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Forget splashing out at Christmas on gifts easily forgotten. Instead, opt for an experience at a real school of life.

Ah Christmas. That time of year where rational thought flies out the window and we clamber in our droves to spend what we don’t have in brightly lit shopping centres flaunting shiny things we can’t really afford

’Christmas is a time for giving’ so the saying goes, but for many, this year more than ever, it’s going to be a time for keeping a tight grip on the purse strings.

Besides, as the country continues to scrutinise capitalism’s effects ever more closely, spending a week’s salary on an Xmas gift for a loved one may seem, well, a tad vulgar. So what can you do without looking like a Scrooge?

“Instead of splurging, which isn’t something anyone wants to do, why not offer an experience?“ suggests Katie Harris, who set up The Amazings three months ago.

Although it may sound slightly red letter day-esque, it’s a world away from whizzing a supercar around a circuit and paying £200 for the privilege.

Based in Hackney, east London, the company offers classes run by mainly retired Londoners who teach the practical skills they have learned during their lives.

Activities include spending a day foraging at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park; a cookery lesson with a chef who has worked around the world in top hotels; learning how to play the steel pan; making your own medicine; joining a Tai Chi class; and taking part in a street photography workshop.

“We realised the solutions for the ageing population were typically doing things for them like the daycare centre, meals on wheels, carers,“ Harris, 27, says.

“But the majority of older people we met are able-bodied, passionate and are skilled. They are willing to give their time and skills back to the public, but it wasn’t easy to do.

“There are ways, such as volunteering, but it can leave people out of pocket. And we didn’t want our Amazings to feel as though they were giving something to the community and not getting something back in return.“

Instead, the company sells classes with their skilled tutors for between £5 and £30, of which, The Amazings take home 70 per cent. So who are these Amazings? And how does Harris find them?

The company’s promotional staff don sandwich-board signs and scour the streets of Hackney, looking for people with outstanding skills. The would-be teachers are then ’vetted’, to make sure they not only know their stuff, but that they are also personable – the type of people you’d want to spend a few hours with. It’s essential the classes are positive, worthwhile and upbeat, rather than stuffy and dull.

Those two words would never be used to describe Jimmy McLennan – who was approached by The Amazings while on his way to Tesco to do a weekly shop.

The 60-year-old retired chef has prepared food for Clarence House and the Queen Mother, catered for the Henley Regatta and worked as a chef for Hilton Hotels across the globe. “I started in the Strand Palace in London in 1969,” he explains in a Scottish-Canadian drawl.

“I moved from there to the Hilton Park Lane and for 14 strenuous years worked around the world for them.”

So how does the Hackney Community College compare to Miami or Japan? “It’s great because it’s a proper training college. The hard part of taking this class is scaling down the dishes for six people – I’m used to catering for thousands,” McLennan laughs.

In a two-hour session (costing £25 – who needs to fork out hundreds for a masterclass with a celeb chef?), participants learn how to prepare three dishes (last week was pumpkin and sweet potato spicy soup; pan-fried sea bream with oriental vegetables; and stuffed Portobello mushrooms with goats’ cheese).

All the ingredients are included in the price of the class, as is a well-earned glass of wine as you polish off your creation at the end of the session.

“I source all the food – that’s the part I love; going to all the markets. You can buy anything in London now,“ McLennan, 60, adds. “During the class, I put people at ease as quickly as possible. Some work quickly and some work slowly – it’s not timed. Then they can decide whether to take their food home or to sit and eat it with the group.“

For The Amazings’ Andrew Pegram, a working artist who leads the street photography class, using older tutors is relevant because of the skills they can share – but he admits it’s still nerve-wracking.

“It’s not just that I have the experience to teach what I do with a certain amount of self-assurance, I also have the maturity to do it,“ the 60-year-old says. “But it’s still quite scary, starting something new like this and meeting people.“

For Pegram’s class, you’ll need preferably a digital camera and £20 for three hours of his expertise as you wander the streets of Hackney, learning how to capture a masterpiece.

The group explores the gritty streets, with Pegram explaining the subjects to look for and how to snap the perfect shot.

Preparing his 15th exhibition this year, the former interior designer takes inspiration from Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, and encourages capturing moments instead of structures.

“It’s about the unexpected. Finding people in unusual circumstances and catching it,“ he says. “We see unusual aspects of life all the time, but it’s catching that really unusual moment and preserving it forever. I’m trying to catch that unusual happenstance.“

Perhaps less unusual and more practical is The Amazings hair-styling class run by Michael Cimino.

He’s as colourful and flamboyant as you would expect a hairdresser with more than 15 years’ experience to be. He’s worked in first-class salons, styled A-list locks and is one of the clippers behind Toppers of Hackney.

Billed as “the answer to your hair envy nightmares“,  Quick Up Dos With Michael does what it says on the tin.

For £15, guests will receive an hour-long class, four style ideas and a glass of wine. “It’s perfect for the party season, when you’re going out straight from work and don’t have a lot of time,“ says Cimino, who refuses to reveal his age.

"The Amazings is of its time; people don’t quite know what’s going on with the economy at the moment. And there’s a huge backlash to all things vintage,“ he adds.

“I think it’s a brilliant concept for people to be able to show their skills.“

Although The Amazings is only three months old, it’s already gaining momentum and support. Founder Harris says she has plans to expand nationally, should the growth continue. But she is keen to point out that although The Amazings is about supporting the community, it’s ultimately a business, with a desire to expand and make money.

“When you buy an Amazings experience, it’s like doing something ... I don’t want to say nice, because that makes us sound like a charity, and we’re not, it’s interesting things – it’s a real experience,“ she says.

And as keeping it real is what this Christmas will be about for many, enrolling in this school of life might be just what the budget ordered – try it, you might just learn something. ❚

For more info visit www.theamazings.org


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