Nice Times (7)

When I was an EMT, I often had to work New Year’s Eve night duty, one of the busiest shifts of the year for ambulances in London. During one shift, we bought a bottle of champagne in a local shop. When we got into our local casualty department just before midnight, we opened the champagne in the tea room, and poured small measures into paper cups for the nurses and doctors on duty. Just after the clock passed twelve, we carried them out on a tray and passed them around, shouting “Happy New Year” to each nurse or doctor in turn. (We didn’t drink any) Then it was back out into the busy night, but it had been a nice moment indeed.

My mum and I owned a large long-haired German Shepherd dog, Skipper. We had him from a tiny pup, and he grew into a huge dog. When I got married, he stayed with my mum, and almost fifteen years later, he was living with her in a small flat in Peckham. One day, she rang me to tell me he couldn’t stand up, and his back legs did not seem to be working. She couldn’t take him out, and he wouldn’t eat anything, or drink any water. I drove over to see her, and could see that poor Skipper was close to the end. I rang the Vet and asked him to come out to put our dog to sleep. He agreed to do so, if we paid an exhorbitant extra charge, and came just over an hour later. My mum was too upset to stay in the room, but I sat on the floor with Skipper’s head in my lap as the Vet injected him. Our old dog looked up at me as he died, and I stroked his head. As sad as it was, that was nice for me, to be there for Skipper in his final moments.

On the day that I resigned from the London Ambulance Service to work for the police, I had to go into the main station at Fulham and hand my letter over to the Station Officer. She was an experienced Paramedic who had swapped operational duties for being a manager. I had been the union representative for many years, and we had experienced some run-ins and confrontational moments previously. But that morning, she genuinely tried to persuade me to stay on. When I declined, she thanked me for all my service, for being a fair but firm union man, and stood up to shake my hand. We had worked as adversaries, but left the room as friends.

After I had retired and moved to Norfolk, I spent a long time working as a volunteer for the the Fire Service. I would drive around installing smoke alarms, talking to various groups, and attending school fire safety displays. I had to ring the elderly or disabled people who qualified for the free smoke alarms, and arrange my own appointments. One day, I rang an very old lady who lived in a small village about eight miles from Beetley, and she agreed for me to go to her house the next morning at eleven. She was walking using a frame on wheels, and her back was very bent from age and arthritis. I changed her old defunct smoke alarm for a new one, and showed her how it worked. As I was leaving, she presented me with a small Victoria Sponge cake she had made for me, saying “I got up at six this morning to make it fresh for you”. A lovely old lady.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday


(This post is mainly for the benefit of new readers and followers, as the theme and photos have been seen here before)

I woke up today thinking about the time I was a volunteer in the community. Hoping to stay active, and get to know more people, I decided to be an unpaid volunteer in three different jobs.

The first job I took on was cycle safety training, at the local junior school around the corner. As this was seasonal, I also applied to work for the Fire Service, as a community volunteer. The bulk of this job involved fitting smoke alarms in the houses of elderly or disadvantaged people living in a twenty-mile radius of Dereham. I was given a short training course, issued with a uniform and identity badge, and then took delivery of a small toolkit, as well as a few cases of smoke alarms. I also had to attend a course on how to safely use a step-ladder of just three rungs. 🙂

This service was provided free of charge by The Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, and restricted to people over the age of 65, or with a registered disability. I initially agreed to work for 2-3 days a week, from 8 am until 1 pm, so that I could always be back to take Ollie out. I would receive a list of names and addresses, and make appointments to call on them and fit the smoke alarms. I was issued with a mobile phone to make these calls, and paid a mileage rate to use my own car. Whilst at the houses, I would also carry out a general fire safety check, and give advice to the person living there.

This soon became busier than I expected, with me being asked to make more appointments than I could ever keep up with in the time I had allowed for it. Then I was asked to give talks to community groups too, speaking about fire safety in the home, and the importance of having smoke alarms fitted. If that wasn’t enough, I was also seconded to the school fire safety unit, where we did a dramatised presentation to busloads of local school-children, at specially organised venues. For most of those, I had to play the part of a fireman, in full kit and equipment.

Very soon, I was out of the house most days of the week, and struggling to get back in time for the dog-walking. Despite that, I was constantly asked to do more and more, by people who were being paid a good salary to organise us volunteers, then watching us do what they should have been doing for their salaries. So after more than a year, I gave it up. What had started as a feel-good community experience had rapidly turned into an unpaid, demanding job.

Meanwhile, I was still doing the cycle safety courses at Beetley School. I did get to meet a lot of local people, many of whom I still see around here, and they remember me teaching their kids to ride bikes safely. But this volunteering job also had an unpleasant side. This was in the form of a new regional supervisor, again someone getting well paid to supervise people doing this for free, instead of doing it themselves. She delighted in criticising me at every opportunity, as well as treating the kids as if we were doing them a favour by allowing them onto the course. And most of them were only ten years old, too young to be expected to respond like adults of course.

So not long after quitting the Fire Service job, I parted company with Norfolk Road Safety too.

I reflected on something my Dad had once told me, a hangover from his days as a regular soldier. “Never volunteer”.

But when I heard that Dereham Windmill was looking for volunteer guides, I weakened, and offered my services. I was strict this time though. I told them that I would work one day a week only, and finish at 2 pm. This seemed to suit them, so I received a short instructional course about the windmill, and started the next week. It had recently been refurbished, and opened to the public as an historical building and educational experience. I took some photos of it, when I worked there.

Unfortunately, some of the other volunteers frequently asked me to cover more days, including weekends and special Windmill Events. I stuck to my guns, and only ever worked on Fridays, something that didn’t make me feel very popular. Then they opened a new visitor’s cafe, and wanted everyone to go on a rota of working in there too. I declined, as I didn’t want to be a volunteer in a cafe, when I had joined to work inside the windmill. This made me something of an outsider, the ‘Friday Man’ who wouldn’t do anything else. Then after I had been there for some time, I developed vertigo, and that didn’t suit constant trips up and down stairs that are little more than vertical ladders.

I took some time off, trying to get the condition treated. But I eventually decided I had done enough, and resigned my job there too.

I have no inclination to volunteer again. Although I am glad that I did what I did, and gave a lot back to the local community, I learned that volunteers are often put upon, and always expected to do more than agreed. If you are thinking of volunteering, be careful what you choose to do.

A Voluntary Farewell

On December 31st, 2012, I published a post on this blog. I gave it the title ‘Never Volunteer’, and it was about the fact that I was soon to begin two voluntary jobs. After seven months of living in Norfolk at the time, I felt the need to do something. To be useful, become an integral part of the community, and to get the chance to meet new people, and to travel to new places.

After eighteen months doing these two jobs, I resigned from them both this week. This was not done on a whim, or because of a fit of pique, cross words, or an episode of disappointment. I gave it due consideration, and realised that I did not have the enthusiasm and commitment necessary to continue. Neither role was unduly demanding. Teaching the Cycling Proficiency only involved two or three sessions a year, and working for the Fire Service involved doing as little or as much as you had time for. I did what I could, and when I felt sufficient inspiration to do it well. Talks to groups, safety checks in homes, and installing smoke alarms where necessary. I also worked with the school fire experience unit, which is much-loved by the children who attend it,  and receives a great deal of positive feedback.

However, there are only so many times that you can install a smoke alarm, deliver the same safety talk to groups, or take kids through the fire safety routine, every ten minutes, six times an hour. Like any job, it soon becomes routine, and eventually stale and uninspiring. It is not the fault of the role, or indeed any fault in me. It is just how it is. Life is like that. Work, whether paid or voluntary, is still just work. Sure, you meet a few new faces, but only for the shortest time, and then you all move on. You get to see some new villages, discover unknown byways and back roads, or tucked-away streets. Once found, they are no longer new; the dilemma of exploration, I suppose. I had some issues with the Cycling Proficiency course, outlined in a previous post. To use a popular expression that I do not care for that much, those running it were ‘not on the same page’ as I was.

In the background, I was also feeling the need to develop my writing; perhaps branch out into more fiction, and generally improve what I was already doing. I thought that I might also enquire about my eligibility for reduced rate adult education courses in something of interest, or see if there were other voluntary roles in areas that I am attracted to, like history. Not least, I have to get my head around our much neglected domestic situation. Rooms undecorated after almost three years, and boxes of things still gathering dust in the garage, since the day I moved in. Although it may seem selfish, I decided that the personal and home needs should take precedence over the voluntary jobs, so I resigned.

Both organisations took it remarkably well. They were gracious, and full of praise and thanks for what I had done during the eighteen months. They sent good wishes, and kind words. I didn’t feel too guilty. After all, I spent thirty-three years working in the Public Services, and always did my voluntary jobs with professionalism, and to the best of my ability. So I bid farewell to the voluntary sector, at least for now. I do feel the need to make some comment though. If there had not been the spending cuts, confused council politics, and lack of funding from the outset, these organisations would not have to be so dependent on volunteers in the first place. Remember that when you next cast your votes.

Everyday Life

I have written a lot of posts about music lately, as those old (and sometimes new) songs keep finding their way into my head, and I get that urge to add them to my ever-growing list. The list that was once intended to be very short, and to provide material for occasional posts, seems to be in danger of becoming a blog all of its own. My tendency to wallow in nostalgia, fuelled by musical reveries, seems to be undiminished. This whole blog was originally intended to be primarily about my life in Norfolk, in contrast to my previous life in London, and that seems to have been lost along the way. At least a little bit lost.

As I approach almost two years here, I can say with confidence that Beetley is beginning to feel like home, instead of somewhere that I just happen to live. For some time, I had a vague feeling that this was a bit like a holiday, and at some stage, normal life would be resumed. Of course, this is now my normal life, and far removed from my previous one, fortunately mostly in a good way. I came to sit before the computer late tonight, intending to write about yet another song, but something stopped me, and I began to write this instead. It came to me, that I don’t miss London. I have not yet returned there, despite being close, when visiting Hertfordshire, and Essex. I try to imagine reasons to go back and visit someone, or something. I fancy seeing the view from The Shard, but there will undoubtedly be queues, and crowds. I could visit some friends there, but the logistics of travel, parking, and getting Ollie looked after, make it all seem to fall into the ‘too difficult’ box. I miss the choice of restaurants, but if I went back, would they just all seem too familiar, and old hat?

I have to face the fact that I have put the city behind me. Even a trip into Norwich seems like the big metropolis, and has become an unattractive prospect. I have slowed  down, my pace has lessened, and my desire for things has almost gone. I seek no new clothes, gadgets, or accessories. My lifelong passion for collecting films, first on VHS, then later on DVD, seems to be that of another person, someone different. I still read about them, and on occasion, write about them, but my desire to watch and own them is slowly fading. I am overwhelmed by things. The collections of a reasonably long life, filling spaces in rooms, shed, garage, and loft. I need to divest myself of belongings, not accumulate more. I need the freedom of less, the cleanliness of not owning. Today is as good a day as any to start.

When I moved up here, I imagined that friends and family would flock to visit, to enjoy the peace of the countryside, and the delights of rural England. This was a selfish assumption, and gave little thought to their busy lives, work commitments, and the problems of travel, to a place with no station, and a road network stuck solidly in the 1950’s. East Anglia is a forgotten place. There is no motorway to the East, no high speed rail link to the lump in the North Sea, that nobody ever needs to go to. This is not a complaint, perhaps it is the very thing that makes it such a good place to live. It is not somewhere to drive through, to get to anywhere else. Neither is it a place to live, so that you can commute to somewhere busier, and more important. If there was a road sign that typified this county, it would be a cul-de sac. The life of England runs North to South, at the Western limits of East Anglia, and there is no reason to turn right, to head East; unless you live here. This fact makes local people insular, and less-travelled, than those in some other parts of the UK. I have met many people who have moved here, for retirement, or peace and quiet, but most real local people do not leave. They are born here, live here, work here, and die here. There is something old-fashioned about that, and also something compelling.

I am still a Londoner of course. To the perception of others, or when I open my mouth and speak, inside my head, and in every memory I have, it is all London, and always will be. But I am  now able to say that I am living in Norfolk, or I am from Norfolk. That may seem silly to the reader, but it is a massive change in how I view my life, and the biggest change in my life too. So, what is that Norfolk life, that I now accept as mine, and that I have lived for nearly two years? You may have read about my dog walking, and my endless wanderings with Ollie. That is part of it. My volunteering for the Fire Service has been busier of late, and getting me out to small towns and villages I never knew existed. Helping with the Cycling Proficiency at the local school is on its way to making me part of the local community, as is talking to groups about fire safety, in halls and day centres. I doubt I will become one of those people recognised in the street, stopped for a gossip, or a chat about the latest trends in smoke alarms, but I feel that I am contributing something.

My circle of friends locally has not really expanded. They are still predominantly other dog-walkers, although I know some people from the school as well now, I don’t see them outside of ‘normal duties’. I am friendly with neighbours, but we don’t really do a lot else, by way of popping into peoples’ houses, or meeting for dinner and drinks. That was something I used to do a lot, and I don’t miss it at all. My life has changed so much, I am only just now becoming fully aware of just how much. I have woken up, and smelled the proverbial coffee. I live in Norfolk now, and this is my life. And it’s not bad, it really isn’t.