A Crumb of Comfort
Fraser Dyer writes about The Circle Works.
Fraser opens the
ordained as an
Anglican priest, the
Revd Fraser Dyer
worked in the
voluntary sector for
over twenty years.
As a consultant and
has run workshops
and courses in
many parts of the
world. He is the
author of a number
including Why Do
I Do This Every Day?
(Lion Hudson 2005),
which explores ways
in which people can recover a sense
I’ve got nothing against Custard Creams. They are a good honest biscuit, very
moreish and you can get two packets for 99p in my local supermarket. It is helpful to
know about such things in these straitened times.
At The Circle Works, however, you get really good biscuits. Not your bog standard job
with ‘jam’ that will whip out a filling, or creme spelt with no ‘a’, but cookies with great
chunks of chocolate and nuts. Or lovely chewy oaty things with raisins that make it
very dangerous to be left alone with the biscuit tin.
The biscuits are important because I can still remember the day, over twenty years
ago, when my Managing Director stood up in a staff meeting and announced that due
to the recession the company would no longer provide biscuits for staff tea breaks.
This measure was going to save the company £250 a year. (At this point it might be
customary to say, ‘Of course £250 was a lot of money in those days.’ But actually it
wasn’t, not even then. Well, not in a business with a £5 million turnover).
You know where you are placed in your employer’s list of priorities when they take
the biscuits away. But as someone who has seen countless faces light up when the lid
comes off The Circle Works’ biscuit tin, I’ve also seen the power that small gestures of
hospitality can have on pressured and tired workers.
As a work consultant I was based at The Circle Works one afternoon a week for a
couple of years, meeting individual clients to offer space to reflect on their working
lives. The environment here is perfect for this: welcoming, relaxing and nurturing.
The upper room not only has a calming effect, it somehow manages to enfold one in
its own presence. I’ve never felt I worked alone here, but had a partner in the
environment that The Circle Works creates. My clients had the choice of whether to
see me here or at my home in Muswell Hill. Once they had been to The Circle Works
they seldom made the trek up the Northern line again.
The remarkable capacity of the place to support my work hasn’t happened by accident
of course. Everything here has a purpose and place that is carefully thought out – the
room layout, the art and artefacts, the fresh flowers and, yes, the tin of biscuits. And
this has all been driven by a set of values (and not a few strong opinions!) that I
share with The Circle Works; a common view about the impact that today’s culture of
work is having on employees, what needs to change and how best we might support
people in the meantime.
Studs Terkel, the great American oral historian, published interviews with over a
hundred workers from a wide variety of jobs in his book Working. He starts his
introduction by saying, ‘This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about
violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.’
He wrote that in 1972, and it shocked me the first time I read it. Work has always
taken its toll, and hopefully these days the nature of the ‘violence’ done to us has
changed. But if we are to counter even the violence of, say, the countless little
humiliations of depersonalized managerialism we need a new understanding of what
non-violence might mean.
Parker Palmer, a sociologist and a Quaker, writes that, ‘…just as the physical violence
called war requires massive institutional support, so most forms of non-physical
violence are backed by institutional arrangements that allow it and even encourage it.’
Being non-violent in today’s culture of work requires ways of countering the emotional
absenteeism, the quiet coercion or dismissiveness that many people encounter in their
work or school life.
The Circle Works addresses this by helping people to rediscover hospitality in a work
or school context. By offering acceptance, a space to be heard (or just be), to feel
acknowledged and affirmed - all means of ‘non-violence’ that The Circle Works has
refined and role-modelled for over twenty five years.
The biscuit tin is just the start. But don’t underestimate its importance.