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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Extreme Yoghurt Knitting

A friend has a friend, a sometime wit and poet, and a definite sceptic, who describes our street as populated with yoghurt knitters. He arrives at this characterization because on the surface, the street festivals and local focus that make this road 'the friendliest street in Hull', the organic wholefood store at the end of the street, several adult inhabitants (who really ought to know better) who sport rapidly balding dreadlocks and wear bright waistcoat and the diverse demographic of the street can, to the lazy observer, lead one to the wrong conclusions. The impression my fiend's friend is trying to convey is that the street is populated with wooly minded, feeble hippies, actionless peaceniks and spineless potheads lost in a world of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, but not really people who engage with the real world. Having smirked grimly once (out of politeness) at a dinner party when hearing the appellation, subsequent repetitions - and my increasing knowledge of my neighbours - make our poet's inaccuracy more flagrant. and so every time my friend's friend quoth his witticism, I grew more irritated. I felt like causing a flaming row at his gentle dinner-party-banter-no-harm-meant-just-a-smug-superiority-complex-in-development witticism, delivered as it was in a grisly Glaswegian accent that carried his class credentials as 'authentic working' therefore presenting a definitive, condescending judgement on our street.

Nurses, drug counsellors, teachers in the hardest of Hull's inner city schools, carpenters, chefs, unemployed, music promoter, retired postman, retired docker, car mechanic, scaffolder. And yes, musicians, artists, students and other bohemians in our street, but also Congolese, Polish, Hungarian and Canadians. And there is also what we actually do together when we work as a community - it does not usually involve sitting round in a 'Healing Circle' banging First Nations drums and channelling our energies. As last week has shown, usually we graft, on this occasion, a pooling of collective resources to paint, and fix up some issues on the exterior of our houses. As the most experienced scaffolder present (ie I had actually done it before), my main job was putting the scaffold up and down at the end of each day, as unfortunately it was a mobile tower and therefore impossible to secure. But by the end of the week, I was just supervising the dismantling a little bit, as a team of rugged, hairy arsed scaffolders emerged. No hippies here, just brilliantly professional, pleasant, hard-hard-hard working people who it was a pleasure to spend time with. And at 10 metres at full height, this was no picnic - it was dangerous (inherently), physically very demanding and often posed difficult problems to solve. We became so professional we even had, in the tradition of all scaffold crews, tough nicknames - Largey, Bristol Lil, Rooster, Russ, Gash and The Gaffa.

My friend's friend is actually a great laugh most of the time. But his cynical take on our street reflects a cynicism that often passes in England for humour. Its not a cynicism about one's personal fortunes, or the weather, or perhaps politicians, but an ugly oneupmanship usually directed broadside at one's peer group. Laughing at, as opposed to with, other people is a national obsession, and if you mention it (as a unpleasant but characteristic cultural trait) to people living here, the aggressive defence is to describe their bitter humour as 'banter' or 'just taking the piss, a bit', and to claim that 'you cant take a joke'. I understand where the origins of this 'humour' arise. So many enterprises, especially community initiatives attempted in the UK are slow, waddling failures that as a self defence mechanism its better to develop a hardened scepticism than enthusiastic endorsement. So it becomes easier to snipe from the sidelines, passing it off as 'banter' than to try something very difficult.

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