The itch to get involved

No stranger to civic duty, Simon Fanshawe often steps in to chair his local groups of activists. Here, he explains why, despite bouts of doubt and eczema, he just just can’t leave things to those in charge

There are moments when I wonder whether I am just a Lady Bountiful without a stately pile. Sometimes I think that, in a previous life, I must have been a duchess. Which makes me laugh and want to wear gloves. Indoors. I always seem to be on some committee or other. My friend Jonathan calls it “being busy”. And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. He thinks it’s interfering.
I do wonder why I do it. Sitting on boards, wearing hats, doing my bit. Chairing things such as the Economic Partnership in Brighton and Hove (now), War on Want (in the 1980s) or joining the Regional Arts Council (most recently). Maybe I am just a terrible, self-important busybody. Am I struck by middle-class guilt? Am I trying to satisfy a deep psychological weakness for needing to be useful and wanted?

Even in my lowest moments, I don’t think so. My mother used to make marmalade for the fete. That, she used to say, was the very least you should do. I agree with her. Then again, she used to win prizes for it. Sometimes, from what I like to think is a more radical version of the same, I get eczema from the frustration. I love it with the same passion and for the opposite reason that I hate the teenage phrase “whatever”.

No. Not whatever. Choose. “Whatever” implies that nothing matters. I think most things do.

When I was a community worker, I organised a branch of the disability income group. You might remember a time when men not children wore red Kickers. It was then. Disability benefits was not an issue that Margaret Thatcher’s government took terribly seriously. So this group of disabled people decided to set up an advice service themselves. However, for most of them, middle aged and quite lonely, it was more a social thing than a rights thing.

To begin with, the hottest topic of meetings wasn’t the latest legislation. It was the sandwiches. The kind of bread, type and range of fillings, quantity. Would Rose be there for the next meeting? What about Jack? (Shall we look at the rights handbook now?) Let’s make enough for eight then and Deidre can always take what’s left over for her grandchildren. (Do you think we have a problem with benefit take-up in Hove?) Well, you can take some too Janet, if you like. Deidre doesn’t need them all.

It was interminable in the charming way that dotty aunts are fun for only an hour or so. After the bread, out came the pills. Stacks of them on the table in front of each committee member, a not too subtle bid in the not yet Olympic sport of competitive disability. I am more deserving than you, say the tablets. “Did you see Jack the other day? He was walking. And he claims mobility allowance, you know.”

Gradually, slowly, the sandwiches and the medicinal rivalry gave way to advice and advocacy. The group grew and prospered for a few years and, like these brief flares of activity often do, it then faded. But the people in the groups were changed. It’s silly, but it makes me dewy-eyed to remember meeting one of them 20 years later.

I was delivering the final bid for Brighton and Hove to win city status in 2000. (I chaired the campaign.) Standing on Westminster bridge, I was having my photo taken by the local media. Along the pavement wheeled one of the stalwarts of that disability income group.

She had been very ill 20 years before. She was still alive. Thriving, in fact. We talked briefly – both pleased but also a little embarrassed – and we both said how much knowing each other had meant to us. She had always inspired me. And, it turned out, I had given her some energy to believe that she should make a cause of her disability for others.

There are millions of these stories -and I cry at the puppy in the Andrex ads, so none of us should set any store by my moist eyes. But in the very act of engaging with her world, she had changed it. That moves me.

We have a contrary attitude to democracy in Britain. Deference and dependency seem to combine to make people think that things are better left to those in charge. They should do everything for us, including wipe grandad’s arse. But when we don’t like what they do, we shout as loud as we can and think they should listen to us. We think that is democracy. We venerate it while simultaneously regarding it with breathtaking apathy.

More than that, we believe democracy is just about voting so those entitled to have influence can only be those who are elected. Accusing fingers are jabbed at people like me as, with a sneer, they ask: ‘Who elected you?’

Well, no one really. With the Brighton and Hove city bid, I voted with my feet, offered my time and got stuck in. But I was regarded with suspicion by some of those who had been “elected” – even if it was by only three people and a dog on a wet Wednesday last August.

Councillors have this bug even worse. One of them once hurled this accusation at me just after he thought he had grabbed the moral high ground by going on an anti-war march in London. “The government should listen to us, the voice of the people,” he shouted. Then later that week he wondered sneeringly, “Who were we, the local Economic Partnership to challenge the decisions they, the elected councillors, had made about the local plan?” (We had made the modest suggestion that the council was daft to rule out on principle appropriate sites for possible development for housing and jobs just because they were north of our bypass in the green belt).

“Well,” I said (not without a touch of the smugness one always gets from scoring a good debating point), “it looks like in this case the tables are turned and you are the government and those of us protesting are the local version of the anti-war lot. Turns out I am representing the voice of the people and you are Tony Blair.” I didn’t care much about the point scoring, fun though it was. But I did care about the sites being ruled out and the voices I was representing.

Those are the times I get demoralised. The excitement comes from working for months to get people together (like we did for the city bid to tell the current story of Brighton and Hove); to find a narrative that people can share about where they live; to promote it to bits for the good of the city. That is more than satisfying.

The bits that get me down are the doubting of motives; the pouring scorn on the time local people and businesses spend involving themselves in discussions only to be accused by politicians and others that they are just self-interested and unaccountable. These people wade through rainforests of documents to try to participate in important decisions, and they should be praised for it. To involve yourself in civic life locally, regionally or nationally is to bathe deep in a swamp of jargon in the depths of acronym hell.

Last year, some Dalek-sounding official sent me a paper incomprehensively informing us all that “the floor targets are flowing from the problem trees” – at least I am still laughing.

But then I showed a bunch of public servants from a regional quango the allotments in Brighton that are a possible site for development. I said as a joke that before that would be possible the council would have to adopt a policy of “staggered de-allotmentisation”. The phrase subsequently appeared in an official report – I stopped laughing and nearly resigned.

Civic life, wearing hats and being the duchess can be frustrating at times. At others, though, it is intensely moving and inspiring. People’s engagement beyond elections is the stuff of democracy. Voting is merely the event. Participation though is a love affair with change and improvement. I guess I am in love with making the marmalade.

· Simon Fanshawe is a writer and broadcaster. The Done Thing – Negotiating the Minefield of Modern Manners is published by Random House tomorrow (price £9.99).

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