Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Week 18: the kindly cabbie

In week 18 of Our Time of Gifts, I accepted the kindness of a London cab driver when my son injured himself on some glass. And donated some tins to the local Food Bank.

Our Time of Gifts has moved to the Pigeon Pair and Me. To read more about week 18, click here.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Week 17: Samhain spirits

This week on Our Time of Gifts, I wanted to follow the ancient Celtic traditions of Samhain: looking after those who are nearest, by keeping our gift-giving close to home.

Our Time of Gifts has moved to the Pigeon Pair and Me. To read more about week 17, click here.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Week 16: Spring bulbs

For week 16 of Our Time of Gifts, I decided to prepare the ground for future gifts. I'd plant some Spring bulbs, then, when the blossoms appeared, share them with others.

Our Time of Gifts has moved to the Pigeon Pair and Me. To read more about week 16, click here

Friday, 18 October 2013

Week 15: Wallpaper

This week on Our Time of Gifts, some might say that I cheated.

For week 15 of my year-long experiment in giving stuff away, I passed on a freebie that I'd picked up through a local online forum, without using it in any way.

This splendid, genuinely vintage wallpaper lay untouched in our under-stairs cupboard for weeks, before I decided that I just don't have the time or energy at the moment to dream up some creative use for the two vinyl-coated, funky-but-menacing rolls.

So, I put them back onto the same online forum, and they were snapped up within a day by someone who I imagine might use them to coat the inside of a cupboard, creating a stylish seventies surprise for whoever chooses to open its doors.

Some shops are designed to make you buy things you never knew you wanted (and possibly still won't want after you've left the shop, when the spell of its dazzling lights and subliminal odours has worn off).

The same can be said of scouting around for free stuff, whether that's on the local streets, or via the internet. The allure of something you don't have to pay for can override the natural caution that stop you forking out money for useless items.

'Do I really want this?'

'Who knows. It's free, so....what the hell?'

And so you end up with two huge rolls of garish plastic wallpaper.

The flip side is that throwing up your hands to fortune and accepting the gifts that are sent in your direction means your home can end up filled with surprises that you've chosen (because you've bothered to pick them up from the roadside), but which have also - via the help of serendipidity and clutter-clearing neighbours - chosen YOU. And, in my view, there's something beautiful about allowing the karma of the kerbside to shape the way you furnish your home.

This force is at work in our own house. For instance, it would have taken us years before getting round to unearthing a corner of our bedroom from carrier bags of old clothes, if it weren't for this tall unit, which I found the other week on our street:

bedroom, mid-organisation.

Many a grown-up visitor has been bamboozled by this deceptively difficult puzzle, which we took to be a child's game left out by a neighbour. Instead, we have a ready-made intelligence test, perfect for winkling out the brainy ones amongst our friends.

And what home would be complete without this strange, elephantine green thing (another street find)?

Our Time of Gifts is moving! The weekly gift-giving will continue over on the Pigeon Pair and Me. To make sure you don't miss out on future posts, follow me on Twitter, like the Pigeon Pair and Me on facebook, or follow me on Bloglovin'.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Week 14: the sleeping man

 My three-year-old son and I, walking through central London. Covent Garden, to be precise. One-thirty in the afternoon.

Austin: [tee hee]: Mummy, that man's sleeping on the floor! Look! [tee hee] Why's he doing that?

[A homeless man, bundled in grime-edged sleeping bags and broken boxes, was lying prone in a doorway.]

Me: He doesn't have a house, like we do. So he has to sleep on the street instead. It's very sad.

Austin: But why doesn't he just ask his friends if he can come for a sleepover at their house?

[At this point, I felt a mixture of pride and sorrow. Satisfaction that my son's experience of the world meant he was sure there would always be a friend to help a person out of a bad situation. Grief that the reality of the world lies far from this ideal, and that, little by little, he'll come to learn this.]

Me: I think the man's friends probably don't have houses either [I couldn't bring myself to tell Austin that this man might not have any friends at all].

Austin: All our friends have houses. And the children in my class do. And all the ones in Big School.

Me: I know. We're very lucky. It's nice to have a house where you, me, Daddy and Gwen can sleep, isn't it?

Austin: yes. I like our house.

This week, my gift was a donation to homeless charity Shelter.

Homeless picture copyright Tomas Castelazo

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Sunday, 6 October 2013

Week 13: my favourite suits

Once upon a time, a little girl dreamed of being a lawyer. Or a doctor, a scientist, a writer, a vet. She did well at school; teachers and parents encouraged her to study, and go on to University. If she knuckled down and applied her brain, she could become anything she wanted.

These days, women's choices are notably broader than a generation ago. Despite the fact that - even now - only 16% of company board members are women, it feels as though we're moving towards a consensus that women can, and should, be able to succeed in the workplace. Anti-discrimination laws have been tightened up; and high-profile campaigns, like the Everyday Sexism Project, make it commonplace to name and shame the perpetrators of derogatory remarks and actions.

All this is for the good. It spells out a more equitable society, with young women feeling they don't need to put up with being held back from realising their dreams.

But there is a flip side.

In a recent article by Giles Coren, the journalist claims that "Men are judged by their career choices and wealth. Women are free to define themselves in other ways." Coren argues that his daughter won't face as many pressures as his son to succeed in her career. He describes how his own urge to be a "big, swinging dick" forced him away from his pleasant "life of part-time work and domesticity", towards fame and fortune as a TV bigshot in the States.

The problem is, women do increasingly feel this urge*. I see this in friends who have, reluctantly but proudly, returned to work and handed over the care of their children to someone else. I feel it in myself, whenever another Mum from my circle tells me they're going back to their old job, and I experience that familiar stab of envy.

Just as men are now increasingly facing pressures to be body-beautiful, women are being encouraged from an early age to believe that, if they work hard enough, they can have the same money, success and power as men. This is to be applauded, but (sadly for both women AND men), a quest for these sorts of ideals often means having to nurture the ego Coren was invoking when he called himself a "swinging dick". Or, at the very least, it means carrying around the sort of self-belief that allows natural talent and bull-headedness to override setbacks and office politics.

But what happens to these egos if they're not being stoked by career-based plaudits?

Once you've bought into the idea that success in life = success in one's career (and, let's face it, if a young girl shows any promise and is encouraged into a decent job, it's hard for her not to), it's difficult to step off the ladder without feeling as though some dreams of the future have been sacrificed.

In my own case, I know I've made the right choice in suspending my career to look after my children, full-time, through their early years. I wouldn't miss out on one minute of the mess, blubbing or rollocking bear-hugs of child-rearing, in exchange for a skinny latte in a tranquil office.

But the little girl I used to be, is wondering what to make of the fact that all the old markers of her future success (a decent salary, promotions, sitting at a desk with a brimming in-tray) have been thrown out in favour of making sure the kids are dressed in (semi-) clean clothes, and that we all get through the day with the giggles-to-tears ratio heavily skewed towards the former.

And whatever happened to the well turned-out, besuited woman who stepped, fresh, out of the door at 8.09 precisely, every weekday morning?

This week, I acknowledged that she was long-gone, last seen struggling to squeeze an emerging bump into her favourite grey pencil skirt. So I sent that skirt, the accompanying jacket, and several other items of good-quality clothing which - if not exactly well-loved - were markers of my former, career-oriented self, to Smart Works, the charity that provides formal workwear to women on low incomes, so they can attend job interviews with confidence.

Who knows? I may need to borrow them back one day.

*Not the urge to be swinging dicks, of course. Maybe just smartly dressed, competent individuals who are using their years of education and training in a job they've been primed most of their lives to perform.

This post was chosen to feature on the front page of Mumsnet Bloggers Network. If you'd like to read more from me about parenting, visit the Pigeon Pair and Me.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Week 12: sharing - is it quids-in for parents?

The overwhelming answer is, yes.

It's estimated that the average parents spend £327 on clothes for their one-year-olds.

Not us: I've scratched my head thinking of new items we've bought for Gwen this year and, apart from tights and socks (or presents from friends and relatives), everything she wears is second-hand. She never looks shabby; at this age, children grow out of clothes so quickly that even third- or fourth-hand clothes can look brand new.

Austin and Gwen wear clothes passed on by their older cousins; NCT friends; D's boss, whose daughter sports some impossibly chic garments; and anonymous benefactors, who put notes on sites like freecycle saying they'll leave a bag of children's clothes on their doorstep for whoever replies first (I've always found these to be in good nick, and there are often some good-quality brands included).

I get a regular shopping fix at NCT nearly new sales, but I reckon that, at those, I've spent no more than £50 on Gwen over the past 12 months. Throw in £30 (probably an overestimate) for her hosiery, and that means we've forked out £80. That's £247 less than the average parent.


The people behind sharing website Streetbank (which has just launched a whizzier new version of itself) estimate that, in London, the average Streetbank member has over £7,000 worth of stuff available to them from neighbours within a 1-mile radius of their house. I can well believe this, given the books, ladders, gazebos, furniture, cycle repair, cups of tea (!) and whatnot that people have offered, through Streetbank, to loan or give away in our area.

And that's just the beginning. We also save money by gleaning items off the street, through online forums, the aforementioned freecycle, and networks of friends. Over the last couple of months alone, we've managed to furnish our house with a double bed, a single, and a bookcase/display unit that would all otherwise be clogging up landfill sites. They look as good as new, and, if bought from retailers, would have cost hundreds of pounds.

We're not alone: Jen Gale of My Make Do and Mend Year has kept a running tally of the money she's saved over the year of her experiment in buying nothing for a year. It's worth a look, to see what unnecessary spending can be avoided with a bit of effort. And Frugal Queen has documented her success at paying off a huge mortgage, through dramatically changing her lifestyle.

Of course, we're lucky enough to live in an urban place that - while not being full of wealth - does have enough money around for some people to feel able to give away possessions that have served their purpose. And we have regular access to the internet, which is something often lacked by the people most in need.

But, if you know where to look and have the means to do so, there's plenty of free stuff out there, up for grabs.

This week, I gave away some toddler clothes to my one-year-old nephew. Like all thrift-o-philes, D and I dress our daughter in gear that has been outgrown by her older brother. But a few items are too boyish for even us liberal-minded parents to stick little Gwen in. A top sporting a scooter with a registration plate reading 'BOY1', for instance. So, these items are winging their way to Gwen's cousin.

Now, back to scouring the streets for more goodies.....

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Week 11: pears, pears, pears (and a few crab apples)

I have Streetbank, the neighbourhood sharing website, to thank for helping me concoct this week's gift.

A few weeks ago, I put out a note asking for help with the garden. Streetbank had already sent me the delightful Wilhelmina to pitch in with our effort to winkle out the weeds and, this week, Jane came along, with her 5-year-old daughter Minnie in tow. She'd seen my notice, had a bit of spare time on her hands (she's an artist), and wanted to do something outdoorsy on what turned out to be a jewel-bright Autumn day.

The lure of a 'big girl' to play with kept my two children amused for a good couple of hours. Somewhere in the midst of the grown-ups' coffee-drinking and chatting, we all had a picnic lunch of flaked salmon and roast vegetables from my neighbour Martin's garden. Oh, and we did a bit of gardening.

When Martin had popped round with his yellow cherry tomatoes, crab apples  and crunchy pears, we'd all surveyed the tree of a neighbour whose garden backs onto ours. She's elderly, and, although it was probably the largest, most crowded pear tree I've ever seen, there was little chance she'd be able to pick them by herself. Without help they would just fall and rot and - especially considering the growing numbers of people who are now reliant on food banks - that was a staggeringly sad thought.

Martin offered to borrow a fruit-picking pole from the local Transition Town group. Then, over the next few days, between the two of us Martin and I gathered kilos and kilos of pears, ranging from enormous, fist-like lumpy specimens of a ghostly shade of celery, picked from the highest branches (Martin), to soft, yellowing, dappled windfalls (me, with the help of 1-year-old Gwen).

And now my kitchen smells like a (Perry) brewery. Pear, orange and ginger chutney, pickled ginger pears, and spiced crab apples have all bubbled away on the hob then been transferred into baked, scorching jars.

So I now have a crop of Autumnal gifts waiting to be given. And I even managed to find a new Streetbanker to take a huge carrier bag of pears off my hands, when I reached a stage of pickling fatigue. Chutney is winging its way to the key players in this week's story. And, given that you're supposed to wait months before opening the jars and eating the stuff, a few pear-themed Christmas presents are already sorted.

Mother nature (and my neighbours), I thank you.

Do you have an Autumn-themed gift story to tell? I'd love to hear it, either in the comments below or via email.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Week 10: the swish

Could clothes swapping be the new mother's little helper?

This week, I went to a swish party organised by a friend I met through NCT classes. It was about as middle class as they get: a group of around 40 bubbly-supping women, all connected via circles created during the pre- and post-baby scramble to make friends.

Back then, we'd all paid for the privilege of sitting in the front room of someone's tastefully furnished house, telling ourselves we'd gone to learn how to breathe through the pain, when what we really wanted to do was make friends with people who shared our trepidation.

We were a group of well-educated women, about to share the experience of 'leaning out', albeit temporarily, of careers we'd spent the best part of our adult lives cultivating. And those of us who went back to work post-baby, went back changed. All that wiping, poo, snot, breastfeeding and....well, love had added a new dimension to post-work downtime. In short, there is now no such thing. As several of my working friends have told me, despite the high-powered, stressful jobs they perform well, they look forward to going to work because, in comparison to looking after small children, it often feels like a rest.

And there we all were, eyeing up each other's tasteful cast-offs in the upstairs room of a pub. Ours was among thousands of other similar parties. New lives, changed women, economic downturn and the rapid descent of our planet into a broiling mass of greenhouse gases have heralded the rise of clothes swapping. Lucy Shea cleverly rebranded it as swishing back in 2007 and, as this article shows, it's shot up among the ranks of women who might feel a bit sniffy about saving their pennies by seeking out designer garb at a charity shop.

Even though I'm not one of those - I love a good rummage through mothball-scented railings - I do confess to missing the buzz I used to feel when spending my leftover twinkie cash on a frivolous piece of overpriced frippery. But even if I had the money now, that kind of material indulgence just wouldn't seem right. We're not living in the 80s; these days, it's cool to care about the planet and, what's more, people have cottoned on to the fact that spending (or not spending) can have social benefits.

Take the swish party I went to, for instance. The friend who invited me was one of a handful of women who had pitched in to organise the swap in aid of the Demelza Children's Hospice and the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital. The three year old daughter of one of their NCT friends had died of a brain tumour, and care had been given to her and the family by these charities.

This story was doubly heartbreaking because the little girl was the same age as all our own children. Maybe  empathy had fed the organising team with extraordinary energy because, as well as organising the clothes swap, they had managed to round up a list of at least 25 restaurants, shops and theatres into donating genuinely brilliant gifts for a raffle.

My own raffle stubs won me a pair of premium tickets for Wicked - woohoo. There was also an auction of some of the classier items - which included a natty jacket worn by ex-Spice Girl Mel C (or was it Mel B?) - and, in exchange for some treasured garments from pre-pregnancy days (lovely as they were, in reality I'm unlikely to ever fit into them again), I came away with a few nice items of clothing. I even felt the old familiar shopping buzz, from pre-pregnancy days.

The event was perfectly pitched. A tenner, whatever you wanted to spend on the raffle, and some decent clothes from the back of your wardrobe; in exchange for a glass of wine, a chance to catch up with friends, and the opportunity to nab the dress you knew was much better suited to your own curves than those of your friend. The funds raised through the entrance fee, raffle and auction reached well over a thousand, and I came away feeling great, despite having been a bit teary over the story of the little girl who died.

It was a special evening.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Week 9: the book

My soon-to-be nonagenarian grandmother has announced she'll no longer give out cash on people's birthdays. Instead, she's decided to give away her collection of books, choosing titles that will mean something to the recipient.

I have to rank this as one of the best gift ideas ever. Over her lifetime, Grandma has built up a library of books that she's found entertaining, inspiring and enlivening. Some of my earliest memories of our time together involve perching on my bedroom floor, talking about the titles we each had on the go. Our mutual love of reading and the book-based chat helped strip away our differences in age and physical disability (she's had MS since her 30s). Now, when I read the tales she's given to me or recommended over the years, my memories of Grandma are indelibly woven into the texture of the story.

It was Cicero who said that "A home without books is like a body without a soul". And if I'm spouting forth about a book that I love, I feel as though I'm baring my soul in a way I imagine people born and raised in politics feel when discussing their worldview. Events from the past, the physical environment and encounters with other people are all seen through the filter of literature; if all memory is fiction, then a good book can have as much - if not more - resonance than something that actually happened. Some bits of my memory can be a bit shady, but if I want to try and remember how I was feeling - say - the year I moved to London, it helps to reach for the book I was reading at the time (unfortunately, it was Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Not ideal for a country girl bedazzled by the grime, poverty and chaos of Hackney Central).

Unsurprisingly, I'm part of a book group. And one of my fellow literary acolytes recently told me about BookMooch, which she's been using successfully for a few years. It's a bit like an online version of those cafes where you're allowed to take a book home, so long as you leave one of your own on the shelf for others to enjoy. With BookMooch, you advertise the titles you want to give away, and earn points from sending them out. You can exchange your points for books that others want to give away. Simple.

So this week, my gift was a copy of Charles Dickens: a Life, by Claire Tomalin. It's a great book, and I'm hanging onto a copy for re-reading; but I was recently given a brand-new duplicate as a present. My spare has been sent out into the BookMooch ether, and I'm looking forward to mooching back a title that will (hopefully) help pad out my memory for the next year or so.

Now, where did I put that pencil.....

Disclaimer: I'm not in the pay of BookMooch. I just think it's a grand idea.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Week 8: the cabinet of memories

How often do strangers spontaneously invite passers-by to enter their homes? And then show them around each room, into each intimate corner of their dwelling?

I can't remember it ever having happened to me before.

Week 8 of Our Time of Gifts saw me and my children on a local street, inspecting a low, squat table with a slightly grubby applique design that someone had left outside their house, to be taken by a person in need of a shabby chic coffee table.

An upstairs window opened, and a woman's head emerged from the house. Soft, 50-ish, and a bit fuzzy around the edges. Did we want any more furniture, Gloria asked. She was moving, and the house was full of stuff she no longer needed.

Intrigued, I followed her into a place that was messy with memories. As she showed me round, two small, off-white dogs scuttled across floors strewn with clothes, papers and the occasional empty wine bottle. No room was left unexplored; we were even escorted into her bedroom, to look at a couple of cabinets she was hoping to exchange for a small amount of money. The religious iconography peppering the rest of the house - bejewelled Virgin Mary on the side of a bag, embellished cross hanging on the inside of the front door - was nowhere to be seen in this room. Instead, a portrait of Frida Kahlo hung on the wall, her level, wide-eyed gaze challenging us to stare back at her strong face; at the solitary tear rolling down her cheek.

Gloria shared Frida's sadness. Her eyes welled up and her voice cracked at least seven times while we were there. When I asked whether she was moving far away. In her bedroom, while she was proudly showing me the beautiful cabinet that I thought would be perfect for our own home. As she shouted at one of the little dogs for jumping up to the table and stealing a piece of pizza. While she explained that she was moving because of a break-up.

And she cried as we left, when I told her I would be keen to take the elegant, solid walnut bedroom cabinet she'd shown me. I'd be willing to pay for it; she just had to name the price. 'It's gorgeous.'

'I know', she responded, fanning the tears that had sprung up once again. 'I love it too.'

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to writer Jane Moss, who is exploring the meaning that objects can have in people's lives. Over the years, we build up treasured possessions. Some mark certain phases of our lives; others stay with us, hanging in the background to wallpaper our memories. Rarely noticed, but always there.

Gloria's bedroom cabinet clearly meant a great deal to her, but she was being forced to sell it so that she could downsize. It seems doubly cruel that, at a time when bonds that previously held her world together were coming apart, she also had to sell her home and, piece by piece, dismantle her familiar surroundings.

This week, my gift was a bottle of wine and a card that I left at Gloria's doorstep, to say thank-you for showing us round her home.

Image copyright Francis Storr

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Week 7: the sunny day

Is it easier to share when the sun is shining?

For week 7 of Our Time of Gifts, I decided to chase up Wilhelmina, the Australian actress whose radiant demeanor brightened our rainy Spring day when she came via Streetbank to help weed our garden. I'd finally got round to finishing the job she'd started, and had uprooted a huge poppy plant, along with several aquilegia. It seemed a shame to consign them to the compost, so, on a baking hot morning, I dropped them round to Wilhelmina's house.

A gift that was easy to give, with a sunny smile offered in return.

Since starting Our Time of Gifts, I've been looking into the collaborative consumption movement. It's based around the notion of a sharing economy, where gifts, favours and goods are exchanged. Sometimes this is done for cash (like ride sharing, where people offer space in their vehicles through organisations like BlaBla Car); at  other times, something similar is offered in return (like a house-swap, where people go to stay in one city while giving their own home up as a 'free' holiday rental). And then there's the good, old-fashioned method of just passing something on for nothing. Through freecycle, for instance.

The 'sharing economy' movement seems to have taken its firmest foothold in relatively affluent countries; places where there is a lot of sun, like Australia and New Zealand, or the Western coast of America. All the people that I've met from these areas shared similar characteristics: an easy smile; a relaxed, optimistic demeanour; and - at least on the surface - an open interest in others. Even complete strangers.

Us Brits, on the other hand, are notorious for our "icy exterior", remarked upon by Shareable blogger Chelsea Rustrum when she visited London for the recent LeWeb conference on sharing.

We are a dour, sarcastic nation who complain when it's cold, then moan when the sun shines too brightly. Our cultural heritage foregrounds the kitchen-sink drama; our cinematic exports include the gritty, conflict-riven films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and orphaned, misfit wizard Harry Potter, whose teachers and classmates have a habit of dying around him.

We are gloomy.

The free and easy road trip, with its hitchiking and sofa-surfing, has never featured greatly as a rite of passage in this country. It's just too damned damp and drizzly here. In sunnier climes, where the sharing economy is being touted as the next big thing, setting off with a small backback to roam wherever the road might take you, has long been the norm for young adults.

Does this make a difference to these people's ability to trust in the generosity of strangers; to throw themselves into the hands of fate, and offer unconditional help to others?

Or is the UK's manner of sharing just different to that of Wilhelmina and her kind?

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Week 6: the Street

This week, I gave stuff away through a recycling method I've come to love since moving to London 13 years ago. Some might call it flytipping, but I prefer the phrase 'sending it to the street'.

Sending it to the street involves leaving unwanted items on a garden wall - with a note, if you want to make it really obvious that people aren't thieving when they take the goods. Even better, you could leave your stuff on the pavement itself, although this is likely to annoy neighbours and passers-by (especially if it's a large item, like the children's slide we once gave away in this fashion).

Having said that, we've never had to wait for longer than a few hours before the stuff has been taken. Even - and please don't try this at home, as you probably will be arrested for flytipping - when the item in question was a used mattress. We vowed to just leave it outside our house till nightfall, so that it didn't make the place look messy. But within a few hours, a passer-by had claimed it for their own.

We've done well out of the street. On our road, there are several families with children just a little older than ours. We often come across toys that are in very good condition, which have simply been outgrown. And the other day we picked up a manual lawnmower and a natty watering can. We've even furnished our front room with a (new-ish) sofa our neighbours didn't want to lug to their new pad in the country.

The general assumption that anything left outside is up for grabs, can be misused. My cousin's broom, for instance, was taken when she went inside for a ten-minute tea break. The brush was inside the garden wall, so this was a pretty clear-cut case of stealing, but the people involved would probably have claimed they thought it had been sent to the street. And, when my partner D accidentally left our own pushchair on the roadside in a sleep-deprived moment, we knew there was barely any point in returning to see whether someone had delivered it to to the nearest house for safekeeping. No, it was gone, to the first passer-by that understood the law of these parts: send something to the street, and within a short while it will be on its way to a new home.

Ironically, the street law was broken this week, when I tried to give away some mint for Our Time of Gifts. The plant (part of the abundant colony in our garden) was so withered and shrivelled within an hour or two, that nobody deemed it worthy of picking up. So instead, I sent something to the street via a different method: a charity bag.

This form of giving is easy (at least, it is where we live). Once a week (on average), a bag is delivered through your door, from one of a variety of different charities. If you have any unwanted items on the list, you just pop them in, leave them at the roadside on the day indicated, and they magically disappear. It's like taking clothes to a charity shop, without having to go much further than your front garden.

There have been reports of phoney collectors roaming the streets in vans, collecting the bags of used clothes, shoes and (sometimes, depending on the charity) bric-a-brac that are destined towards recycling centres. To be honest, if you were the sort to choose a life of crime, I'm sure there must be more profitable scams than driving round in a white van, looking for bags of old shoes. But, like the police suggested, I dutifully checked out the charity whose name was printed on the flimsy plastic: Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, a bono fide charity whose cause I agreed with.

This time, the street accepted my gift, graciously and swiftly. Natural order had been restored. People in our local streets could now rest easy on their passed-down mattresses, and second-hand sofas.

Update: today (5 Aug), the street regurgitated a gift for us. This shoe rack - perfect for storage in our shed - was dumped just outside our house. Sweet.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Week 5: The circle of friends

This week, I made carrot cake for my friend Jaspreet, and took it round to her house on her birthday. We ate big hunks while our children played together, and when I left, I took a piece back with me, to give to my partner D.

This cake was my gift for this week. It may sound unexceptional, and it certainly felt that way. Especially in the face of the remarkable generosity I've experienced, from Jaspreet and others, over the last few years.

As I've written elsewhere, "Since becoming a mum, I've noticed altruism everywhere. Virtual strangers give each other baby and maternity clothes, and share kiddie snacks in the playground." And, within the circles of friends that I've been lucky enough to find myself in, it feels as though the people in my life have been sprinkled with some kind of pixie dust that sets off a cascade of giving.

When I was at Jaspreet's house, she reminded me that I need to collect the chair she's given us to help furnish our new loft conversion. This is remarkably generous but, even more memorably for me, when I was experiencing complications following the birth of my second child, and struggling - really struggling - to look after a newborn baby and a lively two-year-old, she would often turn up unannounced at our house, walk straight through to the kitchen, and start clearing up. 

There are many other friends who've brightened my life in similar ways. Like stylish Anna, who loaned me bags and bags of beautiful maternity clothes. And then promptly forgot all about them, registering faint surprise when I handed them back a few months later. Or Laura, who gave so much that I can't even begin to list it here. But it did include a big stack of maternity bras, and books to help our son deal with the trauma of a new addition to the family. And then there's Claire, who turned up at the hospital after I'd given birth to our first child, with a pile of baby blankets and clothes. We had to stay in for longer than intended, and we'd run out of clean stuff.

I count myself as extremely lucky, but I don't think this kind of support is out of the ordinary. As I wrote on my parenting blog, the Pigeon Pair and Me, motherhood often "brings a greater sense of commitment to the wider community and the ties that bind us together...looking after little people is tough. With the decline of the extended family as a means of support, we increasingly turn to friends and neighbours, giving the sort of help we would like to receive. Even if that individual wouldn't necessarily be the one to help US in turn."

What causes all this kindness? Could it be the extra oxytocin brought about through childbirth, lactation and the cuddling of our offspring? This lovey-dovey hormone has long been associated with empathy, and altruistic gestures.

Or perhaps children and new babies just make people happier, and more likely to be generous. I've never encountered as many smiles as I now do on a daily basis, just by walking along the street with children in tow. A baby comes into the world blameless, with a world of hopes resting on its shoulders. Human nature (if it's working properly) makes people want to do whatever they can for that child, regardless of their opinion of its parents. So, it's natural to offer the child and its family a hand to help them out into the wider world.

A helping hand, or a wedge of carrot cake. Nutritionists would no doubt disagree, but I felt that, this week, I was doing my tiny bit to help our youngsters (and their parents).

And I enjoyed my own big slice, of course.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Week 4: Streetbank (continued)

Regular readers of this blog will know that last week, I used the online service Streetbank to loan out our carpet cleaning machine to Joanne.

Although I was glad to have helped this complete stranger, sharing one of our household goods with someone I was unlikely to see again left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. But to avoid writing the site off without giving it a decent chance, I decided, this week, to try and get a more well-rounded view of the way Streetbank works. So I set out to borrow something.

By the end of the week, I'd almost given up hope. I'd contacted at least five people who'd put recent messages onto the site, offering cookery classes for kids, dinner, a cup of tea (which was intriguing - did it involve a chat too, or would they just leave it on your doorstep?), help with gardening, and other services that weren't essential, but which might brighten my day.

Nobody replied.

I decided to put out a request. The person offering help with gardening had inspired me: it would be really, really useful if someone could come round for an hour to do some weeding. Our garden is small and pretty, but increasingly over-run with rampant mint, nettles from the uninhabited garden next door, and baby aquilegia that's been sprayed across the flowerbed by a fecund mother.

The very next day, Wilhelmina (not her real name) came to my door.

This bonny, dimpled, out-of-work Aussie actress had cycled, through pouring rain, to kneel in our garden and rip out unwanted plants, transforming what was a straggly mess into a garden with a semblance of order. She worked for much longer than the hour I'd requested; in fact, if I hadn't dragged her away when I took my son to pre-school, I have a feeling she'd have stayed for the whole day.

Wilhelmina's help brought a large drop of sunlight into my otherwise grey, damp day.

Of course, my life hadn't depended on her cycling round to do the weeding. And there was no physical impediment to my doing it myself, except for the fact that looking after two children under the age of 4 saps my life of practically any spare time to do non-essential tasks. Clearing away brambles and dead-heading flowers always comes way, way down the list. An extra pair of hands beavering away at what had seemed like an insurmountable task, gave me fresh energy and boosted my spirits.

I'd experienced the 'helper's high', only this time in reverse: a high on the part of the person who has been helped.

I did wonder, though, about what Wilhelmina could have gained from the experience. Yes, it got her out of bed but, apart from the slab of carrot cake and cup of tea she drank outside in the rain, there was no direct reward for cycling through the drizzle and tidying up my garden.

Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore recently wrote an article claiming that the digital economy helps create a system where artists, musicians and writers are increasingly working for free. They create interesting reads, catchy tunes or entertaining videos and then upload them to the internet in the hope of 'making it big'. But nobody pays for downloading any of this stuff, and very few people actually end up earning a living this way.

It occurred to me that Wilhelmina had done a similar thing: she'd offered her skills for hire, via an online network set up by Streetbank, without expecting any form of financial reward. I assume her motivation - unlike the artists described by Moore - wasn't an attempt to gain fame and fortune for her gardening talents. There must have been something driving her towards lending a hand in the garden, even if it was just the pleasure of helping.

But still, under different circumstances she would have expected payment for her efforts.

Moore quotes the computer science pioneer Jaron Lanier, who, in his new book Who Owns the Future, proposes a solution to this problem: people receive 'nanopayments' whenever their work enriches a digital network or community. So this would mean, say, the creator of a funny clip receiving a few quid when her video is shared on youtube. The youtube viewers have been entertained; so the creator gets a reward. One she can use to help buy food, or heat her home, rather than just a raised thumb on a screen to show someone 'liked' her work.

Wilhelmina's gardening efforts helped enrich my life (albeit in a small way), but, more importantly, they restored my faith in Streetbank. In this way, she enhanced the site's community, and I'll now be returning to it in the future. Of course, the set-up's not reliable enough for those who are genuinely in need: the elderly, sick, disabled or impoverished. They need to rely on more than just the good fortune of contacting a cheerful Aussie on a day she doesn't have a job to go to.

But after all the failed attempts, I can now see it is possible to get help, or successfully loan something, through Streetbank. It's exciting to know that, among all the many strangers living just beyond my doorstep, there are a few who may be able to lend me something I need, when friends and acquaintances aren't able to do so.

And, just like when you act generously in a 'real-life' community of friends (more on this next week), Wilhelmina has already been able to benefit from her contribution to the Streetbank community. She managed to get a free mattress through the site, when she had just moved to the UK and didn't have a bed to sleep on.

I'm hoping to be able to give something back to Wilhelmina. Her selfless act on that rainy day has left an impression on me. I was touched by her generosity, and I want to make sure I pay her back.

So keep an eye out for future follow-up posts.

Next week on Our Time of Gifts: the circle of friends.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Week 3: Streetbank

A couple of years ago, a good friend was cooking us both dinner. He described a new venture an American entrepreneur had set out at a conference: a website, designed so that neighbours could pool their stuff. It was based on a notion called 'collaborative consumption', and the idea that there are some goods we don't need to own individually. Why does every household have to possess a lawnmower, for a small patch of grass they mow only once a month? Surely it makes more sense for people to share these items, borrowing them when needed?

My idea for Our Time of Gifts has been brewing ever since our discussion. And, in the run-up to getting my experiment off the ground, I discovered that there is a website here, in the UK, which is doing exactly what my friend had described. That website is called Streetbank.

The idea is simple: you register, create a profile including your postcode, and the computer gives you a list of people who live within 1, 5 or 10 miles, who have all pledged to give away or lend out their stuff. If you like the look of any of it, you get in touch with them; and if there's something you need that isn't already listed, you send out a request to your neighbours.

I decided, this week, to lend something out via Streetbank. We don't own a lawnmower, but we do have a carpet cleaner to offer. I used to regularly lend it to a friend who's since moved away, and I thought it might be useful to a fair number of people.

I wasn't wrong: within a week of my signing up, a woman who lives nearby (Jenny - not her real name) contacted me and said she wanted to borrow it. So week 3 of Our Time of Gifts involved me loading the carpet shampooer into the car (along with the children), driving up the road, and trundling it down the pavement to wait outside a stranger's house while she answered the door in pyjamas, a baby tucked under one arm.

Our exchange was friendly but fairly brief, and when we drove off, my three-year-old son gave voice to some concerns. 'Who is that lady, Mummy? Will she give the shampoo machine back? What if we need to use it, Mummy? Will she break it?'

'She's a very nice woman, and she'll return the cleaner when she's finished with it. I'm sure she'll look after it....' But, at the back of my mind, there was a nagging little worry. Could I trust this complete stranger with a machine that, while not exactly top-of-the-range, was worth a fair bit more than the customary bag of sugar people used to give their new neighbours?

In the end, my fears proved to be completely unfounded. Jenny returned the cleaner within a few days, with smiles, thank-yous, and an offer of the loan of her tile cutter. And I was pleased to have been able to help her out.

The positive effects of sharing on emotional well-being and mental health are well-documented; this phenomenon is know as the 'helper's high'.  The high is often attributed to the presence in the brain of feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin.

I was happy to have helped Jenny, but, whereas sharing food with neighbours at the Big Lunch left me feeling undeniably perky for the rest of the day, when I loaned out the carpet shampooer I didn't feel quite so euphoric. I didn't experience the rush of oxytocin described by Lily Cole when talking at the Cambridge Union about the effects of giving and her new website Impossible.com (which, as far as I can make out from the beta that's currently trialling, is based on a very similar notion to Streetbank).

Relationships built through Streetbank are created online. During her talk at the recent BritMums Live conference, neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield pointed out that online interaction doesn't use empathic skills (which is why those with autism often feel comfortable in online worlds). Without the activation of these 'empathic' skills, is it reasonable to expect we'll feel the 'helper's high' when moving from an online exchange to a real-life meeting?

My face-to-face time with Jenny was very brief. I didn't manage to find out the first thing about her life, apart from the fact that she had a very cute baby and a tea-stain on her carpet. I knew that I'd helped her out, but I didn't know how much that help had brightened her day, how dirty her carpet was, or how much she'd needed the free use of this machine. Perhaps, for the 'helper's high' to work properly, relationships built online through platforms like Streetbank need to first be strengthened offline?

But I'm not sure how I could get to know Jenny better, now that she's returned the carpet cleaner. At this present moment, and without  a pressing need for a tile cutter, it seems a distinct possibility that I may never see her again.

However, I feel that I owe it to Streetbank to wait and see what happens next. After all, their idea is what helped germinate Our Time of Gifts, and to build any community takes time. So I have decided to spend the next week exploring Streebank further.

Find out in a few days' time if I was successful, in week 4 of Our Time of Gifts.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Week 2: Food Bank


In the run up to our street's Big Lunch, my partner D and I decided to organise a collection for the local Food Bank.

It seemed obvious that the two should go hand-in-hand. There we were, preparing food to share with the rest of the street. Why not bring along an extra tin or two, to donate to those who weren't lucky enough to sit drinking beer and eating sandwiches with their neighbours?

We made copies of the Food Bank shopping list, and put it through every door of the 40-odd houses on our street. The response was phenomenal. By the end of the Big Lunch, our three plastic crates were so over-stuffed with pasta, chopped tomatoes, tea bags, and other household staples that one of the larger boxes broke when D tried to pick it up. And it took four men to carry all the food into the Bank from our car.

Before the Lunch began, we already had two whole shopping bags' worth of food, brought to our house by people who had no intention of joining in with the party. One said they couldn't make it because of other commitments. But I wondered why the others had opted not to join in.

Our collection allowed people to give food, without having to sit down and eat a meal with neighbours. Not everyone is able, or wants, to socialise in this way, and it is perhaps unfair to restrict food-sharing to those who have time at the weekend, or who are more gregarious in nature. Dropping off some provisions, without having to take part in the chit-chat, gets round this problem.

The flip side is that, while people may feel good about donating food to those who need it, they miss out on the human interaction, and the building up of friendships, that accompanies events like the Big Lunch

And, unsurprisingly, the Food Bank was an anonymous place. I'd heard about people standing in line outside, but when I turned up, an hour after it opened, I saw nobody. Inside, the hall was oddly hushed. Quiet conversations were being held in two-sided booths, between volunteers and aid recipients.

The workers at this particular Food Bank told me they had fed over 1,000 individuals since it opened last November. In 2011-12, the number of people who received at least three days' emergency food was around 130,000. But Walking the Breadline, the report published in May by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, includes figures from the Trussell Trust (the biggest network of foodbanks in the UK) showing that over 500,000 are now thought to be reliant on food aid. The leap in figures is astonishing.

The people I spoke to at the Big Lunch all said they were pleased a collection had been organised. Food Banks are clearly doing a much-needed job. But also - pretty much unanimously - our neighbours felt it was a terrible indictment on today's society that such places have to exist at all.

I felt deeply uncomfortable when I was in the Food Bank. I watched my beaming, chubby children as they helped unpack the masses of food we'd brought in. To them, it was just a game. As far as this pair of under four-year-olds were concerned, visiting the Food Bank was just an extension of the exciting street party they'd enjoyed the weekend before.

But the contrast couldn't have been more marked.

At the Big Lunch, we were sharing food, pretty much as equals. Admittedly, some people were able to bring salad made with Waitrose plum tomatoes, dressed with Tesco Finest virgin olive oil; while others came to the table with a couple of packs of sausages from Iceland. But those subtle differences didn't matter. We all, within reason, had food to spare.

And we all got to know each other better. But at the Food Bank, I had no idea who the recipients of the food would be. All I knew was that they would be desperate, and in need of a few days' help. Michele Hanson wrote recently in the Guardian, (facetiously, of course), that the Food Bank system is "the more fortunate ... helping the paupers". And, even though the workers at the Food Bank were kind, tactful and welcoming; despite the sad fact that, at the moment places like this have to exist, as the alternative doesn't bear thinking about; I keenly felt the uneven power dynamic when I turned up at the Food Bank, laden with food.

The problem is, the people visiting the Food Bank aren't 'paupers', with the otherness that word implies. They could be people I smile and nod at regularly, on my travels round the local streets. They could even be people who live on our street. And, rather than choosing to accept a kindness, these people have been forced, out of desperation, to rely on the mercy of people like me.

Part of what I've been looking forward to with Our Time of Gifts, is getting to know a bit more about the people I encounter. But, when I walked in to the aid centre, I didn't want to find out who was benefiting from all the tins and packets we'd collected. What could I possibly say if I ran into someone, coming out of the Bank with a few cheap tins to help keep their family alive? 'How do you feel about receiving this food?' 'What has happened in your life to make you turn to food aid?' The first question is crass and stupid; the second deeply intrusive.

Better to read a personal account of what it's like to live in food poverty, like that of A Girl Called Jack.

I am glad we organised the collection. Our weekly shopping trip now includes a couple of purchases for the Food Bank, and when we deliver it at the end of each month, we'll see whether anyone else from the street wants to add anything.

But I feel very sad about having to do this.

In a decent, wealthy country like ours, there must be a better way of making sure people have enough to eat.

Next week, I'll be describing my experience of Streetbank, the online system for neighbourhood sharing.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Week 1: the Big Lunch


Our Time of Gifts starts in a London street: the modest 1930s terrace of 3-bedroomed houses we call 'home'. It begins with an afternoon spent sharing food with our neighbours, and a dramatic set of events that show how sharing can - quite literally - save lives.

For the first week of my year-long experiment in giving stuff away, I decided that preparing food for other local residents would fit nicely with the ethos of the venture. So, just like the last three years, we joined in with a street party organised as part of the Big Lunch.

The Big Lunch is run by the people behind the Eden Project, "for neighbours from different generations and backgrounds to hear each other out and share stories, skills and interests". The name they give this is "human warming", and the idea is for everyone to bring along a dish or two, as part of a communal feast. This year the Big Lunch took place on Global Sharing Day.

According to the Big Lunch website, there will be "two million more single-person households by 2019". But our own street is crammed with families. Since we arrived, at least four other couples have moved in, each with one or two children below school age. 

On the day of the street party, the bouncy castle, face painting and craft table proved to be an irresistible draw for the street's youngsters. By just past noon, the car-free strip of road was ringing with excited shrieks and the occasional howl. But, of the 40 or so individuals who joined in with the afternoon's festivities, at least a quarter were older residents. And I had conversations - over barbequed sausages, rice salad and chocolate refrigerator cake - with a couple of individuals who live alone.

One of these, Martin (not his real name), had already become our friend. Last summer, he invited us round to his garden, so our son could pick his strawberries. He gave us a few spare plants, whose fruit we gobbled eagerly the moment it ripened. 

Martin is in his mid-50s, disabled, and is renovating his house using his own labour. Whenever we cook up a big batch of home-made soup, we usually take some round for him. And if we need a hand with lifting or carrying, we just knock on his door; he does the same.

Martin left the Big Lunch early. As he wandered back to his house, he crossed paths with Ashley and Ada (also not their real names), a young couple who have just moved into the street. They had briefly met already, but Ashley and Ada hadn't realised we were friends with Martin; we were able to make an introduction 'at a distance', by telling the couple about our mutual neighbour, and his generosity with strawberries (as well as other fresh produce).

It was an introduction that quite possibly saved his life.

A few nights after the Big Lunch, I was sitting in the back garden with some friends, when Ashley and Ada knocked on the door. Martin was in his car, and they couldn't get him to respond. As they'd discovered we were his friends, they came to our house first to find out whether this was normal behaviour; in our 'manor', people snoozing in vehicles is a common sight. One of my garden companions had also noticed Martin, but because she'd passed two other people lounging in cars on her short walk to our house, she thought nothing of it.

But no, this wasn't normal for Martin. We dashed outside and, after a few more knocks on his window and attempts to rouse him, we called the ambulance. Our fear was that he'd suffered a heart attack or a stroke, but when the paramedics arrived and broke into the car, they discovered that he was having a diabetic hypo. Serious, and potentially life-threatening, but not as dangerous as we'd initially feared. The medical team moved fast. Glucogel was administered, followed by our own contribution: several cups of hot, sweet tea and a super-strength glass of ribena.

Martin recovered rapidly, and was home from hospital by the next morning. But if he had remained in the car all night, without any food or medicine, he could have gone into a coma, suffered brain damage, or even died.

It might not strictly be true that Martin has the Big Lunch to thank for sending people to his assistance. Ashley and Ada may have phoned for an ambulance anyway, without first coming to us, his friends, to find out whether calling emergency services was the right thing to do. But, then again, without a mutual acquaintance to act as reassurance, they might have just walked past the car, like all the others who strolled by during the two hours he was sitting there, barely conscious. People can be precious about privacy, and some Londoners see a knock on their car window as an invasion. Unless you are familiar with your neighbours, it's difficult to know where boundaries sit, and what lies within the bounds of normal behaviour.

So, without our Big Lunch street party, Ashley and Ada might have decided to leave Martin to enjoy his sleep in peace. Then, this chapter of my story would have had a very different ending.

But instead, we'll hopefully be picking strawberries and sharing soup with Martin for many years to come.

Week 2 of Our Time of Gifts features our Big Lunch collection for the local FoodBank. Follow me to find out what happened when I delivered our street's donation.