Published on February 4th, 2020 | by Alastair Gilmour0
The miracle of words and pictures
It’s rather refreshing in these all-consuming social media days that switched-on community activists should take to printing beer mats and greetings cards to help spread their message. The audience that Christine Frazer and Simon Turner address as part of a Big Local initiative at the Teams area of Gateshead use neighbourhood shops, health centres, pubs, cafes and clubs because that’s where the community gleans its information. It’s a case of joining the dots.
Their overall aim is to improve the lives of local people and make the area an even better place to live. Big Local has been designed to be radically different from other funding programmes – at its heart is a vision of empowered, resilient, dynamic, asset-rich communities making their own decisions on what is best for their area. In this case, “asset-rich” refers to people.
“We’re trying to challenge mental health issues and loneliness by getting people to come and talk to us and tell their stories,” says Christine, a writer who formerly worked in education at the European Commission in Brussels. She and designer/illustrator Simon Turner invite local people to share their life experiences and family stories. And some of the results are amazing.
“Listening to these stories is unbelievable,” says Christine. “One lady who was non-verbal got so excited by what she had read on the plaque near Dunston Staiths (“The days when the river once teamed with black coal”) that it unlocked a whole load of memories and she started to talk. It was the first time her great-grandchildren had heard her voice.
“She started telling family stories that otherwise would have been forgotten. And, some of the stories from asylum seekers are just amazing.”
A beautifully illustrated greetings card celebrates a character called Lawrence – a real stalwart of the Teams community – who became a foster father and managed to get some of the lads in his care out of all sorts of trouble. The card represents his life with references to his wife, sons, daughters, parents, foster children, soldiers, neighbours, the community and the pub.
The beer mats (pictured below) highlight one tale from the rich life of Tony Rowan who died a couple of years ago.
Christine says: “One day when he was young, the River Team (known locally as The Gut) flooded and the teacher sent all the children home, not that they were in any danger, but so they could get their swimming trunks and play in the water.”
Gateshead Council supplied trees to plant in Tony’s memory. The illustration shows him diving into the water with one special sapling picked out in red. Her words on the back of Simon’s graphic explain all:
Tony was a dab hand,
sifting flour at Baltic Mill
He cherished his big family,
who love and miss him still.
Deep in the past young Tony
would laugh and dance and strut
And then upon occasion,
would go swimming in The Gut!
“Connecting to the community has a positive effect on health and helps counteract isolation,” says Christine. “The female groups in this area are very strong, organising coffee mornings and craft clubs but we need to engage the men more.
“We’ve been out in all the pubs and clubs in the area as well as The Staiths Café which is a bit of a community hub and stocks a great range of bottled beers, cans and a couple on tap. The manageress at the Tudor Rose in Dunston has been very supportive and put the beer mats out straight away, saying it was great to have something local for a change.”
The Teams community’s stories involve the gasworks, ropeworks, Dunston Staiths and a boxing club in the crypt of the church. A walking group meets every week to talk as they gently stroll, telling their tales and sharing their memories of the area.
“We also invite people from different walks of life, such as firemen, to share their stories,” says Christine.
Beer mats as part of a community development programme – now there’s something creative. AG
Big Local Gateshead, The Bungalow, St Aidan’s Primary School, Gateshead NE8 2HQ www.ourgateshead.org/biglocal
In association with the Lottery Community Fund