During the process of trying to open up a conversation about what a Culture Strategy is, who it’s for, who writes it and what it should do, I’ve attended lots of meetings and groups. Sometimes for ten minutes as an item on their agenda, others for a longer conversation. Following one such meeting I was approached by Dawn from Space 2 to meet their team and see how they could get ‘unheard voices’ included in the conversation.
The team at Space 2 were brilliant and very generously opened up their little black book of events, community groups, venues and meeting spots where people from all walks of life might be willing to talk to me about what their culture looks like and how easy or hard it is to enjoy that culture in Leeds.
This is how I came to be driving around Seacroft looking for the Denis Healey Centre where the enigmatically titled Men’s Room takes place. Beyond the fact that it was a group of men who meet in a room, every Tuesday I didn’t know what to expect – how old are these men? Why do they meet? Why there? What do they do when they meet?
Eventually I find the centre, which is less than welcoming. The shutters are closed and padlocked in place and there’s a buzzer on the door but no sign to tell me this is the home of the Men’s Room. When I finally get inside I find a small group of men of varying ages, and Claire who runs the group but does so in an unobtrusive way, making cups of tea, providing biscuits and banter.
Claire asks me to explain myself and I fumble a way round explaining what I’m doing without using words like ‘culture’ ‘strategy’ or ‘policy’, which I’m learning are alien or just uninteresting words for many, whilst simultaneously trying not to dumb down and patronise a group of men who seem to have seen much more of the world than I have. It’s a slow start and Claire does much of the talking as the men seem unsure of what to say, having never really been asked before.
One man joins the group, he only came to use the computer and didn’t know about the group, he’s made welcome and a cup of tea but seems shy. He tells a few jokes, clean ones only, he says he’s only staying two minutes, but stays an hour and a half and talks with the others.
Claire talks about the group’s first year when it was just one man who turned up every week without fail, but it didn’t matter because for that one man there was a space to go, a release of sorts. She talks about the different spaces they have inhabited and how they never feel like home. Slowly others join in. They talk about the problems with the space – it’s got shutters on the windows, they aren’t allowed to mingle with the other groups, they can’t leave their stuff there, they feel like imposters rather than the community who the centre was built for. I ask why the shutters are down and someone says that the council are afraid.
Once someone left their keys in the door and they were stolen. It was kids, just a silly prank and no break in followed but the council are scared of what people will do if they have access, so they can’t have access. One man says that they aren’t allowed nice things, they used to have a nice sofa then someone took it away and replaced it with old office waiting room chairs, no one knows why. They say that the council are afraid of everything and I ask if they are afraid when they come here. They are in agreement that even though some of the group appear vulnerable – health, age, lack of confidence – they feel no fear of being there but find it odd being barricaded behind the shutters.
So far they’ve painted a pretty bleak picture but as they start to talk more and the conversation flows it doesn’t feel bleak. I ask what they are interested in and the answer is simple – anything but the four walls of their house.
One man helps out at the Seacroft gala, one man goes to art classes and creative writing groups, another has an allotment, another is into photography. The culture is here from art, poetry, and theatre to food, local events and woodwork, but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t what their culture is that is important, it’s what it does – it creates something to belong to, a tether when they feel lost at sea.
Sometimes the group gets free theatre tickets via Space 2 and when the Damned United was on they got an audience with the artistic director. For many there is an assumption that they wouldn’t be interested in the arts – yes, they want to talk about the city’s football woes but they also want to know about the stage design, the story telling and the production.
I ask an ignorant question – why a men’s group? One man looks at me and says that he respects women and wants to see equality, harmony and respect but that men are marginalised too. Another says that men’s culture doesn’t exist and if it does its portrayed negatively. According to society the pub or sport is their only culture. Not the best idea if you’ve ever had an addiction or suffered from anxiety – many in the group are quick to say they have. No shame exists here, they are all in it together.
The group offers a space for men to be honest about life’s challenges and a sense of camaraderie. They go to the theatre together sometimes or they meet outside of the group but nowhere else gives them the safe place to not have to pretend they are OK and get on with being one of the lads. It’s a rare space, so rare that one man travels from Pudsey every week.
I think about feminism – choice, empowerment, support, equality, opportunity. They have that here but had to create it for themselves as we assume these things are prevalent in the lives of men. The group isn’t seen as ‘cultural’ so grants are hard to come by – Claire brings food in from her own home. They are never asked to pay, they just have to lay the table and help with the washing up, make sure there’s no trace of them ever having been there.
The conversation is at times light, at others dark. They talk about how they found out about the group almost always referred by a support service – bedroom tax, disability, mental health, benefits. Never advertised wider, but the group is open and welcoming and wants more members. It’s been moved on a lot- a room in this centre, a space in that hall, grudgingly given a space here and there, but it’s valued by everyone and the men give back as much as they take from the group.
They talk of illness, one man brings another into the conversation opening the door for him to say, without inhibition, that he wants to end it all. The group is instantly there – you have my number, the group needs you, everyone brings something to this group, here’s some advice I was told when I was there. Then it’s light again. The man who spoke up has been quiet most of the time, withdrawn, but now there are a few smiles – the weight has been lifted. He said it out loud, didn’t feel like an idiot, wasn’t told to get over himself, it wasn’t dismissed, he was supported and listened to.
I leave the group to enjoy their lunch, although I was invited to stay. I have mixed feelings – I’m humbled by how open and candid they were, I’m cross that they have to be barricaded inside, don’t feel respected as part of the city’s cultural offer and aren’t allowed the nice furniture, but I’m also proud that we live in a city where despite the odds people have found a way to make a culture that means something to them.
For me the Men’s Room would not exist without a place in which to do so and without that place they would not have developed a shared identity covering a range of cultural activities that give them a much needed lifeline.
In a different meeting a week earlier the subject of cultural infrastructure – buildings where culture happens – came up. I was challenged on my “assertion that community centres are part of the city’s cultural infrastructure.”
Having met with the Men’s Room, personally I stand by that assertion but wonder how many others will share that view?
Space 2’s mission is to work with their partners to overcome challenges and change lives. The Seacroft Men’s Room meet every Tuesday from 10.30am-12.30pm.