IT’S a freezing February night, with rain spitting outside, and around 100 blokes have gathered amid a buzz of excitement in an upstairs room at The Storytellers pub.

Something special is happening here in Stockton town centre: the beginning of a project that hopes to make inroads into Teesside’s unhappy reputation for having the highest suicide rates in the UK.

This is the launch of The Pals Programme – “a social club for the 21st century” – and the over-arching aim is to get men to find a common bond and to talk about their feelings. It’s not something men of these parts are used to doing but Mike McGrother is trying to change all of that.

Mike, a musician and teacher by trade, is employed by Stockton Borough Council as a “cultural partner” to galvanise the community through a series of events and initiatives. Over the past four years, his main objective has been to ensure that Stockton marked the centenary of the First World War in memorably artistic ways.

The Pals Programme is the first legacy project to come out of that four years of work. It proudly takes its name from the famous Pals Battalions, formed out of groups of men – friends, neighbours or work colleagues – who enlisted to fight alongside each other in the Great War. Here in the North-East, the 18th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry became celebrated as the Durham Pals.

“This new Pals Programme evokes the spirit of the old Pals battalions and brings together men with a common bond so bring your friends along,” says Mike, like some latter-day Lord Kitchener, as the door behind him in The Storytellers continues to swing open and more new ‘recruits’ file in.

He goes on to outline some of the initiatives that the Pals might tackle:  there’ll be a memorial garden in nearby Trinity Church to keep tidy; an allotment to grow fruit and veg; healthy walks in the open air; research projects aimed at finding out more about local lads who went off to war and never came back; and the chance to train as “listeners” to help those with suicidal tendencies.

The new Pals can choose whichever path they feel suits them most, but the key is that they have a reason to come together and share their experiences, have a laugh, and are never afraid to unload their anxieties.

It’s an extension of another project Mike launched five years ago, using the same room in The Storytellers to launch a choir for men that goes under the name “Infant Hercules”. 

“It started off with six blokes, bribed by the promise of a free pint, and it just took off,” recalls Mike.

Now, Infant Hercules has dozens of members who wouldn’t miss their monthly rehearsals for the world.

Father-of-two Tim Myers, 49, a quantity surveyor in the petrochemical industry, is one of those who found an unexpected haven with the Infant Hercules choir.

“I never thought for a minute that I could sing, and maybe I can’t, but it gave me a sense of belonging and something different to be part of,” says Tim, who lives at Wynyard.

“The Pals Programme is just a natural extension of that and I just wanted to come along and support the work Mike is doing because I think it’s vitally important.”

Tim admits he’s had his own mental health problems and is in no doubt that Infant Hercules, and now the Pals Programme, will help keep them under control.

“I was completely ignorant about mental health – I was part of that generation that thought you just had to get on with it because that’s what men do. Before I knew it, I ended up in hospital,” he reveals.

Alan Murray, 44, of Yarm, had watched Mike’s work with Infant Hercules from afar and was intrigued to find out more about what the Pals Programme had to offer.

“Women deal with their feelings much more easily but men tend to bottle it up,” he says. “Anything that brings men together to develop friendships and talk about their problems has to be a good thing.”

With the decline of working men’s clubs and the break-up of traditional industries, the Pals Programme aims to plug a gap in society. No one knows how successful it will be but, knowing Mike McGrother, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.

The door swings open again: “Hey up lads, I think it’s a Newcastle fan,” shouts Mike to a chorus of laughter and friendly cheers. “Don’t worry,” he adds. “Everyone’s welcome here.”

  • To find out more, go to Facebook and search for “Pals Programme”

IN between leaving The Storytellers and arriving home, an email was sent to me by someone I’ve never met. He’s called Andrew Mawson and this is what it said:

“Thanks for coming down to the Storytellers tonight. I can literally say that Mike and Infant Hercules saved my life. I was stood on The A19 Leven Viaduct in September, ready to throw myself off, when my phone pinged to remind me of choir practice. Mike and the choir have helped me recover after a very difficult time. Wife, three kids, well-paid job, and I was lost. Anything we can do to promote mental well-being amongst men, can only be a positive.”

  • Read Andrew’s story next week