Possible attendance at men’s breakfast had always fostered velleity in me, until I buckled to the strenuous invitation from my Catholic deacon friend. It was to be the setting to present his epic 500-mile Camino pilgrimage; and it was going to help me a little since I was also editing his book on it. A couple of friends, to whom I had shown without comment, ‘Saturday – men’s breakfast’, in my diary, had each lifted an eyebrow, so no pressure then.

Yesterday I walked the just-over two miles to the church, located in Pope Close (yes). Under an overcast sky and wrapping-up weather of 2°, it took about half the distance for me to cognitively restructure enough to finish the second half. But by the time the unassuming modern brick and timber structure came into view I was back to steeling myself for the encounter. Inside, most of the men had arrived, happily standing about in jumpers and cardigans with mugs of the steaming proverbial. Having found my deacon to say hello, I saw with great relief that there was someone else I knew, a man who lives a street or so away from me, and importantly a fellow non-Catholic, and like me, married to one.

Half-a-dozen tables were laid out with paper tablecloths and a large plastic dispenser of tomato sauce. Pretty soon we sat down, I at a table with my neighbour, someone who works with St Vincent de Paul, and three others. After the La Faba pilgrimage prayer, a male hubbub sprang up similar to when I breakfasted at Peckham Spike* in 1965, but at that grim place tin plates of porridge ladled from dixies were slid with great force down to those at the ends of long trestle tables – keep your elbows up, boys! Here, on the other hand, three smiling women from the adjacent kitchen bore aloft salvers of sandwiches steaming with sausage and bacon, while a slim young man in a grey waistcoat walked amongst us with a coffee pot and milk jug, like an airline steward.

Thank goodness for the neighbour, a bloke I see from time to time, a few months younger than I, and formerly in the merchant navy. When the deacon started to talk and apologise for his neglecting to include music for the slides, I muttered almost to myself, ‘Well, could be a blessing.’ And the SVP-man grinned in agreement. Everyone attended to the deacon’s energetic photo and feelings presentation of his walk, while simultaneously relieving the plates of their munchy offering.

’Twas all not so bad, but then frequently things aren’t. With the presentation over, there were the usual questions that dragged things out enough to get my fingers drumming. Finally, my sailor-neighbour gave me a lift back during which, because he said he was going to Nottingham that day, I hogged the time mournfully reminiscing about picking up girls at the Sherwood Rooms dance hall, a couple of years before that other, homeless breakfast in South London. At last, my house’s warmth closed in on me wonderfully.

I’d done it! I’d survived men’s breakfast!

* see:

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On Leaving an Action Learning Set – One Year On

What follows is neither a how to, nor a how not to, but a one-year-on reflection on my departure from a long-established self-managing set, to which I had belonged for nine lovely years. What led me to leave? How did I do it? How do I feel now?

The set had been active for many years; I joined it in its maturity, so that I was the one to adjust my Action Learning thinking and practice to the set’s way of doing things. There were sound lessons, for I learned the strength of bringing in others’ ways, of tempering my own practice which I had ‘proved’ in other spheres. I became immersed in a way I had not done with any other group, Action Learning or not. (We met pretty well every month on a weekday for five hours.) For six months or so before I left, I had had vague feelings of not being quite settled in life generally. I never got to the bottom of them. I never took airtime to bring the feelings out, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

In coping with change we can be subject to two forces: propulsion and impulsion. The former pushes you away from something and the latter beckons you towards some new state. Of course, you rarely know in the moment that you are victim to these forces – hindsight works wonders. One of the propelling forces, I think, was that I had had my day with the group, along the lines of Ecclesiastes 3,1–4: ‘To every thing there is a season’. Impulsion? Perhaps it was a self-gift, reclaiming the time that the set took and returning it to me, not for anything specific but for the mere pleasure of ownership.

As to the how to, it took me several months to conjure up the courage to tell my fellow set members. Send them an email? Make telephone calls? I decided to announce it at the beginning of the January meeting and not to harbour it until the end, and having done that I left; ‘slunk’ might have crossed my mind. My reasons came out incoherently, it was like precipitating a divorce – as well I know. Another feeling that comes to mind is that of Arthur Mailey, the young Australian cricketer who bowled the Olympian, graceful Victor Trumper with a googly, writing: ‘I felt like a boy who had just destroyed a dove’.

And now. Aside from one email contact with one of the set, I know nothing of their doings the past year. It seems once you cut, you cut clean and forever and that seems right; that set is for Action Learning work only, and never socialises as a group although bilateral connections are common – I had several. My feelings are still the loss of intimacy with dear, intelligent, true-feeling people, but no regret at the relief of the obligation to attend.

This last Christmas morning, I attended my once-yearly Mass in a plain, 1930s church in Oakwood, led by two young Polish and French priests. As for every year, as soon as I sang the first words of the first carol, tears filled my eyes, enough to have to wipe them. I don’t know why that happens, just as I don’t really know why I left my set. But both the tears and the severance somehow feel right.