I found out about Happy to Chat benches from the BBC News. The idea behind them is to help tackle loneliness by encouraging strangers to talk to each other in a safe, neutral space, like a park. It’s as simple as ideas get really. Certain benches are marked out as Happy to Chat zones with signs or plaques and from there it’s up to passers-by to take a pew and talk to someone.
I was inspired by this because I sometimes feel lonely even though I have loads of friends. I even went through a phase of not wanting to go to the park on my own because it can be a very unfriendly environment. If I’m walking with my sister’s and neighbours’ dogs or even – occasionally – with friends, people will sometimes talk to me, which is great, but if I’m on my own I feel completely isolated as no one approaches me. That’s how London is – a lonely place where strangers just don’t chat to each other. It’s a city that’s all about money but money isn’t always everything and it can cause society to get atomized.
I feared things might get worse after the lockdowns if communal spaces like pubs, galleries, music venue, museums, community centres ended up going under. So, after the latest lockdown, I took matters into my own hands, and I started creating happy to talk benches. I did it in Primrose Hill, Chalcot Square, Primrose Garden and Hampstead Heath.
Another great loneliness-busting initiative is Happy to Talk badges, which I found out about the from the Time Out Website. Chris Zair came up with the idea of the badges to tackle the communal ‘silent treatment’ people get on the tube. This really inspired me.
Something else that has been helpful for me as someone with Autism is the Sunflower badges for people with hidden disabilities. They tell folks what your hidden disability is so they understand you better. I find my Sunflower badge really makes a difference when I am out and asking for product recommendations, especially film recommendations, or making small talk or asking directions.
Doodlepeople badges have also been useful for showing that you live with things such as anxiety, mental health, Autism and panic attacks. Since I started using them I’ve had fewer panic attacks, which has been helpful.
Still, the happy to chat bench is one of my favourite ideas and my ambition for the future is to create a happy to talk bench each week with different artists displaying their prints from their original work.