Secret men’s business

June 25, 2011

Like a pair of magpies, they’ve cadged teak and brass and bits, even a mast. Paler from his bookish life, Gray, 69, wears leather boat shoes, a navy crew-necked sweater, navy beret, and one gold earring. Locke’s red woollen beanie flattens grey curls tickling his ruddy weathered neck; nothing in the 74-year-old’s outfit matches. Poles apart, curiosity lured them both to the shed in the first place but the boat was the clincher that made them regulars, bound together by the endeavour of making an abandoned ship seaworthy again.

Wintry air barges past them into the brick barn with its drills and saws and gravelly voices. Rugged-up men gather around to clean one of the smaller lathes. They’re not all old and they’re not exclusively male. A lone woman, Phyllis Byrom, is busy lacquering a box she’s made, although she’s prouder of her bookcase with its dovetail joints. “Kerry taught me how to do that,” she nods at the one-time plumber, Kerry Duke. “We all teach the other skills,” he shouts back.

Poke your head inside any one of the 545 men’s sheds sprouting across Australia at the rate of four a week, boasting a combined membership of 50,000, and you’ll breathe in the hum and warmth of creativity and companionship. The benefits of this invention may soon come to rival other homegrown brainwaves such as the Hills Hoist, cervical cancer vaccine and wi-fi. Other countries are watching our shed revolution and we’re exporting the concept to Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, where governments are hungry for the demonstrable health gains from fostering resilience and belonging, dampening suicide and depression – literally saving lives.

Add the multiplier effect of things built and repaired for local communities – children’s bikes, toys, nesting boxes, farm machinery, computers, furniture, plus the odd boat – and the inevitable question is posed: where did these community sheds come from? Corrugated outhouses are as native to the Australian landscape as ironbark gums, but who was the Einstein behind the big idea of creating sheds as a hub for men, a place for them to gather, tinker, forage and fix? Was it a theoretician burning the midnight oil or a committee of experts surrounded by graphs, budgets, guidelines and pizza boxes? Community sheds are not like Medicare or MySchool sites: they were not rolled out en masse at a fancy launch.

When an idea takes years to winkle its way into being, the origins can get lost in the fits and starts. Or maybe, just like the insides of a messy old shed, ownership gets buried under layers of stuff. Success has a million fathers. There are plenty of candidates to weed through in the search for paternity. Who is the genius responsible for dreaming up this history-making movement?

A place of refuge

Henry Lawson’s short story A Rough Shed defines the shearing shed as a man’s domain. The writer Joseph Furphy’s shed at the back of his brother’s foundry in Shepparton is famous for the literary stirrings within. Most Australians who grew up in the 20th century remember a higgledy hut where an uncle or a father or a brother pottered at a workbench amidst oil cans, spiders’ webs, shovels, lawnmowers, a shadow board silhouetting every spanner and wrench. Bunnings may thrive but the rust-bitten shed is disappearing in this age of disposable appliances, Ikea furniture and backyard makeovers. The modern-day handyman is master of the remote control. My friend’s husband has what she calls his indoor shed with a plasma screen.

In the mid ’80s, singer John Williamson composed an anthem to the shed as a must-have for every Aussie boy. A decade on, Adelaide writer Mark Thomson published a best-selling homage, Blokes and Sheds. His interest was piqued by a friend who’d fossicked inside a couple of beauties while doing gardening and rubbish removal for elderly clients. Thomson’s book hit a nerve and he became something of an expert on these eccentric havens. His name is on the top of a “persons of interest” list compiled by a National Library team collecting an oral history of community sheds. After several initial interviews the project has stalled and so the story of who was present at the birth of the men’s shed movement is yet to be told.

Thomson reckons Williamson’s ditty captured our imagination, but surely it takes much more than a popular song or book to ignite a grassroots movement that last year won federal funding of $3.9 million plus a new Victorian Government grant of $4 million in May. Tim Mathieson, partner of the Prime Minister, is one of three patrons of the Australian Men’s Shed Association. “We’re in his electorate,” says the Hobsons Bay shed co-ordinator, Daniel Kuiper. “His missus lives two and a half kilometres from here.” Proximity to Julia Gillard helps the cause; her former adviser, Andrew Stark, left the PM’s inner circle last year to market the association. Six years after its formation in 2007, it’s now the largest male-focused organisation in the country and a rival men’s sheds group wants to merge.

The sheds attract patchy support from local councils, churches and community groups, but they thrive only because of the involvement of volunteers. From pouring the foundation slab to the chase for funds and the scrounging for tools, groups of men around the country have lobbied and laboured for the love of their brothers, reaching out to fathers and husbands and sons who might need anchoring in a place where they can hammer and yarn or do good works. The sheds they create are like the village square or the post office steps or the local café, a “third place” for encounters outside of work and home.

Some shed websites are like bush telegraphs: Brett seeks a fishing mate on the Chelsea Men’s Shed page, where The Plank newsletter farewells “splinters” – members who have died, such as Peter, “a quiet man who was very keen on detail”.

Country sheds are different from city sheds and each shed has a distinct personality, but common to all of them is what Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam defines as “social capital”. His book Bowling Alone mourned the decline of community engagement in an era when membership means paying a membership fee without having to show up.

Shoulder to shoulder

“What blokes come to do is the excuse, not the reason,” Lane Cove Men’s Shed founding member Ted Donnelly tells me. “Men want to be on their own to laugh and chat. It leads to other things in their lives, opens the door to the outside community.” What started as somewhere for men to meet has delivered spin-offs that tick every box associated with good health for a gender prone to keeping quiet about problems.

For decades women have hogged the health and social agenda with their campaigns. Men are much more likely than women to commit suicide, particularly as they get older, but men’s battles with depression and prostate cancer are only now getting widespread attention. It’s the networking men have to work on. Women are masters at it, used to being the social lubricant greasing community wheels and school committees, making lifelong contacts, talking intimately with ease. That’s why the shed’s mantra is “shoulder to shoulder, not face to face”.

Donnelly mentions one member at Lane Cove, on Sydney’s lower north shore, who’d been coming to the shed for seven months. “One day he sat down to fill out a form. He was struggling. Finally he looked around and said, ‘I can’t write. I left school when I was 12.’ I’ll guarantee he’d never admitted that to a group before. We felt privileged that he felt confident enough to tell us.”

Such conversational downloading is therapy enough but the sheds are pioneering other health services. “I remember in the early stages people from the North Shore hospital coming and talking about prostate cancer. Everyone was a bit stiff, but about nine months later blokes were going in for tests, and talking to each other about things they’d never dream of revealing outside.” Mobile screening units now travel to sheds; last year doctors visiting Lane Cove detected five men out of 120 who needed immediate treatment. The same occurred in Maitland recently with seven out of 200 men sent straight to hospital.

Donnelly joined the Lane Cove shed because he was interested in carpentry and didn’t have room for a workshop at home, but he quickly became activist and advocate. He authored a 91-page manual on setting up your own shed which he’s distributed all over the world – to Japan, the US, Europe and New Zealand. He once catalogued 71 different activities on offer in sheds across the land: from metalwork to lead lighting to bonsai to cooking to carpentry, you name it.

In shed land, men rattle off the names of those responsible for their own patch of sawdust but they are clueless about the bigger picture. Word of mouth undoubtedly plays its part as momentum builds but surely there’s more here than a happy confluence of events. Lane Cove, which opened in 1997, is a contender for the first men’s shed; a man called Keith Spence was the spearhead but he’s since died. Donnelly says the shed began in a garage under a retirement home with help from Uniting Care and the local council after the North Shore hospital identified “an awful lot of retired people not faring well on their own” in a region with high numbers of older residents in units. Immediately I detect the footprints of a policy, a coordinated response by social agencies.

“Don’t start an argument, please,” begs David Helmers, the AMSA’s executive officer, when I ask him to step me through the genesis of the men’s shed movement. He became involved in sheds while working for CatholicCare in the Hunter Valley region of NSW but sheds soon demanded his full-time attention. “We thought we’d plateaued out some time ago but so many governments are looking at it. It’s history in the making,” he says, too overwhelmed by the present to go poking through the past. “There’s half a dozen that evolved around the same period and we don’t need sheds to start debating who was first.”

AMSA patron Professor Barry Golding, of the University of Ballarat, is so swept up in the role of sheds as mature-age classrooms he’s woolly on their chronology and precisely who deserves the credit. Nevertheless, there’s evidence that sheds work, he says, referring to a suite of studies documenting the way men learn by doing. “Sheds transform the lives of men and communities. I’ve visited over 100 of them now and wherever you go these guys are shaking and moving and making fundamental differences to their lives.”

In the Victorian town of Melton, rouse-about Chris Carlyon, 33, who cares for a sick wife and their three young kids, two of them autistic, was jobless and worn down when he heard about the local men’s shed. “I came here the next day,” he says. That was six months ago. “I’ve been doing up kids’ bikes. It’s good. I come here to work and talk and I go home a much happier person than I was before.”

Another Melton regular, Barry Williamson, 64, believes the shed cured him of the depression that struck when disability ended his days driving trucks. “I love the companionship and the community,” he says. His wife, Lynette, calls herself a “shed widow”, albeit cheerfully. “He’s a leader down there, which makes him feel important, and he really gets excited when he helps people make things. It gets him out of the house. He’s there all the time. He’s never home!”

There’s resistance to the portrayal of sheds as catchments for the down and out, the marginalised, the broken. They’re not. They’re rich with skills and spirit and ingenuity. Mathematicians, carpenters, retired policemen, ex-school teachers, former shearers. Tales of how sheds got going invariably bring up individuals who visited one on their travels or heard of one on the grapevine and returned home convinced of the need in their own paddock.
Professor Golding jokes that sheds are like Aladdin’s genies: rub a lamp somewhere and a shed transpires. When I press him for a lead on the spark that lit this brushfire he points me to others who might know, including Mark Thomson and Adelaide gerontologist Dr Leon Earle. I seek out Rob Willis, leader of the National Library’s oral history project on sheds. His research is on hold while he juggles another research priority, but he sends me his notes, including the list of persons of interest. Dr Earle is second, after Mark Thomson, but he hasn’t been interviewed yet. I track Earle down and hit gold.

A confounding puzzle

Like any scientific Eureka moment, Leon Earle’s breakthrough came after years of slog, shoe leather and a confounding puzzle he simply had to solve. The former university professor, 68, had made older Australians his patch since his 1978 doctoral study of what happens to people who relocate in retirement. Not the sexiest topic for a young academic, but the policy challenges of an ageing population meant Earle was on to something as governments worried over housing, planning, infrastructure and health services for this looming demographic bulge.

His PhD research uncovered an emerging problem. It revealed a cohort of unhappy retired men who had scant networks outside of work and home, and who felt isolated and inadequate. Earle’s first shed project was the one he helped his four brothers build for their father, Norm, when ill health forced an early retirement and they decided to encourage his interest in bee-keeping as a hobby and source of income. Friends visited the shed to see what he was up to, glad for a jar of honey.

When Earle was commissioned by the South Australian Department of Recreation and Sport in 1985 to find out what seniors were doing for leisure he experienced a light-bulb flash. He had expected the survey would show men withdrawing from work and turning to other activities such as gardening, reading, watching TV or visiting mates. But once the results were tabulated it seemed men did nothing much at all.

The mystery intrigued Earle. He noticed the word “shed” cropping up in household interviews so he stationed researchers in suburban streets to watch what retired men actually did. Many of them left the house with a packed lunch and went to their sheds. Reinvigorated by this discovery, Earle and his team beavered away to find out why men use their sheds and why what they do there is crucial to men’s identity and fulfilment. He continued his research, refining his idea of community sheds as a lifeline for mature-age men, testing the philosophy at retirement villages, urging policymakers to share his vision of social centres that offer older men purpose: self-expression, activities, identity, intergen¬erational links with sons and grandchildren, territorial pride, personal space, a learning environment, interaction with others. He pitched the concept to whoever would listen.

“It wasn’t always easy,” he tells me. “I recall one newly appointed South Australian minister for ageing who’d called me in for a briefing saying: ‘Don’t you think you’re a bit enthusiastic!’ I thought it was a pity he wasn’t because enthusiasm makes things happen.” Sheds began to appear in retirement complexes from the mid ’80s. Lane Cove was not the first community shed. Victor Harbor on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula claims that honour for opening its doors in 1990. Earle was a consultant.

Awakening people to the power of the shed involved Earle publishing his research, teaching students, and training staff in nursing homes and retirement villages. “Sheds provide blokes with a sense of past, present and future,” he wrote in 1992. “They might house things done in the past, activities of the present, and projects for tomorrow. (See that wood over there? Well I’m going to use that to make…) Sheds also provide men with a sense of respect… a place where they can teach skills to their children, tell stories to their grandchildren, discuss important matters with mates and consider all sorts of issues…

“[But] for many men sheds are centres of isolation… This is partly why we have introduced projects to have men meet in one another’s sheds, to plan community service projects (for schools, service clubs, churches, and neighbours). We are also encouraging retirement complexes to add sheds… to provide blokes with an activity, interest and a base.” In early 1995, Earle released the report Sheds and Male Retirement: A Place To Go… And Come Back From.

Slowly, his efforts gained traction, shed by shed. Modest and quietly spoken, he’s pleased that I’ve rung him to pin down his contribution, and after digging through archived boxes in his own backyard haunt he furnishes me with the paper trail chronicling his tireless campaign for a revolutionary policy.

“I’ve received scores of letters from men and women and community services personnel over the last 30 years thanking me for my research, for promoting sheds,” he says. One of them, dated August 5, 1985, described Earle’s draft leisure strategy for South Australia as “a landmark document that is perhaps 30 years ahead of its time”.

The gratitude is louder still wherever men meet to saw and yack. At the newly opened Lightning Ridge shed in the heart of outback NSW opal mining country, “Fox” answers the phone and suggests I ring Chuck Peters, who’s under a truck fixing brakes but takes my call anyway. “We have a desperate need for it; plenty of lonely men living out of town,” he says. “We’ve got 50 members and we’re growing daily.”

Maitland shed in the Hunter Valley is a year old and 140-strong. Retired policeman Ted Borradil is on the blower singing its merits. “Fellas who have come out of their shells, for want of a better word, their faces open up, they’ve got somewhere to go, someone to talk to, getting things off their chest, not hanging about moping at home.”

AMSA patron Professor John Macdonald, a health policy guru at the University of Western Sydney, points to a growing body of empirical evidence that shows men’s networking in sheds “actually builds immune systems”. One of his PhD students is measuring hormonal changes in men’s urine before and after attendance at a shed to compare cortisone levels, which are associated with anxiety. Macdonald is confident the results will confirm what he already knows to be true. “There is a change, a definite improvement in men as a result of a sense of belonging that builds resilience,” he says. In October he’ll address an international conference on prostate cancer in Vienna to promote the impact of sheds on men’s health. “Australia is giving us an example of how cheaply we can improve men’s wellbeing through social inclusion,” he says.

AMSA executive officer David Helmers says: “It’s hard for us to calculate how many lives have been saved through the sheds once you take into account suicide prevention, particularly in remote and rural areas. We don’t have the figures but we hear all the time of interventions.”

Hope floats

Every shed has a story of restoration – restoration of spirit, purpose and hope. And at Hobsons Bay, the restoration of a boat. On Friday mornings Alistair Gray and Ron Locke sweat over their handiwork and map out the next phase of reconstruction. “I don’t know what I’ll do when the boat’s finished,” Gray shrugs. She’s due to launch next summer. When I suggest they christen her Leon Earle, there’s a puzzled silence.

The Adelaide gerontologist has been made a life member of the Diversional Therapy Association for his work on sheds but he’s hardly a household name, and no Australian honour has been pinned to his lapel. A shed is no Opera House. Perhaps the humble nature of its architecture discourages bouquets and plaudits. Linking men and sheds might not seem spectacularly original. But it’s that extra leap of faith required to imagine the possibilities of backyard sheds as community hives. What seems a small step for man goes a great mile more for mankind.

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