“I became part of his story”

IMG_7485The guy in the photo above is Mohammed Mamdani. He runs a community food bank on the St Raphael’s Estate in Brent, North West London. It’s called Sufra, a Persian word. The literal definition is of a tablecloth or rug – one you spread on the ground when people eat together. But the word also connotes hospitality, generosity and shared humanity.

On the day I visited Sufra, Mohammed had spent the morning helping a man called Steve. Steve has a good work history and decent qualifications. But he also has mental health problems. When he was discharged from a care unit, he had nowhere to go, so ended up living under a nearby road bridge. He turned up at Sufra looking for a meal.

This is why a group of Muslim charities founded Sufra in 2013: to give free food to people like Steve; people in desperate need. Last year its food parcels helped 3,858 hungry Londoners – double the year before. They included 827 children aged under 18 and 200 younger than five.

Most of the people Sufra helps are going hungry because they’re waiting to get statutory benefits (35%) or their benefits have been disrupted (25%), usually because of a sanction. One in every six recipients is a family that is in work but not earning enough to eat.

“The people who come here have literally got nowhere else to go,” says Mohammed. “They have fallen through the cracks in the system.” Sufra gives them enough food and basic supplies for up to seven days. The size of the pack they get depends on the size of their household. For about two-thirds of the people who come for help, that one parcel is enough. They don’t ask again. They don’t become dependent on charity handouts.

If you can’t feed yourself and your family, that’s often just a symptom of a deeper social failure, says Mohammed. “It would be naive of us to think we can just give someone food and close the door on them. Our aim is to deal with the short, medium and long-term causes of deprivation. The food bank is a mechanism to engage with the most vulnerable. But it’s also a way to regenerate the local community.”

So Sufra teaches people to cook, provides free advice on housing, employment and financial issues. It helps people start their own businesses. It finds creative ways for them to buy cheap food, to grow their own produce, to access preventative health care.

I meet a lot of business people who like to talk about “innovation” and “entrepreneurialism”. But it’s often just talk. They’ve got nothing on Mohammed. “Because we are small, we can experiment and try new ideas,” he says. “We can do things really cheaply. We are a lot more agile than some larger charities. I don’t have to jump through 100 hoops to get something done.”

Sufra is sometimes called a Muslim food bank, but it’s not a label Mohammed uses. Generosity, kindness, humanity – this is his religion. “I meet so many different characters. And I meet these people face to face,” he says. “I see their problems. The homeless guy, Steve. I spoke to him, I learned his story, so I became part of his story. His suffering is now my duty. I don’t have any other reason to live, apart from this work.”

I met Mohammed as part of my work with The London Community Foundation, where I’m writer in residence. It was an honour.

Map of the estate
Map of the estate
Doesn't look like much. But incredible things happen in this building
Doesn’t look like much. But incredible things happen in this building

“People can come together and make things happen”

[A story of mine for The London Community Foundation]

The closure of their local library shocked the St James Street community. But out of the ashes they are building something incredible…

In April 1997 Alison Griffin, three-months pregnant and with a toddler in tow, took a two-week holiday in Libya. When she got home, she went straight to the local library, five doors along from her house on St James Street, Walthamstow, to return her borrowed guidebooks. A sign on the door said the library was closed. Permanently.

“I felt disbelief, and anger,” she says now. “How can you just take that public facility away? We hadn’t only lost the library, we’d lost our community space.”

Other local people felt the same way: Alison’s lounge quickly became the headquarters of a campaign to get the library reopened. But Waltham Forest council wouldn’t budge. In 2010 it decided to sell the building to a property developer.

Yet all was not lost. A sympathetic local councillor – Clare Coghill – negotiated an eleventh-hour chance for the campaign group to find a viable community use for the building. A contact suggested they apply to Nesta for funding under its Neighbourhood Challenge scheme.

“I filled in the Nesta forms as best as I could, in the hope that if we got on the shortlist, we could at least delay the sale of the building,” says Alison. “But that was all I could realistically hope for.” Much to her surprise, the application was successful. Nesta promised the group £150,000.

Surreal start

So it was that in April 2011, four years after she returned from holiday to find the library closed, Alison and others from the campaign team were standing on its doorstep, holding a Tupperware box full of keys.

“It was an eyesore,” she says. “A boarded-up, sorry building. The roof was leaking, there was water seeping everywhere, the boiler had long since gone. But it was very nice to get in, very exciting. If a bit surreal.”

Through the spring and into the summer local people worked to refurbish the building and get it open. Along the way, they constituted themselves as a charitable body, The Mill, with Alison as the first chair of trustees.

“None of us had done anything like this in our lives before,” says Mo Gallaccio, arts coordinator at The Mill. “We were constantly making it up on the spot. Problems would crop up, we’d have a bit of debate, and get on with it.”

Opening day in September 2011 was complete chaos, says Alison. “It was amazing, exciting, with a lot of people involved – but I think we were all pretty much exhausted by that point as well.”

Making stuff happen

The Mill’s purpose today is the same as it was when it first opened: to be a place where “people can come together and make things happen.” It has a children’s room full of books and toys; a large open space where people can meet; two smaller rooms for events and workshops; upstairs office space that provides some rental income; and a small honesty library – a touching and well-used nod to the building’s history.

Anyone can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat with friends or with the volunteers who are always on hand. There are events and classes in everything from yoga to baby massage, from gardening to chess. Most of these sessions are organised and led by local people themselves.

“The good thing about the Mill is it is so bottom up,” says Mo. “It’s not about us telling people what to do, it’s the community – everything that happens is because of people coming in with ideas.”

Growing ideas

Indeed, The Mill acts as a kind of incubator for micro-businesses. It makes small grants – often just £50 – so people can try things out on a small scale. One group of elderly residents formed Waltham Forest Community Radio, to celebrate and archive the lives and experiences of older people in the community. Another created the Asian Women’s Support Group.

The radio station secured funding under The Mill’s “Older People’s Pop Ups” scheme, which encouraged people to offer activities for older residents. The women’s group came from the “Grow Your Idea” scheme, which backed ideas that could connect people, help them to share their skills and experience, and build their self-confidence. Another project, “Mill Mentors”, recruited and trained volunteers who would then help local people set up groups and activities of their own.

“These schemes are an important part of our ethos,” says Alison. Dipping a toe into self-employment, trying to start something new, takes money, confidence and resources, she argues, even if you are doing it unpaid to start with. “If you can take away those barriers, people can try things.”

Some of the ideas piloted at The Mill have gone on to become very well established – the women’s group, for example. Others haven’t worked as well as everyone hoped. “But if you can experiment at low risk, people can learn from the experience.”

Bright future

Despite its early success, at the end of The Mill’s first year the outlook was darkening. The initial funding was about to run out. It wasn’t clear how long the centre could stay open, or whether it would have to slash the services on offer. “It looked like it was going to be extremely difficult,” says Alison.

The Mill turned to The London Community Foundation for help. It applied successfully for a small grant that provided enough money to employ an admin officer for a year. “That grant from The Foundation was essential. It gave us the time we needed to find more income,” says Alison.

The part-time admin officer has since become a full-time centre manager, with an assistant working under her. They make sure The Mill’s office tenants are properly looked after, and keep the centre running smoothly.

Looking to the future, there are plans to create more office space for rental income and to build a kitchen. Then people would be able to eat together, teach each other to cook, and experiment with pop-up restaurants. That could create new business ventures, while giving people skills to combat food poverty.

Many of the people who’ve benefited from The Mill are coping with big structural problems, like social isolation, discrimination, and poverty. “But as a small community project, maybe we can take the edge off that?” says Alison. “People have got somewhere to come now, somewhere friendly where they know people – where they are more likely to ask for help, if they need it. As a community, we are a lot more empowered.”


How a simple ‘what if?’ question is helping Hackney kids do better in school

[A story I wrote for The London Community Foundation…]

Lots of great ideas start with a simple “what if…?” question. For Catriona Maclay, the moment came when she was talking with friends over dinner.

As a secondary school teacher in North London, she’d noticed how easily young people could fall behind in their studies. Catriona asked herself: what if you put those children in a learning space like nothing they’d ever experienced, gave them a fun, real-world project to work on, gave them lots of support from community volunteers – could you turn their lives around?

To try and answer that question, Catriona created Hackney Pirates, a charity that develops the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney.

After four years of hard work, fundraising, and life-changing success, the project now has a home of its own – a magical shop, café and learning space in Dalston, aptly called the Ship of Adventures.

Local young people aged 9–12 — known as pirates —   are referred to the project by their school or social services.  A typical visit will see each young pirate paired with a volunteer who will spend 45 minutes helping them with homework or reading books from the ship’s library. They then work together on the pirate’s creative project, which changes each term.

One project involved the pirates in making a CD of motivational speeches. They read a range of speeches, got a feel for how they were written and how they were best performed, and then wrote, performed and recorded speeches of their own.

Making a CD or creating a book is “really important because the children work towards real-world consequences,” says Catriona. “We noticed that a tangible objective is really motivating and exciting for young people.”

It’s a year since Hackney Pirates moved into the Ship of Adventures, a step that has been “completely game changing”, says Catriona. “When we were moving all the time, we were never able to completely focus on growing our social impact. Now we have stability, we are able to focus in a positive way, working with more children and allowing us to double the size of our learning programme.

“We now have shop where we can sell the young people’s work, underlining those ‘real-world consequences’. They now get to see their work, published on shelves every time they walk in here. It’s also our face to the world and a step towards putting our mission of learning adventures on the high street and promoting that anyone can come be a part of it.”

Hackney Pirates have benefitted from two rounds of funding provided by Dalston Bridge, a fund managed by The London Community Foundation. This helped to finance workshops for the pirates in their school holidays and paid for iPads they use for their creative projects and homework. It also funded some of the inspiring staff who’ve enabled the project to grow, to work with more children, and to make the most of its new home.

Impact studies show that 96% of the pirates’ teachers say children involved in the project show improved confidence, with 78% seeing better engagement with writing and attitude to learning. As for the pirates, 94% of them say coming to the project helps them at school.

The vision is for Hackney Pirates to become a community hub for learning, recognised as a place on the high street that has resources and volunteers to support young people, teachers and families — a kind of halfway house between schools and communities.

“Schools in Hackney are fantastic and we’ve seen incredible improvement over the years. We are not trying to replace school, but supplement it,” says Catriona. “We do the bit that schools are less able to do, and that’s give personalised attention to those who need it most, whether that’s because they’re statemented or there is some kind of intervention going on at school. We help with the building of confidence, perseverance and positive attitude to learning.”

Writing with wu-shih


I ran a workshop at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury a couple of weeks ago. This is an excellent community arts event with an ambition to “inspire wonder and engage curiosity.”

People were certainly curious about my writing with constraints session. I’d hoped that maybe eight people might turn up. Two minutes before start time I had just one. But then a stream of people flooded in. There were so many that I joked about how we might want to barricade the doors. And then when even more came I thought I might have to start turning them away.

In the end, I counted 23 writers, which was great. Many of them had never been to a writing workshop before, which was lovely.

I read a book about Zen philosophy over the summer – Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen – and some of the ideas I encountered there bubbled up when we started to write some Haiku. Watts has a wonderful chapter about Zen arts, where he discusses archery, kendo and bonseki, as well as poetry. Haiku, he says, quoting the great Japanese master Basho, should be written in the spirit of “wu-shih” – the thought that the poem is “nothing special”.

If you call yourself a poet – never mind a writer – you take on a weighty burden of cultural baggage. I’m inspired by Basho’s belief that poetry – and Haiku in particular – can be written by ordinary people, for ordinary people. Yes, some people are gifted writers, but that shouldn’t discourage other people from having a go and using a form like Haiku to examine their experience of the world. As Watts says:

“The point of these [Zen] arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.”

Yep, that kind of sums up the approach I’m trying to encourage with these workshops. Watts also says: “A good Haiku … invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.” People in the workshop participated, wrote words and shared them with each other, if they felt like it. That makes me very happy.


Homeless in Kingston


This is Matt Hatton. He’s the director of a small charity called Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness. As the name suggests, Matt’s group helps homeless people in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. Some of them are sleeping rough on the streets, most have no place to call home – they maybe sleep on a mate’s sofa – others are at risk of becoming homeless, often because they can’t pay the rent or have been kicked out.

Matt’s group runs a drop-in centre that gives people advice about housing and benefits. Most of the people who visit expect KCAH to find them somewhere to live, but that’s not usually possible. Hostel and council beds are in short supply in Kingston, as they are elsewhere across London. And many of Matt’s ‘clients’ have serious drug and alcohol problems; they often need to address those before they can be housed.

I’m writing an article about Matt and his work for The London Community Foundation, a charity that funds small, grassroots groups across the capital. I recently became their writer in residence, something I’ll share more about later. Part of my role involves writing stories about the people the LCF works with, the projects it supports, and the Londoners in need who benefit from all this good work. Visiting Matt was one of my first assignments.


This is Georgie Foreshaw. She’s a housing advisor who works with Matt. If you face a housing crisis, Georgie is the person you’ll most likely end up talking to. She’ll try to help you get back on your feet. And if you’re desperate, she might give you a tin of soup, a sleeping bag, and maybe even some clothes.

Georgie laughed when I asked her to describe a typical day; they’re always different. When I asked her to tell me a story about one client, this is what she shared:

“Her dad was a heroin addict. He left home when she was two. At thirteen, she went into care. She was bounced around from place to place and started using drugs. When she first came to the drop-in service, she was on the streets, selling herself. She was high and paranoid. But for some reason she trusted me. She’d come to the centre every day and then I’d not see her for ages. It was very random. Then she settled into a pattern, visiting twice a week. We built a nice routine. Now she’s in temporary accommodation with the council. She’s been clean for ten weeks and is doing brilliantly. She’s even talking about going to college. When she stops coming to see me, it will be sad – but lovely.”

I spent a morning with Matt and Georgie. I think they are amazing people. I’ve written my stories about the work they do and will post some links here when they have been published.

The way to go for help


The KCAH offices. There are often people living in this car park. None on the day I visited, thankfully.

Constraints liberate


Bit slow to share my news on this one, but I ran a workshop on writing with constraints as part of the Guildford Literary Festival this summer. All of the 20 tickets for the event sold, which was very pleasing.

It was wonderful to see a room full of writers beavering away with their pens and notebooks, and to hear them sharing their words and thoughts. And their feedback was just lovely:

– Neil Baker is inspiring!
– Wonderful, inspiring facilitator. Would be interested in more workshops please.
– Just to thank Neil for making it so much fun and making us all feel so relaxed and comfortable.
– It was excellent. Well conceived, researched and delivered.
– Very well organised, great value.
– It allowed me to get free from my fear of writing.
– Engaging presentation, well presented.
– The timed writing exercises were a really good way to impose frameworks but allow creativity.
– It would be helpful to have more similar workshops.
– I will now never say again I don’t have time to write – 6 minutes is all you need!
– Thank you for a very thought provoking workshop this morning. May submit myself to the discipline of haiku now
– Went to fab ‘constraints’ workshop run by Neil Baker. Awestruck by how much he crammed in & what emerged.
– Thank you to Neil Baker for a fantastic “Writing with constraints” workshop this morning


And here’s a tiny video clip of the writers in action.




This is Zoe Tynan Campbell, designer at Stumped Studio. I’m writing a piece of short fiction for Fiera magazine inspired by work she is showing at the London Design Festival.

Last week I popped round to her home/workshop to find out more about what she does, and why. It was also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, as I used to live just round the corner from Zoe’s.


This cute little piece of wood is what Zoe calls a Hasbeen (Sorry about the awful photo. You really have to hold a Hasbeen in your hand to appreciate its loveliness). She gathers unwanted or discarded lumps of wood and uses her wonderful lathe and impressive range of chisels to reveal the beautiful Hasbeen inside each one.

I like the idea that within every chunk of dull, utilitarian office furniture or rejected off-cut there is a delightful, playful character waiting patiently for its – or his, or her – chance to come out and be enjoyed.

Hasbeens have no particular function or purpose. But they are comforting to hold, to look at or just to have around. And watching Zoe make one reminded me to search for the story that is always waiting below the surface.




What is art for?

If you’re trying to make Art – and the capital A is deliberate – is it helpful to have some kind of end purpose in mind, some kind of idea about how your Art might be useful to the world, or even just to one person?

Back in my student days I wrote a 10,000-word dissertation about the value of art for art’s sake. It was handwritten in scrawling blue biro on WH Smith lined paper; no record exists. Perhaps that’s a good thing? I remember finishing the conclusion on the Tube, just before my train pulled in to Highbury and Islington station.

The five uses of art outlined in this video are worth thinking about…



Economist article: Hanli Prinsloo


My article for The Economist about ocean campaigner Hanli Prinsloo (above) has just been published. Here’s how it starts…

Hanli Prinsloo was jogging on a Cape Town beach when she found two girls kicking a dead dolphin that had washed ashore. It could have been a creature from a distant galaxy, for all they knew.

Ms Prinsloo, a competitive free-diver and ocean lover, told the girls how Dolphins are mammals that live in family groups. That the females—like the one they had just stopped kicking—suckle their offspring for even longer than humans.

“Now they were sitting down, wiping sand off the dolphin, and pledging to stay with ‘her’ until the body had been taken away,” says Ms Prinsloo. “It was an amazing transformation. Imagine what might happen if you could take those girls into the water and show them what’s down there?”

You can read the rest here