Allan Edmondson-Stott gave up his job as a sheet metal worker in Adelaide in the mid-70s and formed a band in Sydney, the Mixed Bags.
Over the next 50 years stardom came, mostly in the glamorous league clubs scene supported by a 10-piece band doing his fabulous Joe Cocker Show minus the drugs and excessive alcohol.
In so many ways, his fascinating, colourful background sums up what he’s doing now with a little help from his friends – as one of the leaders of a mixed bag, some of the most likeable blokes you could ever meet, in The Men’s Shed, at the Encounter Centre, opposite the Encounter Bay Oval.
Here, every Friday morning 9.30 sharp, 20 or so good men turn up and play with wood. They make things, learn the craft and create. Come 10am they’re sitting down eating these delightful cakes made by Sandy, wife of one of the men, John Mardell, bless her, and talk their hearts out over a coffee about everything from who’s got a tandem trailer to whether Port and the Crows will make the finals.
They go back to planing and sanding timber, and during a quiet moment a bloke may privately ask another about issues men don’t usually talk about. It may relate to not coping with grief, loneliness, mental anguish, struggling as a carer, and that horrible prostate, for this is more than a place for the wooden hearted, it’s where they stand shoulder-to-shoulder and be real men.
Not everyone is enduring some degree of private pain. Some simply go for something to do, but in every case it’s about enjoying Sandy’s coconut slices and communicating amongst men – some for the first time in their life.
Dean Wickham admits it’s debatable, but there is claim to Victor Harbor having had the first men’s shed in the world when blokes first got together and made wooden toys while dealing with secret men’s business on the seafront on Victoria Parade in 1981. The group faded out, but the wooden toy concept evolved to be part of the Encounter Centre. The Australian Men’s Shed Association was not officially established until 2007, and now has more than 1000 Men’s Shed groups making it the largest association in Australia focusing on male health and well being.
The Victor Harbor Men’s Shed was re-established in October, 2011 with real help from friends. Members of the Adare Uniting Church prompted the move as an outreach project, and allocated $25,000 for its establishment. Typically, both the Encounter Bay and Victor Harbor Rotary clubs, and the Victor Harbor-Port Elliot Lions Club chipped in to purchase machinery and tools. The Encounter Bay crew have also put aside another $25K to build a new shed.
According to Allan, 72, the group has well out-grown the workshop they can only rent on a Friday within the Encounter Centre. “We get about 20 each Friday, but there are more than 100 men on our books,” he said. “We find that for various reasons Friday is not a good day for older people… quite a few have unfortunately dropped off the grid.”
And here’s the crunch. The Victor Harbor Men’s Shed can apply for grants to put everything in the shed, but not to build a new shed. They’re aiming to raise close to $150K and relocate so the men can meet every day of the week if they wish, and the need is great.
Negotiations are currently being held with the Mud ‘n Tars motorcycling group to build a shed on the land they have access to, and their willingness to try and work something out to achieve a positive outcome for all concerned has been heartfelt.
There is currently no formally structured committee for this Men’s Shed, but according to Dean, Dennis Williams, then on holiday, is “sort of the head honcho.” He adds: “Dennis taught carpentry at Tafe so he has the skills and the ability to train and accredit newcomers. Everyone must be accredited to operate the machines, which is part of our safety standards.”
Allan, known here as Deputy Dawg from the Terrytoons cartoon character (it’s a men’s thing), said there was a powerful feeling among the men at these Friday sessions.
“We have a wide variety of people, nearly all retirees,” Allan said. “Some live in retirement units and don’t have a shed like they once did. The problem we have seen with that is they get depressed, and they just tend to stay away from everything.
“Here, if they have been a tradesman they can show other people to do stuff; their time is suddenly meaningful and their whole life changes because they feel important, which is great.
“We have had three guys who were suicidal… they were really down. We have a chaplain and a professional counsellor so we have access to guide those suffering in this plight the right way. We cannot offer professional advice ourselves, but just by coming here blokes have really picked up; they are no longer feeling down and out which is fantastic.
“You don’t have to be a carpenter to be here. We have someone who had a metal engineering business so we will work with sheet metal as well. We have a couple of chefs so we have cooking classes for men who are now alone or have become carers, and instead of eating rubbish we show them how to cook simple but quality meals.
“Because we don’t have our own place, we have a whole kitchen with appliances that has been donated by the Victor Harbor Bowling Club, where we used for the last lot of cooking classes.
“We want have computer classes as well. We do have a lot of skills, and it is not all carpentry or woodwork. Most Men’s Sheds tend to lean that way, and besides, working with wood is pretty special. The only thing is with wood, if you cut something too short you can’t weld something on.
“The guys get an enormous sense of pride in making things to help other people… it’s something they enjoy immensely. We have done projects for the South Coast Choral & Arts Society, and made things like seating in the shape of a whale for the Whale Centre.
Unfortunately, one of the problems we have is that it is hard for us to do larger community projects because we have nowhere to store them.”
And, for some, that remains the biggest problem, which is a far cry from their concerns in life before they became part of this brilliant Victor Harbor Men’s Shed group where real men stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Now, there is a lot of laughter. And to think in the smoke-filled bars of Parramatta, Allan used to sing Cry Me a River every night.
If you are interested in joining the Victor Harbor Men’s Shed call in around the back of Encounter Centre on a Friday morning and ask for Allan, Dennis or Dean.