In the second of a series of articles looking at the experiences of some of our members during the pandemic, Rowena Harding asks Tina Cribbin about On Top of the World and life under lockdown in Hulme.
Living in a tower block in Hulme has challenges. Gentrification is disrupting the neighbourhood, the University’s students means transient neighbours, development takes away community spaces, and the findings of the Grenfell inquiry compound to make residents feel like sitting ducks in their high-rise homes. So when the coronavirus pandemic meant residents needed to “stay safe, stay home” it was clear that something was needed to keep spirits up.
“There are many ways to die,” said resident Tina who is part of On Top of the World, a community group based in Hulme, who use arts and creativity to reduce isolation and promote wellbeing among older people. “We had to do something before people’s mental health deteriorated.”
And so, Get Busy on Your Balcony was born which saw Tina and her co-workers Anne and Chris dancing and singing “I just called to say I love you” up to the residents of Hopton Court in Hulme much to the amusement of passing bus drivers. People sing along from their balconies and enjoy Balcony Bingo with other activities including boredom packs with jigsaws and sunflower planting.
On Top of the World are now moving on to organise events like Social Distance Disco which Tina says “give people joy and hope, and nourish the soul.”
It helped that On Top of the World and residents like Tina already had an active presence in the community. “We’d done the groundwork. We’ve had drop ins, Irish storytelling cafes, and dances. Creative writing sessions where we run our savings group and drama, circus skills and a DJ,” Tina described, in life before lockdown. She said that when they started organising the events and pushing bingo cards through people’s doors “they knew we were going to do something daft!” Tina said it’s this kind of presence in the community that’s so important to community engagement – not just during the pandemic. “Success is knowing the community. You have to know what your community needs. You have to have empathy and know the history of isolation and injustice. And the history of the people.”
Tina and the team provide practical help as well as the laughter and singing because the usual challenges of life are still going on in lockdown. “We help with advocacy, food parcels, we make sure people get medicine, if they needed crisis support with money when someone had been broken into. Older people were coming out of hospital with no-one providing care for them”.
The residents have also made a real effort to connect with each other especially people who are not digitally included. “The biggest thing we’ve done is the daily ring round. The conversations have been harrowing. We had a lady whose voice went because she had not spoken to someone for so long. [Another lady] crying down the phone line in isolation and then apologising for crying. [One gent] who had not seen his grandkids for so long and told me ‘it’s worse than the war; at least I could see people.’”
Tina explained that the residents wanted to let everyone know they had not been forgotten. She also describes that they had to work hard to make sure the fear of the virus didn’t undo all the good work the community had been doing. “We all have to use the communal spaces if we go out. There’s one lift. And one hand sanitiser for the 80 of us. There was a lot of panic, anxiety, you could see the fear in people’s faces when you used the lift.”
There’s more to come from the residents of Hulme. Older residents are being helped to get online with Whatsapp and Facebook groups. A new community monitoring initiative is being planned with CLASS and some of the other GM savings networks who are learning from their sisters in Nairobi. Street theatre is planned, along with more dancing on the grass and bingo on the balconies.
And importantly this era won’t be forgotten. A script is being written which captures the stories and issues of living in Hulme during lockdown, and will be performed as a play for residents. It sounds like a play with lessons for everyone who wants to live in a better community long after the pandemic is over.