This is where we play

This is where we play by Andrew Townsend.

Writing is hard graft. Whether it is writing for a tabloid or for a novel or for academia or, as in my case, attempting to make an extremely boring subject interesting to members of the public putting words together is serious stuff.  I have just finished writing a book on health and safety. Because it, in essence, says that the way H&S is regulated and managed world-wide is mostly a load of bollocks, I had to get my arguments and evidence right or risk having them shot down in flames. Writing this book was one of the most draining intense periods of my recent life. I needed a break; I needed some light relief from the seemingly never ending cycles of research, writing and reviews. It came in the form of a photograph that will be used on the dust cover of the book.  Entitled “This is where we play”, it is a stunning seascape of Freshwater Bay captured by the camera of Jason Swain. It helped me regain my sanity. It took me back almost 40 years to a time when surfing Compton Bay and Castle Cove at Niton had also restored and maintained my sanity.

Being in the top stream of a Grammar School (Sandown) is also serious stuff. You are not expected to enjoy yourself; your job is to pass exams and then go on to a prestigious university. Your job is to be good at everything. Your job is to be the best of the best.  It never occurred to most of us to ask why we had to be the best; we just complied. And, without realising it, most of us gained the habit of continual unthinking striving and the habit stuck. And it continued through university. Then one summer I got a lucky break. The pea harvest was late. I was trying to get a job with an agricultural contractor travelling around the north and east of England. There is big money involved in capturing the peas at just the right moment and the peas were not being cooperative. I was skint. So, with five bob in my pocket, I hitchhiked back to the Island and got the first job I could find – cleaning the Fisherman’s Cottage Club at Shanklin.  Tucked into the corner of the changing room were two long and heavy surf boards. Long enough to catch the ripples that inhabited that part of the Island; heavy enough for me to eventually stand on without falling off. The job of cleaning was not onerous and for the first time in my life I had spare time. I tried standing on these strange long objects and promptly fell off; it did not matter. I had plenty of time so I kept on trying. Then I met Mick Cromaty. He worked mornings and evenings in his father’s hotel and had afternoons free. One afternoon we stuffed the boards into the back of his Morris Traveller and he drove me to Compton Bay.

There I saw people doing something totally outside my previous experience. They were having fun. It was August 1970; I was 22. It was a road to Damascus revelation. You didn’t need to be the best and to pass exams to feel good about yourself; you didn’t need to analyse something to the nth degree to learn. All that was needed was the ability to enjoy what you were doing and to laugh at yourself when you got it wrong. I learned to learn by trial and error; I learned to enjoy learning. I became addicted. I watched and listened to BH Rusty from Apse  Heath – so called because started every sentence with the words “Bloody hell….”. I heard of the fabled Rusty Long (a former pupil of my father) who had already left the Island and was surfing exotic places around the world. I learned to do things just for the hell of it instead of doing things because there was a prize at the end of it. I was hooked. I bought my first board from Dougie Cooper

A year later I started work as a very green wet behind the ears engineer at Fawley refinery. It was a depressing experience. Oil boiling is mostly about keeping the place running; very little changes from day to day. There is very little job satisfaction in the work itself. The main motivation is where you are in the hierarchy; so people are intensely competitive amongst themselves. I felt ground down by the constant in house bickering. I longed for the weekends. Winter times I escaped back to the Island and surfed Compton or Castle Cove at Niton if Compton was blown out. Summer times I drove down to Cornwall and surfed Gwithian. I shared a flat with John Hartnell from Carisbrooke. Nicknamed ‘Carrots’ because of his flaming red hair he had a distinctive style; he was tall, slim and strong. Because he was light he could catch waves others could not. He seemed all arms and legs but nonetheless he rode waves that would leave the rest of us floundering. Summer holidays were spent camped in my one man tent mostly in next to the beach at Gwithian. I became best man to the Gwithian lifeguard. His bride was from Sheffield where I had originally gone to University. Briefly I became a Sheffield Wednesday supporter. Surfing and the occasional trip to South Yorkshire kept me sane for almost a decade. It was better than just staying sane: life was fun.  But it was soon to change.

More by luck than judgement I became part of Fawley’s construction organisation; construction is demanding on time but it has two great advantages . The first is epitomised by the saying “Little boys never grow up; their toys just get bigger”. I got to play with some very big toys. It was like having my own personalised industrial meccano set. Who needs promotion when it is possible to work with the largest most powerful cranes in the world or to build a complete railway (my full sized train set); Fawley has its own internal railway system! The second advantage was that construction involved people with ‘intelligence in their hands’. Just like surfers, men on the tools learn by doing not by analysing. By making our work fun we gradually became more innovative and gained a reputation for learning new ways of solving old problems. I got close to my workforce and them to me. Because of this I became involved in the local community and youth work. With limited recreation time but still with the need to do something physical, I started teaching kids to ski at the local artificial ski slope. Whereas most of the other instructors used formal exercises we played games on skis; again we developed a reputation for being innovative, learning fast and learning thoroughly. Our speciality was helping people with confidence problems; by making learning fun we gave them confidence in themselves. This ability to play on skis and make learning fun eventually led to my becoming part of the Swiss national coaching team. A Brit teaching skiing in Switzerland is a bizarre thought but it happened.

Today, some three decades later, you might think the making learning fun story is over; one’s physical body does not go on forever. Aged 64 with Parkinson’s mine can no longer surf or ski. But you would be wrong. During the research that went into the book on health and safety we found that most workplaces had become dreary turgid places. But a few (especially in construction) are still fun. I now lead a small team (there are four of us) that will be studying why these places are still fun.  In three years’ time (that is how long it takes to do the research thoroughly and write up the results) we hope to match Jason’s photo entitled ‘This where we play’ with our own entitled ‘This is where we learned about fun’. Because of the experience of having made construction fun, we seem to be able to make construction research fun; we are able to engage with people and organisations that other research groups cannot. It is easy to claim that this was because I had moved from engineering into studying psychology, social psychology and sociology. The real reason was not academic study but a late pea harvest and those two long boards at the Fisherman’s Cottage in Shanklin.


[Andrew Townsend’s book ‘Safety Can’t be Measured’ will be published by Gower Ashgate in the second half of 2013. Although the subject matter is serious, it is intended to be fun to read]