Spirit of Community

We need ‘Spirit of the Community’ to spur some idle cynics like me into action

Of all the scouring events of my childhood few left as deep a mark as the tragedy of the duck shed. It happened that my brother Leo and I were staying on the farm, and we saw that after six or seven artificial hips, my grandfather was not rugby-tackling the lambs with his old abandon.

We wanted to do something to help. We were determined to do a good deed. So I had a brilliant idea.

Not far off was a duck shed, dark inside as the belly of a whale: a sinister place of flashing eyes, bitter cackling and an angry ammoniac smell. “I know what,” I said to Leo: “Let’s be useful. Let’s brighten his day.

Let’s clear it out.” All day long we toiled, shirts over our noses, and as we scooped it was obvious that this was the first time in 25 years that the shed had been cleaned. Whole dynasties of ducks had preened in this litter and preening was not all they had done.

We were digging down through layers of duck history, and as we started to appreciate the Augean scale of the task we went into a kind of frenzy, shovelling and chucking all afternoon until the straw and dung and the long-forgotten corpses of ducklings flew over our heads in a blur. At last it was done.

Around the shed was a kind of Somme of damp duck litter, winking and glistening in the sun. Inside, it was transformed: it was as antiseptically clean as a Swedish urinal and the ducks walked in morose bafflement around their holystoned and unfamiliar quarters.

As we looked at our handiwork we felt that glow, that unmistakeable feeling of satisfaction that we had done a good deed. Without being asked, on our own initiative, we had done something for someone else, and now it was time to break the good news to the beneficiary.

Bashfully and with much knotting of the fingers we invited our grandfather to inspect the miracle. He looked. Pssht, pssht, pssht went his pipe. That’s terrific, he said, with a cheerful smile.

But really, he said, the ideal place for all that duck litter was – “Where?” we said, hands reaching for our shovels – well, back in the shed. We went to bed exhausted, and the following day we spent in fulfilment of his instructions.

They say that volunteering is all about putting back a little of what you have taken out. All I can say is that we put it back all right. We put every crumb of that ordure back into the shed and to this day my brother and I cannot pass the place without crossing ourselves or making some small gesture to ward off malignant fate.

Of course we didn’t mind the wasted exertion; not in the least. It was the embarrassment, the silliness, the sense of having done a good turn that turned out not to be any good. And it was that searing experience that has, I think, ensured that I have never again been one of life’s volunteers, never spent Christmas wielding a ladle in a Soho soup kitchen, never clipped the toenails of bedridden centenarians.

After the tragedy of the duck shed, I never joined the Scouts and no one on the verge of taking their own life has been so unfortunate as to find me on the other end of the Samaritans helpline.

As one of the world’s leading non-volunteers, I can only say that I watch the sacrifices of others with dumb awe. Any MP knows that this country is blessed with men and women who think it a day wasted if they have not given blood or spent an hour at the station rattling a tin for the blind.

There are millions of people who are figuratively clearing out other people’s duck sheds, out of the goodness of their hearts, and these words are not addressed to them but to people a bit like me, or who have children a bit like me.

We all know that volunteering is important: we can all see that it is good for our souls, and that it is wonderful for society, inspiring and reinforcing feelings of mutuality and reciprocity. But where do we begin? How does one set about the potentially embarrassing business of doing a good deed?

If you study the university admissions form, there is a frighteningly large space in which the applicant is invited to give an account of the high spots of his or her career in voluntary or community work. Hands up all those who have looked at this section with a sinking heart, and supplied an answer that was more or less fictitious. Thank you. I thought so.

All politicians now preach the gospel of volunteering. Gordon Brown has called for a “modern national community service”, in which volunteering will be oxymoronically funded by the state, and in which legions of lads and lasses will presumably fan out across Britain singing socialist shanties and building dykes and levees against the coming inundations of global warming.

Of course, the Chancellor’s wheeze was a rip-off of David Cameron’s suggestion that young people should all spend three or four months doing something, together, for the benefit of the community, but everyone at the top of British politics is now talking about volunteering, because they worry that we are all far more atomised and don’t-care-ish than we used to be.

Politicians are waking up to the idea that if young people get the habit of thinking of others, then they are likely to maintain that virtue by sheer practice. Everybody can see that the state is not capable of creating this spirit alone: and that is why the Editor of this newspaper is so right – while politicians debate – to act.

“Spirit of the Community” is a scheme to reward anyone, aged 10 to 18, who shows enterprise and initiative in volunteering. People will say that it is illogical to give prizes for volunteering: that the deed is reward enough.

The sad truth is that there are far too many idle cynics out there, people like me who worry about looking foolish if they try to do good. That is why it is no bad thing to try to reawaken an instinct that has been dormant in the population for a generation.

The more I think of that £5,000 top prize, the more tempted I am retrospectively to enter my brother and myself for clearing out that old duck shed. OK, it turned out to be a complete waste of time, but think how much pleasure we gave our grandfather, how much subtle and exquisite pleasure, when he was able to tell us to shovel the whole lot back in again. That’s the point of volunteering: it was mainly about us but it was also about him.

20 thoughts on “Spirit of Community”

  1. Bit whimsical for an MP isn’t it?

    I thought being an MP was ‘volunteering’ in a sense; it’s a popular rhetorical formula that: “Only the people who shouldn’t be in politics volunteer to be MPs”

    I mean it’s not like jury service where a dodgy little envelope leaps out of all the junk mail informing you that you’d better get your fat ass down to the local beak’s place and explain what this 24 hour bubonic plague is all about.

    I remember when a friend of mine (a cardio-thoracic surgeon) and I were in a car heading down a main road when suddenly he slammed the brakes on and did a U-turn because he’d just spotted a road accident up ahead.

    He explained that, as a qualified doctor, he was supposed to stop and render assistance (even though there was an ambulance already there) The problem was, he’d got no equipment with him (apart from a tyre iron) so there wasn’t much he could do and if anything went wrong he’d get his ring-piece torn out by subsequent malpractice claims. I should add that this was during those unpleasant days when most ambulances were more or less mobile (duck) sheds and rarely had oxygen let alone surgical equipment.

    Anyway, his perspective was based on the inescapable fact that volunteering for anything of this ilk was potentially more dangerous to his future career than performing a heart transplant with a sharpened teaspoon and an axe would be now.

    I don’t mind giving my time to other people gratis, as it were, but I prefer it to be in a field I understand and am (I hope) good at.

    Like Boris, if I did a stint on the Samaritans it would look like a PR stunt for Exit. Even people who’d got wrong numbers would end up topping themselves. “…You think YOU’VE got problems, you snivelling twerp!! (etc.)”

    I’m lousy with children, I told the trouble&strife I didn’t even want to know their names (our kids) until they could fish, so that sort of stuff is out. (she took it pretty well though)

    So all that’s left is probably litter collecting/urban reclamation (or whatever it’s called) and I think that’s better spent on punitive sentences.

    Say, how about being an MP?

  2. I am all for doing something for “the community”, but because the word has different connotations for different people, we now have the perversity of never quite knowing, if we should do something; for which part of which community would we be doing that something.

    If we mean by community, that oneness of a whole neighbourhood, then it doesn’t really matter, since whatever we did would presumably be of benefit to everyone, ( in other words ; the community at large) .

    The trouble, and it really is increasingly becoming ‘ trouble’, is that when the word community is used, by those belonging to each diverse group with different beliefs, or skin tone, or even racial background, particularly in inner city contexts, each member of each group regards him or herself as part of a specialised separate community. The community at large is either taken into account as a mere secondary consideration, or is not taken into account at all.

    If it could be ensured that the word were used, as the Government and others are using it now, to mean the general public, and get all people of whichever ‘minor’ community to join in that ‘greater’ community,but still leaving the smaller communities intact within the larger community, it would make things so much easier to understand.

    We are in danger of highlighting the minor differences, rather that the major similarities of people living in a community, and as a result we are being ‘nannied’ into doing what was once, even in my lifetime, the norm.

    In order to engender general respect for your neighbour, there has to be public discipline, above all self discipline, and no amount of Brownist Presbyterian preaching is going to help in that area.
    If everyone , regardless of so called “community” had , at an early age, been exposed to a period of compulsory lessons in British Citizenship,( with no one excused), there would probably be better overall understanding of all viewpoints, and we might not need to invent new little wheezes to inveigle little Tommy or Indira into wanting to be part of the real community of equal human beings: they would already feel that they were part of it..

  3. I’m writing this while at my volunteer position. I’m really quite shocked that Boris hasn’t volunteered at all. Hard to imagine a politician who’s never demonstrated a willingness to work for the good of the community unless paid. Doesn’t look good. What ever happened to noblesse oblige, ferchrissakes?

    Volunteering has several practical benefits. For the volunteer, it can provide work experience, connections, and access to learning and technology. I started working here because a friend of mine was working here and she suggested if I put in a couple of hours, they’d let me use the computers to check my email. That was several months, several press releases, and several grant applications ago. I’d never done grant applications before, and there’s money in it, so it’s been great training for me. As well, writing has lots of downtime when you stare at your unsold manuscripts and bang your head against the wall…this at least gets me out of the house, and I’m far too shy to bang my head on other people’s walls.

    For the organizations, of course, they get stuff done for free. Can’t beat that with a stick. On the other hand, the damn volunteers spend all their time online!

  4. “Volunteering” 21st century style bothers me deeply. It has become an industry, even to the extent of having a section of its own in the Guardian’s risible job-ads supplement.

    What used to be called neighbourliness, helpfulness and consideration, is now a branded commodity which also has to be heavily insured, subject to police checks and, of course, approved by elf and sayftee.

    No wonder volunteers are increasingly hard to find.

  5. Re my last, it didn’t take long to find this (Southampton Voluntary Services). Copy & paste…

    Multi-Agency Strategic Groups that SVS represents the sector on:
    Adult Protection Committee
    Balance of Care Project Board
    Black & Minority Ethnic Communities Group
    Carers Strategy Group
    Change Up Steering Group
    Children and Young Peoples Strategic Partnership
    Children’s & Young Peoples Voluntary Organisations Alliance
    Children’s Fund Partnership Board
    Common Assessment Framework Steering Group
    Connexions Voluntary Sector Steering Group
    Common Assessment Framework Strategic Group
    Compact Steering Group
    Domestic Violence Forum
    Drug & Alcohol Referral Group
    Drug and Alcohol Action Team
    Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships
    EYDCP working group: Consultation and Information
    FIS – Focused Implementation Site Steering Group
    Global Grants Advisory Committee Meeting
    H20, Salvation Army Advisory Group
    Health & Wellbeing Partnership Board
    Health & Wellbeing Action Group
    Hidden Targets Group
    Homeless Strategy Steering Group
    Housing Partnerships
    Later Years Partnership
    Local Implementation Team
    Mental Health Local Implementation Group
    New Communities Strategic Group
    New Communities Strategic Group
    Parenting and Family Support Strategy Development Group
    Patient Experience Business Modernisation Team
    Physical Disability Strategy Group
    Public Health Network
    Regeneration Executive
    Safe City Partnership
    Salvation Army Closure Decant Group
    Social Enterprise Network
    Society of St. James Drug Outreach Steering Group
    Southampton City Council Accommodation Forum
    Southampton Community legal services partnership
    Southampton European Network
    Southampton Partnership
    Street Homeless Prevention Steering Group
    Substance Misuse Action Group
    Supported Housing Forum
    Sure Start Boards
    Sure Start Reference group
    Teenage Pregnancy Board
    Thornhill & You Youth Advisory Group
    University of Southampton – Higher Education Active Community Fund Steering Group
    Value Improvement Project – Supporting People
    Voluntary, Independent and Private Social Care Training Forum
    Widening Adult Participation (Wapaf) Steering Group

  6. At least I feed the birds.

    The icy winter is the time when their metabolism is using the most energy, and when food is hardest to find. So out go food scraps and bread. I have even acquired a feeding contraption with perches all around it.

    The birds have taken note. They have become more numerous. Every morning, they are sat outside the kitchen window. And if I show signs of neglecting my duties to them, they will attract my attention. Or at least, the robin will. This bold creature will even enter the house if I leave the door open.

    But I wonder if perhaps I have induced among them a dependency upon me, and that they will no longer industriously burrow for worms and insects, but simply queue patiently outside my window for their next free lunch.

    Accordingly, I am inclined to think that my charity will end with the winter. When spring comes, they will have to stand on their own two feet. I am not a fixture in this garden like the old oak tree, dispensing bread instead of acorns. One day, I will be gone, and the birds will be left to their own devices. They should therefore be kept on their toes. Or claws.

  7. Paul, I notice a lot of those volunteer opportunities are really nothing more than opportunities to sit around and windbag with other, likeminded bores. In that sense, offering these “strategy groups” etc is a real public service, as otherwise those people would annoy perfectly innocent bystanders, grabbing them on the bus to pontificate about their scheme to elevate the souls of the young by teaching Fair Isle knitting to juvenile offenders.

    When I used to work for Greenpeace, we were always getting requests from people to turn out for various public demonstrations. The groups varied, the official point of the demonstrations varied, but in fact we eventually found out many of them were organized by the government, to essentially let the lefties blow off some steam without actually changing anything. I always say that resistance is the opposite of action. As long as people had a place to go and a placard to carry, they could feel smug about their part in changing the world. That they never actually had an effect doesn’t seem to have bothered them.

    Perhaps these committees are much the same kind of thing, only for suit monkeys rather than Sandalistas?

  8. I do a bit trying to encourage young folk from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds to think about going to university, not I hope in a PC manner but because I think talent denied an expression is a terrible waste. I am an elitist because I want people to have the best education that suits them.

    The people I take my hat off to are the oft derided Salvation Army. I read how they showed up without any fuss on the day of the London bombings to dispense tea and sandwiches to casualties and rescue workers in a still potentially dangerous situation. No message was pushed except the passive one of seeing Christian charity in action. I speak as an atheist.

  9. Well said Mr. Ramsey.

    Whilst I loathe and despise all manifestations of theist (and a few deist) belief systems and have often (prior to the religious hatred act) uttered the battle cry: “You show me a vicar and I’ll show you a broken nose!” The Sally Army are almost unique, in my experience, in practising what they preach.

    In the unlikely event that I accidentally achieve total world domination I would (probably) give them a certificate of exemption as long as I was allowed to carry on playing the Tuba at Christmas.

  10. Jack, couldn’t agree more about the Sally Army. They’re prepared to get their hands dirty. I wonder how many in the list above have dirtied their hands beyond the finger buffet in Committee Room 3.

    Good point about harmless activities, Raincoaster. What bugs me is that so much of it takes place at taxpayers’ expense these days – and not just in the voluntary sector. I don’t want to discourage these people; I’m simply lamenting how the noble qualities of charity and compassion have become yet another state-funded commodity, complete with mission statements and logos.

    Joe – you’ll never achieve total world domination. God won’t let you.

  11. Thanks Paul, that’s a tremendous relief.

    By the way, if you’re on good terms with God, could you ask him to get all his adherents on Earth to stop being such dickheads?

  12. Tuh!

    When he’s finished working his way though Vaughan-Williams, I’d also be interested to know why he, allegedly, wants all this money sent to various post-office boxes. Whenever I’m in the States I seem to be inundated (no allusion to floods) with exhortations that God is short of a few bob and desperately needs me to cough up!

    Tuba lessons getting a bit steep?

  13. I like what Bono said: the God I believe in isn’t short of cash.

    Did you all hear about the time Oral Roberts told his flock (there were a LOT of sheep in that flock) that unless he could raise several million dollars, God had told him he’d die. Well, if I were a devout Christian, I’d probably be okay with the idea of dying and going to see God and all. I dunno what was in Oral Robert’s conscience, and will avoid making cheap puns for once in my life, but apparently neither he nor his flock believed that he was going to have a good experience in the afterlife, and they coughed up the substantial ransom. I suppose God went to Vegas with it?

  14. Joe, I fancy your PO box Christians have rather more to do with greedy self-styled evangalists and their gullible victims than with spirituality.

    Meant to say God was giving the lessons, not taking them. The price of tubas is the problem.

    A discussion for another time and place, methinks, if at all. Not exactly a new subject!

  15. Joe M:
    Whatv is with the tuba and theism? Tuba spelt backwards is abut; this meaans to adjoin, could it be that those playing the tuba in the Sall Ann are actually ” Nearer my God , to thee ?”

  16. Quite possibly, if you’re suggesting that you’re nearer to me than God who, as everyone knows, resides at:

    No 1,
    Farthest reaches of ecstatic imagination,
    FREI 777.

    I don’t mind a good tune but I try not to mix it with clinical insanity.

  17. Well, in the spirit of keeping our favourite pubs in business I’d like to direct all those interested in fighting the Government’s draconian smoking ban to this site:
    where a petition is available to download and take to your local. Please take the time to print one off and circulate amongst friends, colleagues and of course, your local pub/social club/cafe.

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