News about what I’ve been up to
How do you improve lives? When life for many in our society does not seem to be getting better and probably worse, when inequality is growing, when lives are getting meaner and communities more shrivelled, it came as a bolt from the blue to realise that others had faced exactly the same problems that we face now. And solved them.
That was what I had learned from my all my research about youth hostels. I had learned how a democratic movement created a way for ordinary people to improve their lives. Youth hostels took people from the constrained places in which they lived, to exercise, breathe fresh air and to join together with others from different backgrounds and nations.
I learned how people banded together in an association, to run their own affairs and to improve their own lives, by finding and opening youth hostels so they could get out in the countryside and travel to other countries. There’s lessons in that for us all, about self help, localism and practical solutions.
One man took part in the pioneering days of youth hostels, a man who had dedicated himself to improving the lives of others. He had searched for a place of real service and when he helped found YHA he knew that he had found that place.
Born in 1890, Jack Catchpool had been an early social worker, a pacifist and aid worker in Russia during the revolution and in Armenia after the atrocities there. In those places he disliked the way an aid worker became like a lord or bey with power over refugees, a lesson for us today with scandals catching aid organisations like Oxfam.
He realised that to help refugees escape the horrors in which they found themselves, they had to become self sufficient again, they had to regain their own self hood, dignity and independence. He helped refugees set up work programmes, to become self sufficient.
He learned the most important lesson of his life, of helping others to help themselves.
After working in the slums of East End London, he became the first secretary of the Youth Hostels Association, YHA, the equivalent of today’s chief executive. He was instrumental in finding funds to start youth hostels and helping others set up regional groups, following an agenda of local endeavour that drove the extraordinary spread of youth hostels.
In the run up to war with Germany the international association of youth hostels elected him as its president. He travelled widely, helping develop youth hostels in France, in the USA, and, after the war, in India, and Pakistan, as well as offering help and advice in Israel, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
His work was always practical. He arranged work camps, helping volunteers open youth hostels in France, Denmark, Ireland and Norway before and after the war. He worked for reconciliation between Germans and their European neighbours.
In South Asia he involved himself in bridging gaps between young people from Pakistan and India, countries that had recently been at war.
Just before his death, in 1971, he was busy organising trips in Britain to bring together young people from all backgrounds, skinheads and immigrants, work for which he found funding and support from others. His skill was always to organise, unlock funds, gather support and enlist help from others.
His life is an inspiring example of how we might go about improving our lives today, his example more compelling now than ever. That’s why I’ve spent the last 18 months researching and writing the story of his life.
The story sheds a different light on the early pioneering days of youth hostels and shows the wider influences that were at work in youth hostels and similar movements of that time.
Catchpool believed in bringing people together in friendship and helping others to help themselves. They were the two elements of his life work to improve the lives of everyone and especially young people in whom he placed so much hope.
His life story of adventure, travel and youth hostels in search of a place of real service is an important one for us all today.
His motto is one for us all today, that it is better to light a candle than to complain against the darkness.