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.