Gerry Farrell: There’s a lot more fun at the YMCA

The Village People. Picture; PA
The Village People. Picture; PA
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When Village People wrote their gay disco anthem ‘YMCA’ in 1978, they had no idea it would be so big.

They didn’t even plan those ‘spell-out-the-letters’ dance moves. With its blaring horn hooks and pulsing beat, it’s been a global earworm for decades.

Steve Martin in Parenthood 1989

Steve Martin in Parenthood 1989

Add your mental image of the band, dressed like an explosion in a fancy dress shop and you can see how the YMCA’s social message might have got lost in all the fun.

For example, did you know the YMCA is the largest and oldest youth work organization in the world, operating in 119 countries and reaching 58 million people?

In Scotland alone, the YMCA works in 120 different communities, helping over 12,000 children and young people every week. Their Plusone 1:1 mentoring project, designed here in Scotland, has been so successful at turning young lives around that it has been adopted right across Canada as one of the most effective ways of intervening early in the lives of vulnerable 8-14 year-old boys and girls to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

I visited YMCA Edinburgh to speak to Taylor Crockett, their media officer.

Taylor’s only 24 but he has the charm, the maturity and the quiet courtesy of someone twice his age. The ups and downs of his own life have made him a living example of how the YMCA can turn a young Scottish life around. He’s happy to share his story: “I’m an ex-prison leaver,” he says, with smile.

“How come?” I ask. “I lost my mum and dad when I was 16. My mum was ill with cancer for a long time, it was terminal. My dad couldn’t cope. One day he just walked out and never came back. I never saw him again and years later I found out he had died.

“I had a job at Easter Road, selling the pies and Bovril. I loved it. One day I came back from work and I found my mum. She’d made the choice to end her own life.

“I went off the rails after that. Got involved with some bad people, criminal families. There was drugs and alcohol. I was quite smart so they persuaded me to help them pull off some financial scams. I wasn’t so smart that I could avoid getting caught, though.

“I ran away to London but the police found me and brought me back. I got nine months in Saughton for business fraud. I was quiet, polite and friendly in prison. I never had any trouble personally but I saw plenty.

“Mentally, prison’s hard. After a suicide attempt, I knew I had to break with my old life. I got help from lots of organisations, in particular from a very special guy called Billy who works for the Scottish Prison Service Throughcare project. They helped me get an interview with the YMCA.

“The day after I was released I met Kerry Reilly, the YMCA’S chief executive. She didn’t bat an eyelid at my past. She was more interested in how I saw my future. She gave me a start and I’ve never looked back.”

There are vulnerable children in every community in Scotland, children even younger than Taylor was when his troubles began.

The YMCA know that teaming them up with a volunteer adult mentor is the best chance our society has of turning their lives around. That’s something to think about next time you hear the song.

Lot 59 - children’s entertainer

Back in eBay’s infancy, there was a man who made the news by putting his wife up for auction. The reserve price was a penny. But have you ever thought of auctioning yourself to the highest bidder?

The first time I did it was 23 years ago at an Auction Of Favours to raise money for the local secondary school.

All sorts of people volunteered their services and talents and bidding wars sprang up all round the school hall. One guy offered to come round to your house dressed as a bandit and cook you a Mexican meal. A couple offered a spin in their vintage Bentley.

On the spur of the moment, I made a stupid decision. I put my offer into the hat: “Lot 59: Gerry Farrell will be the entertainer at your child’s birthday party.”

Well, I like children. I used to be one. I had a guitar and a silly hat and one of those metal rigs you can clamp a mouth organ into. The only trouble was that on the day of the party my youngest son Ally decided to be born.

My wife went into labour in the morning. I took her up to Simpsons in Edinburgh. The birthday party was in Peebles at 2pm. She was still pushing at 10 to 1. I asked her politely if she could get a move on. She didn’t appreciate the request but she obliged. Five minutes and one big shove later, there he was.

“My work here is done”, I thought until the midwife passed me a pair of scissors. “Will you cut the umbilical cord now please.” I gave her a look. “Am I becoming a dad again or opening a supermarket? I never had to do that with my other three.”

The midwife gave me a look. “You’re not squeamish are you, after everything your wife’s been through?”

“Course I’m not.” I cut the cord, there was a squirt of blood, I kissed my wife and son and I escaped.

I arrived a bit late to the party, fiddling my hat onto my head and strapping my guitar round my shoulders. I mumbled my apologies and pushed past the birthday girl’s dad. I burst into the room and said “Hello, hello, hellooo! I’m Mister Fun!”

There was a stunned silence. A few of the children’s mouths fell open. The birthday girl’s lip wobbled. Her mother broke the silence: “Did you look in the mirror before you came here? You have blood all over your face.