It’s Back to School for Ben

 

It was back to school for Ben on Wednesday, courtesy of the charity “The Good Lad Initiative”!

The Good Lad Initiative targets young men (13-18 years old) with issues relating to gender equality, and aims to get them thinking differently about what it means—and how to cope—with being a young man in today’s challenging world.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a two day training course to become a volunteer facilitator for this charity. During the training, questions were posed, exercises undertaken and role playing explored in fun but intense sessions that equipped volunteers with the tools to enter schools and share thought-provoking material with all-male classes.

Wednesday was our chance to round out the training, witnessing experienced qualified programme facilitators in action.

Man-up?

I was one of ten volunteers this day who attended a charming school a few miles outside the metropolis. We watched the leaders present the syllabus to classes of up to 24 pupils. Under the watchful gaze of some of the boys’ curious teachers, our diverse teams of two addressed stereotyping, sexual assault, emotions, violence, consent, objectification, sexual identity etc.

Did you know that 75% of suicides are by men (Office of National Statistics) and that in 2016, 95% of prisoners were male (UK Govt.)? That two women a week are killed in the UK by a violent partner and that on average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police (Jaffee, 1982). Pretty disturbing stuff.

Sowing, not preaching

Sowing seeds was what it was all about. Not preaching. Discussion and participation were encouraged and I was impressed with how the volunteers handled the trickier boys. And the trickier teachers.

It was fascinating unravelling the thinking processes of the young with their unexpected answers; it was great to share their enthusiasm. At times, it looked like the boys were saying what was expected of them, but our well-trained teams had techniques for dealing with that too. One volunteer stunned me by memorising every boys’ name in five minutes—he even got the twins right (after spotting that their glasses were a different shade)!

A great day

The day was about the boys and I left with the impression that it had been most worthwhile. Their feedback slips certainly reinforced this impression.

I look forward to my next school session at which I won’t observe. No, I’ll leap boldly outside my comfort zone and participate as an active facilitator!

***

The Good Lad Initiative “aims to promote “Positive Masculinity”, and in doing so, to enable men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles and broader communities. To achieve this fundamental objective, GLI seeks to engage with organizations and individuals of all genders and backgrounds.”

Their “evidence based intervention has been developed with leading academics and experts in gender and sexual discrimination from around the world. Critically both men and women work at every level of Good Lad to ensure [their] work is accountable to women.”

You can find out more at www.goodladworkshop.com

 

 

Bringing London’s Waterways to Life

I spent a fascinating and enjoyable Saturday near Wembley recently learning about the challenges facing London’s waterways, courtesy of Molly, of Thames 21, a registered charity. Like me, she’s a displaced New Yorker, though the time she’s spent in the (dis)United Kingdom is rather less than mine.

“Bringing London’s Waterways to Life” is Thames 21’s strap line and by waterway, they mean struggling Father Thames, his tributaries and the canal system within the catchment area (American: “watershed”).

One of the Challenges

I learned a lot. For example, during storms, the drainage system in Central London allows surface runoff from rainwater and sewage to mix, before discarding the end product directly into the river. Yuck. Further afield, the tunnel system is dual, keeping the two apart. A “super sewer” is currently under construction that should ease this problem.

Why this is so important

I already knew about the countless tyres (ironically, an ideal home for eels), supermarket trolleys (a safe haven for young fish), motorbikes, etc. that have been thrown in. But these are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. How long does it take for human waste products to biodegrade?

  • Orange peel: 6 months (The New York Times)
  • Cigarette butt: up to 50 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic food container: 50-80 years (Penn State University)
  • Aluminium can: 80-200 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic soda bottle: 450 years (Penn State University)
  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years ((Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Glass bottle: 1,000,000 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Styrofoam: never (Penn State University)

Getting prepared

Thames21 trains volunteers who then lead clean ups. We went through the Health and Safety guidelines and there’s plenty to think about. Guns and knives are found in the waterways regularly. Their live hand grenade tally is one. We didn’t discuss WW2 bombs but there must be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of them buried deep in the gloopy mud.

Other hazards included Weil’s disease (or leptospirosis). It’s a potentially fatal bacterium that enters the environment via the urine of rodents (especially rats). It can infect the victim via cuts or if contact is made with the mucous membranes. Consequently thick rubber gloves, “picking tools” and steel soled boots and waders are mandatory. If you get flu-like symptoms within several weeks of sharing a location with rodents, tell your doctor!

Then there’s Giant Hog Weed. A beast of a plant which should be left well alone on account of the bristly micro-hairs on its surface and highly photo-sensitive liquid within. If micro-hairs touch your skin, think acid. Think scarring. Think photo-sensitivity (a blistering of the skin triggered by sunlight, not a preoccupation with your Facebook profile pic). These symptoms can persist for months or years. Sounds off-putting? I’d say it’s better to be forewarned.

Progress

Clean-ups are organised locally and the charity is making a difference as streams are cleared, meadows sowed with wild flowers and stretches returned to something approaching pristine condition. Exercise is taken, friendships made and an occasional unplanned swim enjoyed. But it’s a constant struggle – and an important battle to be won!

And here, courtesy of the BBC, is a beautiful video documenting the return of kingfishers to one stretch of our waterways – an stunning illustration of why all this effort is so worthwhile.

I look forward to leading a clean-up soon!

***

Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, and they’re taking a four-pronged approach to get there. Through their education programme, they are empowering people and their environmental enhancement work is transforming rivers; meanwhile their pioneering research and advocacy work are paving the way for sustainable change and all of this is achieved with the direct engagement and support from a wide network of dedicated volunteers. www.thames21.org.uk

Toastmasters Annual Club Contest – A Record Breaking Turnout!

TFL on Overcrowding Alert
The feverishly anticipated annual Humorous Speech and Table Topic Contests at my local club came around last Thursday night. Transport for London (the city’s underground train service) issued a Code Red warning that Central Line trains to the station nearest my club would be seriously overcrowded between 18:30 and 19:00 hours — at one point the Club Committee held an emergency session to consider relocating to Wembley Stadium…

But seriously… Soon our venue was filled to bursting with enthused members, expectant guests and effulgent contestants. Judges and contestants were briefed and moments later, we were underway…chaired by yours truly.

Armed and Dangerous
Paul, our armed and dangerous Sergeant at Arms (day job: accountant), then delivered a series of rib-ticklers borrowed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (eg: “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change”).

Humour Competition
We began with the Humorous Speech Contest in which our brave competitors regaled us with speeches that involved motor-cycle rider Dave Death, the ramifications of being rammed by a ram (in a particularly sensitive spot), all that’s wrong with squabs (young pigeons, apparently), how to survive a hangover and why touching your interviewer’s beard is unlikely to land you that dream job.

Many congratulations to Michael, whose well-structured and highly amusing “The Worst Day of my Life” pipped the others and secured him a place in the Area Final.

Impromtu Competition

My Co-Chair, Robin, successfully retrieved the secret Table Topic question, “If I could grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” from a bunker 4,000 feet below a North Korean mountain. It was cleverly and entertainingly answered by all contestants. Jeff triumphed and his ability to think and talk so elegantly on his feet will be tested again on the 27th where he will join Michael at the next Area level contest round.

It was a fun-filled and memorable evening with friendships made and new members signed. Many thanks to everyone who undertook a role. And a big congratulations to all the contestants. It was an evening in which everyone was a winner.

Become a TV Presenter

A few weeks ago, I attended a one-day seminar on Presentation Skills, hosted by the very experienced Brian Naylor of the TV Training Academy, London.

It seemed like a good way to build video skills–and turned out to be an excellent day! The event was filled with useful hints and tips on further resources.

I absorbed advice on how to approach producers, market myself, the expected highs and lows, and the need to never give up. Brian’s speciality? Shopping channels for which he demonstrated fundamental skills, like engaging with your viewers, body language, movement, being believable/trustworthy, holding items to camera and closing the sale.

Some key points

  • communication is 55% visual, 38% tonal – therefore passion, energy, confidence are a must!
  • preparation is key – the hard work is done before you get on camera. Know your subject cold, so you can focus on your presenting
  • the closer the camera shot, the less body movement you should include. Speak with your hands below your waist. Keep your feet still and stable in a power pose
  • look straight down the lens always. Only avert your gaze to look at objects the audience can also see. You can assume you are speaking to an audience of one, so speak/chat as to an equal
  • do your own practice reporting or “pieces to camera” for youtube. Make your own channel. Practice working to time, with props, mic technique and in different locations
  • bring your own area of expertise to your personal brand. Become a topic expert to differentiate yourself
  • recommended text: “The Charisma Myth”

Lots to think about and a day well spent! Brian’s explanations were incisive, useful and illustrated with great demonstrations. If you’re interested in improving your presentation skills, my experience with the TV Training Academy was positive.  You can visit their site and view clips at youtube.

 

An Odyssey and JYC

A humid afternoon found me not structuring the plot of a new novel as I needed to, but rather waiting for the doors to open outside the iconic Gate Picturehouse in London’s hurrying Notting Hill. Because today they were showing The Odyssey, the biopic of the life of diver, explorer and underwater film-maker, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997).

Merriam-Webster defines an “odyssey” as a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune, and as much of the film took place aboard (or beneath) his creaky converted minesweeper Calypso, the title fitted like a hermit crab in a discarded shell.

This charming, polite but driven man brought the underwater world into the homes (via TV, not flooding) of millions worldwide. By adding a demand valve, he revolutionised the design of the SCUBA system (Self-Contained-Underwater-Breathing-Apparatus), vastly increasing divers’ underwater times. (Curiously, the film skipped this important point!)

Sublime Footage

I hoped for glorious footage in director Jérôme Salle’s 120 minutes and I wasn’t disappointed. Whether it was the frozen monochrome of the Southern Ocean, pulsing tropical reefs, or a humpback whale and calf, it was so real that I almost felt the undulating sea grass of the Mediterranean seafloor brushing my weight belt.

Beyond mere flora and fauna, what was brilliantly captured was the majestic infinity of the oceans. Equally impressive were the opening scenes where an old sea-plane danced with its shadow above a sunset ocean (in a subtle foreshadowing of later tragedy).

Interactions

JYC (as he was known by those close to him) was expertly played by Lambert Wilson who has a passing resemblance to the great man. We met JYC’s family, including increasingly lonely wife Simone (played by Audrey Tautou) and son Philippe.

Message

Sooner or later it had to happen and what started as a journey of discovery eventually reconfigured itself into an environmental message. Perhaps the treatment was a little overt—it felt like an after-thought—but given the state of our oceans, it was essential.

Conclusion: Four Stars

I’d recommend Odyssey. It’s a film about an important man and a critical topic.

Make-An-iPhone-Video Lecture: Lessons in Fun!

I attended a “how to make great videos with your own phone” lecture recently! See, I have plans…

I’d like to make some great videos – the kind you see popping up on youtube everywhere. Actually, I’d be happy with making just regular videos to cover my stage work from good angles without technical flaws.

So I trundled along to an informative lecture by Alex Pell, founder of Dashboard Media, at the amazing WeWork Old Street building in London on this very topic. Here’s one of the helpful tips he recommended, shown in a recent video.

It looks like I’ve got a lot of learning to do – just my kind of fun!

Ben’s Art Book 1 – Progress Report!

A project that I thought would take a week has taken several months – what with so many other distractions in my life – but we are nearly there! And the book is looking goooooood! I’m optimistically estimating that I’m 85% of the way to the yearned for (by me) release day.

A fascinating few specs…

My 94 illustrations have been split into ocean- and land-themed images (some pictures could have landed in either pile). Book One will be about the ocean.

I’ve checked the scans (300 dpi), and cleaned, resized and optimized the images. Half the scans for Book One (title reveal coming soon!) are now in the Word document that will soon become a…book. The portrait:landscape ratio is about 70:30. The text that accompanies the pictures (text on left, image opposite) just needs final editing and is comprised of (hopefully) interesting facts and personal experiences.

Most of the illustrations are traditional dark(er) images on white paper but (what I like to call my) Twilight Worlds series are white/grey images on black paper for a powerful and spooky effect.

How long does one drawing take?

I’m often asked how long a picture takes me. When I started this project, it’s fair to say I couldn’t draw – at all. Any skills I’d developed in my youth had long since evaporated through decades of non-use. But I didn’t realise this..

I embarked enthusiastically on the first picture and was horrified when, after a few hours, it bore no relationship to the image I had in my head. So, I tried again…and again… Some of the earlier pictures took many attempts before I was reasonably satisfied. Dozens of completed illustrations were discarded when finished and typically, each iteration would represent twenty or thirty hours work.

The reason they took so long is I work very, very slowly: planning, visualising, sketching, outlining, amending, filling, contrasting, completing. Revisiting short-term. Revisiting medium-term. Then, over the coming months and even years, I’d look again and find myself dissatisfied with this or that detail – and go back to work on it.

A 100 hours work per picture

I think it’s fair to say that many of the more complex pictures each represent maybe 100 hours of work…and the entire collection required several years of my time. More than a decade. But it’s nearly done! I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the collection when it is released.

Sign up to be the first to know when it’s released. Or keep an eye on the blog for updates. It’ll be announced here soon…