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Meet the men overcoming loneliness by cooking pies together in their Newcastle club

The i logo The i 20/12/2018 Poorna Bell
a group of people sitting at a table © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

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On Monday evenings, the murmur of voices can be heard coming from a community room in Byker, Newcastle. It’s the sound of men waiting for their pies to finish cooking and, while they do, they discuss their week over a cup of tea. This is Men’s Pie Club.

It may have the appearance of a cooking club but it’s something far bigger: it brings men together as an antidote to social isolation.

The premise is brilliantly simple. The club is run by Food Nation, a Newcastle-based social enterprise. Last year, it applied for nearly £100,000 in funding via Movember Foundation’s social innovator programme challenge – which was looking to support initiatives that tackle social isolation and improve men’s mental health.

a person cooking in a kitchen preparing food © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

In each session, a group of men – numbering anything from four to a maximum of 12 – gather in a room. They’re taught how to make pastry for a pie and to create a filling, and there are two 20-minute gaps for chatting – one when the pastry is chilling in the fridge, and the other when it is cooking. At the end, they can either eat their pie together or take it home. One man looks after his mother, who has dementia, and takes it home as a treat for her.

“The North East in general is unique in that it was a place of heavy engineering and social clubs,” says Food Nation project co-ordinator Colin Mallen, “and unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. There aren’t forums for men to chat to their pals – it doesn’t happen any more. Most of the guys we get along are 40 to 60 years old, and we get men who are retired.”

Men don't need to 'man up'

The North East of England experiences the highest rate of male suicide in the country. Factor in a traditional “man up” and “boys don’t cry” culture, and social isolation – which is known to be a contributing factor to suicide – can be deadly.

To combat this, Food Nation runs a fully supported 12-week session, and then men take over and, with the help of funding, run their own pie clubs. At present there are two active sessions – one which is peer-led and takes place in Byker on a Monday night, and another in Benwell on Thursday lunchtimes, which is fully supported by Food Nation.

The first group, which ran in March, in Tyne, unfortunately discontinued after 12 weeks because no one wanted to run the group. “It’s easier said than done,” said Colin, “because some of the men we get are isolated, lonely, some with mental-health issues and lacking in leadership and confidence. We had real success but we didn’t have a leader and you can’t force men to take over.”

When they started the next session in Byker they learned from the lessons of Tyne, and made sure to get the men proactive from the start. It worked.

a man standing in a kitchen © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Making friends while making pies

Artie, 65, who is now retired, went to the session in Tyne, and now goes to the one in Byker. He spent 30 years as a carer looking after his brother, who had learning difficulties, and is the kind of person who likes to be busy. He has male and female friends he can call, but he also has a lot of time on his hands. Being part of a regular group gives him something to look forward to, and he found it a friendly, open environment.

“Women like to talk to other women and interact more, while men tend to be solitary,” he said. “When they’re on their own, they think: ‘Maybe I’ll have a pint’. They never think of an alternative beyond a drink of alcohol. Men don’t tend to interact with other men very much, and Pie Club brought men together, and we feel like we’ve known each other a long time.”

Artie is also prone to anxiety and a “bit of depression”. While he keeps himself active by going to the gym, playing badminton and swimming, being with other people helps to quell some of his anxiety.

“With anxiety, you’re worrying all the time about things that may not bother other people,” he said. “When you have a lot of free time, you tend to blow it out of proportion – I’m at my worst in the morning and I tend to wake up early.”

He said that, while the first visit can feel a bit daunting, once you get there you realise everyone tends to feel a bit apprehensive at first.

Overcoming that leads to far better benefits. “You tend to forget how you feel for those two hours, because you’re too engrossed in chatting and making the pie.”

A new lease of life

Cooking pie © Getty Cooking pie Attendees don’t have to worry about bringing any ingredients – it’s all provided by Food Nation. Camping stoves are provided as well so that piemakers can cook two pies at a time, and so long as there is access to a sink, sessions don’t even need to take place in a kitchen.

The group discuss what pie they are going to make the following week at the end of every session.

Apart from social interaction, the sharing of skills has also been hugely rewarding. A 90-year-old widower who worked in catering joined the club, and aside from socialising, has managed to pass some of his skills on to the other men. “In my opinion,” says Colin, “it’s given him a new lease of life.”

Loneliness: a word of shame for too many men

Retired chemical engineer Robert, 67, attends Benwell and Byker, and says the club has been a great opportunity to bond with other guys. “I haven’t met my best friend yet,” he says jokingly, “but I can honestly say it’s fun.”

Robert talks to his brother, who lives in Preston, about once a day at least. Being single, he acknowledges that he may not have as broad a support network as other men, but he doesn’t like the idea of Men’s Pie Club being sold as a solution to loneliness because he feels it’s a toxic word: “No one will admit to being lonely,” he says. But he does agree, like Artie, that it’s harder for men to make friends.

Aside from Robert and Artie, there are those for whom Men’s Pie Club has had a massive impact. One attendee said that his psychiatric carer had commented on how much better he seemed after attending the sessions.

Pie Club members also say they have grown in confidence. “One man in particular,” says Colin, “has improved so much. He tells me that people say to him: ‘You’re looking good’.”

The appeal of Men’s Pie Club – apart from the pies themselves – is that it’s the gentlest way of providing a space for men to hang out and do something useful.

They can talk, or not, and at the end of a session, they still have something to show for it. “You might think it sounds difficult,” says Robert, “but once you’ve done it, you think: ‘Well why didn’t I try that years ago?’”

Gallery: 10 ways loneliness can affect your health — physically and mentally [INSIDER]


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