Thursday, September 23, 2021
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“The community I had so much avoided in the past were really quite a decent bunch of people”

It might seem a bit weird talking about things on a global scale for a small community like New Wortley, but our best response to the pandemic has been no different to that of New York, New Delhi or Newcastle. Rhea Bentley writes about her personal journey during lockdown – and how her work at New Wortley Community Centre has supported her.

Who knew how things would turn out back in January 2020 when China reported a new flu-like virus?  Even when the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined in Japan, it all seemed a long way away.

Leaving my job

On 25 January, I decided I would take a leap and leave the job I was in.  The company had gone through a ‘merger’, I preferred to call it a take over as only staff in my legacy company were affected.  All the staff I worked with left one by one in the previous six months and hundreds were made redundant. 

Confidence was at an all-time low and I felt disillusioned by the way my old company was swept aside.  In January I was the last remaining foot soldier of the old guard and the new company now wanted to change my role.  It was time to move on.  January 20 was to be a momentous day, I would hand in my notice!  It was something I had never done before but savings were good and I was confident that I could take my time and look around for a role closer to home.

21 February was my last day.  What a fabulous send-off colleagues gave me; I had wonderful messages from managers all around the country, and my new colleagues in the office really surprised me with flowers, chocolates, drinks and gifts.  I left with a tinge of sadness but full of confidence for the future. 

I had heard at the time that some incidents of a virus were a bit of a problem in Italy and a couple of Chinese students in York may also have come down with it.  But I was more concerned with putting my feet up for a couple of weeks and enjoying my chocolates.

My mum always says there’s always something else around the corner.  I think the world was approaching a blind bend in March. Within a week or two of leaving work it was clear something big was happening.  When Boris Johnson told us on 16 March to stay at home, it wasn’t what I had in mind when I resigned. 

I wasn’t too concerned for myself, I was used to being isolated and to some extent encouraged it. But the reports on telly became increasingly distressing.  

I love my foreign holidays, just budget ones in the Med for a week with a friend.  I can picture it now; sitting on the balcony watching the sunrise over the white Mediterranean architecture illuminating a brilliant blue sky.  Who wouldn’t enjoy pottering about the shops and cafes, absorbing a few rays on the beach and an evening of culinary delights with a small tipple to round off the day?  The atmosphere, sights and aromas are so different to what we experience in the UK.  But I began to assume there would be no holiday this year.  

Now I was beginning to think of others and not just myself.  Reports were coming in of the holiday industry collapsing, almost unthinkable that airline pilots and crew were losing their jobs, cruise ships were being stacked up in ports and I felt so sad for the Mediterranean communities who relied so much on us sun-loving Brits for their livelihoods.  People were dying in their thousands in Italy.  I love Italy! 

Applauding the NHS

But everything was changing so fast, soon what we were witnessing on TV abroad was to hit communities where we lived. Care homes were hitting the news as we began to realise that the elderly were at high risk. The news continued to look bleak as the economy was being ravaged, and day after day there were reports of people losing their jobs.

We all applauded the NHS and supported the essential workers, but who was looking after those on their own and unable to go out?

My thoughts turned to my 85-year-old mum.  She is very healthy and mobile but if she had to isolate herself how could she do her shopping, how would she cope without a social life, what about her church?  Despite losing her husband of 40 years in January she remained strong and resilient, but it made me think about those people who are not able to manage quite so well.

Here was I in my own little semi-retired bubble feeling inadequate amidst all the sadness and loss I was seeing on TV. 

The news seemed inevitably dark day after day and it didn’t seem right that I wasn’t contributing in some way to help others.  I’ve lived in the New Wortley area for 40 years but I didn’t know anyone, not even my neighbours.  I’ve always been a bit of a coward. Mixing with others put expectations on me that I preferred to not confront.  But there was now a little of the blitz spirit where neighbours were helping neighbours and communities were coming together.  Ironically, it seemed that isolation was bringing people closer together.  I had to make an effort… but how?

Delivering food parcels

After a few back and forth emails to confirm my details I received a phone call from someone called Victoria asking me if I could possibly deliver a food parcel.  I would get to know the angelic tones of Victoria much more over the coming months.  I would also become a regular visitor to the Armley Hub to pick up the food parcels for delivery.  At this stage I presumed it was the council sending me my daily errands and Victoria worked somewhere in the Hub.  It didn’t concern me who was organizing the parcels I was just happy to be getting out and meeting people again.

Delivering food parcels soon expanded into shopping for people self-isolating.  Coronavirus was still a relative new thing to the UK but by now things were getting pretty unusual. 

Lines of shoppers would snake around supermarket carparks with an over-zealous desire for toilet rolls! It would seem the virus was more than just a respiratory illness; social anxiety was increasing in many more ways than just a sudden urge for a cleaner backside.  Social distancing became the buzzword and mask wearing became the new fashion statement.  

In my new role as casual shopper and food parcel provider, I met quite a lot of people on the doorstep who I would never have normally met. 

All were grateful for the help but also many were just happy for the opportunity to say hello.  I never thought of myself as much of a conversationalist but it was nice to chat for a short while.  Topics never ventured much beyond the usual things us brits like to moan about; the weather or grumble about the government.  I really think some people appreciated the chat and when I left, I felt I had done something worthwhile.  I was achieving my original goal of wanting to make an effort to help out but I was also learning. 

The community I had so much avoided in the past were really quite a decent bunch of people.  There is a lot of hardship and people living in difficult circumstances but there are some really good hearts out there.

Spring turned to summer and things really started improve; restrictions started to ease, cafes and restaurants opened with the ‘new normal’ and toilet roll rations were lifted.  I managed to see more of my mum and the sun shone, things were starting to look relatively good again. 

But, behind the headlines many were still struggling since losing their jobs or were now on lower incomes.  I thought my role would dwindle as the Armley Hub was to stop providing food parcels.  

It was about this time that I found out the mysterious Victoria didn’t work for the council at all, but for New Wortley Community Association, and that requests for food parcels were being channelled through them. 

When I was asked if I would be ok to help with leafletting, I ventured inside the Community Centre for the first time. 

I was welcomed enthusiastically and finally managed to put a face to the dynamic Victoria.  I was happy to help promote the centre when asked if I would be one of the faces for a BBC Look North interview. 

New Wortley Community Association

I couldn’t imagine that my face would be a positive promotional tool for the centre and it would seem the BBC agreed as I was cut from the transmission.  Probably the best outcome for all concerned! However, I did pose for some professional photographs with a backdrop of a rusty railway bridge for the centre’s website.  The bridge looked good.

Shopping and some food parcels continued through summer and autumn but the shopping service was to be stopped.  I was going to miss my regular customers but did keep in touch with a couple of them for a few weeks. 

I was expecting my role to diminish and it was time for me to start looking for an income, my savings wouldn’t last indefinitely.  My hunt for employment had already failed in one dismal interview. 

Despite being reasonably well experienced and qualified for the role, my Homer Simpsonesque qualities under questioning were not what they were looking for.  But mum’s mantra of ‘there’s always something round the corner’ came true when the community centre offered me a few hours of paid work to look after the food bank.  It wouldn’t pay the bills, but it would certainly help.

The new employment wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I left my pre-covid job, but it did tick a few boxes; my daily commute involves crossing the road, there is no stress involved and I was working with a great group of people for a nice community that I had shunned for so long.  But more than anything, I had recovered something that I hadn’t thought about until it wasn’t there – a sense of purpose.

Meanwhile the virus was reviving its efforts to drive us all back into our homes. I did quite a few online courses to help with my new role and still continued to volunteer when not working.

Christmas was going to be a sad lonely affair for a lot of people.  It was a fun and inspiring day when several volunteers came in with their Santa hats and reindeer antlers, and to various Christmas melodies the Community Santa put together some lovely Hampers and presents for those in need.

2021 would,d take some adjusting to.  The ‘new norm’ was still a distant dream as the country struggled with its darkest winter. But hope is within sight and before long people will come out of their homes, the cafes and bars will start to buzz again, people will be able to hug their loved ones and the planes will fly overhead carrying the sun-loving brits back to the Med. 

I will continue in my new role with the centre, but I’m also happy to still do my bit of volunteering and saying hello to a few more faces in the area.  I’m looking forward to my first hug in over a year, I think there will be more hugs than usual in spring.

The lockdown has been really tough on everyone, but now we can see a way out and the future looks positive. The vaccination rollout has been pretty impressive in its organisation and pace. We are not there yet, but I can see the summer being something like the normal life to which we were accustomed. 

It will be nice to see people emerging from the confines of their own four walls and going for a coffee with friends, having picnics in the park or mingling in the shops.  

It seems odd that the world has had to mobilise all its forces and together fight a huge battle against one of the smallest enemies on earth; you can only see it under a microscope, looking like a world war two naval mine with its spikey proteins. 

For a year, the only defence we have had is to hide away from it as it floated around looking for unsuspecting victims, but our antibody allies have rallied and our spikey adversary doesn’t appear to be quite so menacing now.

It might seem a bit weird talking about things on a global scale for a small community like New Wortley, but our best response to the pandemic has been no different to that of New York, New Delhi or Newcastle. 

Social distancing has clearly worked though I am hoping that some of us have not got a little too used to the isolation.  In my own dark and distant past there were times when I would have benefitted from some support or companionship. 

It may have been pride, mistrust or not knowing where to turn, but all I needed was a hand to reach out and pull me back from the cliff edge.  We are naturally a social species but it can be very easy to isolate yourself and feel that you are ok.  I have allowed myself to become accustomed to my own company but I know when I am around others I naturally start take more care of myself and my surroundings.  We do need that neighbourly community spirit.

The community centre staff have worked hard, along with a whole network of organisations to offer a little support in these trying times.  There are people here who understand and will listen in confidence. 

‘Support, empathy and guidance’

They can offer support, empathy and guidance. They can also offer more practical support with food parcels, hygiene products and hot meals. They work with parents and schools to provide some activities for the children during the holidays. Like everyone though they are planning for the future, when once again the centre can open up and become a thriving centre for the whole community. 

The Ladies’ Group can get together again and enjoy the company of others over a coffee. The Men’s Walking group can get up and running, though perhaps not literally.   The Urban Task Force has continued through the pandemic with limitations, and the continued growth of the UTF will I am sure be matched by the growth of the gardening skills and spring vegetables in the centre’s allotments.

This is meant to blog, and as I understand the meaning of the word it should be just a record of my inane ramblings and observations. So I will try not to turn it into some pseudo marketing platform plugging the benefits of the centre.

I am naturally an early riser and during lock-down it had become very easy to lounge around in my dressing gown with the curtains closed and watch Cheers and Everybody Loves Raymond for the umpteenth time, only feeling the need to dress after the last episode of Frasier. 

My new part-time employment at the centre has lifted me out of that American sitcom, fluffy dressing gown scenario as I have to be up and out by 7.55am. Some days I am only at work for an hour or two, so after my duties I do feel stimulated to keep active and explore a little.  

I’ve worked all my adult life and living in my concrete high-rise urban ghetto was just somewhere I went when I wasn’t working.  I knew very little of my surroundings; the furthest I was likely to go on foot was the local chippy, any further and I would hop in my car.  Of course, I knew the local roads and some landmarks but the local area meant little else to me. 

Mid-morning exploration

My mid-morning exploration has now become quite a regular thing.  My initial aim was to help try shed some of the many pounds I have gained during the last year.  I can’t say that any part of that target has been reached but wandering around aimlessly has stimulated the senses.

Initially, I would jump into my car and drive off to areas of interest that I didn’t think existed in New Wortley.  The canal was a favourite haunt where at least there were a few scraggy ducks slaloming their way round the plastic bottle and beer cans. 

In the summer, I saw a large swarm of tadpoles, I’m not sure where the parents were as I’ve never seen a frog or heard a Yorkshire croak. 

At least there were is a lot of greenery by the canal and a little respite from the incessant noise of road traffic. But, I had to broaden my horizons so I started walking around the streets and alleys closer to home, areas that I had previously dismissed as a grey urban sprawl severely lacking in investment, regeneration and interest. 

Like many urban areas, Armley and Wortley went through the slum clearances of the 1960’s and 70’s when they replaced some terraced back to backs with high-rise living and prefabricated homes, but there are still a lot of echoes of the past in Armley including some fabulous Victorian and Edwardian architecture.  I’m afraid the kerb appeal may have been lost in many of the properties but imagination can bring the history back to life.  

Wortley Cemetery

One of my regular walks through Wortley Park led me to Wortley Cemetery.  I’ve always thought of cemeteries as being a little oasis in our urban concrete jungle.  They are a sanctuary for a little of nature’s beauty.  I’m sure during the night the cemetery comes to life in the form of nocturnal critters like bats and foxes and not any spooky manifestations. 

During the day, it’s the squirrels turn to bounce about the tombstones.  One morning I may have interrupted some sort of squirrel rally as my footsteps sent a dozen or so furry tails scattering up trees and over walls, though one brave soul just glared at me from a distant stone memorial.  Perhaps he was the gang leader with a bit of an attitude.  He still looked cute though.

Retuning back through park into the world of the living  A smile gives so much, it’s little more than a facial twitch that affirms our positive feelings at a moment in time. In the company of our normal circle of friends, family or colleagues it’s just an instinctive interaction like a nod of the head or a wave of the hand. 

If you receive a smile from a total stranger, I believe it gives so much more.  When walking through the park and a stranger walking their dog looks in my direction, offers a courteous “morning” or just a simple smile, I am quick to respond in kind.  It’s only a small gesture but it does help lift my spirit on what is a generally a lonely walk. 

I suppose like some people I am afraid of acknowledging a total stranger first for fear of a negative reaction, but it really doesn’t cost anything to nod or smile and for just a few seconds it can make someone feel a little better about themselves.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What an uplifting tale,I loved reading it, so cheerfully written and touched many a spot of shared experience! All credit to the writer and her courage

  2. Compelling reading. Recognised so many of your experiences, especially the wandering aimlessly around Wortley. Smiling and chatting at a distance with perfect strangers. Thank you for sharing, hopefully what we have experienced will have taught us something. Be kind and don’t take anything for granted.

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