The man on the other end of the phone was clearly in no mood for casual chit chat. “Men are waiting,” he said, and I was left standing in a call box holding the phone with the dial tone buzzing in my ear.
At that moment I realised that perhaps I was not going to enjoy a cosy weekend regaling my new friends with tales of my vast experience in men’s work. (The old RAF Sopley base - site of the first UK NWTA, is pictured here, now derelict.)
So many people, since then, have asked me: “What was it like on that first weekend?” and the stock answer, which has become an MKP legend, is “It was f#ckin freezing!”
Yet my introduction to the community that December night in 1994 was more of a baptism of fire. Recalling my preparation for the first ever MKP training in the UK, I am amused at how naïve I was. For many men, taking the risk to agree to an intensive men’s weekend must have required real courage. The truth is, I hadn’t really paid much attention to what I might expect when I originally signed up.
So when Bill asked me if I was ready, I knew this was something I wanted to do, needed to do, yet even as I embarked on the first leg of the journey, the idea of a cosy chat around a fire and a bit of drumming was stuck somewhere in my mind.
So on that Friday afternoon at 3 pm, when I should have been leaving to beat the weekend traffic down the M4, I was working away in my office in West London. I was vaguely conscious of the time, but of course I had more important things to do.
By 4:30 pm I was heading out to the car park. By 5pm I was on the motorway. Progress was slow, which suited me. A good excuse for why I was late… and hey, what was the hurry anyway? Friday night would be the usual “getting to know you stuff”, possibly a bit daunting for anyone else who might not have sat in a circle of men before, but it wasn’t worth busting a gut to arrive on time.
And anyway, I wasn’t going to miss anything I hadn’t done before. Part of me thought how lucky these guys were that I was going to be there… hey, I’d been around the world, I’d had vast experience of men’s groups, I’d travelled to Austin in Texas, for some time, the unofficial capital of the men’s movement.
By 5:45, still a good hour from the centre, a low-level discomfort over my progress began to gnaw at me as a nagging worry. In those pre-mobile phone days that meant pulling in at a service station and finding a call box. More time wasted.
After my phone conversation, I was in a rather different space. That man didn’t sound very understanding, he hadn’t even allowed me to explain about my important work, and the traffic, and some other excuses I had concocted on the way. He just said “Men are waiting”. There might be some explaining to do.
As I drove into the facility, there was no warm welcome. Just some instruction about where to park. I pulled up and a group of men approached. I hailed them with a friendly “Here, at last!” and was about to embark on a well-rehearsed apology, but I never got that far. The rest is a bit of a blur, to be honest.
I don’t remember anything, really. Men grabbed my stuff and I was jogged through dark corridors, as harsh American accents echoed in the unfamiliar darkness. Until I found myself alone…. well not alone actually… as my eyes adjusted to the space, I realised I was in a room full of men…
The process that followed took me down to a terrifying place. The happy-go-lucky charm and profuse apologies that usually bailed me out of such familiar situations, just didn’t cut it here. I was confronted by questions, conflict, boundaries, hostility, self-examination, ruthless honesty, and eventually - of course - the real me. The man who didn’t feel good enough and protected himself with the idea that he was better than everyone else, was finally exposed for all to see… including me.
Which made the cold the least of my worries. Just surviving the exposure to my reality became my only focus. The weekend progressed and shame became the core of my work. I believe I could have spent several years sitting in circles chatting and “solving” other men’s “problems” with my infinite wisdom, and I would never have glimpsed that shadow, the one which had long walked with me, behind my shoulder.
To work with this stuff requires commitment and courage, but there was something more important for me: I needed help, and I needed to receive support. I needed to feel safe and I needed to trust. The roller-coaster ride delivered all of this.
The sense of being accepted as part of a team, and the emotional gifts I received from other men, allowed me to plunge deep into a pool of shame and guilt where I found anger and grief.
There are gifts I took from that weekend that have remained a part of me ever since.
But the single most important gift I took was a mission. A purpose and direction to guide my endeavours as the journey continued: “As a man amongst men, I help men and women live fulfilled lives by showing them their full potential”. Apart from a slight tweak when I returned to the community four years ago, it has never changed from that day onwards.
When I felt good and in sync with my world, it was when I was doing something to fulfil my mission. When I felt bad, lost, confuse or troubled, I began to find that it was because I was pursuing some goal or direction in conflict with my mission.
My mission became the way I described myself when I was in integrity. It became the lifebelt I grasped for when I felt overwhelmed.
That was me and that was my work. But the weekend in Sopley back then was much more. It was also f#cking freezing, and the food was…. well, not great. And I had no cigarettes or coffee. But the weekend was standing shoulder to shoulder with my brothers through all the discomfort and seeing they were strong enough to meet these “hardships” face on. I discovered that when I stood with them I was strong enough, too.
The weekend was the robust comradeship of Ben G, the connection that grew between me and the other Mickleton men. It was the gentle support of Billy L. and the dynamic leadership of Gary C. There were plenty of laughs too, a shared gallows humour, a ruthless connection, a bond that sometimes felt so strong it was like we had known each other for years, maybe even for lifetimes.
There was dancing and ceremony. There was even a fire to sit round and chat. On Sunday there was a celebration and shared joy. And there was honouring, validation and generous praise from the staff men I’d met on Friday night as the weekend drew to a close.
That was Sopley for me in 1994: dynamic, exhausting, fulfilling - an exciting and dramatic journey of a lifetime condensed into 48 hours (or rather, 45½, in my case).
But of course it was not all about me. Looking back now, 20 years further down the line, I can appreciate the extraordinary level of faith demonstrated by my fellow initiates. Most were men who could only have had the briefest concept of what might be on offer. They had no websites, no search engines, no social media, no e-mails, no texting, no references other than word of mouth to encourage them to step into the circle.
And arching above us was the most extraordinary commitment of the men who staffed. With only a handful of initiated men in the UK, staff flew at their own expense from half way round the world - and further - to build the container. The voices I heard instructing us were in American accents from Chicago, from Texas, from California.
These men had done their work, and committed to give something back by creating a space for other men to taste what they had experienced… and then they had travelled across the Atlantic, to another country, a place some of them had never been before.
And although they may have had different motives, the one I experienced was a fundamental belief that it was right to give other communities, no matter how far away, how foreign or alien, the same opportunities to stand in a circle of initiated men, visible in their authenticity, working in integrity, making the world a better place for our sons and daughters.
And because it was the first weekend, it was not perfect. It was tough love with a capital T. There were things happening that would not be tolerated now. I was on the receiving end and later in the weekend was startled when a threatening whisper in my ear from the staff man responsible told me he was still waiting for an apology from me for my retaliation.
But fortunately at Sopley in 1994 we were all learning what was good and what was not acceptable. Staffing a UK Adventure weekend in the 21st century needs to be very different. And it is, but what we got was good enough for our times - and anyway, we knew no different. Looking back, I judge that it was new and scary not just for us, but for some of the staff too. What is more important, and speaks volumes about the work we do and how we go about it, is that these shortcomings were never ignored, accepted, excused or justified. They were identified, named and changed.
Maybe men now come to initiation from a different place. Most seem better informed, clearer in their intent, some even equipped with a vocabulary to describe their emotions.
Over the past five years I have watched new men travel the journey we took, and sometimes it appears swifter and smoother with a different, softer tone, but it is no less challenging or powerful for all that.
Perhaps the way we work also reflects that more men appear to be coming at a different time in their lives, coming to equip themselves for the challenges of partnerships and parenthood. Men come to prevent damage to others and themselves, rather than to repair it.
Of course, these are my personal, unscientific observations. Elderhood and a Celtic tendency to romanticise may mean they are not entirely accurate. But whether or not they are “true”, I hope that on every weekend still to come, new men find something of the space that was created at Sopley in that cold December 20 years ago: the space that I found. The space that welcomes and supports them, and loves and cherishes all of who they are.
If it does, I hope they will find in themselves a blessing for the pioneers who went before them and without whom there would have been no second training weekend in the UK.
Video on elderhood