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.

Monday, 28 February 2011


I try to be a good person and am sometimes rather surprised to find that I lie rather freely, if only in my head. So here are a few recent ones that I want to get off my chest:

I took my own cup of tea in my own mug into the Eurotunnel terminal. It appears to be almost devoid of non-commercial bottom perches, so I sat on a high stool in a coffee shop mentally rehearsing a defiant speech about how I was drinking special tea because I have special dietary needs due to a rare medical complaint. I did not get to make the speech as noone gave a hoot what I was drinking and the ratio of staff to disgruntled travellers was about 1:300.

In Tescos I told the machine that I was using 3 of my own bags when it was actually only 2. It probably knew I was a wrong-un as it did "unexpected item in bagging area" 6 times and reported me to the supervisor for trying to buy a bottle of Riesling. (My 54 year old sister who is a real villain was recently reported for trying to buy a courgette.)

I told a woman that I couldn't help with the Community Seed Swap because I was cooking my mother Sunday lunch, but my partner is really cooking it as I wouldn't go within a mile of a raw loin of pork.

I wrote in an email to the organiser that I was looking forward to visiting her project which involves 4 changes and 4 types of public transport across London on a Saturday. I will probably like it when I am there though.

I am lying about the date when I wrote this as I started it sometime in late Feb but then got distracted, tucked it in draft, and have only just written the last two paras. My contemporary followers (numbers 1-5) will know the date is untrue but I am deceiving future generations. I have programmed this paragraph to self-destruct in one week's time.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Big Soc Dilemmas Part 2: Never too late?

My friend Paula and I have been doing the local Friends of the Earth newsletter this week, including one of our periodic attempts to update the mailing list. Despite never having met many of the people on the list, who are sometimes only linked to us by something very casual such as having once clicked on a cyberbutton, we are very reluctant to give up on any of them. There's always the chance that this issue will prompt them into popping into a meeting one first Tuesday of the month, and that they will turn out to be a green-caped superhero who will rescue us from niggling in our obscure suburban backwater and drag us onto the homepage of the Huffington Post.

Sometimes we suggest to Joanna, the membership secretary, that we should ask them all to a party and just see what happens. But Joanna has been in the group a lot longer than us and she shakes her head wisely as we call out the names. "Housebound", "Bonkers" and even "very likely to be deceased despite still paying subs by standing order" are common Joanna explanations for their non-availability for green duties. Other times we have a fleeting memory of them: "That was the French woman who left her gloves behind....the angry angler ...the woman that was obsessed with curing world hunger through growing a particular type of bean". Often, in my case, I have just grown attached to their name and can't bear the thought that I will never again run my eye down a list and see "Eloise Rear, Constancia Knatchbull, Arachne von Hoffschlot, Tristan Glitch".

Thus, though we fear in our heart of hearts that they will never come to join our little corner of the Big Soc., we very rarely strike them out. After all, perhaps they are Bigger than us and are busy at the UN or building a windfarm in the North Sea.

And occasionally miracles happen: Susan and Janine both came to join our soriety (for we are rather a female cell) following very many years as silent recipients. Susan proofreads our outpourings with ferocity as befits a retired English teacher: perhaps she couldn't stand their misplaced capital letters and acronyms any longer. Janine was no sooner out of her important job in the City than we had her in the nylon cow suit shaking hands with the Mayor to advertise the iniquities of genetically modified soya.

So I conclude that it's never too late to become a Big Soc-er. Sometimes just the fleeting memory or idea or name of yourself will be busy inspiring someone like me somewhere, but it's much better to come out and moo.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Jam and Jamiroquai

Last night my friend J announced that she is going to start up a branch (chapter?) of the Women's Institute and that we would all be receiving an invitation to join. She thinks a W.I. in our suburb would be fairly cool, though not quite up to the standard of urban W.I.'s such as "The Shoreditch Sisters" (average age 30) or "The Borough Belles". We are to meet upstairs in a pub, enjoy talks, bop about a bit, drink and go on outings.

J emphasised many times that it would be non-religious and "inclusive". She made a circular motion with both hands (or a semi-circular motion with each hand) everytime she said "inclusive". In our suburb "inclusive" means that women who don't have children will be invited, and, to show that she means this, J has already signed up a single lady called C who used to have a posh shoe shop on the High Street until she was forced online by a rent rise.

Two head honchos from the W.I. Middlesex Federation are coming on an inspection visit on Friday and will be taken to the pub. The Middlesex Federation are all, apparently, pretty advanced in years, which is not surprising as Middlesex was wiped from the map in 1974 and hadn't been awfully rural for quite a few decades before that. I imagine a plucky rump group have clung on somewhere around Pinner waiting for Heathrow to be laid down to arable again. The call from J must have been unexpected.

H, who works for a trade union, looked quite appalled throughout the discussion. She eventually asked J why she didn't just start a book club if she wanted to drink and chat. But J is pursuing her genetic destiny: her mother is President of the local W.I. in West Yorkshire and her grandmother also did the gig back in the 60s. J is nearly 40 and obviously feels she can't wait much longer to have a W.I.

As it happens I am not as not up on W.I. matters as I ought to be. My mother-in-law is a member in Wales and I have read her mags in the toilet. So I was able to put forward the suggestion that we would soon be stripping off and smearing ourselves in ketchup and lying down in the High Street to protest about domestic violence. J gave me a beady look. She does not expect me to be on the committee but I will be required to talk to my friend who runs the Farmers' Market and fix her up with a good pitch for when the jamming season commences.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Big Soc. Dilemmas Part 1: not standing up to be counted

Liverpool has chucked in the towel on being a Big Society pilot area: it is losing so much government money that it has had to slash its support to voluntary organisations, which it recognises is a terrible way to roll out a shiny new relationship. As a student of Big Soc. I have been delving into the renewed wave of media coverage that has appeared as a consequence and feel that it's time to grapple with some of the interesting questions that are being thrown up.

One comment on Nick Robinson's BBC website blog reveals a dilemma that many people must be struggling with: is there a way of opting out of being "in" if you don't agree that "we're all in this together"? Ie. is it still possible to engage in public-spirited activity without fear that you will be branded?

Some people are cleary just a bit confused about what counts as Big Soc. activity so are worried that they might be "in". Are you "in" if you are helping out with school quiz night again this year? Or if you buy some coffee from Oxfam? In the first case you may be at risk of appearing in official statistics once the full Big Soc. apparatus is up and running and attempting to proclaim success. In fact the Charity Commission already asks charities how many volunteers have been involved in their activities each year so if your PTA is a charity it will be very easy to count you although you will be just an anonymous digit. In the second case you are probably safe as the coffee is foreign.

But some people are much more exposed. My friend Seb has gone very Big indeed although I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to be counted: he has just resigned from being a Lib Dem local council candidate in a very public way because the Government wants to build a high speed train line through his village. Despite being landed with the rather unsexy title "Ex Great Missenden politician Seb Berry" in the Bucks Free Press, he is becoming a local Big Soc.- style icon (NB. different from a"style icon"). He has been made chair of the "250-strong Village Association" and is proposing to save the Great Missenden library by turning it into a Roald Dahl visitor attraction (it is the model for the libary where Matilda used to read Dickens and Hemingway whilst her mum was at bingo). I suggest he is in severe danger of being asked to be an official casestudy.

Then there's the old "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" syndrome. Many years ago I hung out with a group that was semi-squatting in a disused bus depot at Kings Cross that had been taken over for slightly nebulous artistic and environmental purposes. The woman who had organised the takeover of the building was a fearsome tactician. Her modus operandi was constantly to nominate anyone and everyone who was trying to build St Pancras International station (and thus evict her) for awards honouring their good work in supporting the local community. She knew they wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity of another photo with a gang of kids in the local paper. Many times they were thus embarrassed into putting off the eviction for another few months: I think they gave up in the end and waited till she moved to Devon. With the Big Society Awards launched just before Christmas 7 or 8 organisations appear to be at risk quarterly. If Big Soc. goes pear-shaped those awards may become millstones that ruin their reputation.

So I am quietly creeping next door to feed my neighbour's cats, although I think the fact that she reciprocally feeds the hamster is enough to ensure that it doesn't count.