Heaven & Hell: Niall Pettitt

Scout leader Niall Pettitt

Scout leader Niall Pettitt - Credit: Danielle Booden

Niall Pettitt has established his career in the environment sector but in his spare-time is volunteer head of curriculum for The Scout Association. As the lead volunteer for the youth programme, he guides how badges and awards prepare young people with skills for life. Having spent last year helping  them rediscover the Great Indoors (the first badge for Scouts and non-scouts alike), he sets his sights on how people, young and not so young, connect with each other and the outdoors. Here he talks to Gina Long...

Q: What impact has Covid-19 had on your life and how are you adapting?

A: Gone are the days of a brisk walk to the office or jumping on a train to meet colleagues, so getting outside no longer happens by routine.  Of course, the change was profound for The Scouts when we had to work out how young people could learn new skills from their own homes, rather than meeting together. It is testament to the adaptability of our young people and volunteers that so many managed it and have been earning plenty of badges on the way!

Q: What is your connection to East Anglia?

A: It’s where I grew up and most of my father’s family have lived in or around Mildenhall for a long time. They were connected to many of the local landmarks like Parker’s Mill, the dairy and what is now the Riverside Hotel. It puts into sharp relief how much the people and places change but having such a strong connection to a place really anchors you amid the changes. I have since settled in Norwich where I live with my partner, Bryson.

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Q: What is your East Anglian Heaven i.e. what do you love most about East Anglia?

A: The landscapes. We are so lucky here in East Anglia that we have some remarkable spaces like the Broads and Brecks, forests and fens, and the miles of coastline. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring the great outdoors – we have it all, apart from some decent climbs!

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Q: What is your East Anglian Hell i.e. what you hate most about living here?

A: Everything is so far away. Of course, that’s what helps make it special, but it doesn’t help if you are visiting friends or trying to see everything that East Anglia has to offer.

Q: What are your favourite East Anglian restaurants?

A: We are spoiled for choice in East Anglia but my favourite place to go has to be Frank’s Bar in Norwich. They make a meal such a laid-back affair. The kind of place you can hunker into for a catch-up over coffee with a friend at 3pm, suddenly finding yourself emerging into the cool air at 11pm.

Q: What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?

A: I love the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds; what a charming place to have right in the middle of town.

Q: What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

A: A surprising choice, perhaps, for someone who doesn’t much like fighting through the crowds, but the Christmas Fayre at Bury St Edmunds. There is always such a huge range of stalls, and it does get me in the Christmassy mood.

Q: What your specialist Mastermind subject?

A: I would be terrible at Mastermind because I know so very little about a vast number of things. With a bit of practise, it would be the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. I can reliably get immersed in them.

Q: What is always in your fridge?

A: Either by accident or design there is often a morsel or two from last night’s meal. Handy for cobbling into a hot lunch the next day.

Q: What’s your simple philosophy of life?

A: A raft is useful to cross a river, but it is wise to leave it behind after crossing. It comes from a Buddhist parable to explain that certain beliefs or ways of doing things can be useful, but we should not be bound to them for the rest of our lives lest they weight us down.

Q: What’s your favourite film?

A: I’m more of a book person but I love an animated film, for which my partner has instigated a new and growing love for the works of Miyazaki. Secondly, spy films. The grittier the better.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job was doing the evening shift at the local Co-op. A charming mix of people doing the weekly shop whilst it was quiet, and those nipping in for a packet of cigarettes. Sadly, it was also the first time I faced homophobia when three men shouted homophobic abuse and slurs at me. My manager practically chased them out of the store - Katie did a remarkable thing in that moment by not tolerating their behaviour.

Q: What is your most treasured possession?

A: A coffee mug. Fairly non-descript but it is the last gift my father gave me before he died. It was not for a birthday or Christmas; simply because he saw it and wanted me to have it. Although it is a small thing, I know I was at the forefront of his mind when he saw it and so when I use it, he is at the forefront of mine.

Q: Who do you admire most?

A: Being a quiet boy, from a quiet place, and being frustrated with the way the world was, I always found it difficult to find anyone to look up to. Now, it is those younger than me who inspire me most. I really admire Dara McAnulty who, as his Twitter bio goes, is 17 years old, autistic, a naturalist, advocate, and an author from Northern Ireland. I have huge respect for Dara who shines a light on the wonder of our natural world and how easily we could lose it. We can learn a lot from how young people are able to love the best bits, and change the worst bits, of the world and society we live in.

Q: What is your biggest indulgence?

A: Time for me! I spend a lot of time doing the things I enjoy, whether that is volunteering with The Scouts, reading, playing computer games (perennially Breath of The Wild) or rediscovering my love of baking (but have no fear of seeing me on the Bake Off anytime soon).

Q: What do you like about yourself most?

A: That I am quite happy to learn something new or work things out for myself. I like knowing what I am doing and that is as true when I am reaching for an instruction manual or researching an aspect of youth development.

Q: What’s your worst character trait?

A: My stubbornness (I call it tenaciousness, but my partner disagrees). I like to think I do this in a gentle way, but once I have settled on making a particular change, I do not tend to drop it. It has been known to take several years.

Q: Where is your favourite holiday destination?

A: Not a holiday as such but I’ve been very lucky to travel with The Scouts, including Switzerland, Finland, South Africa. Meeting up with local Scouts always leaves an indelible impression on you. Each place has its own way of doing things but the drive to help young people reach their potential is universal. I don’t have a favourite – my favourite thing is to discover a new place.

Q: Best day of your life?

A: I spent a mesmerising day at Tijuca National Park, just outside Rio de Janeiro, exploring the trails. Then returned to Rio São Manuel, spending the evening with a local Scout group who were celebrating all the adventures they had that year. They had made a video of all the things they had got up to and we taught each other some of the games we play at our meetings – they did not speak English and I did not speak Portuguese so there was much acting out and laughter involved. I made many new friends and memories that day.

Q: What’s your favourite breakfast?

A: Poached eggs on hot, buttery English muffins with plenty of coffee. But the most important ingredient is the time to enjoy it. Breakfasts are so often a rushed affair; having the time to construct it and savour it is the greatest luxury, whatever you are eating.

Q: What’s your hidden talent?

A: I am perfectly transparent that I am completely talentless. Although I can throw together a serviceable meal from a barren cupboard and a half empty fridge.

Q: What would you like played at your funeral?

A: That is not something I have planned to do anytime yet. Ask me again in another 30 years’ time.

Q: Tell us something people don’t know about you?

A: I have always fancied a career in the diplomatic service. I like to think I might have the temperament for it but the proficiency in languages I certainly do not!

Q: What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

A: “You’re f***ing disgusting, you should be ashamed”, because I dared hold the hand of my boyfriend (now partner) in public. Honestly, some people need to get a grip.

Q: Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?

A: I have always loved Norwich. It has more-or-less everything you would want without it being too big or too busy. There is a great arts and entertainment scene here and more generally, the pace of life in East Anglia is pretty comfortable.

Q: What do you want to tell our readers about most?

A: I want to tell you all about the joy of volunteering with The Scouts (or any youth organisation for that matter). You do not need any particular skill just a willingness to be supportive in the life of a young person as they discover the world, and what part they want to play in it. Volunteering is good for you too! It’s fun, you will pick up new skills, feel good about giving back, and make friendships. Give it a go, head to scouts.org.uk

If you have a story, email gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow Twitter: @geewizzgee1 Instagram: @ginalong_geewizz

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