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1,001 things not to do in London: volunteer for something

Posted at 3:15 pm, November 24, 2013 in Fun London
Michael Hodges

Time Out’s award winning columnist Michael Hodges has been at it again. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 107 : volunteer for something. 

Daisy organised it all. I found her appeal for help on the community website on Friday night, listed after the campaign to open a pop-up distillery in the post office and a report about another mad squirrel attack. It wasn’t much, just a line or two asking for local helpers: ‘Think the corner of the park by the high street is messy? Spare a few hours on Sunday morning and help us make it look good again.’

The corner of the park by the high street is the bit the council plants out with chrysanthemums. There’s a row of benches used by pensioners who are too frail or scared of slipping to venture down the steps that lead to the park proper. Thanks to foxes and teenagers it’s usually covered in debris. On Friday night, fixing it seemed like a great idea. So I emailed Daisy.

On Sunday morning it doesn’t feel like such a great idea. Rain spatters against the bedroom window, accompanied by angry howls of wind. But as Daisy now has my email address and mobile number I have to go.

The volunteers meet at 10 o’clock in the shelter that overlooks the flowerbeds. Apart from Daisy there are four of us – Brian, Simon, Sonya and me. Daisy says we should introduce ourselves. She goes first. ‘I’m Daisy. I’m into community activism.’ We all nod. Community activism is a good thing.
‘My name is Brian,’ says Brian. ‘I’m into deep house.’
Simon follows Brian. ‘I’m Simon. I work in new-platform media.’
There’s some doubt in the shelter as to what ‘new-platform media’ is but there’s a strong suspicion that it’s possibly quite important.
I say, ‘I’m Michael, I like the park.’
‘Right!’ says Sonya excitedly. Sonya is wearing headphones and it isn’t clear whether she can hear anything other than what she’s listening to.

Daisy issues our equipment. We each get a black binbag and a grabber. Simon asks for a hi-vis vest. ‘We don’t have one,’ says Daisy. Simon looks disappointed. I suspect the main reason that he turned up this morning was for the chance to put on a hi-vis vest. Daisy explains that we are going to fill the binbags and leave them by the side of the park where, at 12 o’clock, a truck is going to come and collect them. ‘Okay,’ Daisy shouts. ‘Are we ready to go?’
Simon, Brian and me say yes. As Sonya is nodding anyway we take that as her agreement, head out from the shelter and start picking up litter. Even though it’s wet and cold it is actually great fun and we collect so many discarded bottles, cartons and food wrappers that by 11 o’clock we have cleared the corner of the park.

We look around at our work. ‘Great!’ says Brian. ‘We’ve done it.’ Sonya nods. Simon smiles. But Daisy doesn’t smile; instead she raises her head and I see fire flash through her eyes.‘No,’ Daisy says. ‘We can’t stop now. Don’t you feel the spirit we’ve created?’ I’m not sure I do. ‘It’s surging through us. Let’s do the rest of the park!’

So we keep going, bagging more and more rubbish and bringing it all back to where the truck is going to arrive until we have a pile of 40 black binbags. But then the rain sheets in, great walls of it driven by ferocious gusts that start the bags frantically flapping and force us to drop our grabbers and dash for the cover of the shelter. As we get there we have just time to turn and see the bags fall open and spill their contents to the wind.

Litter is hurled out and shot around the corner of the park. Within seconds the work of hours is undone, the plants and the benches overwhelmed by a swirl of crisp packets, chicken boxes and burger cartons. ‘Well,’ says Daisy. ‘The important thing is we tried.’ Sonya nods. Michael Hodges

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