Thursday, 25 January 2007

Please serve yourself: rural post offices The Commission for Rural Communities has quick-published four case studies of the improvised provision of post office services in rural areas. The document is uncontaminated by such things as an analytical summary to draw out the issues and put them in policy context, or an account of how they were compiled, but, ah, the CRC occupies .gov space, maybe that's the explanation. Anyway this is straightforward unglossed case study material. I was struck by this account: The post office in Tealby closed some years ago but post office services had been maintained in private houses and then in the small entrance lobby to the village hall. With only a year to run on its permission to operate from the hall the threat of losing post office services was looming... A store-room adjacent to the village hall was re-built as a dedicated facility, with village shop, post office services and doctor’s surgery once a week. A number of postmasters have run the post office since its opening in June 2004. The Centre has a part-time employed manager who organises a rota of 22 volunteers to run the shop. In private houses? Twenty-two volunteers? Tealby is in Lincolnshire, it's not a big place. Some small towns and large urban housing estates struggle to get that many volunteers together for worthy causes or in time of crisis, let alone on a regular basis. We're talking about an acute and demonstrable social need here, people are motivated about it. In the light of that, the account doesn't exactly amount to a complimentary depiction of service provision in an advanced economy. It's an interesting example of collective effort, which raises familiar questions about how we prioritise investment in essential local services. All credit to the county, district and parish councils which all contributed funding. Now where's the sustainability? My last post, to coin a phrase, on this theme was here.
Behind you! And unto this humble blogger, there did befall a great honour. I was trying to grab a quiet hour by meself when the phone rang: could I come help backstage right now as they're one short, stage left? It has been panto week here. You dismiss it at your peril, particularly since this year's number, Cinderella, was written and directed by my son. You could get a nasty curse from the wicked witch. So I could hardly ignore his practical plea for the saturday matinee, by mobile some minutes after curtain-up. And indeed I got a buzz being in the wings (more in-the-way than of much use between scenes, I fear). The production (I witnessed a full rehearsal, two and a bit performances from the hall and one backstage) seems to have been pretty much an unqualified triumph. But who am I to say? Having experienced its evolution over several months, from the wings as it were, I'm going to have to unleash one more short stuttering monologue about community drama generally, and pantomime specifically. (I last hit this theme 12 months ago.) Community drama insists on the accommodation of the gormless and the gifted, the shaky and the sure. It welcomes those who are there for the social, those who have talent anyway, those who come cos he or she dragged them along, and those who don't know why they show up. Over several months, parts are re-written to match competence and emerging confidence. It's intergenerational, it tosses together the older assured voices and the uncertain young ones. Dances are worked and re-worked, lines learned and forgotten and changed; scenes blur, separate, find consensus. Technicians come in and fiddle endlessly with lights and mikes, someone sources the costumes and props, someone quietly paints the scenery amid rehearsal mayhem, a man is up the ladder sorting the drapes, there's publicity to do and tickets and programmes. Musicians are found, magic is worked. You can take your song home, and work on your lines in the privacy of your bathroom, but teamwork permeates everything. This is essentially a huge collective local endeavour. I sometimes think that we should scrap school education and just get people doing community projects like this: for young people at least, it's about as educational (in my definition) as it gets. And pantomime leaves no space for competitiveness or nasty prejudices. It gives people a familiar framework for behaving quite outside themselves. They do so initially in a social context (twice a week, through the winter, since you ask) and then ultimately publicly (five performances here, each wilder than the previous). Pantomime facilitates modest creativity and a confident rapport with family and friends in the audience - oh yes it does! - and temporarily legitimates marvellously childish behaviour among adults. And we should not overlook the fact that it allows young people, in audience and on stage, to behave childishly too: for some, I suspect, that is a stressfully rare luxury. And if you're trying to interpret...

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