Sunday, 18 July 2010

The Big Society writ large at the Point Show

WH1212 was quiet last week because I was on Lewis. Not that the island was quiet, it was jumping and I was busy between whale watching, planting bushes, visiting relatives and opening the Point Agricultural Show, which was a great honour for any Rubhach. The sun shone on the event and, with the speech over, it was a great day out.

Back in sweltering London I see that David Cameron is making a speech to flesh out the concept of the "Big Society" tomorrow before he sets off for the States. If I clear border control hopefully I'll be going with him.

Funny he should be making a speech about the Big Society, it was the theme I took for my opening remarks to the Point Show. I spoke about that and an idea I had for for micro-housing associations to t rent out empty homes in villages to young people, and a cracking plan to make the biggest family photo album in the world - the Rubhach Album. Here's a flavour of the speech:

"To be honest I don’t know what Tory MPs would make of the Point show. But I think David Cameron could learn a lesson or two from a day like this and a place like Point.

You see when David Cameron talks about the Big Society – his big idea – you get the feeling he’s never seen what he’s talking about.

But I know what he means when he talks about people taking responsibility for their own patch, having respect for their neighbours and their neighbourhood, being involved in the decisions about their own lives.

What he means is this, this place, the small community.

Now around 2000 people and ten miles square some people think Point is a huge community.

I always think of Point the Hong Kong of Lewis - densely packed, inventive, highly competitive and immensely rich compared to it’s neighbours.

In truth it’s about the right size for a community, and the truth is that it works as a community - events like today prove that.

And although we don’t do so much of the hard communal labour that used to bind us -at peats, the harvest, the fank - we still have common interest and the common purpose that bring us together.

That sees Point through good days like this, and has seen Point through bad days in the past and probably bad times in the future.

And there are other things that we sometimes take completely for granted - from the splendor of the Braighe that we cross to get to mainland China to the psalms we sing at church - that make us what we are, a community.

As a journalist I always look for the small detail to give me the big picture, and for me one of these details in Point is the Rubhach magazine.

It’s a great paper but I have to admit, like someone said to me when I joined the Daily Record, I read the pictures first.

The hundreds of photos that appear in the Rubhach each year, everyone carefully named, are great mini stories in themselves. They’re an incredible example of the interaction of the community with its own newspaper, and with itself.

The newspaper industry that I work in, an industry that wonders what the future it has at all, would love to tap into the kind of loyalty.

The kind of trust that allows readers to share their family photos - the things we would run back into a burning house to save - with a local newspaper. It’s amazing but here in Point you do it month in month out without too much thought.

And it is such a precious resource and I hate it when I have to pass the Rubhach on to my sister. I lose the pictures and I’d like to see a permanent record of them

I think it would be great if all these digitized sepia photos could all be uploaded onto a website of their own. It would be a great asset for Point. The Sheshadar website is showing the way, you can see things like the village in a snowstorm in 1976 and people who are no longer with us.

And if you were to do that for Point you could have a map of the peninsula and click on a village, and even click on a house number who lived there and how they are related and how they are connected to you.

And you could get it to show, if you wanted, the military history of this community – you could see photos of John Munro from 23 Swordale, the lost war poet, who won the Military Cross.

Or Lt John MacLeod, 19 Swordale, whose name is not just on the memorial here in Garrabost but another one in Basra, modern day Iraq, where he died fighting in 1916.

Or you could click on school photos, they would all come up by year, by school, in order, and we could see ourselves and our parents and our children grow up in front of our eyes.

I don’t think there’s anything like that in existence yet - in the Highlands of Scotland anyway - but you know Point, always inventive, always first.

And it would be a first - the Rubhach Album - the biggest family photo album in the world.

And while we try to use technology to capture this sense of belonging I know we sometimes wonder if our community is slipping away.

I look at my own village, Swordale, being diminished each season with the passing of the generations. And I hear the uncertainty that creates - when older people do not know who their next neighbours will be when they lived their whole lives up to now with the same neighbours.

I do wonder if we do enough to make sure young adults, who leave to be educated, return to carry our community forwards.

I must admit I wince when students tell me their parents have bought them a flat in Govan or in Aberdeen. Not because its is wrong, its a sensible idea, but I know that because I know that after college is over that is where they will carry on living there and they won’t come back.

And meanwhile the houses in our own villages are emptying quickly.

They are good houses, reasonable houses, and if they belonged to the community, or to a small housing trust with community involvement, they could be looked after and rented out to young, local people

We have to start thinking these kinds of serious thoughts about encouraging young people to come home on their own terms.

That means allowing young people to set up their own home, with their own rules, in our own villages. Because after living in their own place for three years they want independence from the family home.

It’s not an answer, just an idea. Young people need work too. But again I look at my own village and see the expertise there - sea captains, master engineers, health experts, educationalists, craftsmen who have run their own companies for 20 years.

These are people who have a wealth of experience of taking responsibility, of managing other people, delivering projects and creating solutions in the workplace.

For me they are the ideal people to have as directors of small businesses or projects to help young people explore their own ideas for living here.

A big problem like depopulation does not have a big answer. It has a million small answers - from hiring a graduate to put the Rubhach photo archive online to finding a village that has the courage to become its own landlord, and to buy up and refurbish the empty houses and rent them out to young people from the village.

These are not small things, especially when they rely on volunteer effort and community spirit, like this show itself.

I don’t underestimate them. But big challenges need big communities to take them on, and this place is one, this is the real Big Society.

Which is really why David Cameron should be standing here opening the show – maybe next year.

But, on with the show.

You know nothing beats the smell of Point on the day of the Point Show.

If you drive down from Swordale, we are the kings of the hill up there, down through the villages all the way to Aird the air is alive with the wonderful scent.

Not todhar or sheep dip, no, it is a heady aroma of lavender and rosewater and camilla.

It is the combined scent of the finest hair washing products known to man. And none of it goes on human hair. It is all for the sheep.

In years to come when the community windfarm is making millions for the Point –as I know it will if you support it - we should maybe just send the profits directly to Superdrug in Francis St, because they make more money this week on shampoo sales than on any other week of the year.

And that is only for the sheep.

There is knitting and sewing and baking and cows and horses.

There is the effort of a year, the fruits of the summer the harvest of the winter hearth.

And the hopes of a hundred contestants await us. Like my new Conservative friend said - it a right royal show we should get on with it.

So, it is my pleasure to declare the 2010 Point Show open. ‘S math theid leibh."

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