Christmas can be a stressful time for many – family and friends are thrown together and inevitably differences of opinion get aired. And as if the traditional family fault lines aren’t enough we now have the aftermath of a bruising election to add to the list of divisive topics that can ruin a family get-together. Of course, working in the voluntary sector seems to be a particular target for a certain type of family member who thinks that only commerce counts (and fair play to them – it is really their festival these days). At my family gatherings the public sector used to be their target but they are largely off the hook these days thanks to some spectacularly unsuccessful attempts by commerce to run public services such as the railways, G4S’s attempt at running security for the olympics, Capita’s endless blunders or the spectacular implosion of Carillion. So now their ire seems to be reserved for our sector. What are we good for in a market economy? It’s not always easy to to come back with a quick response – even if most people’s lives revolve around something other than commerce – whether it’s spiritual, sports, the arts or just hobbies with friends, somehow it’s hard to make the case when you’re put on the spot.
So I was pleasantly surprised when reading Eddie Izzard’s autobiography (Believe Me) to find that not only was he very much a man of commerce – he actually says that he is a ‘man of commerce’ and that he has a ‘love of commerce’ and spends a good deal of time in the book showing how he plotted his career moves – but what also stands out is the role our sector played at some crucial stages in his life. When Eddie first came to London in the early 1980s he seems like a lost soul – he is living in a bedsit in Islington with no job and no clear idea of where he is going, professionally or personally. Not yet out as trans person, Eddie decided to join a help group, but only two existed in the country, The Beaumont Society (which first met in 1966 in Hampstead) and the TV/TS Help Group which met in Islington on Upper Street. Eddie became a regular at the TV/TS Help Group and eventually volunteered on the helpline. Camden and Islington back then were trailblazers of gay rights (as it was known then). The TV/TS Help Group was supported by London Friend. The Monday Club – an offshoot of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality(CHE) (original member our own, long standing VAC trustee, Brian Parker) and other groups set up in Camden and Islington as tolerant places with good voluntary sector support networks. In London the GLC, too, backed gay rights, but the national mood was not so tolerant (remember section 28?).
As Eddie continued to discover himself he was refining the art of street performing around Covent Garden (Seven Dials is in Camden and the piazza is just over the border in Westminster) . But after working for years to nail his act he realized that what he really wanted to do was be a stand up comedian. He had no idea how to do it or where to begin. The answer turned out to be close to home – he signed up for a stand up workshop at Jackson’s Lane community centre. Soon he cracked it and in fact his very first stand up gig was at Jackson’s Lane too. Jackson’s lane is just over the border in Haringey and thankfully is still going strong. Community centres are a hugely undervalued part of the national landscape and thankfully our bit of London has many stellar examples.
The sector played a role in many other parts of Eddie’s life too – from the role the Samaritans played in helping his dad through the death of Eddies Mum when he was a boy and helping his dad meet someone new, to Eddie’s involvement with Bexhill Museum. Of course Eddie has given back so much – not just through his fantastic artistic talents but directly through the incredible marathons that he runs for Sport Relief (there are plenty of Sport Relief beneficiaries in Camden, notably Fitzrovia Youth in Action). I’m glad the sector was there for you when you needed us Eddie, and thank you for giving back so much to all of us.
The world may be dominated by commerce, but our role is still an important one (even if those awkward family members don’t think so). So Merry Christmas – we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!