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JF. You got out to East Cleveland way?

DP. I did, yes. I went and was involved in setting up an organisation called Village Arts which picks up from the outreach work (I’d done in Stockton). The only things I did in the Dovecot were I learned to fire eat and I went to circus school! Equipped with all of these super skills I went round lots of the play schemes in East Cleveland doing ‘Circus In A Day’ and Langbaurgh Borough Council paid us to run these projects. You see, you just wouldn’t get that kind of support, I don’t think, at the minute.

JF. Was it a bit of a shock going out to East Cleveland? Because looking at it, I’m from Middlesbrough and didn’t even know East Cleveland existed till I was about 13 or 14. I knew about Saltburn but going out to places like Lingdale and Boosbeck, Carlin How and Loftus: it was like a different planet to me…and you’re looking at the time when a lot of the traditional industries had either gone or were going and people were recovering from that so it might have been quite a difficult place to go to?

DP. I think that I like people to say it how it is. I think it just reached me and I think I did fall in love with the people in East Cleveland and I think I’ve never fallen out of love with them.

JF. Go on: how?

DP. They’re very straightforward…and that doesn’t say it all but it does say it all! People know what they want, they get on and do things because they need to do them.

JF. Was it a hard sell, you turning up, doing ‘Circus In A Day’ to what it was, traditionally a mining community and, as you say, telling it like it is. “A fire eater? What do we want one of them for ?”!

DP. I think that I was very fortunate that I started doing work with Denis Samways who ran the Youth & Community Centre at Loftus and we, with some people from Brotton, managed to identify who we saw as the key leaders within villages…identify who the movers and shakers are. So I would go along, armed with the fact that I knew some useful people and say “… so and so suggested I might come and talk to you…and you might be interested in doing this…and, if we were able to do it, could come back at no charge and do this…”. We were given money by Northern Arts and some other funders to enable these six people who formed the management committee to employ me as a community arts worker in East Cleveland. It was extraordinary: you just can’t see how it would work now to create that sort of opportunity.

JF. But it got under your skin?

DP. It did yes. Absolutely, and Skinningrove in particular.

JF. Why?

DP. I do feel part of the family in Skinningrove; I hope they would agree with me. For 30 years now I’ve been going back every year to do the bonfire. I do remember going to meet the chap who was responsible for looking after the chapel to say would it be possible to go into the chapel to do these workshops…and this guy did tell someone who he’d had “a hippy gypsy” come to visit him because, of course, I was wearing my afghan coat like one would at that point in time.

JF. Absolutely! “A foreigner here…what’s she want?”! But they allowed you in?

DP. They did, yes. I was very fortunate that the person I went to see was somebody called Tina Dowey who is a very good friend of mine to this day and Tina is somebody who’s very well-known in Skinnigrove and does lots and lots of things for the community. It was through her that we did ‘Circus In A Day’ and I persuaded her, I think, and a number of other mothers who I also still know that if we did a bonfire project we could do something very safe in the community which would enable everybody to come together…because the driver is that people don’t actually talk to one another enough and if you create a community celebration with big puppets that everybody goes to the window and looks at – and lanterns – it suddenly creates something that maybe brings back…I call it primeval. I get involved in doing the bonfire and when you set a 70 foot long, 30 foot tall structure on fire it has a very primeval sort of feeling about it. I mean, it kind of puts you in touch with nature, it connects you with the elements…and that’s what so much of our life we don’t have, that real connection.

JF. It sounds almost ridiculous, that you can build something , set fire to it and it gets the whole community going. It almost sounds too good to be true: an idea as simple as that, that can become a focal point for a community…and not only for Skinningrove but for the rest of East Cleveland. And not only for the rest of East Cleveland but for the rest of Teesside and parts of North Yorkshire…and people come from miles around just to see this happen. That’s one of the big success stories in your career, isn’t it?

DP. Quietly. I would like to say that everybody else has made it happen. I’ve been there, driving away in the background but certainly I couldn’t claim to have done it because everybody has done it. It’s the community in Skinningrove who’ve taken the idea to their heart and made it happen and joined in and pulled together when it’s lashed with rain and it’s been freezing cold. There’s been people who give the wood, who put in time to haul the wood…there’s so many different people who put in to making that event possible. And for me the site is fabulous, to actually have the night sky and the sea at the back of it means you’ve got no light disturbance or distraction from what you’re doing. You’ve got the cliffs either side which means that people can actually stand in lots and lots of places and get a really good view of it. The shape of the landscape gives the fireworks a terrific echo when they go off. So you’ve actually got the ability to look down on this little picture of something that’s been made or to be relatively close at the railings and feel the heat of the fire.

John Foster hosts a weekday afternoon programme on BBC Tees.

Doff Pollard is Chief Officer, Tees Valley Rural Community Council.