‘So what is it you do again?’ I think that’s the most frequently asked question presented to me. And it’s always tough to answer, but I generally cite I’m a social entrepreneur, since I’ve been involved in founding several non-profit companies over the decades, and a community coach, because I manage a socially progressive, independent women’s football club and facilitate media and technology workshops – which I approach with a passion for alternative ways of learning, outside of set course structures and outcomes, and a focus on the process of personal development, with empowerment being key.
That probably won’t come as a surprise to those who know I was pulled out of school at the age of 11 due to being a victim of bullying, and was taught at home by my mother. The upshot of that was that I subsequently struggled in structured learning or work environments where I couldn’t come up with my own system of operating – something my wife Jane Watkinson reminds me about regularly, and perhaps a reason why I dropped out of university and haven’t yet worked in a traditional 9-to-5 job.
Yes, my childhood was far from ordinary. I grew largely reading books because I didn’t have to, scribbling ideas for a fairer society, and drawing sketches of superheroes, professional wrestlers, female bodybuilders and football players. I got chance to stay up late watching old movies, from German Expressionism to classic 1940s films featuring Katherine Hepburn, who I loved, and James Stewart, but also the B-movie horror of Edward D. Wood, Jr, largely regarded as “the worst filmmaker of all time.” This clearly gave me no fear of making shitty movies myself, as I’ll come to in a bit.
My brother was nine years older than me, my sister twelve years older, and my mother and father, when they had me, were in their 30s and 40s, respectively. I didn’t have anyone my own age to spend time with, and the home education movement was still in its infancy (we had angry education officials visit us many times to complain about me not being in a school and threatened to have my mother put in prison; eventually she began hiding behind the sofa with me when we knew they were coming – yes, my parents were both quite anti-establishment, also telling me many stories of questioning authority).
So, instead of friends in the school playground, almost everyone around me was much older than me and that was my education in the subject of history in many ways. I found out about 1940s democratic socialist politician Nye Bevan, who I also got a kick out of because he shared my birthday of November 15th. He once said, ‘The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away,’ and that statement struck a chord with me. What’s more, the Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life stated, ‘All that you can take with you is that which you’ve given away’ and that galvanised my belief that we’re all here to play our part in positive social change.
I just wasn’t sure how.
For a time my teenage self planned on donning a cape and fighting injustice as a masked adventurer, until my mother found out and expressed disappointment in the plan, which promptly put me off. My mother was always very tolerant of many of my weird and wacky interests, but rightly drew the line at me swinging from rooftops looking out for the little guy. So instead, I tried to make my way in civilised society – with great difficulty.
Without school exams to sit, my mother got me going for my GCSEs at nightschool and college at the age of 14 (she put a false birthdate for me of July 15th, which is still found on my certificates and which would mean today is my birthday, yay!)
The college careers advisor suggested I take a job at McDonald’s, then when I explained my main reason for rejecting that prospect, mocked my vegetarianism and my hope to work in the media (I’d go on to become a vegan, and, yes, work in the media, so f*** him, and f*** anyone like that who tries to ridicule your dreams).
After dropping out of my media degree where I’d made some incredible, awe-inspiringly awful films, I was put on a welfare-to-work programme at an arts centre and got my first freelance work through that – in event organisation and videography, and I teamed up with another drop-out to create an independent community film company; we engaged over forty young people in creating their own feature film to reflect their lives in South Yorkshire. But after seeing Michael Moore’s documentaries I knew non-fiction was something I really wanted to do, and I did so, starting with Get Over It, about the post-industrial population of South Yorkshire being constantly told to “get over it” after their major unionised industries were shut down and replaced by retail.
Given my driving motivation was to do something positive in society, with this combined with my own idiosyncrasies I began to find it increasingly difficult to talk about myself over the years – often to my detriment as a I failed to defend or stand up for myself sometimes – and writing this blog post is part of my way of getting past that, especially in the hopes that doing so will provoke thought about our society and our roles in it.
When I gave a talk to his media and journalism students as austerity measures were being introduced and Education Maintenance Allowance was being scrapped, University of Huddersfield lecturer Bruce Hanlin kindly told me afterwards, ‘You provoked more questions (than usual) from students – (that) might be because your ‘alternative’ and varied way into the media might look more realistic at a time when the established media are in retreat and job opportunities at a virtual standstill.’ That was a relief: Talking to students as a university drop-out who went on to work in the media was very tricky!
Over the years my work has led me to many public speaking engagements, and with issues to passionately talk about I’d never had difficulty with them until I was interviewed for “My Life So Far” by Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield. I’d partly hoped I’d be able to highlight some important issues, and partly intended to try and tackle my aversion to talking about myself or my feelings. Funnily enough, Rony had me all choked up when he caught me off-guard posing me with the question of if I’m so keen to empower others because of the powerlessness I felt in my past. Ouch! Right in the heart, dude.
But this is why I marvel at so many people who do so many good things in life just, well…because. I often ask social justice campaigners I meet what got them active, a little envious of their stories – they got involved in a local campaign and it went from there, or they and their fellow workers went on strike (or, in my wife’s case, simply becoming a sociologist!) – because Pop Psychology 101 suggests, yes, I simply became passionate about social justice because I was bullied as a child in the 1980s. Pffft!
In his brilliant book Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman states, ‘Countries with big disparities in wealth also have more bullying behaviour, because there are bigger status differences’ and then goes on to cite the term ‘psychosocial consequences’ from Professor Richard Wilkinson who, alongside Kate Pickett, told me when I interviewed them both for my documentary Return to Doncatraz that ‘inequality really took off under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and sort of plateaued after that.’
Return to Doncatraz, as the title suggests, was a follow-up to another documentary I made, Escape from Doncatraz, which actually premiered at Kitchener City Hall in Ontario, Canada, where I got my first-ever standing ovation (presumably because they thought the British expected one rather than the documentary being all that good). I ended up over there starting up a media company with my first wife, who was a Canadian, after I’d spent considerable time with her there beforehand and my UK film company’s committee had shut it down, blamed incomplete projects entirely on me, and transferred its assets to sister companies they were running – which then made my time in Canada an all-or-nothing scenario with nothing to go back to. That kind of pressure never helps, and my then-wife and I separated, with her literally tearing up the plans for our own venture that my visa was dependent on, and I ended up homeless there, although – thanks to some fantastic friends – escaped rooflessness; sleeping in spare rooms, on floors, or in basements for weeks and then months back in Europe, staying with family in Spain. Again this was a time where I failed to effectively stand up for myself or defend myself for a fear of being too personal, or being negative, but the intentional damage inflicted on me and my reputation by a few individuals in both Britain and Canada was long-lasting yet humbling, and a valuable lesson that changed my character for the better. It’s also made me far more resourceful, better at choosing friends, less bothered about external validation, and more grateful just to have a home.
By the time I’d returned to the UK, David Cameron was claiming cuts in public services were able to be replaced by the third sector, his “Big Society” that I initially thought may be a chance for me to succeed with fresh social enterprise ideas but which turned out to be a way of, in most cases, funding those who were already running successful start-ups. My luck had largely run out. Although I was never one of them, born and raised in a mining town in a house literally split down the middle due to subsidence from the coal mines beneath it, I’d previously enjoyed success in both Britain and Canada partly because people thought I was better-educated and from a better background than I actually was: my demeanour and accent were developed not by school but by growing up consuming media and travelling and living around the world. Because I had taken advantage of this misconception, I feared anyone knowing about my failures – the sleazy real estate guy in American Beauty said, ‘In order to be successful you have to project an image of success at all times.’ And whether we admit it or not, so many of us buy into that. But now I understand that being poor is not the same as being unsuccessful. As Rutger Bregman also states in Utopia for Realists, ‘Poverty is not a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash.’
So I’ll be honest: Since my return to the UK in the era of austerity, I’ve yet to earn more than even a quarter of what I was earning beforehand (I’ll leave it to your imagination how much that might be, but rest assured I was far from rich before!) But in the years both before and after that life-changing experience, I’ve spent thousands of pounds of my own money on documentaries, business premises for social enterprises, and other good causes. Again, not because I’m somehow simply a kind-hearted good human being like the above-mentioned types, but because, if I’m honest, as you can see…I don’t really know any different. This is what I do.
I’m in my forties now and people still ask me when I’ll get a proper job.
But when I see, through Libre Digital, dozens of older people setting up their own long-term IT support group with the skills and tools given to them via the FreeTech Project, or documentaries hitting 3000 hits in three days just before an election via SilenceBreaker Media, I want to keep doing this. When I see over a hundred women playing soccer through AFC Unity when they never had the opportunities nor the environment to do so otherwise, and raising nearly 1000kg of food for local food banks, I want to do more. And when my wife and I not only work together on the above but also focus on helping other creatives, community groups and independent businesses at affordable rates via Jay & Jane, I don’t know what else I could be doing that’s so rewarding. I’ll never have a big house or car, or many if any holidays, no savings, and probably no pension. But all you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.