Botton Laughter

When I was considering coming to Botton, I drew up a list of pros and cons. This was an exercise that, in retrospect, was completely futile. Anyone here knows that it is impossible to appreciate what Botton is like until you have really lived here. Nonetheless, a list did I write. It was a very difficult decision to come to Botton. I had been busy climbing a career ladder in a big city. Yet Botton drew me towards it, almost magnetically, despite my best efforts to persuade myself not to come.

On my list of pros was, ‘a hoot’ and ‘never a dull moment.’ I had visited Botton twice for two weeks and my overriding feeling was that, however challenging it might be, the fun that I had had with the Botton residents during those visits was a good indication of what it would be like day to day. I was completely right about that. I can say that, even in times of great sadness or difficulty, I have laughed with the people here every day.

So many of the residents, and especially the people I live with, have an amazingly positive disposition. They love to sing, they love to tell jokes, they love to laugh and they love life, especially Botton life, a great deal. It is almost impossible to have any pretentions around the residents here – they can see through that and will tell you and make a clever joke of it too. You have to be yourself, prepared to be embarrassed and laugh and smile through all of it.

On Thursday this week, I accompanied three residents to do an interview with BBC Look North to ask them how they felt about the current situation. The reporter was very experienced and I was impressed by the quality of his questioning, which was careful and unbiased. There was quite a buzz in the room where we waited before the filming began. As usual, people were telling jokes, recounting funny stories and taking the mickey out of some of the co-workers there, for instance, by asking one about when he would be marrying his girlfriend.

But there was a moment in the room when the mood changed. John * arrived who is currently living with a family with three young children. He is about the same age as me and has Down’s Syndrome. He came into the room, sat in a chair and sighed deeply. And then John began to cry. It wasn’t the sort of crying that I am used to; the kind of crying my children do when they are hurt or angry or feel a sense of injustice about something. It was as if all the breath had escaped his body and he had nothing left to do but cry from somewhere deep inside.

My first instinct in that situation is to try to comfort someone, to make it all better, and that is what I would usually do. But on this occasion, I could see that crying was just something he needed to do. So instead, I held his hand and so did one of the residents from my household. Eventually, I asked him, ‘do you want to talk about it?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t want things to change… I want them to stay. I don’t like it. I don’t like it.’ My friend from my house said, ‘be strong, be strong’. Eventually, John seemed to recover and told me I looked like Julia Roberts, and I laughed because I knew he must have been being ironic.

As I write this, I am thinking about the comments that might possibly appear under this post:

‘See how the co-workers are causing so much distress to these vulnerable people’

‘It’s so cruel to put people with learning disabilities in that position’

‘Why don’t they just become employed and then all this conflict can stop’

These are things that CVT and the people who agree with them say, either overtly or as a subtext in their official letters and publications all the time. And if I didn’t laugh at that, I would most certainly cry with rage at the distortion of the situation. Because CVT do not have to push through the changes that will see John separated from his ‘Botton Family’ – all they need to do is cooperate in altering the situation on the ground in Botton so that the co-workers can be viewed by HMRC as complying with a specific tax agreement: a tax agreement that is completely valid and still stands in many other Camphill communities in the UK. Instead CVT has steam-rollered through changes, disregarded the vast experience of the workforce here and ignored the overwhelming voices of the stakeholders of the community.

So is it really me who is causing John to cry?

The other subliminal message underneath those kind of responses is that it is not OK for a person with learning disabilities to have real feelings. That they must constantly be kept in their golden cage of the ‘client’ or ‘service user’. Well, hello?! John has feelings and his feeling is that he can’t bear to lose the people who he holds so dear and who have developed such a strong bond with him. He doesn’t see them as his ‘service provider’. He sees them as his friends and he loves them. Also, did you know that people with learning disabilities can have real views too? (I’m being sarcastic, by the way – of course they can and many rightly view CVT as destroying the community they love).

When we feel strong as a community, we can still find it in ourselves to laugh and poke fun at the tragedy of the situation. Sometimes it is this ‘unexpected withdrawal of sympathy’ ** for ourselves that allows us to do this, sometimes it is just a kind of gallows humour. I never thought one of the cons of coming to Botton would be that I would have to put my entire life at stake in order to fight to keep the community alive – and I can laugh in a derisive way at the strange irony of that.

I just hope that laughter can continue to be a feature of our community and that we allow our residents to experience the whole gamut of emotion that gives life so much meaning. Even if that means them expressing emotions that are so deeply uncomfortable to CVT.

* Not his real name

** John Cleese

Our Botton Spring

The very last of the snow is melting away here in Botton, leaving tiny hills of white dotting fields and gardens; the sweet reminders of where children built snowmen. And winding along our pathways, small shoots of green are pushing their way towards the ever increasing sunlight, whilst snowdrops nod at us on our way. These are signs that I seldom noticed before I came to live here; small pointers towards lighter and longer days, the light itself awakening from the earth, the new life of the tentative beginning of Spring.

And also in Botton there seems to be an awakening that the progress of nature has no idea of. It is an awakening of the people here in our community; a realisation that if we are to conserve the roots of all we do, then we must act now. To do otherwise would be to watch the community wilt and die away.

Today I and many other co-workers were served with a ‘Notice to Quit’ our homes, our work, our lives and the people we live with: it was hand-delivered by the CVT HR advisor and assistant. Today, I sat and held the hand of a ‘PWS’. Her name is Anne* and she calls herself a Botton Villager. She told me again that she wanted me and my family to stay in our home and she put her head on my shoulder and wouldn’t let go of my hand. And today I realised I was struggling to find the words to comfort her and I knew I had to allow her to feel the sadness that she has every right to feel about the prospect of what will be a great loss for her. Anne has lived with families in Botton for her entire 30 year stay here. She has watched their children grow up, played with them and been truly a part of the family. Even though she has moved households from time to time, being part of a family has been a constant and solid foundation to her home life. We talked about the new support worker who may come to take over the running of the household. Anne knows her and likes her and this is comforting to both of us, because Anne had no choice in who this person would be. And what we both know and express in our different ways is that it is not just a change in the ‘personnel’ of the people in Botton homes that will make a difference to Anne: it is the massive change in culture and relationship that will inevitably come from it. Even the managers here, who regularly repeat the mantra that, ‘not much will change’, cannot deny that the qualitative difference to the life of the residents of Botton will be enormous.

For the last four days, one of our Botton homes has been a focal point of activity. It was the first property named in CVT’s ‘Property Consolidation Document’ scheduled to be taken over by paid support workers. On Friday 13th of February, the residents of the house were informed by a Care and Support Manager that from Monday 16th February, a support worker would begin to work in the house and that she would be gradually taking over the work done by the current house co-ordinators, who would eventually be required to leave. So, by CVT management, the residents were given two and a half days to come to terms with this life-altering piece of news before the person set to effectively replace the co-worker family they live with, would enter the household.

One of the residents in that meeting said, ‘I love that family. I am a part of them and they are a part of me.’ And then he wrote a statement on a piece of scrap paper from his room, addressed to the General Manager and Care and Support Manager that said, ‘We don’t want carers to come into this house. We want the family… to stay.’ He stuck this on the front door with sellotape. That statement, along with the Letter Before Action that has been served on CVT became key to the activity of the following days: a stand-off between co-workers who are stepping forward to protect the rights of the residents to live with co-worker families, and CVT, who are attempting to push on with their schedule of introducing paid support staff into the houses no matter what the residents of those houses feel.

bs snowdrops
Snowdrops by the River Esk yesterday

It has been with a certain trepidation that we co-workers have stood at the door of the home to meet with CVT management. It is a situation that none of us have been in before and we are constantly seeking advice about what we are doing from a legal and moral perspective. But it is clear to us also that to allow CVT to begin this process of replacement of co-workers would be a fatal step in carrying out their final project to remove co-workers and families from their homes in Botton. We feel we have simply no option but to resist this move however we can, even if it means putting ourselves at considerable danger of CVT’s ‘disciplinary action’ and of their modus operandi of intimidation and harassment. To us, it is clear: if the people in our households want the co-worker families to stay, then we must protect their fundamental right to a family life. If they have stated that they do not wish support workers to enter the building, then we must protect their right to say who enters their own home. If CVT are determined to dismantle the integral structure of a Camphill Community and ignore their own charitable charter, then we must act on the ground to prevent this from happening.

On the ground. That is where we, the co-workers and residents stand. We stand with a view of what Botton is as a Camphill community that feels as if it extends from the earth itself. The earth that was first toiled 60 years ago by the pioneers of Camphill. We must now toil again to keep the community alive.

* Her real name has been protected.