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.