Returning, after a break since late 2012, to The story of us where much has changed, including the century.

I’m jammed up against the side rail of the boat to keep the camera and its mono pod as steady as I can while I’m filming. Filming on this calm and sunny Sunday evening in April 2002 as we sail out of San Francisco towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sarah’s not here, she’s back home in England working on a film for a different customer. While I’m travelling up the west coast of the United States facilitating and filming a social enterprise tour for something called ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas’.

Yes, I’m being paid to do this. Even as the boat pushes gently through the waves towards the distant bridge I know this is a golden moment I’ll treasure forever. But how did I get here?

Us two, as the new century begins.
Us two, early in the century. It might not look like it but we’re working.

As the new century begins our business, still little more than four years old, is busier than ever. Being inventive and challenging with customers working in housing, social change and, particularly, social enterprise. We’d been fortunate enough to get going at the same time as social enterprises began to emerge as a new way of being in business. Being for social and environmental good as well as making financial profits. And now we’re involved with several of them. Deeply so with the Furniture Resource Centre in Liverpool.

What began as work with the senior management team has now spread to working with the whole place – managers, upholsterers, truck drivers and everyone – as they launch new social enterprises, a community friendly shop as well as Bulky Bob’s, already collecting and recycling bulky household waste for Liverpool City Council. So they’re now a group of enterprises, the FRC Group.

And we work with FRC on defining the values that will bind the Group together and help them achieve what they exist for.
And we work with FRC on defining the shared values that will bind the Group together and help them achieve what they exist for.

Sarah designs symbols for each of their values to help get them across to each other and to their customers.

Hand drawn by Sarah. In fact that's Sarah's hand.
Hand drawn by Sarah. In fact that’s Sarah’s hand.

Together we develop these into systems they then use to recruit and develop the right people and also take on work that fits with what they stand for. And as of 2014 these are still the FRC Group’s values.

But of course we’re not only working with FRC. Housing work with tenant’s groups is happening too.

Still with occasional outbreaks of big art when big art's needed.
Still with occasional outbreaks of big art when big art’s needed.

And our own promotion of ourselves has moved well beyond where Sarah painted and made everything herself.

An early example of us more or less defining ourselves as 'Liverpool'
This post card an early example of us more or less defining ourselves as ‘Liverpool’ (Shame this lovely view is now obscured isn’t it?).
And our first website, designed by our friend Bill Citirine.
And our first website, designed by our friend Bill Citirine.

We’ve also got a big new skill, as you can tell from this photograph of Sarah with her beloved Sony PD150.

Yes, we can make films.
Yes, we can make films.

Developing this skill arises directly from our work with FRC.

The FRC management team. Looking for film makers?
The FRC management team. Looking for film makers?

We’d both been involved in commissioning films when we had jobs, and so when FRC decide they want a film to explain what their Group is now doing, they ask us to sort it out. So we brief a local film maker and they make the film. At which point Revive, FRC’s community friendly shop, burns down. Meaning that while all the insurance claiming and refurbishment is going on Revive needs to be edited out of the film.

Now at this time most films are still being made in studios that need booking and paying for. And so some relatively simple edits are therefore going to cost several thousand pounds. Which FRC can’t afford. ‘Never mind’ (or words to that effect) says Sarah. ‘I can do it on my new laptop.’

Which she does. Apple have just released the first version of iMovie, so once Sarah has familiarised herself with their ‘Giving a dog a bath’ tutorial on her laptop (and I’ve worked out how on earth to get a VHS tape into the back of it) she soon presents a delighted Liam Black, FRC’s Chief Executive, with his edited film.

Delighted ourselves by this success we go into George Henry Lee’s department store that weekend and change the shape of a sense of place. We buy a video camera. And over the weekend make our first film, called (obviously) ‘Le Weekend’ of us two arsing about in the house and in Calderstones Park. This is no Oscar winner (and no, I’m not putting it on here) but the next time Liam is around we show it to him for a laugh and he gives us our first film job on the spot. ‘Make us a film that looks and feels like FRC, because you two get what we’re about’ he says. And a different future to the one we’ve been working on suddenly arrives.

Not that we are working for our customers all the time, mind.

It's spring 2001 and Sarah's just taken on Plot 44, her allotment.
It’s spring 2001 and Sarah’s just taken on Plot 44, her allotment. Immediately installing a handsome shed on this patch of scrubland.
And here she is that May at the Women's 10k in Sefton Park.
And here she is that May at the Women’s 10k in Sefton Park.
On holiday that summer in Connemara.
On holiday that summer in Connemara.
The main street in Roundstone.
On the main street in Roundstone.

We are as busy as we could possibly be, but also, as you can see, very happy.

And then the cat creeps in.
And then the cat creeps in.

Actually the cat’s been around for a while. ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas’ is another FRC enterprise, thought up by Liam and his friend Jeremy Nicholls. At first bringing people interested in social enterprise to Liverpool, to learn from and get inspired by the social enterprises at work here. Sarah and I are asked to help shape the idea up into an event. Several are then run, which I mainly facilitate.

Later we take The Cat's Pyjamas on tour.
Later we take The Cat’s Pyjamas on tour round England.
In London here.
In London here.

And now the cat’s going to America, ‘Top Cat’ it’s going to be called. So late summer 2001 Liam and I set off for Seattle to scout out some of the social enterprises over there that we might visit. We can’t get seats on the same flight so Liam leaves the day before me. I spend the night in a hotel and next morning I’m off to Heathrow for my flight, very excited as I’ve never been to the States.

And of course, I don’t get there. Not yet anyway. Because this is my 9/11 story. An hour or so after take off a rumour starts running around the plane that ‘America’s been shut down.’ Some passengers have got their phones turned on, so know about the attacks before the cabin staff tell us. Two passengers in front of me go white faced in fear. They have a child working in the World Trade Center.

I never know what happens to them after we turn back, land at Belfast Airport and I phone a very worried Sarah and assure her that I’m OK, I’m out of the sky. Rooms are found for us at various Belfast hotels. I end up in the Europa, scene of much terrorism itself over the years, but my safe haven for tonight.

Still, the next April, in a changed world, we all get to the West Coast.

San Francisco, April 2002.
San Francisco, April 2002.
With me in it.
With me in it.

It’s a group of 20 or so social enterprise people, including a couple of very senior government workers. Social enterprise is right in the middle of its day in the sunshine and everyone’s very keen to see what American lessons we can learn and bring back to Britain. They’re all paying to be here. I’m getting paid to facilitate it. Running discussions about what we’re learning, on the go, in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and Seattle. As well as showing them the film I’m making as our trip progresses.

In San Francisco. Yes, it's ice cream and yes, it's a social enterprise.
In San Francisco. Yes, it’s ice cream and yes, it’s a social enterprise.
On the plane to Portland. Jeremy Nicholls and Liam Black. It's their idea.
On the plane to Portland. Jeremy Nicholls and Liam Black. It’s their idea.
At the Seattle Space Needle.
At the Seattle Space Needle. The Top Cats.

It’s hard work. But wonderful. Then that one enchanted evening we sail out under the Golden Gate Bridge and I film it.

And this, in fact, is the high arc of our time with FRC. In the time remaining we will work mainly separately with them. Sarah on films and organising creative events with their Events Team. Me on Cat’s Pyjamas and working with their Leadership Team. Not how we’d originally planned it. But that’s the way it was.

There is, though, still one big idea we’re to have between us. But I’ll tell you about that another time.

Next time ‘Places by Design’ – and some of the best work we will ever do.

Read all episodes of ‘The story of us’

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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    1. Glad to have told you about social enterprise, then, Helen. And the good news is it has reached Costa Rica. Examples of social enterprises in coffee growing, organic farming and energy production here.

  1. Great post, Ronnie & I can’t wait for the post on ‘Places by Design’. I echo your words about the best work ever done. It was the most exciting, creative, empowering and worthwhile project I have ever had the privilege to be involved in. Pioneering days!

    1. It’s already underway Lindsay! Great to be once again sorting through Sarah’s archives and seeing what time does. What’s truly worth giving the time to write about through the eyes of ‘If you had a year to live.’

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