I've done over 1,000 hours of voluntary work in the past two years, and while I enjoyed much of it, and learned a lot, there's also a little bit of a lingering sour taste. I feel I have had my face dipped into the soup-kitchen tureen of Mr D Cameron's "big society" and to be honest I have to say there's a bad aftertaste. There's something rancid in it.
Of course, it's probably me. Everyone said that after redundancy and all the attendant loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, etc, volunteering was a great way of rebuilding yourself. They didn't tell me it could also be the precise opposite.
I took the volunteer plunge early in 2012, striding into a local charity shop I visited quite regularly, and offered my services. I went through various interview and vetting stages, and started work in a delightful branch in a rather villagey area of SW4.
It was this charity shop chain that gave me both the best and worst of times.
I loved much of my time at the various branches of this well-known chain of shops. I have had a long love affair with charity shops as a buyer of clothes and books and records, and as my former career as a writer seemed to draw to a natural conclusion, it seemed fitting that I should give something back to the movement that had given me so much pleasure, over the decades.
The first few weeks were great fun. I learned a great deal about retail, and what a difficult and exhausting job it could be. It was a real a revelation being on the other side of the counter, seeing how the experienced staff (in particular, the excellent manager, M) dealt with the weird donations and the tricky customers. I was astonished by the dedication and commitment of both manager and volunteers.
I made it clear early on I was a book and music lover, so she handed all that side of the shop over to me. There were lots of other volunteers, though M relied mainly on a core of three or four staunch regulars, and she made it clear she hoped I would become another of these. There were also often young foreign students on short-term work-experience. Generally we all took turns working the till, cleaning, ragging the useless stuff, re-stocking shelves, etc.
As time went on, my manager was moved to a more prestigious branch of the charity, and I went with her. I would spend at least two or three mornings or afternoons each week at this shop, which was based in a very smart area of west London. That shop, like my first branch, had just been refurbished, and we were all called in to prepare for the re-opening - a great deal of heavy lifting and sorting, heaving boxes and sacks and bits of display furniture into and out of the charity's all purpose white van.
As the months went by I watched with admiration as M concocted beautiful and inviting window-displays from carefully selected donations - a crazy sequinned ball-gown, hats, masks, gloves, old paintings African carvings, Musical instruments, battered leather luggage, motorcycle goggles, old magazines and maps, decorative lamps, bakelite radio sets….
Every week, a new window. She would collect items for certain obvious weeks - Halloween or Valentines, Easter, Quattorze Juillet were the obvious ones in that street. Being a wealthy and cosmopolitan area that had not quite lost its bohemian fringe, the quality and eccentricity of donations was often a delight. Mind you that did not stop people handing in huge sacks of soiled children's clothes and broken toys and stinky old sports gear.
I quickly realised that charity shops, apart from their many other great uses, were also a vital link in the support chain for those fragile souls who had been cast out into the world by the previous decade's "care in the community" policy. We would often spend half hours, full hours, entertaining excitable young and not so young souls, who would want to try on every dress on the rail because they had been invited to the Ivy by a splendid Iranian prince. And so on...
We also had a lot of traffic from tourists visiting the big museums up the road, as well as - on - occasion - some of their staff. Antique experts, gallery curators, self-proclaimed experts, Portobello Road dealers, well-heeled amamteurs, they all made regular visits, some on the way back from an auction at nearby Bonham's, or was it Christies?
There were one or two distinctly unpleasant characters, ordering us to get items out of display cases, spending ages scrutinising them with their eye-pieces, then handing back with a sneer. "Paste". "Rubbish". "You're overcharging criminally for that".
And then there were the shoplifting families.
Anyway, it was all great fun. Except, of course, when the inevitable politics of the workplace came into play. I took an instant dislike to the head office crew who would swan around the many shops they ran, bossing staff and volunteers around like they were their personal servants.
Their management style was not the iron fist in the velvet glove. It was usually just the iron fist, with lashings of sharp tongue as well.
Inevitably, they used the divide and rule tactic ruthlessly. There was incessant gossiping amongst managers and volunteers, some of whom had worked there for many years and in many different shops.
It was difficult not to get involved in all this, and rather foolishly I accepted a paid part-time job at the charity. I loved the work, although it was very demanding, at least physically and the pay was derisory. For much of the time I enjoyed the company, at least the younger members of the team - but it got to the point where I fell into disfavour.
The paid work came to an abrupt halt, but I was happy to carry on as a volunteer. This did not accord with the charity's policy. One day I went in and was told by an almost tearful M that I was no longer to be a volunteer there. Well, there you go, so I went.
I have such good memories - especially of the other volunteers. I've written about some of this elsewhere. But I also now have that strange, nagging feeling that I offered as much as I could but was rejected: not even a charity shop wanted your services.
The next voluntary work I got was with a very busy community centre in Brixton, helping to give English lessons and conversation classes to groups of immigrants. I was amazed by the commitment of the other volunteers here. A few were clearly of retirement age and perhaps did not need the income, but the place was run by a team of very young, energetic community activists, and their enthusiasm set the tone for everyone else.
Most of the students were delightful; typically they would be working as cleaners all the hours they could get, and would often turn up late and exhausted, and yet they still made huge efforts to learn.
This was a great place and I felt privileged to be allowed to work there - I did have some teaching experience but not in the ESOL/TEFL area, and again I had to learn from the more experienced volunteers, who were endlessly patient with me.
I worked hard to get my lessons right, and sometimes they seemed to work (I now realise they were hopelessly ambitious). And yet, quite soon the slob in me felt threatened. It seems in all these organisations there's an undertow pulling at the feet of volunteers, wanting them to give more and more time. I felt that this organisation was doing so much excellent work - particularly its youth activities - that it should really not be so heavily reliant on volunteer who tenede to be either very young (students clocking up experience) or antiquated people like me at the dog-end of their working lives.
I would love to be volunteering now, but I am reluctant to risk it again: I will either not be good enough, or if I am good, they will want to devour me, they will make me feel guilty at not giving more and more of my time. We live in this ridiculous city where unimaginably rich people occupy the best properties, eat at the best restaurants in the world, and rely on immigrants to clean their houses and offices, look after their children, cook their food and wash up their coffee cups. These immigrants are taught English by unemployed teachers doing their voluntary hours, and they buy their clothes from charity shops run by out-of-work journalists. And so it goes on. It's all just too funny for words…
Anyway, just thought it might add soothing to some debate. I threw myself into volunteering at the age of 60, when it seemed the world of full-time employment had taken a quick look at my cv and laughed itself sick at my presumption that I might still be eligible for some sort of reasonably-paid employment (by reasonably I mean anything above the £12k pa pro rata I was getting from the charity job). Anything over £20k would seem marvellous.
So, having thrown myself into that world, I have, two years later, emerged shivering in the cold of the London employment climate right now. Loads of jobs for tough bright young things willing to do and say anything to get a job, even a minimum wages. Not much for old geezers who are not terribly good at boasting about their genius.
And especially not old geezers who've had the last few grams of their confidence knocked out of them by pushy managers of voluntary organisations.