I went to see the monthly feel-good show Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour last night. Also in the audience was Ali Jones, who runs Pioneer Approaches which arranges “creative training, consultancy, workshops, projects and activities”. Their blurb says: “We offer specialist and innovative creative support with an emphasis on music and drama in leisure, personal development, life skills and employment.”
A few weeks ago, I went to a fascinating Asperger’s day in Stevenage, organised by Ali and Pioneer Approaches.
“Who is involved in your company?” I asked her. “The word ‘disabled’ is not right?”
“We say we work with and for people with learning disabilities and/or differences. A lot of what I do is working with people who have autism. You can have autism AND a learning disability. The people with more complex autism tend to have a learning disability as well, but the autism is what will alter the way they perceive situations or they might have sensory differences associated with it.”
“Did you,” I asked, “get involved in this sort of area because you knew someone with problems?”
“I’ve had friends in the past – autism, Down’s Syndrome.”
“It’s very arts-based,” I said. “Were your parents arty?”
“No. My mum came from a very well-to-do Swiss family and my dad was the opposite.
“He was a mechanic, left school far too young.
‘And then he became very seriously disabled with multiple sclerosis – the progressive form of it. It’s not a death sentence but, for him, it was a VERY extreme form. I was in my early teens when it happened.
“I went to Dr Challoner’s High School for Girls in Little Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, but I didn’t fit in. I didn’t work hard. They were terribly posh, all girls. I had a few friends there, but never many at all. I don’t think an all-girls school was right for me. I maybe tended to not fit in so well, so I tended to have a lot of so-called outsider friends. I was probably one myself.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’re very sociable.”
“I am quite sociable,” Ali agreed, “but I think maybe my family were a bit different. They were very private and a little bit old-fashioned. We would always look a bit like we’d come from another era. I’ve always been used to being a bit different. I got used to looking out for people and caring for them.”
“You lived in Mexico for a while.” I said. “Why? Was it the mescaline?”
“We did get offered peyote,” said Ali, “and nearly took it up but it didn’t come about. It’s good to say yes to interesting experiences.”
Ali met her musician husband Carlton when she was 14 and he was 16. They have been together ever since.
“My husband was like me,” she said. “A bit of a waster at school. He’d gone to the Royal Grammar and all his friends had done really well but he went to night school and became… He’s fluent in Spanish and he thought: Why not do Latin American Studies?”
“Why Mexico, though?” I asked. “It’s hot food, hot climate and diarrhea.”
“There was a bit of all of those,” agreed Ali. “But we love Mexican food and loved living there. If it hadn’t been for family, I’d still be out there. But my dad was alive and disabled and needing me at that time. I speak Spanish but I’m much better at Mexican Spanish because it’s all slow and lazy.”
“Lazy is not a word I associate with you,” I said. “You have this very taxing, busy job with Pioneer Approaches and you also sing in two bands.”
“Yes,’ said Ali. “A singer/songwriter.”
“That,” I suggested, “must have been what you wanted to be when you were a teenager?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Always. I have always wanted to do it. I was in a band when I was 14 – I was a punk rocker. I was 13 when I started getting into all of that. I left school at 16, moved to London, got a job.”
“You were,” I asked, “headstrong and decided not to go to university?”
“I benefitted from the life of all my friends who were at university. I joined them all at UCL and Cambridge and so on. I had all the fun without the work. And I did a lot of musicy-type things, but nothing that ever took off. Some of my friends have done a lot better than I had, but I’ve always been involved in music in one way or the other. And I’ve since done all sorts of training. I’m a qualified Tutor of Further and Adult Education.”
“Hardly lazy,” I said. “Two bands are a bit over-the-top with your full-time work as well.”
“I’ve always been over-the-top, unfortunately,” said Ali.
‘What sort of bands?” I asked.
“I suppose the new one was based originally on Bluesy-Americana-type music. It was two bands who got together just for fun and now we’re going to be doing something at the Wood Festival in Oxford next Friday (15th May). One of the members of our band, who runs an organic fruit and veg delivery service, will be running workshops on how to make carrot flutes.
“There are three singers in the band, which is interesting for me. We take it in turns to lead and back one another.”
“You said it started off Bluesy, as if it has diverged since.”
“It still has that Bluesy side to it. I think maybe the stuff I write has a more funky Bluesy, even Gospelly, feel to it for that band. And then the songs that the others are writing are maybe more Country/Bluegrass. It’s acoustic, but we don’t have a drummer. We need someone who can do meaty rock ’n’ roll but who also has a bit of swing as well.”
“What’s the name of the band?”
“Ah. We only got together about seven weeks ago. Our band was originally called The Ragged Charms and theirs was called The Goldmine. We thought of calling the new band The Golden Shower, but there’s bound to be one called that already. We even thought of The Devil’s Doorbells, but apparently there’s already a band called that.”
“Devil’s Doorbell?” I asked.
“It’s a euphemism for female parts. We eventually chose The Deadbeat Apostles as a name. As well as the Wood Festival next Friday, we are also going to be playing at Oxford Pride on 6th June.”
“And Pioneer Approaches is involved in a festival too,” I said.
“Yes,” said Ali. “In St Albans on 21st June. Our section is going to be called Go To but it’s part of a bigger St Albans Festival, tying in with Disability Week.
“And, every year since 2011, we have been putting on a special awards show called The Rumble Awards, named after Keith Rumble, who was a member of our drama group The Pioneer Spirits – a group who all have learning disabilities/differences. He died. He had all sorts of health problems and syndromes. He had been presented with quite a lot of challenges in his life and had complex disabilities. Over the years, once he got the right sort of support from some lovely people, he flourished and made us all laugh. He was good fun.
“To celebrate him, before the Awards came along, we put together our own band The Rumbles and decided to be complimentary therapists – not complementary but complimentary, in that we pay people compliments and we go around trying to cheer people up. We’ve got a range of songs: a ska-based one, a Bo Diddley style one, a Fats Domino type one.
“The message that we’re trying to push is that people with learning disabilities generally are very open, very loving, non-judgmental and quick to get to the point about good things. They don’t get bogged-down in all the strange agendas other so-called normal people might have.
“And from that, Paul – one of our members with autism – said: Let’s put together an awards show and call it The Rumble Awards. It was a great idea. I don’t think there’s anything in the country like it – where the awards go to people with learning disabilities.
“The aim of the whole Rumble project is trying to find a meeting point that is not all about people saying: Oh, bless these little dears! Aren’t we doing good for them! or Ooh! that all looks a bit scary! It’s trying to find that place where we actually do all have respect and a laugh together.
“We always write a song every year for The Rumble Awards. This year, we’ve got this lovely bloke from Herts Drum Circle – Abdul Conteh – he’s an African drummer but it’s djembe drumming and we have this big Africany-based song
“Everyone wants to do something that has some kind of worth to it – though, if you’re not careful, you can take over in a controlling way or in an over-caring form. People can feel good about themselves for doing ‘unto’ somebody else and I’m sure there’s something of that in me. It does feel nice. But I also feel I am sort of my ‘better self’ when I’m with the people I’m with. I’m less self-conscious, have less of all the other sort of baggage people carry around. It goes to the side and I just enjoy the company of the people I hang out with.”