Doing Up The Mill – Again (& other work)

While we had managed to get second half of The Mill (known as the Square side) into a watertight and structurally sound state when we were getting the Hardwood Centre off the ground, with a new roof, windows and doors. And had kitted out a workshop in the basement. There was still a lot of work to do to fit the other floors out for people to live in. Which meant that in the meantime new members who joined ended up camping out in caravans and in the boiler house while we tried to work out how to finance more building work. Add to that that those of us who had building skills were either busy trying to steer a new business through it’s early formative years. Or in my case looking for other things to do outside the group. And it looked like the renovation of the square side might end up on a back burner for a while – hopefully it wouldn’t take as long to complete as the first half had.

By the mid-nineties I was dividing my time between working for the Hardwood Centre, more on a freelance basis as and when there was work, working on the latest stage of the ‘HOUSE’ project up in Ulverston and starting to branch out doing smallish scale construction project management with Peter Wilshaw – a venture that would later lead to us collaborating under the banner of Greenbuilt.

Early ‘Greenbuilt’ job – renovation of Cemetery Lodge, Burnley for Freshfields
+ Installation of Reedbed sewage system.

Around this time I thought about going to university as a mature student. Not sure now what brought the idea on – A bit early for a mid-life crisis. Looking round for something my life/work experience might get me a place on. I decided I fancied studying to be an architect. I put in applications to three northern schools of architecture. Got two refusals and a reluctant interview at Manchester. Where it was explained to me that If they offered me a place I would be the oldest architecture student they had ever had – possibly the oldest in the country. The problem as they saw it was that it took 7 years to fully qualify as an architect and I would be in my mid 40’s by then. I was also asked how I would feel being a student on a course where I would probably know more about construction than the lecturers. I replied “I was OK with the idea, but how would they feel?” – to which they replied “That is the problem!”

Needless to say they didn’t offer me a place. Which had me thinking that I have actually never got any job that I was interviewed for. The operative word being NEVER. I have got jobs; because I was the next one in the queue, parts that I have auditioned for, because I was in the right place at the right time, created my own jobs, been head hunted… I’ve had no problem getting interviews and I don’t think I interview that badly… So maybe I’m always a bit of a square peg when they are looking for someone to fill a round hole. (As of 2020 I still haven’t ever been offered a job that I’ve been formally interviewed for.)

During the autumn after the construction of the Cruck Barn in Ulverston a small team of us set to work fitting out the top two floors of the ‘square side’ of the Mill. The team of me, Peter Wilshaw, Liz & Dave – a couple of the barn volunteers, plus a hand from new PIC members Paul & Mike were paid to partition the space out to create more bedrooms and a flat on the top floor. We were something of a scratch group of builders with only me and Peter having any building skills to speak of. My memory is that it was a bit of a struggle juggling diaries, budgets,skills. focus, other work etc. And I’m not sure we really did that good a job. It felt different from when the whole focus of the group had been on ‘doing up the mill’ .

One of the things that was going on for me at the time was trying to work out how to move between a very co-operative management ethos that we had at People In Common and a world where you are expected to be ‘in charge’ and to lead in a more conventional management sense. It’s a juggling act that I’ve never quite got used to. Which is why I’ve ended up doing construction projects for voluntary groups or Arts organisations where the management and work culture is more collaborative that out there in the ‘commercial world’.

For some reason that I can’t quite remember now I got seriously irritated by the rather sanctimonious homily “What would ‘Jesus’ do?” I’m not sure where or when I first heard it, but at some point the little phrase really got up my nose. In reaction to it when faced with a puzzling situation, or choice of actions, I used to ask myself “Right now what would Don Juan do? “ Don Juan being the indigenous shamanic guide in the Carlos Castenada books. 

Having finished any formal education at 18 and pretty much having no actual qualification for the work I have done through the years I have relied heavily on learning from other people ‘on the job’ and building up social contacts and networks to get through my working life (I’m almost convinced that this is the way the world really works and that the despised ‘old school tie’ desperately needs a 21st Century conceptual makeover.) Since working as a freelance self-employed site and project manager I have become much more aware of other peoples different management skills and strengths as I worked alongside them and now have a whole list of names that I will rhetorically ask “What would; Bob Sproule, Barbara Sanders, Derek Goffin, Catriona Stamp, Peter Wilshaw, Hilary Hughes, David Rennie, Jon Barry, Bob Hodge, Sue Gill, Fiona Frank, Alison Cahn….Do?” And if it is a really tricky question and I’m in need of some extra imagination I might just light the blue touch paper and ask myself “What would John Fox do?”

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Thanks to Rory McLeod for rescuing
What would Jesus do?

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