Last month I was cleaning at Swanpool, one of my local beaches in town, when a lady came up to talk to me. (An extraordinary event, as strangers NEVER talk to me when I’m cleaning, but on that day I was wearing a Hi-V vest.)
In the course of our short conversation I mentioned that the beaches only get cleaned by the local council during the summer season. “Oh,” she said, “so it’s up to volunteers.”
This gave me a lot to think about. Firstly because my initial reaction was, “I’m not a volunteer!” Not that I have anything against volunteers – in fact I have spent much of my adult life involved in volunteering in one way or another. But when I walk out the door to go clean a beach, I do it off my own bat, when and if and how I choose. There is no charitable organisation involved, no risk assessment, no volunteer application form to fill out, no set date or time. I just do it.
So no, I am not a volunteer. But isn’t it interesting that this kind lady who stopped to talk to me should think like that? We live in an age of fear in which we are actively discouraged from doing, or even thinking, for ourselves. The coffee cup warns us that the contents might be hot. The tin of pencils advises that we wear overalls when engaging in craft activities. Health and Safety fears regularly put paid to traditional events and activities that might involve accidents. Children no longer know how to play hopscotch and other street games. They don’t even go to the park by themselves any more.
A week or so later, in that way that things appear when you need them, I found a book in the college library that perfectly articulated my rather fuzzy line of thought. In “Making is Connecting” (2011, Polity Press) sociologist David Gauntlett (yes, I know!) describes what he calls the “Sit Back and Be Told” culture in which we live: Education is a process of teachers imparting knowledge to students; leisure time is dominated by the act of watching TV, and consumer culture provides us with a steady stream of desirable goods that help us to forget our troubles – at least for a while.
In response to this pleasant but passive way of life is a movement towards a “Making and Doing” culture: you find this when farmers make land available for allotments, in Stitch and Bitch groups, in online communities for just about every enthusiasm you can think of, in Facebook and YouTube: people making and doing and sharing and, in the process, creating not just community but a different way of looking at the world and our place in it. A way of being that we create ourselves and that has radical social, cultural and even political implications, as we have seen in the Occupy movement.
So people who choose to pick up other people’s rubbish in a public place – a beach, a park or the street – are breaking the rules. That rubbish is supposed to be picked up by someone paid by the council to do so – someone in a Hi-V vest (there it is again!) and big boots and protective gloves and one of those handy picker-upper things to get the rubbish into the black bin liner that they are carrying. Not by some crazy lady with a shopping bag. Which is why, when I’m out on the beach in my usual clothes doing my stuff, I might just as well be invisible. And when I’m wearing a Hi-V vest I become official, part of something, a “volunteer” maybe. And not just one, but two kind ladies come up and talk to me about what I’m doing.
But you know what? We’re doing it anyway. We’re out there doing, and making, and sharing about it online, and creating a global community of people who don’t accept the idea of “Sit Back and Be Told,” who prefer to live in a “Making and Doing” world. It could be growing your own veg, or knitting a sweater rather than buying one. It could be the kids out on the street in front of my house playing football on the first day of the holidays. Or a group of friends taking the ferry to make rubbish kebabs on the beach. Or camping out on the street to protest the banking system rather than camping out at the mall to make the sales. With or without our Hi-V’s. And some of us still remember how to play hopscotch.
Rogues, Scallywags, Rule-breakers. Poets, artists, and dreamers. Stand up and be proud! You are creating, not the future (because the future doesn’t exist but that’s the subject of another post,) but the present. A present in which we take back our power to create our world through our own actions, however modest. I am proud to count myself amongst your number.