The dreaded C word.

There is a word I hear all the time that makes my flesh crawl, it’s misused, misunderstood and whenever it appears in a conversation it has the same effect as spotting a turd floating in a swimming pool. Ok, brace yourself, here it is…. It’s… Community! Oh, sorry! Were you expecting something else? 

I wrote last year a little about the notions of community but different aspects and assumptions keep seeming to pop up around it. Some of the things I am going to touch upon might not make much sense at first but please bear with me as I will get there eventually.

Did you know that you are effectively balancing a small car on your head right now? That is roughly the weight of the column of air in the atmosphere above you at any given moment. You can’t see it, you can’t feel it but you live in it all the time, mostly unaware of its continual presence even to the point that we forget we are breathing it in as it is what’s called an autonomic response, that is something that our body does without us really thinking about it. As human beings we take so much for granted, the language we communicate in, and even think in, effects the way we perceive the world as does our place in the social structure, our education, our cultural background, our financial status, how we are treated and how we were treated as children makes us see things in a certain way. We take so much of this perception for granted, like that weight of air above our heads that we don’t see and it is the cause for so much misery and misunderstanding whether we choose to see it or not. It’s odds on that I see the world very differently from you, not just because my finances, upbringing and experiences are uniquely mine but because I am neurologically different to you. 

Being dyspraxic has its good and bad points, the bad ones being rather dibilatating and limit my ability to function in social situations like parties, pubs or indeed anywhere with a more than a few people at a time. I can’t filter out conversations and hear the ones across the room as clearly as the one I am having at that moment. In some ways, it is a little like being deaf in that you end up having to fill in the missed gaps in the conversation you are having as it makes you appear rude to get people to repeat themselves constantly and, as a consequence, you miss the fine detail of what you are being told. At the same time though, you hear everyone else’s conversations and pick up all their subtle body language cues and pick up an awful lot of what is going on that you are probably best off not knowing. Suffice to say, I avoid being anywhere public past midday if I possibly can as it gets painful to be around people very quickly. There are a few good points to this though, I see details that others miss, I’m really good at rotating shapes and perspectives, even bending them in my head to make things fit that shouldn’t, I hear things in music most don’t. If managed well, it is as good as it is bad to be dyspraxic but it means my life is very different from most and has to be to remain even remotely sane. 

Up until a few years ago, I had the pleasure of total anonymity. I have a handful of very close and loyal friends and a few people I am happy to chat to and that’s the way I like it. Some people are hoarders, you see them on tv if you like all that mawkish garbage, they fill their houses with broken stuff and things they cannot bear to part with until it chokes up their lives to the point that they can’t function. There are people who do this with people and it has much the same crippling effect but often worse as old newspapers don’t make the demands on your time that crappy people do. Whilst my home has a few too many books in it (if that is possible), I like to keep the people to a few loyal and truly lovely ones, who (I would like to think) get the same back in return. One of the gifts, or curses if you choose to see it that way, of no one really knowing anything about you is that you see people as they truly are. A lovely person will be lovely to you no matter what, just because, because they are lovely, whereas someone less pleasant won’t even acknowledge your existence unless they have a good reason to and being a, slightly overweight, balding, middle aged man who is quite obviously not rolling in money, what use would I be to anyone like that? It was all duly noted though, and when I met them later, under different circumstances, I remembered. I also remembered their conversation I overheard, I remembered the way they treated serving staff, I remembered what they were like when drunk or drugged up and saw them for what they were and not what they wanted me to think they were. Then, when circumstances changed, they wanted to engage me in their community… Suffice to say, my answer was a very definite no! 

Now things are a little trickier, mainly as I have my own little posse of haters to contend with, but I had one of those fascinating moments of overhearing a very enlightening conversation between the (perceived) great and the good, yesterday. I knew who a few of them were and the situation that they were discussing and were planning on exploiting to their mutual advantage. It was about funding, charity and being community minded, but mostly about making a fast buck from it all.

Firstly though, a little about community, the big mistake so many people make is thinking that there is only one of them. There are many communities and the divides are constantly changing. I always get really cross when I hear phrases like “Muslim community” or “refugee community”as it is just another way separating people off into an ethnic or socio political lump. We all belong to many different communities at the same time and they are defined not just by religion or geography but by what we do, what we like to watch on television , what music we like, what class we came from and what we aspire to. We club together for many reasons, safety, values, approval, enjoyment, whatever but one of the biggest mistakes many people make is to not realise that there are more communities out there than the one to which we belong. Our communities are like the air I mentioned earlier, they weigh down on us, put pressure on us, they are the world we live in, so much so that we don’t step outside them and can fail to see beyond our own chosen view of the world. Plus, once we are in one of these communities, we become frightened of meeting its disapproval and of stepping outside its  boundaries and allegiances. There is, of course, a narrower definition of ‘community, and that is ‘clique’, cliques are usually smaller and more insular than the larger definition and are often quite poisonous in make up, particularly to those on the outside. Call a group of people what you want, community, clique, gang, tribe, but be aware that whenever anyone uses the phrase “we are doing this for the community” the correct response  is “which one?”

The other c word is charity, the definition of which now is even more vague and amorphous than that of community. There was a time when the bulk of social care was the responsibility of either local authorities or the government and charities had very separate responsibilities and concerns. But since the slow death of the public services, initiated by the conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and aided and abetted by new labour, the con-dem coalition and the conservatives again, so much of the social safety net of the United Kingdom is now a flimsy network of quangos, private companies and privatised former government departments, many of which now technically have charitable status. The vagaries around who does what and for whom has created some interesting grey areas, open for exploitation by the unscrupulous willing to write their own ticket, or in this case, blank cheque. From large and very litigious companies involved with unemployed people, who would probably take me to court if I mentioned them, down to individuals, the whole system is now ripe for abuse. One of the most depressing of wheezes works like this…

 Ok, say you do something, clog dancing, crotchet, cat herding, it really doesn’t matter so long as you can argue that it is either therapeutic in some way or promotes community cohesion (whatever we define community as this month) then you pick your marginalised group to exploit help out, it could be refugees, victims of domestic violence, the Esperanto speaking community, there are so many to choose from. Then you trawl through the lists of available funding sources, be they charitable institutions, big businesses seeking their annual tax write off, funds set up by dead rich people trying to retrospectively provide themselves a good name from beyond the grave and you find your mark funding source to approach, you tell them about the plight of the poor,  marginalised Esperanto speakers of canvey island and about how learning to juggle cats whilst playing the nose flute would give them all a sense of empowerment, whilst at the same time you offer the Esperanto speakers of canvey island the wonderful opportunity of becoming cat jugglers and nose flute players for free. Soon you have created for yourself a marvellous job, paying yourself handsomely for doing precisely nothing of any use to anyone, the classic ‘non job’. Everywhere you look you will find these little fiddles, people presenting their services pre paid but ultimately helping no one. You have to have a certain sort of mind to work a racket like this, and the effrontery to pull it off with a straight face. Most perpatrator’s tend to be very middle class and carry it off with a sense of self righteoness that others rarely dare to question, but frame it anyway you want, they are still running a con. I must stress that there are some wonderful people out there, doing amazing things and they deserve all the help and funding they can get but there are also some right wankers about.

Even the most benign aspects of community engagement can become tainted though, mainly due to the type of people they attract. For the bulk of the population, just getting by in life is hard enough, they have neither the free time or the energy to get involved in extraneous activities, they are too busy trying to keep their heads above water. Plus when most people dip a toe into communal waters, they find the structures and etiquette placed on community projects unfathomable, what with all the meeting, groups, minutes, buzzwords and other accepted minutia of those who have nothing better to do with their time than get involved in everything going. Plus you tend to see all the same faces taking the same roles and having enough money to be able to spend their free time in such persuits and, sadly, when such people barge their way to their usual seats at the committee table, the only new faces are pushy or boorish enough to claw their way to their own spot, whilst anyone less dogmatic will invariably shuffle to the back and then swiftly out of the church hall door. There is something Darwinian about the set up of most community events and, over time, once the usual suspects turn up, everyone else leaves. Whether these people realise this or not, I don’t know, but if they are anything like the versions of this stereotype that I have met, I doubt that they would care as their ego and opinion seems to be all that they are.

I think the point I am trying to get across here is,  join in with things and be engaged if you want, but don’t feel bad for wanting to stay at home and read a book. If you do choose to get involved though,  just make sure of what you are getting involved in, with whom and have a quick think about their motivations for doing it in the first place. Be aware that others might have reasons for doing things that you might not agree with and by just turning up you justify those a little bit more. Just read the small print of life a bit more often.


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