On the same May day in 2005 that US businessman Malcolm Glazer completed his takeover of Manchester United, a group of disgruntled fans met up in the city for a curry. Across the table they discussed a vague idea to set up a breakaway football club, run as a co-operative, in protest at what they saw as the loss of “their” club. By the end of the night the plan must have sounded fantastic.
Two months after leaving that curry-house, FC United of Manchester played its first match and, despite the fact that they failed to score, the players were carried off the pitch by a sea of jubilant supporters. No one owned the club, no one got paid and everyone involved was a volunteer, from the stewards to the people making the pies spectators bought at half-time. This season, they made it to the second round of the FA Cup.
This club of self-selected volunteers is just one of thousands of small groups, associations and societies who meet week in, week out across the UK, gathering in small communities that are not defined by who lives next door or across the street.
Yet, in 2008, a rash of gloomy newspaper headlines about “lonely Britain” greeted a report commissioned by the BBC from researchers at Sheffield university. “Changing UK” argued that one-quarter of people in Britain were “lonely”, a result of a more “atomised” society. In their bestselling book The Spirit Level (2009), authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that modern Britons experience “little or no community life.” Conclusions such as these rely too heavily on the indisputable fact that many of us are indeed less connected than previous generations to our neighbourhoods. But this does not mean that people’s sense of community, of belonging, has been lost entirely – it merely comes from many different sources. The members of FC United were not neighbours, yet they formed a vibrant community with a sense of identity and fellowship.
The same goes for a mass of small groups in Britain today, be they bridge clubs, women’s institutes, reading groups, home-schoolers or any number of gatherings dedicated to specialist interests. There are knitters and quilters; doll’s house builders and Dutch rabbit fanciers; fancy rat breeders, fuchsia lovers and devoted restorers of elderly camper vans. In 2008 the National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimated the existence of 900,000 civil society groups.
Yet we hear very little about these groups other than perhaps the noisier political-protest ones. The 2011 national census that is being taken later this month will provide plenty of data that will renew debate about lonely, atomised Britain. Meanwhile, groups of people across the country will be quietly meeting, just as they did the week before. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “If men are to remain civilised or to become civilised, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads.”
Henry Hemming is the author of ‘Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things’ (John Murray)
FC United of Manchester
The amateur club – aimed at players, supporters and families – was set up in 2005 by a group of Manchester United fans angered by US businessman Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Man U, writes Peter Marlow. It is owned and run by its 2,000 members, and, says organiser Tom Stott, its mission statement is “Making friends, not millionaires”. I meet him and other members about to board the one official coach on match day, opposite Yates’s Wine Lodge in the city centre. There’s even an international supporter in the shape of Matthias, from Germany: “This shows it’s not only dreaming,” he says. “Fans can really create something special, something professional.”
Then it’s off on the stupendous drive along Snake Pass to Sheffield to play Stocksbridge Park Steels in the Evo-Stik League, premier division. Yet again it may not be the Nou Camp Barcelona, but, says Tom, a home match is “only eight quid to get in, £2 for kids – it’s about affordable football. For a dad with lads, it would cost over £100 at Old Trafford.”
I learn later they lost 2-1.
It’s dark in the leafy suburbia that is West Dulwich, London, and I have entered the very epicentre of clubland. In Joyce Tunna’s sitting room 17 quilters, all women, are gathered to hear a talk by Maxine March on second world war Canadian Red Cross quilts. I never meet Joyce’s husband – he prefers to stay upstairs, out of the way.
Khurshid Bamboat is the club’s publicity officer and has been quilting since 1982. “I love the feel of it; silk and cotton – instead of meditating I’ll go and stroke fabric. It makes me happy and peaceful again.”
Maxine is in demand – she is booked up as a speaker until April 2012. Her talk is fascinating, even to me as a non-quilter. Khurshid and the others, sunk into one of Joyce’s deep sofas, are transfixed. Just one more quilt and the story of its likely provenance and how Maxine found it … And just one last cup of tea. It has been a lovely evening.
Club V-Dub, Kent
“We have an anti-anorak policy,” says Dee Parkinson, the club’s founder and organiser. “V-Dubs … I love the simplicity of them. When they break down, which they often do, it is just basic mechanics, no computers or anything like that. They are easy to fix.”
The club welcomes all-comers: aircooled, water-cooled, split-windscreen, bay-windowed, so long as they have the VW marque, and, from what I see, plenty of rust. Lining up to travel in convoy in heavy rain to a local park, fellow member Rob, in his Union Jackpainted 1966 split-windscreen example, needs a bump-start. Dee is worried that his borrowed 1976 high-top might run out of petrol. Carl and Sue’s 1973 Devon Bay Window needs 10 of us to push it up the hill after it gets stuck in mud.
After seven years, Club V-Dub has 35 members who meet on the first and third Thursday of each month in Broadstairs, before heading off for a drive and a rendezvous in a pub. Dee has spotted some huge puddles en route. “Drive fast through those a few times and save on jet-washing,” he advises.
On a cold Monday night, this north London-based ladies choreography group is visiting a salsa class in Tottenham, where every week about 150 people are learning the dance. Classes are followed by a demonstration dance to show what can be done with, well, a lot of practice.
Tonight the visiting experts are Las Salseras, who will deliver a short performance with a 1970s theme. “You are outside your comfort zone,” says Sandhya, “but just doing it in front of all those people … when you are going through a tough time, it takes you through your emotions.”
“There’s no money in it,” says Giselle of G&G Salsa, who runs the group and organises its numerous demonstration performances at salsa clubs from Harlow to Hayling Island. “We once got taxi money in Chislehurst, but it was only one-way from the station.”
Tech Heds Robotics
A group of home-schooled children meets once a week in the Swindon home of Shena Deuchars, who, like the youngsters’ other parents, has opted out of the formal education system. Ignoring the trampoline in the garden, the children are engrossed in work based around the First Lego League robotics competition. The group is building a glove that, by employing some very sophisticated physics, helps someone with a weak grip to hold objects. Is it working? “Only if we remember to plug it in,” says Peter, who forgot to do just that at a recent competition. The group is applying for patents in the UK and US. Peter, 14, says: “With Lego you don’t need to learn welding – it’s surprising how much you learn without being taught.”
The children’s education is based around projects that interest them, ranging from drama and art to break dancing and even horse-whispering.
Chelmsford Dolls House Club
“Our husbands don’t like to come, but they seem to like to help us with the work at home,” says Barbara Allan, who started the club 16 years ago. The club’s 25 members are working on a project to create a “room-box” of a Tudor kitchen, working from boxes run up by a local carpenter at £14 a time. Tonight’s lesson is on how to create the fireplace using egg boxes, flour and PVA glue.
The end result, with convincing smoke stains, is impressive. In the next couple of weeks a speaker is booked to give a talk to the club on how to make a pair of dead pheasants to hang beside the fireplace. Presumably the plan is to do enough of these boxes, then fit them all together to make a complete Tudor house. I do not ask, preferring not to spoil the mystery. It is going to take a while.
Derbyshire Dairy Goat Club
Never work with children or animals, or so they say, but here I am at Lindway Lane Farm with Charlotte, Isaac, Ruby, Molly, Candace and Clio; the last two being goats aged eight and two. Forty years ago Jackie Snell, whose farm it is, worked at a university science research facility where colleagues tried (and failed) to give her a goat as a wedding present. Now she is a member of the Derbyshire Dairy Goat Club and owner of seven prize-winning pedigree British Toggenburg goats. Her mantelpiece is full of rosettes, ribbons, cups and other awards, including quite a few that seem to relate to rabbits.
The club meets in Bakewell on the last Saturday of each month and, with more than 30 families enrolled, it represents about 260 goats. “I am always looking to breed the perfect goat,” says Jackie. “They are bit like big dogs, very intelligent. They think about things and always seem to be able to work out what is going to happen next.”