Community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter.

Humankind is a social species. In our earliest days, we prowled the open savannah, hunting in packs during the day and retreating together to the shelter of mountain caves at night. We made tools and built fires, fashioned clothes and decorated our dwellings with images from our world. There was safety in numbers but more than that, we shared a common purpose; providing food, raising children and caring for the elderly gave us something to work for, together, and set the foundations of communities, language and culture.

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Even in the modern world, we rely on our social bonds, forging our identities in relation to the people who surround us. We choose our clothes, music, T.V. programmes and food based on the choices of the people around us, whether to encourage our inclusion or mark ourselves as different. But in a world of smart phones and supermarkets, when all we have to do to find food is ‘tap the app’ and sit back until it arrives, what is the purpose of our social connections? Do we really rely on the group for provision and protection anymore, or is there another purpose at work?

My own history is littered with the tropes of adolescent tribalism. Coming from a somewhat transient family, I lacked the roots that anchored other children to a place in geography and hierarchy.  Each time we moved I would have to begin again, establishing myself in the pecking order and often, choosing to define myself in opposition to the prevailing trends, an outsider. It was easier, I thought: if I was strong on my own then moving wouldn’t matter.

It was without really noticing that my attitude began to change. I had turned 15 and recently moved into the small market town of Barnard Castle, nestling on the border between Yorkshire and County Durham. A quaint town with an aging population, the sheep outnumbered the human residents by a ratio of 3:1. Squat sandstone storefronts, unchanged since the 1960s, lined the main street and it was above one of these that I lived, along with my mum and sister.

In common with many rural towns in the north of England, Barney had sprung a human leak and was haemorrhaging its young people at an alarming rate. No sooner had they ended their schooling at the local comprehensive, than they were off to the bright lights of Darlington or Bishop Aukland – themselves minor county towns but positively cosmopolitan in comparison to Barnard Castle. The town’s response to the problem was to set up a youth club, complete with music studio, mechanical workshops, dance studios and even a big green double decker bus to ferry kids in from the surrounding farms and estate cottages. My sister, who was more gregarious than I, was desperate to go but as she was under 15 needed (according to the rules) a chaperone. Despite my protestation, it was on a Monday night at the beginning of June that I first stepped through the doors of TCR.

I was amazed. In the heart of this sleepy little town, in the centre of a moor, was a hive of activity. I stood against the wall as people hurried back and forth with guitars and cameras. Others were huddled around a computer, excitedly bickering over which shots to include in a video. I was in the building for no more than a minute before someone had grabbed hold of me and led me down a short flight of stairs, through a darkened room and into a recording booth, telling me to watch the levels on this and tweak that when they signalled. I was carried away by the drama of it all. I sat back and watched as my new friend fiddled with microphones and dials.

Eventually, after the band had played their set, punctuated by the tantrums of the bass player who was convinced he should take a more prominent role, I followed the others to the chill room. We lounged on beanbags and a battered old sofa, cracking open ice-cold cans of Coke launched at us by a tall guy, back from his expedition to the supermarket. The walls were daubed with primitive graffiti and posters; the cave paintings of contemporary life. Time seemed irrelevant as we chatted and laughed, everyone entirely comfortable in each other’s company, yet everyone different. We were boys and girls, gay and straight, metalheads and classicists, local and new. Some were natural performers while others excelled behind the scenes. None of that seemed to matter. Everyone was welcome, and everyone was valued. I quickly came to think of TCR as my second home and the people I met there became as close as family.    

Looking Forward

It is only now, looking back through the lens of lockdown, that I realise purpose was the glue that held that rag-tag bunch of youths together. It was the coming together to produce something bigger than any single one of us that helped us level barriers and find the common ground from which we could build lasting relationships. We weren’t reliant on each other for survival but whether we were making a video to promote a local event or putting on gigs in a village hall, we shared common goals that encouraged each of us to play to our strengths and build a community that we could be proud of.

Our current situation, though novel, reminds me of my time at TCR. Each of us doing our part to help the collective effort, whether that’s manning the front line in hospitals or supermarkets; helping to keep important services running; supporting loved ones through isolation or simply staying at home, we have each contributed to our common aim. We should be proud of the way in which we have rallied through such challenging times. We should recognise the efforts of everyone, big or small. Above all, we should remember the power that comes from shared purpose and work to ensure that the gains we have made under such terrible circumstances become the foundations of our future.

Above all, we should remember the power that comes from shared purpose and work to ensure that the gains we have made under such terrible circumstances become the foundations of our future.

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