Finding Community in Unofficial Places

So, I haven’t got a regular, full time job. It’s not easy generating your own living as any self employed person will attest. However, one of the huge plus sides is the wide range of people that you meet and unusual places you find yourself visiting.

I had the pleasure of running willow workshops at a very unusual event this past weekend. The group call themselves ‘The Unofficial WI’, and are all WI members, but choose to also be part of a less ‘straight laced’ group which organises events such as their summer camp. I was booked in to offer basketmaking workshops last October – noone can say they aren’t organised! So off I drove to near Blackpool on Friday morning, early, unsure of what to expect upon my arrival.

The first class went very well, 10 lovely frame baskets were made. The were some women with creaky hands, so we took our time, but everyone was very pleased with the results. This pic is of two of the participants who were so pleased they skipped off afterwards like little red riding hood with her granny’s hamper on their arms!

Their enthusiasm was wonderful and definitely helped me to feel I had done a good job teaching.

I had heard that in the evening they would have a ‘fuddle’ which refers to bringing & sharing food. I hadn’t brought anything to drink, and so one of my students was off out to the shops & offered to buy me a beer. She came back with the largest wheat beer she could find and refused my attempts to pay for it, I confess I was touched by her generosity. I cooked my contribution for the fuddle and and 6.45pm sharp everyone was ready to eat. They had transformed the huge barn into a large buffet table, with seating and a disco area. All the women were dressed up for a ‘beach party’ with flowers and hula skirts and even inflatable parrots. Not usually my cup of tea, but I had some of my beer, a plate of food, and started to feel one of the crowd.

Some of my students from that afternoon asked me to join them. We sat and ate together, and I started asking about the Unofficial WI. I am still a bit hazy on some of the details, however one quote I do remember: ‘the WI for me is about being yourself’. And as I understand it, the Unofficial WI is an unincorporated off shoot of the WI for women that wish for a more ‘modern’ approach to a women’s group. The WI has a reputation for tweeds and stuffiness, and there certainly was none of that here! I was also told that the WI comprises almost a million members….now that is a lot of women.

One of my students from that afternoon told me she had ovarian cancer. At 78 years old, she could just stay indoors and feel sorry for herself. But she chose to come to this event – make baskets – and enjoy the company of other women. She said she’d like to live life to the full, then die peacefully in her sleep, quickly, without fuss. What a refreshing approach to death, and an openness and ability to talk about things that really matter.

The feeling of camaraderie in the hall was great, but I felt I needed a change of scene. So I went into the main building where the activities take place during the day, near the kitchen.

What I found there was a small cluster of women looking very pleased with themselves. They were centred around a table of small glass bottles, with labels as curious as Alice’s, and potions inside with potentially similar effects. ‘The best thing’, one lady said, ‘is to try them all, then go round again just to be sure!’.
The bottles contained the homemade spirits, mainly gin & vodka, which had been judged that afternoon. I tried a few in a little shot glass. My favourites were a redcurrant gin (and normal I hate gin) and a blackberry vodka. The pomegranate gin was lovely too. The plum gin I didn’t enjoy. After a few of these, and nowhere near a full round, I had to admit to being a lightweight, and I left the growing crowd to continue their quality control mission with the fragrant and colourful bottles of hand picked grog.

I went upstairs and responsibly got ready for bed. On the landing, I came across a small group of women knitting. I sat with them and asked what they were making. ‘Hearts for the victims of Grenfell’ was the immediate answer. There was also a basket of part made fidget quilts, used to help people with dementia. Even at 11pm these women were doing productive things, with love and care. We began talking about ourselves, and I found an unexpected commonality with them. My eldest son has a learning disability and autism. One of their sons had severe epilepsy, another had a son with Fragile X. We talked about the difficulties of the ‘support system’, how traumatic the repeated assessments can be, and the subjects of work and relationships for people that are ‘different’. It was an open conversation, and reinforced the feeling of community I had already been experiencing.

Off to bed at a sensible hour while the party was still going on – sleep in the dorm room wasn’t much of a problem, though my room mate had a snore to wake the dead. The next day I woke feeling pretty clear and focussed, got some tea & packed my bags. I went into the barn again, to get ready for my next workshop. It had been beautifully tidied already. No food left unbelievably!

I had no fewer than 18 women making a catalan platter. It was very busy, particularly with the noisy decoupage group nearby, but I split my class into roughly two groups and we wove away the morning. More conversations emerged, this time about mental health problems in our families. One woman’s daughter had Borderline Personality Disorder, my mother was Bipolar and had a personality disorder as well. My mother is dead, but her daughter is still alive and adjusting to life beyond her illness. Brave and strong mothers abound.

It is a wonderful thing, after just a few hours of handwork, that women that do not know each other feel able to talk about their lives together. When you are living your own life with its myriad of complexities, pain and heartache, and looking at it from the inside, it can be isolating and frightening. Finding time and opportunity to touch the hearts of others experiencing similar journeys is valuable beyond measure.

So my unusual job has led me to an unofficial place, and community is the end result. Though not straightforward, and usually pretty challenging, my work does take me places many jobs cannot. This one was an insight into a type of mainstream subculture I didn’t even know existed.

Who knows – perhaps I may join the WI after all?

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  1. Loved making my willow basket, I shall use it to collect eggs from my chickens, perfect size! Thank you for teaching us, glad you enjoyed the weekend 🙂