A Knight’s Tale (101: We Are Quite Similar Really)

I have already spoken of my freelance work with groups of people, in particular the Coping With Violence course.

A meeting with two Eastern European mushroom gatherers in the New Forest in October 2013 reminded me of Anansi.  

Sometime in the late 1980s I was facilitating a series of team building days with a staff group of residential social workers at varying levels in the hierarchy.  I very soon realised I had my work cut out because most of these people only met during handover periods; no two individuals shared the same nationality, gender, racial characteristics or sexual orientation; and there were 17 of them. Deep seated prejudices prevented any meaningful communication.

By the end of the first day it was all in danger of going horribly wrong.  Racking my brains overnight, I came up with the idea of the West African mythical storyteller, and Little Miss Muffet.

Abandoning the programme I had prepared earlier, I took a flip-chart and drew a spider hanging from a web on the large sheet of paper.  I asked the group members to tell us what they thought and felt when seeing this drawing.  As always, it took a minute or two for the first volunteer to tell us about her thoughts.  Slowly, people began to rush to tell theirs.  And eventually fear or reverence could be expressed. 

Anansi, the spider, is loved for his storytelling; whereas it was a spider who โ€˜frightened Miss Muffet awayโ€™.

On another sheet of paper I portrayed a set of cricket stumps with a West Indian male wicket-keeper crouching behind them.  I went on to tell of Tony Pinder, the best keeper who ever received my bowling, and how he and his brother Winston, who, when I began playing club cricket in 1957 had been the first black people I had ever met.  I spoke of their influence on me, and, in particular, the father figure that Winston, known as Bunny, had struck.

I had their interest.  This waned momentarily when I invited them to take their turns at drawing anything relevant to their culture or history that they would like to tell us about.  That was scary.  However, the floodgates soon opened.  At the end of the day many people had not had time for a turn, but all wanted to spend the following, last, day finishing the task.  Many brought their own art materials.

Then came what, to me, was the greatest, and most satisfying, surprise.  A white Central European woman and a black African man both described mushroom gathering from their childhoods.  They realised that they had, after all, something in common.  I have always hoped that the team continued to build on the discoveries that emerged from these exercises.  Once we accept our differences and look beyond them, we are quite similar, really.


  1. Derrick, this was the first blog I read today. (My tea is still so hot I’ve barely been able to take a sip.) What a beauty of a post! Its message was true for the 1980s. It is true now. We humans are one species from many cultures. While there are differences, we also have so much in common. Thank you for this post, for a wonderful start to a cold winter’s day.

  2. I grew up collecting mushrooms in the nearby forests, I suppose many children learned this skill from their grandparents in Europe. It’s not very common here in the U.S. so I suppose it was done in countries where money and food was tight at one time or another. Great story.

  3. What a wonderful story — and what a great reminder that story-telling often accomplishes more than a lecture, especially if people are invited to share their own stories.

  4. We were saying the other day that there is so much we do not know even about people whom we think we know well. I once participated in a workshop during which the facilitator’s words fell into an ocean of silence. In the end she gave us each a slim exercise book and asked us to spend a few minutes writing after each prompt she gave us. She randomly paired us up as we left the room and encouraged us to share anything of what we had written down with just that person. On our return we found wrapped peppermints in a bowl and we were invited to take one each. “Before you unwrap your mint and pop it into your mouth” she cautioned us, “check the colour.” They were all green except for a single white one. The white peppermint person was asked if she would like to share anything from her notebook. Having had a dry-run in private with her partner, she started out hesitantly: no-one laughed at her, or sniggered, or looked bored – fears I think most of the participants might have harboured. Instead – as you say – the floodgates opened. I found this notebook whilst clearing up the other day – and was taken aback by what that little exercise had taught me about myself!

  5. What an interesting part of your work. It really seems fascinating. I don’t think social workers these days have those kind of meetings with their groups.

  6. Fascinating story, Derrick. Finding what we share in common goes a long way in bringing diverse cultures together. We grew up reading Ananse stories, an important character in Afro-Caribbean folklore for teaching kids life’s lessons.

  7. Good parallels. There is definitely a color wedge here at times…and just from the ethnic arena.
    I finally left 2 organisations because of basic bullying. When you try to break a mold!

  8. One thing I can be grateful to my mother for is that she never voiced any prejudice (not that she spoke much as you are aware). And the primary school I attended was in the catchment area for post-war assisted migrants. So it never occurred to me not to accept people at face value (unless they did me wrong, and then they were ‘dead to me’ as the current favourite expression goes). In my career in international trade, shipping and logistics, you have a veritable United Nations of personnel. Watching a Tongan lift a roll of carpet under one arm when a forklift was out of action will be a memory I will never lose ๐Ÿ™‚ Living here is the most homogenous ethnicity I have ever experienced.

    1. Thank you very much, Gwen. One of the men who moved us to Lindum House from London was a European who had giantism. He was over here for a cure. He carried an armchair on one shoulder and a full tea chest with the other arm

  9. What a wonderful creative life-applying exercise! I have joy-tears in my eyes. ๐Ÿ™‚ Brilliant, Derrick!
    And, yes, the key is for people to realize we are all more alike than we are different.

  10. Yes, we aging Englishmen worry about offending people but there are many other groups who have “deep seated prejudices” far worse than anything we worry about. And yet, hope does exist, as your story about mushroom gathering shows so clearly.

  11. Your ability to connect with very different people, and to connect them with each other, is a rare gift, Derrick. You have used it wisely, and done much good.

  12. I am immensely impressed by your description of this team building session, Derrick. I think each one of us has used his/her talents or hobbies to break ice and start bonding participants. I used to do yoga team building and International Food Festivals with students in my school. We also had group art therapy, music therapy, and even martial arts therapy.

  13. Derrick, what a wonderful story. You certainly have a gift, not only for seeing people as they are and not putting them into boxes, but for also helping others to start to do the same. The world needs so many more of you!

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