Covid-19 saw an outpouring of community-led support in which 9 million ‘volunteers’ stepped forward to help out. As part of our Active Neighbours work, we’ve been interviewing people to uncover the stories behind the statistics. Here, we present Alan’s story.
Alan requests a last-minute slot for an interview on a Monday because he has just signed up for a Covid-19 vaccine trial which is due to start the next day. We hold the call late in the evening. He is well-spoken and articulate, though has a way of looking off to the side of the Zoom camera when speaking, hinting at an underlying shyness.
Alan lives alone in a block of flats in what he describes as a non-descript “in-between” area. He makes several comments throughout the interview that imply that he feels a certain degree of shame about being a single man with no family of his own – one that does not fit into the heteronormative model of society that he feels is so ubiquitous – and that he has found lockdown lonely.
Ordinarily, he says he would be out enjoying what London has to offer, whether the museums, theatres or niche foreign cinemas, spending time with friends and travelling.
Alan used to work in the design industry, but left a job of 14 years to go travelling in the south Pacific for several months at the end of 2019, and returned just before lockdown started in the UK. He has remained unemployed throughout this year but is thankful that he got to do his “trip of a lifetime” before the pandemic started. He’s now trying to get another job but recognises that this might take several months.
Alan worked for 14 years for a design company that specialises in redesigning the built environment for social good. Having left his full-time job last year, Alan has remained unemployed throughout 2020, though did do a small piece of freelance consultancy for a building down the road that was trying to resist a development; this involved writing a report and submitting it to the council.
Alan has a special interest in the design of public space because of his professional background working in the field of design and architecture. He says he wasn’t initially very keen on his area, as it tends to be “at the intersection between other neighbourhoods. So it’s not necessarily had a strong identity”, and he was even quite ashamed to tell people where he lived – especially because many of his friends lived in more “established” places.
One of the problems with the area is that, because it doesn’t have an obvious “hub” – there’s no park or distinctive pub for example – this can sometimes make it difficult to join local groups or organisations that are often built around a shared sense of place.
He recalls once going to a neighbourhood scheme in a nearby neighborhood that was of interest to him, and essentially being told to go home because he didn’t live there and therefore couldn’t be involved. A similar incident occurred recently when he tried to get involved with a local low-traffic neighbourhood scheme:
“I found the same sort of territoriality there […] There were a few people who asked me, ‘well who are you? Where do you live?’ And when I said ‘I don’t live here’, their vibe was ‘ok, so go away. This is our street, our project – you don’t belong here.’ There was a sense of being an outsider – you’re not one of us.”
During the pandemic, however, Alan has started to reassess his area a bit and “seen the charm of it a bit more.” “I think during Covid-19, everyone’s probably been looking a bit more closely at where they live.” He’s discovered new things about the neighbourhood through the local Whatsapp group that he joined – such as for example the fact that the local shop that he goes to most days was seen by others as a kind of beloved social hub:
“It was actually interesting during Covid to hear people talk about things that you wouldn’t think were necessarily landmarks, like the shop that’s open 18 hours a day – which is actually a fairly nondescript shop, but everyone kind of loves it because it literally sells everything -everything from spanners to dog food to a shower curtain to something to put a birthday cake on. And everyone calls it – apparently – ‘the orange shop.’ And I had no idea that everyone thought of it with that kind of fondness – I mean I’m in there twice a week. And it’s also the only place where I’ve had experience of people effectively giving you credit. You know, once I forgot my wallet, and he said ‘just bring it in the next time.’ And I did think – that’s quite unusual in London.”
Attitudes to British citizenship
Alan defines a good citizen as being “somebody who’s sort of aware of what’s going on in their locale […] I think there needs to be an element either of people not being selfish, or being actively altruistic. […] And potentially, you know, to be a little bit generous rather than doing the absolute minimum.”
Alan tends to think that he is a good citizen, giving the example of always going to the trouble of loading others people’s dishes into the dishwasher at work and cleaning the kitchen, and being told by colleagues that he was ‘very good’ – which irritated him because he thought: ‘well does that mean you’re being bad by not doing this?’
Alan thinks that, in general, British citizenship is not where Alan might like it to be. He feels that he has become more acutely aware of how “individualistic” people can be since his recent trip to Japan, where he felt that people are a lot more community-minded. In Britain Alan thinks that there are too many selfish people: people taking care of themselves and their own families, while disregarding the needs of others. He also believes that UK society is very “polarized”, and raises the example of a recent scheme to set up a low-traffic neighbourhood close to where he lives. Alan was interested in this from a professional point of view, and started to get involved – but quickly got put off by how toxic and divisive the concept had become. He had been considering trying to set up a low-traffic neighbourhood in his own street, but got put off by the toxicity and vitriol that he saw levelled against the people who were trying to organise this- one councillor received death threats and had dog poo posted through her letter box.
As someone who both cycles and owns a car, Alan finds it “disappointing” that you are treated as a pariah by cyclists if they discover you own a car, and as a pariah by drivers if you say that you sometimes cycle. He thinks that, in Britain, there is less and less comfort with grey and nuance – and, in Alan’s view, much of this has to do with the polarising effect of social media, which also encourages real aggression.
Alan does however mention that there seem to have positive trends in the wake of Covid, with people starting to be more interested in the places that they live and more willing to speak to their neighbours. He hopes that this will continue.
With regard to the government response to the pandemic, Alan’s key bugbear is that he thinks that policies tend to be designed for the “imagined” nuclear family, while the needs and realities of single people like him are overlooked.
History of volunteering
Alan has not really done any volunteering in the past, but has always felt that he is “more public-minded” than others and tries to behave in generous ways at work and in other contexts. He thinks that it can boost your mood to be altruistic:
“I’ve seen it written down umpteen times now, particularly on Facebook. You see these things circulated where, you know, just the best route to happiness is to do things for others rather than trying to maximise your income or maximise something that’s just about you and I think it’s broadly true. I think you do feel better.”
He gives two chief reasons for not being active in volunteering in the past: being too busy with his job and social life before 2020, and being unable to find local volunteering opportunities that have interested him and made him feel welcome.
Alan also thinks that there is a social stigma attached to being a single white male out and about and that this makes it difficult to get involved in volunteering opportunities.
“I think it’s an interesting one actually for people of my age – single men. At my age – there’s a question of ‘what are you allowed to join?’ that will be positively received? Because I know – having done some work in the built environment sector – that one of the areas that often gets overlooked – people very quickly start talking about the needs of children. But they don’t necessarily talk about people that aren’t in that population, and – you know – as an example I remember doing a piece of work with a resident’s association that was attached to a tower block estate and they had a lot of middle-aged men who lived there because the accommodation was quite small units – so it suited them. And various of the men said there’s nowhere to sit on the estate other than next to the play area. And if I sit next to the play area, someone will baseball bat me. Because – you know – people think a single man sitting next to a park is a paedophile.”
Alan also speaks of feeling “uncomfortable” in the past when he has gone to cafes by himself, believing that people tend to regard him “with a frisson of suspicion” as a single man.
Alan says that he would never join a local political party or run to be a councillor because that is not really his ‘“cup of tea”, and he has a general dislike of conflict and authority figures. Alan mentions his aversion to conflict several times during the course of the interview.
Volunteering during Covid
When the lockdown came in in March, Alan suddenly found himself with time on his hands and wanted to get involved in something. What he really liked about the local Whatsapp groups that were set up was their anonymity, which gave him a feeling of safety and confidence to engage – unlike in face to face, public spaces and forums.
“But the Covid thing – I think what I really liked about it was the sense that anyone could join and we couldn’t see what each other looked like – we didn’t know how old we were. We didn’t know what social background we were from, we weren’t even talking to one another – because it was all text-based. And so in that sense it was a great leveler, I thought. We didn’t have to go through, you know ‘where do you live? How big is your house? Do you live in a house or block? How educated do you sound? It [Whatsapp] seemed much more inclusive […] and trusted each other a lot faster than they would in a conventional group.”
Alan also says he liked the fact that there seemed to be “less ego”, “less conflict” and fewer “dominant characters” than you might find in s more established, longstanding group – so he liked the agile and new nature of the group, and the kinds of connection and mobilisation that the technology was enabling.
Alan thinks he found his local Mutual Aid Whatsapp group via Facebook, though can’t quite remember. The Whatsapp group was principally set up to help with food requests for shielders. A council hotline was set up, and would often refer relevant requests to the Mutual Aid group for them to deal with. However, the Whatsapp group quickly became clogged with other requests, such as requests for handymen, and help with fixing things. Alan, therefore, helped to set up and moderate a sub-Whatsapp group that was more focussed on troubleshooting “less urgent, but no less important” requests. He helped a lady to fix her boiler for example, by crowdsourcing help from four others who were also part of the group. He also tells a story that he acknowledges “sounds almost like a comedy”, about the Mother Superior of a nunnery asking the group to crowdsource enough milk for the nunnery:
“In the first week we had this – I mean it sounds almost like a comedy – this request from the Mother Superior in the nunnery for milk [..] They run a daycare centre and look after old people, and they literally had no milk, and so we were crowdsourcing milk for Mother Superior. People had a bit of a giggle, but then set forth […] we had to have quite a lot – like 34 litres by lunchtime, and we couldn’t go to Sainsbury’s and get it all from there because there were restrictions. So we had to, you know, divvy it up – and say, ok, you go to this shop, you go to this shop […] and then we got blessed by Mother Superior.”
The group also became an informal “local information page and lending platform.” Alan gives the example of lending some kitchen equipment to a woman who had just moved into an almshouse down the road, and didn’t have any of her own kitchen equipment. She wanted to have a virtual Easter lunch with her family, so he lent her the things she needed:
“One of the things I ended up lending a lady in the group who wanted to have a virtual Easter Sunday dinner with her family – and normally she’d had done that face to face […] she’d just moved into an almshouse and she didn’t have much kitchen equipment and so I lent her things of mine so that she could make her Yorkshire puddings. Because normally she would go to her daughter’s. So I went and delivered it and then collected it a week later. It was just things like that – trying to enable things to happen.”
Alan enjoyed this work and reports that it wasn’t a particularly big time commitment. He was moderating the group alongside two others and thinks he probably spent about two hours per day checking the group and sometimes troubleshooting requests. As he is a bit of a night owl, he tended to moderate the group in the evenings while another lady did the work in the morning – Alan really likes this “versatility” of the Whatsapp platform.
By the summer, however, activity on the main Whatsapp group had started to subside. Alan thinks this was partly because people had managed to get online delivery slots or were no longer having to shield: a lot of the most urgent requests that the group had to deal with related to delivering groceries (some of which Alan did himself, though he tended to be mostly home-based).
He also thinks that the issues started to grow more complex, and there started to be more “awkwardness” around the issues that they were dealing with:
“One of the challenges was that an increasing number of the requests for groceries were from people who couldn’t afford to pay for them, which became harder to fulfil […] so as a mutual aider, you’d have to go and pay for something, and then hope you’ll get reimbursed. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that myself. I think it did highlight to people that there were quite a lot of people who were clearly both vulnerable from a health point of view but were also financially very insecure.”
Alan says it became difficult to know whether they should just ‘believe everybody’ when they said they needed help, or whether they should apply some kind of ‘judgment.’ Or if someone asks frequently for free groceries, should they say ‘you’ve had one lot.’’ Alan heard of arguments in another group over whether it was appropriate to fetch bottles of scotch or packets of cigarettes for people, or whether people should accept food parcels from the council if they hadn’t paid for it, even if they were unhappy with what it contained.
Over time, the group’s lack of expertise and inexperience with navigating these complex issues and questions meant that they had to liaise with the council’s formal support more often.
“It became more challenging as time went on […] because a good 40% of requests were from people who were in that – you know – group that didn’t have money […] There were slight awkwardnesses to it which had taken a turn from the original feel of the group – and I wonder whether some people withdrew from the group after the initial surge. Initially, there was a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’, and then I think it became a bit challenging for some people – because it’s then talking about poverty, and the welfare system, and disadvantage, and whether [the council] is good or bad or indifferent at supporting such people.”
This issue of inequality that has been exposed through the mutual aid group is clearly on Alan’s mind because he mentions it again at a later point in the interview:
“One of the issues with the Covid group as it went on […] is the kind of rubbing up against the hard reality of people’s lives. At the start it was a little bit ‘oh this is almost jolly and interesting and ooh we can help our neighbours,’ and then within a few weeks it became a slightly awkward realisation that there are people in our midst who have practically no money at all and can’t afford to put food on the table – in the same street as others are ordering Ocado and buying bags of organic pasta. And I think that’s uncomfortable for people. And I think politics does come into it -you know, I had friends of mine who said they wouldn’t clap for the NHS out of protest – they said it was a political act.”
The other activity that Alan took part in was baking cakes. He is a keen baker and thought that this was something he could easily get involved in.
A woman organised this, initially establishing a group on Whatsapp that Alan joined. The group would all bake a cake every Wednesday, and take it to the lady – she would then deliver them to the local fire station, the mental health team, people working in the hospitals, and so on.
Alan thinks that one of the nice things about this initiative was that the woman who organised it “didn’t just pick the usual suspects […] she was trying to really seek out smaller bits of the public sector.” The cake bakers would exchange pictures of their cakes over Whatsapp, and also received messages of thanks from the services that received them.
Alan enjoyed the social aspect of the initiative and the fact that it gave him a routine – something to do every Wednesday. He says he took part for about 14 weeks over the summer months, but the activity stopped when the woman who had been organising it moved away. There had been talk of the bakers going for a picnic over the summer, but it never happened. Alan seems a bit disappointed about that.
Looking to the future
Since Alan believes he might be looking for work for quite some time, he has been wondering whether to get involved in more volunteering. He’s considered getting involved in a food bank but has slight reservations about that because he is worried about the health implications of a face-to-face position. Although he’s started to view his local area through a more positive lens, he also thinks that there is a dearth of volunteering opportunities in his local area, with a lack of issues that really “galvanize” people. As he wants to eventually start working again, he’s also wary of taking on an opportunity that’s exhausting or which he finds he can’t get rid of; he doesn’t want to find himself overcommitted.
“In my experience, the moment you take on a role like Treasurer or something, it’s incredibly hard to ditch it. I am conscious that you can volunteer and end up being given all the jobs. The only way to get rid of it is to actually leave the area!”
At the same time – if he can find an opportunity that feels manageable and sustainable – Alan is interested in putting his energies into a project that reaps results and produces some kind of change: he wants to see a project “come to fruition.”
Alan is particularly interested in exploring alternative living and co-housing projects for older people, and has recently signed up to an LGBTQ co-housing project for older people to this end.
“The idea of possibly bringing a project to fruition that literally exists. You know – you could point to a development and say ‘I helped with that.’ And so I quite like the idea of being involved in something that does have an outcome – you know, something tangible, rather than ‘I just ran a society for x years’ and nothing much changed other than you just kept it going.”
I’d rather be involved with something that enables positive things to happen, rather than just argue with the council all the time about planning applications or something like that. Again because I don’t generally like conflict and I don’t really want to be in a situation where you’re meeting people who are going to take an opposing view, so you have to argue and feel like you’ve won or lost – I find that really tricky to deal with. And so I’d like to be involved in something positive with a lasting benefit.”
Alan worries that, when Covid-19 is over and people go back to more face-to-face interactions, many of the changes and benefits that came about this year will be lost. While platforms like Whatsapp were revealed to be useful to community activity and demonstrated that you don’t need existing organisations in order to effect change, “all of those old prejudices and judgments will come to light, which we’ve actually bizarrely managed to avoid this year.”
This story sits within our Active Neighbours work. To find out more about the different types of Covid volunteer, their motivations, experiences and needs, take a look at our Field Guide.
“Being useful […] It’s giving back to people that need it and giving time to people that need it more than me just sitting at home, and meeting people from all walks of life, and getting more involved in my area. It’s breaking down barriers, and I’ve really appreciated that. […] You think from the outset that you’re not going to gel with certain people, and then you’re surprised. Like at the end of the programme, you had people saying ‘we’ll see each other again soon’ […] I like being able to help in person. I’ve got really tired of Zoom”
“With all the restrictions in place, there was a lot of questions about how much I could do or how much was normal to do. I didn’t want to put too much stress on myself but I wanted to help out as much as I could. I was brought up in a household where I was expected to do all the housework, the DIY, preparing meals. That was considered normal for me but with some individuals, depending on what their household is like, what is normal is different; I wanted to do more and more but I didn’t want to ask and they didn’t ask.”