I Have Seen the Big Society and It Works!

On Wednesday 2 November 2011 there will be a conference in Central London exploring the theme Children, Churches and the Big Society. One of the intentions of the day is that those present might attempt to describe what they understand the Big Society to be, and to find ways of conveying that message to church and nation.I am aware that there are a range of misgivings about the very term ‘Big Society’. Is it a fig leaf that is being used to cover up some of the naked realities of budget cuts and their effects on the poor? How can we get to grips with both a ‘Broken Britain’ and a ‘Big Society’ at one and the same time? Is it anything new? Is there any substance to the idea? Will it join the collection of failed slogans so beloved by British Prime Ministers? (‘Back to Basics’ comes to mind immediately.)

Despite all this, let me share with you an incident that happened at Mill Grove a few days ago that seems to me to epitomise what the Big Society is all about. Perhaps it will inspire readers to do the same. Not that we will end up with clones of this particular event, but that we might see the diversity of ways in which such a society might be represented.

It was Thursday lunch time and, as we have done for over forty years, we were having lunch together with our neighbours and friends. You couldn’t call it a club, for it has no constitution and wasn’t ever planned. It just happened when an elderly widower who lived opposite our back gate joined us for several meals each week. A year or two later he took it upon himself to invite another widower to join us for lunch on a Thursday, and the rest is history. Between twelve and twenty of us sit down for a traditional English meal, followed by a relaxed chat over a cup of tea in the lounge.

Somewhere between the first course (chicken and a whole range of vegetables, I seem to recall) and dessert (home-grown pears and custard, trifle and ice-cream) we had a visitor. He walked in through the back door, across the kitchen and into the dining room, and made a beeline for our table. Let’s call him Carl. With a huge smile on his face he announced that he had come to say “Hallo”. And for one or two of us whom he knew particularly well, there was also an enthusiastic hug. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his presence lit up the room.

Accompanying him, and making sure that he was safe, was a young person who many years ago had come to live at Mill Grove when her family situation deteriorated to the point where an alternative had to be found. She was now one of those helping young Carl, and usually accompanied him on his Thursday visit.

Carl has cerebral palsy, and he attends a special facility at Mill Grove called the Rose Walton Centre. His companion on this occasion was one of the staff at the Centre. It started nineteen years ago and has rooms just down the passage from the dining room where we were having our Thursday meal.

It wasn’t a lengthy visit: Carl was on his way before we had even had time to discuss his beloved football team. But after he and his carer had left, the diners shared with each other how we felt. One of those present, who is from a country in West Africa, said that Carl’s greeting and smile had been the most special moment in her week. Formerly a senior politician she feels rather lonely at times, and still hasn’t found out how best to use her experience and knowledge. This young man brought joy to her heart, and this found an echo in the way others described Carl’s presence.

And that’s it.

Perhaps you are thinking that this has little if anything to do with what a Big Society (of any description) might look like. After all, I have been recounting an incident that involved no more than a handful of people and that lasted no more than a couple of minutes. What on earth has that got to do with a neighbourhood, let alone a town or city?

Just this: Mill Grove is a residential community that has been around in the same neighbourhood for 110 years. Those who had gathered for lunch were mostly from the locality. A few others had come from farther afield as children who needed care, and for whom Mill Grove functioned as their family and community. So here was a microcosm of society. Into this group walked (without introductions or formality) two young people. One was attending a special school: the other was working at the school. Both had come to Mill Grove because they had needs that could not be met in their own families or mainstream schools.

The age gap between the youngest and the oldest in the room was well over 80 years, and people had their roots all over the UK (and way beyond). There was no formal arrangement; there was no plan; no contract. It was a spontaneous act: Carl simply loves to come and wish others well, and to see such a warm reaction to his infectious smile.

Many before me (including as it happens, William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot) have reflected on what it is that makes a village or community. One element often identified is informal personal interaction that cuts across ordinary categories (like age, ethnicity, profession, gender, and status). A Big Society will be made up of countless types of individuals, and virtually endless combinations of relationships. But, and this is the vital point, such a society cannot be planned and ordered like a so-called Garden City or New Town. It must find a way of creating and nurturing space – physical and emotional – in which people can relate to each other spontaneously. And a key element of such relationships is that they are reciprocal.

There are thousands of lunch clubs in the UK; there are hundreds of special schools; and there are thousands of foster carers and hundreds of children’s homes. But how do you find a way of connecting those who belong to each of them?

This is where a place and community like Mill Grove comes into its own. That is its very nature, its métier, if you like. Such places come in all shapes and sizes, and no doubt have any number of different names or labels. But what they have in common is an understanding that there must always be opportunities for the giving and receiving of love. (I sometimes refer to it as a philosophy of “nooks and crannies”.)

And as a matter of fact the whole incident cost nothing.

I have travelled widely and seen some of the more famous attempts to shape human societies around the world. I recall the time when a friend mused with me as we walked the streets of Moscow, about who the great city was built for. Certainly not for people, we agreed.

There are numerous examples in history of rulers who have sought to create big societies in their own images. What I understand by ‘Big Society’ is something very different. It is, to use Jonathan Sacks’s felicitous phrase, the home that we build together. And I’m not so sure that we even know we are doing it. But when it happens, we can recognise something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

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