right there and then but I wanted so badly to make this thing work they were probably ringing loud and clear, I just wasn’t listening.

Worst still the husband and wife team, let’s call them ‘Brian and Jean’, mainly because their names were ‘Brian and Jean’ came as an extended package, their two daughters, one Lorraine I could justify, she met the sixteen plus age profile and was a member of our youth centre, the downside was she was not part of the same friendship group and if I’m being honest her personality did not really endear her to the rest, furthermore she made it clear right from the off she didn’t want to part of any expedition to the back-of-beyond. The other daughter, who’s name escapes me was a couple of years younger than everyone else but without her there would be no Brian or Jean so no trip. To complicate matters even further, Brian didn’t even work with us at Royal Park, he was based at Northumberland Heath Youth Centre and therefore had no relationship with any of our kids, Jean did work at Royal Park and was a nice person who was really well liked.

A family of four joining ten teenagers from Albany Park, being cooped up in a mini-bus with no hiding place for a four-week ‘road-trip‘ I ask again, ‘what could possibly go wrong’.

So with my team (of sorts) in place and a group of what were in all honesty high quality young adults committed to the project, I went back to the youth office and in a meeting that lasted less than an hour, unbelievably, I had their blessing and it was round about now the enormity of what I had taken on hit me. Those of you that are involved in youth work at any level try to compute this; a recently qualified youth worker with slightly less than two years on-the-clock being allowed to lead an overland expedition from a south-London housing estate to Morocco, that is Morocco.

I kept our destination as Morocco for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the closest place to Europe you could go to find a completely different culture so we could reasonably call it an expedition. Expedition was a good word to have in the title when we were trying to do any fund-raising,  a fortnight in Benidorm didn’t seem to have the same ring to it. Then the LU, who were well experienced in this trip, having run it every two-years since almost the beginning of time, were there for support. I should say that when the LU first got to hear we were running our own trip and just how inexperienced our team was they did their best to make us reconsider and take on something a little less challenging to start with. Once it became apparent I was determined to push through with it, they could not have been more helpful with routes; places to see; pitfalls to beware of and of course the vast difference between a northern European culture and that of a north-African in the main Muslim country.

The expedition was still a year off but with so much to do that was just as well. Next week I’ll tell you how we spent that year and the tricks we got up to when fund-raising, to try to keep the costs down.

Oh! and how did that little A5 flyer prove to be a real game-changer for me? On our return to Royal Park, within Bexley’s youth service I had ceased to be Paul Green, youth worker and had become ‘Paul Green super youth worker’ and I knew that I no longer wanted to be an electrician with a bit of youth work tacked on in the evenings and weekends, I wanted to be a full-time youth worker with maybe a bit of electrical work on the side to help with the finances

Next Week: How we put the FUN in FUNd raising

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