My Family and Other Superheroes


Every cloud has a silver lining. Caught in a 3-way temporary traffic light débâcle a few miles from home recently meant I caught Welsh poet Jonathan Edwards on Front Row reading work from his lovely collection ‘My Family and Other Superheroes’. The title is an homage to Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical work recounting his family’s adventures on Corfu in the 1930s.

Gerald’s book was one I had to study for my English ‘O’ Level. I loved it. Whenever I’d had enough of revising inorganic chemistry or knife edge ridges I’d reach for ‘My Family….’ and read it again. It was a great way to escape to another time and place populated by a family of eccentrics. The episode which has stuck with me most is about half way through the book when it is Gerald’s birthday (about his 13th I think). He suggests to his family that, instead of letting them choose his birthday presents, that he might tell them the things he wanted most. In this way they could be sure of not disappointing him with their gifts. He then very cleverly comes up with gift ideas for each of his siblings and his mother which he knows are things they are interested in and will get pleasure from seeking out, shopping for or making.

Gerald was already a budding naturalist so everything on his list was to help him follow his own passion…..exploring the island and collecting all sorts of wildlife specimens to study at close quarters.

From his sister Margo he requested yards of white calico, pins, cotton wool and pints of ether. All stuff he needed to help build his naturalist collection and things he felt sure she could buy from her favourite shops on the island.

To his elder brother Larry (who went on to be a successful writer in his own right) he gave a long list of titles, authors’ names and publishers of all the natural history books he could think of. As long as his list had some sort of literary leaning he felt sure that Larry would approve and apply himself to the search.

Hardest was his ‘out-doorsy’ adventurer brother Leslie. He loved to make things, carry out experiments and explore the coves and inlets near their home in his boat…. the Sea Cow. He had to pick his moment carefully but Gerald’s inspired request tapped in to Leslie’s sense of identity and passions. Gerald asked him to build him a boat.

What Gerald had worked out for himself was that people are far more motivated, and far more engaged with something, if it is an activity that interests them…..Margo liked to shop; Larry loved hunting out English language books on a Greek island and Leslie loved to make things.

I keep remembering this story as I read posts by Cormac Russell, Particple, William Lilley and others.

“Start with what you have, with where you are” Cormac Russell

It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs, bereavement counselors, the list is endless……to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people. We want to do good and make a difference but too often we see those we want to help as just a collection of labels….that describe all the things they can’t do….their deficits…their failings….their mistakes.

It doesn’t have to be this way round.

Imagine if we started by asking people what they could do; what they liked to do; what they enjoyed doing? Imagine if we asked them what gifts and talents they have to share? Imagine if we had a conversation not about where they’ve come from but about where they are going?

Maybe we’d start a very different relationship.

With a better sense of what they already have there will still be things they need. But maybe they don’t have to get these things from a paid professional. Maybe there is someone a few doors away who has a gift to share……Mr Smith next door or auntie Trish round the corner or David at the allotments or their daughter Gemma.

Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street.






7 responses to “My Family and Other Superheroes

  1. Great post John. A model maybe for us. Having an older retitred customer who might be lonely, in the same street as a young parent who would welcome some childcare help and support with new skills that the older generation can certainly pass on. Win win – always a good outcome!


    • Thanks Susan
      I’d like to think it’s something we’re striving to do albeit rather patchily at present. We’re definitely starting to shift the relationship we have with our customers onto a ‘glass half full’ approach. But there is so much more scope to get to know our customers and learn more about what skills, talents, experience, etc. they have and to help them connect up with neighbours and local groups rather than us assuming they always need a service….whether from us or another organisation. So much potential here.


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  3. Lovely post John
    I too had My Family and Other Animals on the school curriculum.
    Reading that you’ve inspired me to go back and have another look.
    You are completely right about the superpowers all of us have, it’s a case of having them released.
    The debate on what institutions should and shouldn’t do was given a good airing last week when I went to a session the Cormac Russell ran.
    I do worry that lots of ‘professionals’ have too much invested in delivering the services they deem necessary to want to give things up. The risk of this creating a sense of helplessness and dependency is all too real. Making things better isn’t just about people doing things for themselves (with the considerable powers they have), it’s about the professionals stopping doing things, and getting out of the way.
    I’m off to the bookshelf.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Chris
      Glad this brought back some happy(?) memories.
      Cormac really gets inside one’s head and questions so much of what we take for granted as service providers.
      My colleague Will has written a great overview of ABCD for his Clore Fellowship work. I’ll send you a link in a bit.

      You need to keep a corner of your shed for failed ideas free for any failed Sheds.


  4. Hi John. For things not related to St Helena, I’m @simonpipe

    Fairly easy for me to remember!

    I was at Priddy Folk Festival last year, walking towards my car and the drive home, when I heard this blast of singing coming from the concert tent. I ran inside to catch the end of the Young ‘Uns. Some powerful (I noisy) singing, mostly good material.




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