A while back I wrote an Open Studio piece about illustrator, Linda Edwards, which I entitled On the Sunny Side of the Street. Now here I am on the sunny side again, interviewing the owner and director of Jim Hawkins Ltd, otherwise known for his BBC Radio Shropshire 'Jim Hawkins in the Morning' show. This is a man who couldn’t be more sunny if he tried. Is it something in the water, I ask myself. Is it in the air? Why are so many Shrewsbury people so upbeat?
Jim can’t answers for the rest of Shrewsbury, but for himself, he says, he made a decision years ago to stop being a ‘pint half empty’ type and become a pint three-quarters-if-not-brimming-over type instead. ‘I can’t see the point in not being positive,’ he says. ‘Life was so boring the other way. And negativity’s corrosive. On a personal level it eats away at you. And it’s not good for society either.’
Jim’s definitely not the sort of person you’d find saying ‘there no such thing as society’. Life for him is all about interacting. He hates it when people view each other with suspicion, and he hates the way the media plays a role in this. We talk about what happened a month or so ago to young Police Commissioner, Paris Brown. It infuriates Jim sometimes the way that bad news is presumed to be the thing that people want to hear.
Jim has worked in radio for over thirty years, starting with a university radio station, then ‘moving with a bunch of us to a commercial station opening up the road’. Over the years, he’s witnessed radio being bland at one extreme, and playing devil’s advocate at the other, with a tendency towards bullying. ‘How often is radio journalism sword of truth stuff, and how often is it just a matter of wanting to start a fight?’ he says. ‘People are encouraged to judge each other. There’s a real lack of empathy sometimes.’
Jim gave up newspapers over a year ago - and he hasn’t missed them. They’re bad for his mental health he says, and he’s not joking here. Jim has a twenty year history of mental health issues and now knows to remove all obstacles, be they news stories, online articles or indeed negative and angry Facebook and Twitter followers, that might be a bar to his continued good health.
‘Once I used to be a three-newspapers-a-day man,’ Jim says. ‘I told myself I liked to be well informed, but reading the news was upsetting me. So often the world it described wasn’t the one in which I live, where people care about one another and take time to make a difference. Then one time somebody said to me look for the good, and I started to see things in a more balanced way. Seek out the celebratory, they said. Look for the inclusive. And those words made sense. They shifted something inside my head. Since then my tectonic plates have fitted together in a new and better way. Initially living that way involved an act of decision, but not for long. Quickly it became a way of life.’
I’m enjoying talking to Jim. We’re in Frank’s Bar on Frankwell and the sun’s shining outside. It’s the end of the day - time for feet up, a drink and a good yarn. We get onto the wealth of community ventures around town. Jim mentions the Street Pastors who go out at night to help people in difficulty around the pubs and clubs. Then there are the Food Banks, of which there are now two in Shrewsbury, as well as ones in Telford, Market Drayton and Bridgnorth.
We talk about the Severn Hospice, and the thousands of families whose lives it’s touched. Jim tells me about the Telford Hospice, for which an appeal was launched bringing in five million pounds. Jim was at the sod cutting ceremony. He says it was very emotional. There’s a spirit of generosity about, he says. Again and again he’s seeing people caring for each other. He’s definitely of the opinion that people are mostly good, and that they definitely deserve to be regarded as such, unless they prove themselves otherwise.
Jim was born in Romford, and moved to Shrewsbury ten years ago for the job. I say something about radio being his platform, and he corrects me. Radio’s a portal, he says. His shows aren’t about him as the presenter. They’re about the people. To make his point, Jim quotes radio guru, Dan O’Day. Radio actually doesn’t matter. You’ve got to love your audience and the people you’re talking with. ‘It’s not a matter of coming into people’s homes and saying here I am,’ Jim says. ‘It’s a matter of saying there you are.’
So who stands out in ten years of people featuring on the show? Jim mention the two Bens - Ben Bebbington of Big Busk fame, and Ben Hughes, a man with a life-limiting illness whose bucket list includes campaigning to get people on the organ donor register. ‘Both these men have stories that are engaging and make us all think,’ Jim says. ‘I’ve been accused of not caring for Shropshire society, meaning Society with a capital S. But these two are true Shropshire society. If I’ve had anything to do with persuading people to pay them attention, then that’s great.’
I like this man. He’s full of stories about people - and we haven’t even started yet on the bench. Do you know about Jim Hawkins and the bench? It’s over five years now since, equipped with a hand-held recorder, Jim first headed off across the county to sit on a bench and see who’d come and talk to him. He’s been doing this ever since, which means more than two hundred and fifty benches, unless Jim returns to certain benches more than once. All weathers he’s to be found out around the county, at all times of year.
‘Why?’ I want to know. ‘Because of the power of story-telling,’ Jim replies. ‘I stroll down a street, I sit on a bench and I see what happens. People come along and we start to chat. So many people have stories to tell that may not be regarded newsworthy, but they’re worth hearing all the same. And this is my way of getting to hear some of them.’
All sorts of people come along. The other week in Newport, Jim met Cintia from Brazil who told him all about the long journey that brought her to the UK. Then another time, elsewhere across the county - on a rainy day Jim will never forget - he met an old man from Manchester who last saw his wife alive the day the doctor came for a home visit. That doctor was Harold Shipman. There’s a story for you.
Plainly not everyone’s as good as Jim would like to think. But that doesn’t dent his faith in human nature. I ask whom a one year blog on Shrewsbury shouldn’t leave out, and the answer he gives me is as long as his arm. One of the first things he noticed when he moved to Shropshire was how generous local people were. ‘The county’s beautiful,’ he says. ‘But its people make it particularly so.’
On the subject of Shropshire people, have you seen Jim’s photographs? An increasing amount of his work is as a photographer, and his work is every bit as positive as the man himself. ‘It means a lot to me when reluctant subjects tell me they’ve enjoyed the experience,’ Jim says. ‘For some this may be happening for the first time, and that’s great.’
Plainly Jim enjoys making people happy. Twice a week he’s to be found in local venues playing music for people to chill or dance to. ‘Taking music for a walk’ he calls it. His Sunday Socials are at Eighty-Six’d, in Waterloo Street, Ironbridge, and his Saturday Socials are at The Coffeehouse, Castle Gates, Shrewsbury. More can be found on the Facebook page www.facebook.com/SaturdayandSundaySocials
It’s time to go our separate ways. Last calls here for anything Jim wants to say. ‘One in four people will experience some level of mental health issue during their lives,’ Jim says. ‘It’s great when people listen to something said on the subject on the show, and get the point that’s being made. If there’s anything I can do to remove the stigma surrounding mental health - on the show or off it - then I will.’