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My Shift At The Fire Station

In 2015 I had an extraordinary piece of financial good fortune, an inheritance. I could stop working if I wanted to. And boy, did I want to. I was teaching at a state school outside Banbury, something I'd come to late in life. I was prepared for the fact that it was hard work, but not for how hard. This stultifying, oppressive system of work that we impose on virtually everybody, I had a chance to get out of it. So, I took it. My wife and I always promised each other we would retire to a city. We lived in a village for twenty years and brought our kids up there. But there are drawbacks to village life. Primarily the lack of amenities. We liked theatre, cinema, eating out, going to pubs, being in bookshops, all of the things that you can do in a city. Plus public transport – by the time we left the village, all the buses had stopped running. You had to jump in a car to buy a pint of milk. And so, with that financial good fortune, we bought a house in Headington.   


But I was resolved I wasn't just going to just pocket my good fortune and say ‘So long suckers,’ I really did want to give something back. So, volunteering. I was working at the Oxfam bookshop and doing stuff for a blind newspaper. I was with Asylum Welcome for a while. I also was looking for an opportunity to volunteer at a cultural institution, so I contacted OFS. I liked it instantly. I wanted to be involved, but I feared it would be an elitist, arty-farty, standoffish, patronising place. But it just wasn't any of those things, you know. People here are just so damn welcoming. This notion that art is for everyone, it's written through the rock in this place, and that was clear from the start. Whether everybody sees it in the same way, that's another thing. I have every privilege going, I am a Boomer incarnate. But it’s difficult for an institution in the heart of Oxford to reach out to more marginal communities. To some extent that’s the nature of the system here in this city, which is one of great inequality. But from my point of view, it's something OFS should never, ever give up on.   


I started in spring 2017. The first volunteering I did was just ushering. To start with I viewed it very transactionally. This retirement scenario wasn't just about giving something back, it was about exploring the city as well. OFS struck me as a good deal. You check the tickets beforehand, direct people, pick up glasses at the end. But the offer was, you got to see the show for free. The washing up takes half an hour after the show. Three or four of us, we would discuss the shows, that was really good fun. I rapidly decided that I liked it, I moved up to one a week. And until the pandemic that's how it stayed. I went through the programme, I worked out shows I wanted to do. I like the sheer range of things. I like the comics, I like political stuff. Anything that deals with empire, and the nature of contemporary British society. I so admire people who are prepared to put their livelihoods on the line to be creative, people who stare precarity in the face and say, ‘Do your worst, I'm going to make these puppets.’ This desire to create and propose meaning to people, it's just so life-enhancing. I was very conscious of that idea ushering, sitting in the back by the fire door. You know, it's a legal requirement that people are sat by the fire door, they can't afford to pay people for it, so by that act alone, I'm enabling this expression of creativity to occur. I felt it was really a worthwhile thing to do. Shortly after I started here, chatting with my daughter, I said: ‘That was just after my shift at the Fire Station.’ She said, ‘What do you mean? Fire Station?!’ I always drop the ‘Old’. It sort of glams it up a little bit. It connotes a sense of urgency and vitality. Because it is vital.  


Not long after I started ushering, I was contacted about Storytelling. It was gonna be this kind of internal audit idea, a way of collecting qualitative data on the impact of the Fire Station, alongside the quantitative data that’s easier to put in a spreadsheet. I just loved the training. I remember vividly the first story I collected. It was winter, a bitterly cold day. I was really nervous. You know, who the hell was I to ask? But she talked in the most engaging, absorbing way, about her relationship with this place, with Crisis, and the transformative impact they had on her life. Above all she talked about meaning, how important it is – without meaning, everything else is mere subsistence. And she said this place had provided that in her life.  


And so I became a regular story collector. I still get the same sense of anticipation. I still get a thrill when I switch on the mic. I'm about to be told a story, and it's fundamental to the human experience, telling a story. To this day, I can't get over the fact that people are prepared to share this kind of stuff with me, real hardship and trauma. A storyteller told me once, ‘If it weren’t for this I’d probably be dead.’ The notion that people trust me with that is really validating. Humbling.  


I was completely unprepared for how it caught the imagination of this place. Storytelling became implanted in the way this organisation does business. We developed an understanding of the process, the methodology and all the rest of it, which were taken to other organisations, so I was then involved in other story-collecting projects. And then came the pandemic, and the thing completely mushroomed. There was so much collaboration going on around the city, and Storytelling was a good way of capturing that. So those of us who'd been collecting just in relation to the Fire Station suddenly started collecting stories about the pandemic, heart-rending, also unbelievably uplifting stories. There was a desperate terror in the air, and hearing how people were coping with it, I remember breaking down.   


I don't know how many I've collected; it must be north of fifty now. I like to think that's a reasonable contribution. I'm always thrilled when I'm asked. I've never wanted to impose myself to the point where people felt that's enough, you know, we don't you need any more. I guess that notion still haunts me, that I'm not really a Bohemian, that I'm one of the ‘straights.’ I’ve developed compensating skills – the more you fear not being accepted, the more relatable you attempt to be. But I have found people universally likeable. There's a whole methodological issue about the selection of tellers in storytelling. There's this notion that it privileges success stories, it filters out the negative. Well, for an organisation looking to understand its impact on people, that's not a bad thing. Playing to your strengths is important.  


The things they want to do here are absolutely on the money. When you look at the mission statement, it has a commitment above all to good art. But also this non-negotiable commitment to inclusion, unlearning prejudice, anti-racism, engagement with the climate catastrophe. The ambition is great, to create art in a thorough-going professional way, often out of the most unpromising materials. I've always loved that notion of art as seeing the beauty in ordinary life. And so to say that ‘Art is for everybody,’ that's so powerful and brilliant. I’ve been thrilled to have something to do with it. I did actually appear in a Hidden Spire project, in Atlantis. From those very transactional beginnings, where I’m a legal requirement that facilitates mounting the shows; to now actually having a role in the creative endeavours of this place, I can't tell you what that means for me.  


That volunteering is a large part of my life now. I’ve got to know Oxford. I've met loads of people I wouldn't have met before. And I've had such fun. Maybe in certain contexts I'm more confident. My son said to me: ‘You're so much more the person you want to be since you retired.’ I felt a fraud, I didn't deserve my good luck. I've been very much the beneficiary, but I hope I’ve also made a contribution. My retirement would have been immeasurably poorer without the Fire Station, it has provided such stimulation, such fun, such a sense of reward. I struggle to find the words to express my affection for this place. 


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