Starting a Men’s Group

 Adventure, Men's Interest  Comments Off on Starting a Men’s Group
May 242016

Guest blog by Daniel Korner

It’s interesting to think of how the men’s group that I got involved with in Devon first started.

It was actually the women in the community where I lived at that time that brought in the idea.  From their interest in sharing a women’s circle, and conversations about women’s work we men started to investigate what equivalent activities would be available for us.

What was initially quite out of most men’s comfort zone grew over the period of 14 months into a beautiful, committed brotherhood of men.  We met every 2nd week around a fire … to share, be witness and support for each other, and explore together what it means to be a man in these times.

The reason it was uncomfortable in the beginning was that most of us were not used to being that vulnerable, open and intentionally challenged by each other.  The way most men in these times, certainly in the context I grew up in, engage with each other is in the pub or other environments that are full of distractions, public, and giving an excuse to shy away from a deeper level of engagement and “seeing” of each other.

Something that also normally doesn´t happen in the pub but which formed an important aspect of our men´s group was the meeting of generations, men of different age and backgrounds. All too often the only generational meeting for men happens between fathers and sons which, as beautiful as this can be, also often holds an emotional tension that makes it harder to be completely open and vulnerable.

I found it highly rewarding to listen to and be heard by other men of a different age or upbringing as it brings not only new perspectives, trust and guidance but also creates a feeling of being grounded and helps to understand and relate to men who are at a different part of their life´s path.

Train Lovers: Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK

 Train Lovers  Comments Off on Train Lovers: Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK
Jan 282016

As I glide into my vintage years, I have come to realise that trains and railways are a great way to understand and interpret the apparent confusions of modern life.  You will find some examples of this approach in my blog.  I’m glad to be old enough to have main line steam as part of my boyhood and adolescence and its great that steam trains are still flourishing in so many ways.  But modern railways can teach us plenty too.

train lovers









Alan and his wife Linda at the Skunk Railroad in California.


Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK

Many men are searching for meaning, a sense that the events of their life matter and have a shape to them.  I have hatched a belief that steam trains can help in this.

If you’re aged late fifties or older, you’ll have grown up with steam trains in your childhood.  I can recall many maturing men who get excited when I broach this topic, and who plug into vivid memories of magnificent steam engines.









Ik droom van stoom!  The Zuid Limburgse Stoomtrein Maatschappi in the Netherlands

I can bang on at length about the lousy features of my childhood, if provoked, but many of the happier times I recall as a kid involve steam trains – either travelling on them with my mother to see my grandparents in Bournemouth, or watching them as a trainspotter.

I know there are legions of other maturing men, as well as me ,who are still in love with steam trains.  Just go to any preservation railway and you’ll see them, both working and travelling.  And about 80% of all the people you see on these lines are men, mostly over 50.  These railways, like The Watercress Line in Hampshire where I’m a Life Member, are magic bubbles, coherent worlds of innocence and delight where one feels remote from the miseries of yobs and evil dictators.

You could rubbish this as escapism, but I’d dispute this.  These men are creating meaning in their lives, in a fairly functional and certainly harmless way.  Most men need an activity to bring them together, and here’s a very sweet one, with these extraordinary engines at the heart of it.  You may feel alone and unregarded out there, but here on the railway, you matter, even if you just inspect the tickets or maintain the track.

The other key point is that steam locomotives are the most lifelike, exciting, endearing of all the machinery man has created.  The ways I can now explain why I loved trains as a child help me feel that my life has a shape and meaning: there’s an extra richness in enjoying steam railways now, because the child in me is rekindled in his delight.

I’m very lucky to have a girlfriend who quite enjoys steam trains too, so they get woven into outings and holidays.  I am writing this in the small town of Wernigerode in eastern Germany, with more excitement than a hot first date.  That could be heaven or hell, whereas I know my date with the Dampfloks of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen will be heaven.

A year ago, I saw a photo in a colour supplement of a superb large steam engine powering along at night, through pine forests.  Through this I learned that the longest steam railway in Europe is in the Harz Mountains: 140 km of routes, with Wernigerode being a main access town.  And here we are!

Steam buffs reading this will already realise that mountain railways are great, because the engines will be stretched to perform.  Now I’m here, I realise it’s even better.  The HSB route from here, at 230 metres above sea level, actually climbs to the top of the highest mountain in northern Germany, 1125 metres, and in a fairly short distance.









A 2-10-2 tank on the HSB

I’ve come to appreciate the expressive qualities of the German language, but the word for a steam engine, Dampflok is a bit of a damp squib.  However, the engines themselves are superb.  They range from cute small tanks built 1890 and 1918, to massive 2-10-2s built in 1953.

The hot date with the trains surpassed my hopes: partly because the carriages have open verandahs at each end, so you can get the sound, smell and smuts as the engine roars up the gradients.  And the line winds among beautiful forest, with occasional big views.  The scenery is not as magical and dramatic as the Settle and Carlisle, or the Faenza in Italy, but it’s good.

For most maturing men, their favourite steam trains are those on the line they grew up near, so I hope you’ll at least understand why I am finishing this blog with a picture of my favourite engines, the original Bulleid Pacifics, at their prime on the Bournemouth Belle.

The Bournemouth Belle




Bulleid’s Merchant Navy class Number 35030, Elder Dempster lines, with the Bournemouth Belle









This is a private railway, quarter mile long, owned by a guy who bought part of the old track bed near Riccarton Junction in the Borders.


Football as a map of the inner life

 Football  Comments Off on Football as a map of the inner life
Sep 162015

I am writing this at the start of September 2015: what a delicious set of upsets we’ve already had in the first few weeks of this Premiership season.  The bookies had Chelsea as favourites to win the league again, yet they have made one of the worst starts ever for defending league champions.  And as a West Ham supporter, seeing them win decisively at the Emirates and Anfield has been delicious. Since so many people share my love for the game, why not use it as a guide or metaphor for the inner life?

The image of the club is like your image in the world around you.  Whatever your present reality, the glories or otherwise of your past have created a mass of associations which are held by many others.  Like a club, you will have fans and opponents, and their beliefs about you will change only slowly.

The players at the club are like the aspects of your personality.  Some are wild, some are quiet.  Some break the rules often, others keep their nose clean.  Some appear on the pitch often, some stay mostly in the reserves.  Your players could be called sub-personalities: star centre-forward carrying so many expectations, the wiry winger, the chunky fullback, the goalie who pulls off miracle saves.  Or in worldly terms, the romantic, the geek, the angry hitman, the saintly sage and so on.

Often you may be only aware of one of your players at a time: the geek may lead in a work task, the romantic may lead on a hot date but substituted by the lonely moper if you are losing the match.  Although only one of your inner players has your attention, ie the ball, other aspects of you are on the pitch, in the team, and it can help you to draw them into the manoeuvres.

One of the things I love about soccer is the astonishing difference the manager can make.   This season, look at transformation of Crystal Palace under Alan Pardew.  Or more intriguingly, look at the poor record of Mark Hughes in recent posts, and the sustained benefit he has brought to Stoke.  What’s the analogy for your inner life?  As in football, your inner manager needs to bring a combination of intelligence and inspiration, technique and passion, to your inner team.

Your inner manager sets the flavour and atmosphere for your whole inner team, and his choice of tactics, substitutions, comments to the media, can all be highly influential.  Think about the huge range of personalities among current premiership managers, and see which one you resonate with, and if there’s another you’d prefer to have as a role model…

Just as different football teams respond to different managers and approaches, there’s no one prescription for your inner life.  But somehow, you need to connect with your sense of purpose and passion, so that your inner players go out with fire in their hearts, and can pull themselves back against impossible odds.  Remember Newcastle’s legendary recovery from 0 – 4 to 4 – 4 against Arsenal?

Looking at Barcelona’s continuing success, it’s so clear that it arises from brilliance in both method and motivation.  Your inner manager needs to know what training and techniques will help your players face the challenges of your life.  He needs to find the right team choices among your inner players, so that you bring a mix of skills to bear on every situation.

The coaching team are also vital in the morale and the skills of your players.  Your coaching inputs may come from friends, professionals like counsellors, resilience training, or weekend groups like those at Hazel Hill see for details).

My local paper in Bridport, West Dorset, once had a caption which nearly gave me heart failure.  It read Here’s to the Premier!, over a picture of four men with bubbly at the low-key ground of Bridport Football Club.  They are celebrating promotion to the Toolstation Western League Premier Division.  It’s a useful reminder that few of us as individuals will be in the limelight of a UK Premier League.  Most of us will be in the equivalent of the Toolstation Premier Division.  Local football clubs have just the same dramas and delights as their big brothers, so whatever league you may be in, find the passion and wisdom to manage your team well.

Football as a guiding metaphor is explored further in Alan’s book for men beyond 50: Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50. See more at






There’s more than one premier league.




Jun 162015

Men generally grow up seeing other men as competitors, and mostly  have poorer support networks and interactive skills than women.  Perhaps that was useful when fighting for the last bison on the plains, but it doesn’t help most men in 2015.

These days, most of us need high emotional intelligence and collaboration skills just to get through the average week.  For men, these talents need to be learned in adult life, but where?  Men’s groups provide a safe, supportive space for what can be a vulnerable process.

I have been co-leading men’s groups for 20 years, and I am repeatedly moved by how the safety and simplicity of a circle of men is so affirming.  Women don’t realise how much self-doubt most men caElder and the Ashrry: in a group of men, the first big gift is realising you are ok and accepted as you are.  It’s also a great place to learn how to express, hear and interact with feelings.

A weekend retreat with no more than twenty men is long enough for a deep exploration, and there’s also a lot of fun and playfulness that emerges when a bunch of men, even strangers, feel free and safe.

Hazel Hill is a 70-acre conservation woodland retreat centre, near Salisbury, which I’ve been running since 1987.  Being outdoors with plenty of space to hang out together round a fire, roam alone, or do some physical conservation work, is an ideal setting for men’s groups, and this wood has been used by many over the years.

On the August bank holiday weekend, I am co-leading a men’s group at Hazel Hill with Nick Mabey.  Nick has lots of experience with Mindfulness, and almost none with men’s groups, and I’m the opposite.  We’re excited by this combination, and because even we don’t know what we’ll be doing.  Our aim is to create a sense of fellowship among the group and with the wood, and then explore the issues and questions which are hot and current among us.

Oct 082013

Highlights and the back story

Andrew BillenIt was actually four months before the launch of my book that The Times decided they wanted to run a major feature on it, and asked if they could send a reporter along to a workshop.  This  can be a risky move, but I said yes, provided that their reporter was a man over 50 and that he participated.

The Times agreed, and on June 18, Andrew Billen came along to a Men Beyond 50 open evening in London.  This was nervy for me, especially as the other men attending didn’t know there would be a reporter, let alone a photographer…We started with a very honest conversation about how to handle confidentiality, and with Andrew making clear his commitment to participate.  I was impressed and touched that within a few minutes of all this, it felt just like a regular men’s group.  Men were opening their hearts about relationships, work, ageing fathers – the classic shipwrecks and upsides of midlife men.

Andrew Billen had never been in any kind of men’s group before, and began the evening in a spirit of polite but definite scepticism.  As the evening went on, I could see that he was touched by how this process was helping people, and I was touched  by his own honesty in participating.  I could also see that he was very bright, and could be challenging, so I approached my interview with him a few days later quite nervously.

The page and a half feature which appeared in The Times 2 on September 17 is accurate and positive, about my book and Men Beyond 50 groups.  Some of the personal confessions which Andrew extracted from me are daunting in cold print, but I had decided to be brutally honest.  Men distrust anyone who put themselves on a pedestal or pontificates, and being really honest about your own mistakes makes clear you’re not doing that.  Here are some excerpts from the review:

Out of the Woods is a tremendous practical resource, with advice on everything from unemployment to self-employment, from your parents’ death to your own.  It is also a book to set whole streets of alarm bells ringing.  Its central metaphor is a shipwreck, Heeks’s own having been the breakdown of his marriage just before he was 50.  He counsels us to salvage from ours opportunity.

“A lot of men, Heeks said, “do not have intimacy skills”.  This evening, however, had “felt like a deep sharing”.  After two hours’ sharing, he summed up our plight.  Ten million British men are over 50, 42 per cent of all male adults.  They face depression, isolation and a heightened suicide rate.  Yet in the media, and society, they are invisible.

A week later we meet for a pub lunch.  He is apprehensive about what I thought about the session, but I was impressed.  What struck me was the loneliness in the room.  “It is poignant”, he agrees.  “Some of the men there would make good partners.”  While others, I say, seemed just unhappy by temperament.

So is he now the finished product, ready for his seventies and death?  The short answer, he admits, is “no”.  He is almost 65 and does not like what he sees happening to friends the other side of 70.  “I am hitting my own fears about ageing.  I notice my own hair is getting quite a lot more grey and I am quite upset about that.”  Shouldn’t he be beyond all this? “I should.  But I am being quite honest and answering the question.” 

“I am a lot happier on average than, say, I was in my forties and probably even my fifties.  I am happy, but I still have bits that are troubling me.  The key message in my book and in other books I value is that being happy in old age doesn’t just happen randomly.  Like reinventing relationships and sex, life after 50 really is different.  You have to do things differently.”

And while I won’t be joining the MB50 network yet, I take what Alan says seriously enough for Out of the Woods to earn a place on my shelves.  I like to hope it will save me a fortune on women and motor insurance.