A blog recording the thoughts of a mum of one who does a lot of voluntary work because it's more fun than resuming her career and is a bit worried about the state of the nation.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Lighting up

Every year there is a lighting up ceremony in the suburb where I live to celebrate the beginning of Christmas. The local town hall was merged into a bigger suburb many years ago but the building is still there with a patch of green in front of it and a couple of London plane trees. They get adorned with bluish fairy lights, and the dentists, who bought the town hall when it was deeemed too old-fashioned for council offices a couple of years ago, kindly allow the lights to be plugged into their supply. Luckily the lights don't get switched off as soon as they stop drilling at night.

This year we had a proper local celebrity to switch on: Dame Jacqueline Wilson, prolific author of kids' misery lit., who lives in another suburb nearby. After some carols from the Rotarians, Dame Jacqueline told us that she likes coming to our suburb because it has really nice shops, and wished us the Merry Christmas that is denied to so many of the children in her books (she didn't actually say that.)

Then we all set off to do the rounds, which, in my case, means being dragged by my daughter into all the shops that I don't normally go in because they look embarrassingly empty and sell pointless things like tiaras and candles with bits of orange peel in them. There was one shop that had raced to open that day and didn't even have a name yet but it seemed to sell nothing but Italian biscuits. We also visited the ex-bathroom shop that now sells wood-burning stoves, probably mainly to people like me that have "Country Living" aspirations.

The good part about it all is bumping into friends all round the circuit and having a free drink with them. The estate agents and hairdressers are particularly generous with the mulled wine and mince pies. The new independent self-employed persons' network, which is full of parents from the school, were also dishing out "Celebrations" and hot toddy. I suppose there is a sense of community here which is a lot better than nothing so I should be grateful for that and not be (overly!) cynical about life in an "urban village".

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Civil times

Another form of justifying not working to self is going on courses so today I went on a course called "Business planning for the voluntary sector", expecting to pick up some tips about setting out spreadsheets clearly and so on. But at least half the course was about the context we are in, sometimes called "the operating environment" ie. "What's going on and what will happen next?"

The first thing I learned is that "The Voluntary Sector" is now the last-but-one-name and that, if you failed to talk about "The Third Sector" during the last Government, you now have to bypass that name and talk about "Civil Society". Civil Society is not the same as the Big Society, because the Big Society is supposed to be everyone, not just those of us who are already volunteering who can be smug about having a special name because we are "in the vanguard" (as the Socialist Workers used to say).

People on Civil Society courses are very civil to one another, and drink a lot of tea with crooked little fingers, but they are not very civil about the current Government. Soon they may not even be civil to one another, because, as well as the competition for what's left of grant money, something called "the personalisation agenda" is introducing competition into the provision of services for those people who are still judged worthy of state help. Instead of being told to go to a particular day centre or to have meals on wheels, they will be given their own budget to spend on what they like. We've already seen headlines in the tabloids about the disabled man whose going to spend it on going to prostitutes, but until now it hadn't really sunk in that if they want to keep their organisations going the man from the disabled riding association will be going head to head with the lady from the music therapy trust in the battle for budgets. They were completely bemused.

Not all of this seems bad to me. I wish we'd been able to buy days with a chainsaw gang for my father-in-law instead of sending him to the dementia centre: he would have enjoyed it far more. This summer we went to a lovely children's farm in the Netherlands which was partly staffed by mentally handicapped people who spend their budgets there. In the environment sector we have already dipped our toes into the world of "meaningful daytime activities" by taking on people with mental health problems to help with outdoor conservation work. I don't think I'll be spending my budget at a day centre if I'm ever old and decrepit enought to get one: I'd much rather be on a horse or feeding the chickens.

But I wonder if this is all a big con. Civil Society may spend a lot of time drawing up its business plans with nice spreadsheets, and then find that hardly anyone who isn't ninety five and in a wheelchair with dementia actually still has a budget. At that point organisations will have to close down because their clients are not quite old, disabled or distressed enough. Then the level of incivility towards the Government will go through the roof.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The school reunion

Last weekend I went to a secondary school reunion. I went to a girls' school so it was sixty or so women drinking white wine in the staff dining room and doing a lot of screaming and admiring of how little we had all changed. There was a buffet with salad and some very chocolatey puddings and a lot of old photos on display.

A few things struck me. At the last reunion I went to (after 10 years) it was the actresses and those who had travelled that we admired: they tended to be the ones who had done arty subjects. Now it is the scientists that have come through. I am so proud to have been at school with women who 1. Arrange all the smear tests and mammograms for people in Nottinghamshire; 2. Run their own GP practices 3. Are Government Advisor on how to save what's left of marine life round Britain's coastlines.

The divorces. I know lots of people get divorced nowadays but at least half of those who had ever been married had also been divorced at least once. I suppose I used to think it was people who married very young who had to give it a second try, but these women married in their late 20s and early 30s. Does going to an all-girls school make you bad at choosing men!?

The genuine desire to keep in touch this time round. "Ten years is too long to wait" we all wailed as the school caretaker came to turn the lights out at 11.30pm. There has been much emailing and there will be a picnic next summer. Inevitably, there is now a Facebook group which is filling up with photos of women and their daughters - "Look at her Lolita-esque eye make-up: what shall I doooooo? She's not like we were!"