I’ve been working with a photographer-friend, Lily, on a project with ‘the bad lads’ – lads excluded from school, flirters with the criminal justice system, but far from lost causes. As an aid to improving their social skills, this project has seen us introducing the lads to people and places that they would be otherwise unfamiliar with, as the lads document – in words and images – experiences of change. Every now and again a lad will say something like ‘He’s changed his life, hasn’t he’, ‘Who’d have thought you’d get a place like that ‘round here’, ‘Can we go and see them again’, and so on. These comments please me. The other day, we were at a martial arts centre, whereupon we met Hughie – big, black, a very youthful mid-40s, and speaking the language of change - ‘Brought up in care, started training at a place like this, did well with it, got into training others – it saved me from prison really - that’s my story’. To the lads, Hughie was credible – they looked and they listened. Then Hughie got out his equipment:
Hughie: Shane, come here – hold this (proffers big rectangular pad).
Hughie: I need to demonstrate a good kick.
Hughie: Just to show the lads.
Shane: Hughie, what you need to recognise is that, well, you’re a proper man. See, I come into a place like this – and see you – and it reminds me that I’ve got string for arms.
Hughie: Y’ wha’?
Shane: (moving forward) See, look at you, (pointing) you’ve got proper man arms – whereas I have string for arms – (pointing) see!
Lily: (looking nervous for me)
Hughie: Come on, it’ll be fine – hold the pad close to your body – it won’t hurt.
Shane: You’re not gonna force me to take body-building drugs too, are you?
Hughie: No, we’re not into that sort of thing, ‘round here – that’s for the cowboys.
Shane: (takes pad, holds pad, adopts firm stance) Hughie. Let’s do this!
Hughie: (steps away, strangely twists back towards me – very graceful, foot comes out of nowhere – kicks pad)
Shane: (imperceptible squeal, rocks back, stands, frozen)
Lads: (collective intake of breath)
Lily: (jaw has dropped)
Hughie: Y’ alright?
Shane: (croaks) Fine.
Lads: Good one, Shane.
Shane: Yeah, good one. D’ y’ want a go?
Lad #1: No way – I’m not an idiot.
Lad #2: No thanks, Shane – you showed us how it’s done.
Shane: So I get to suffer for your art? How does that work?
Lad #1: Y’ wha’?
Shane: Never mind.
Later, Hughie quietly acknowledged that he’d kicked harder than he’d meant to. Obviously this gave me no end of pleasure in realising that it wasn’t just that I was being a weed.
Peace and safety be with you.