This time last week I was sitting outside on a chair, eating cake, in the middle of my street – just a normal, west London residential road, a street of early 20th century houses, a street which is normally lined with parked cars and which serves as a useful cut through to the nearby tube station.
A street where, on regular days, people would doubtless think you’d lost your mind if you so much as sat in your front garden instead of around the back.
But last Sunday was different, because me and my neighbours were taking part in the second annual Big Lunch – a day in which around one million people all over Britain sat down with their neighbours for a communal meal. And so, for just one day, the road was closed, the cars were relocated, bunting and balloons were strung across the road and woven into the trees – and around one hundred adults and children came together in my street for a communal barbecue, followed by homemade cakes and puddings.
My street in London is very ordinary and is like thousands of others all over the UK – a row of terraced houses, built in the Edwardian years at the turn of the twentieth century in order to house the growing middle class population of white collar workers such as bank clerks and office staff. Some of the houses are owned, some are rented; some are single family units, others are let out as individual rooms to a transient population of twenty-somethings from a variety of countries. Most of the houses have now been updated from their original build and have had new kitchens, bathrooms or loft conversions bolted on, although some do have the ancient 7’ x 11’ galley kitchen and prehistoric bathroom fittings still in situ (we inherited the original loo, complete with overhead cistern and hanging chain, when we moved in in 2001).
Above all though, we have a huge diversity and richness of talent in the street that I never really appreciated until one of my neighbours heard of the Big Lunch, then in its early stages, last year and leafleted the street to see if anyone was interested in helping him organise our very own street party. Before the 2009 Big Lunch, our street was fairly typical, in that some of us knew our immediate neighbours (and we are only a road of 27 houses, so not a huge population) but nobody knew everybody.
I remember when there was a discussion a year ago over what entertainment to put on for the children and someone exclaimed: “What children? Do we even have any kids living here?”
But we actually have nearly 30, if we’d only known it at the time.
And diversity? At this year’s lunch, we had participants from the following countries: all four corners of the UK, the USA, Canada, Poland, Bangladesh, Jamaica, India, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Russia and the Netherlands.
And this diversity of backgrounds also brings with it an amazing array of jobs; a quick poll told me that amongst us we have a:
psychotherapist, a BBC producer, a professional sitar player, an opera singer, an actuary, a CBT therapist, a vicar, an actress (who once had her own story arc in “Sex and the City”!), a motorbike salesman, some freelance musicians who teach drums and play in a band, an HR manager for a museum, a midwife, a man who makes models for film sets such as “Gulliver’s Travels”, assorted sales assistants, a primary school teacher, a management consultant and various people who “do things in IT”.
What was great about the Big Lunch was not only the way in which this kind of event truly brings people together in a social sense, but also the way in which people contributed their skills to the organisation of it all.
We had three barbecue stations on the go; Paul made us a playlist and plugged his iPod into someone else’s speakers so that we could have music. I ordered all the food and took delivery of a huge Ocado order, but that food was then stored overnight in multiple fridges up and down the street. Wei-Hei used her discount card to buy the disposable plates, cups and cutlery at a great price from the cash and carry; Glynis spoke to a friend at a local church and arranged for us to borrow their tables in return for a small donation to the church roof fund (there’s always a church roof fund, isn’t there?). Liz went up and down the street, saying hello and getting people to sign up for the lunch; Russell used his great graphic design skills to knock out newsletters for everyone, but particularly for those of our neighbours who don’t have email (which, given that some of them are in their 70s and 80s, is very much the case).
Astrid bought and stored all the drinks; Bevan collected the “Road Closed” signs from the local council depot; other neighbours contributed bunting (made out of what looked like old pyjamas), a gazebo, tables and chairs. I did all the email communications with the Mayor’s office, the local community policing team and our local ward councillors; TLS was in charge of the budget, on the basis that he’s great at getting money out of people and he also used his truck to fetch and carry various signs and bits of furniture.
Most crucially, in terms of the atmosphere on the day, our local musicians, who form a truly fabulous band called Storey (check them out on iTunes and Spotify) gave us a completely brilliant two hour concert. They played their own stuff (with which quite a few of us are now familiar, as we try to go to their local gigs when we can), then went into some great covers and finally got members of the audience to join them on drums, tambourine and backing vocals. Who knew that Mark was such a great drummer, or that Ingrid could sing so well?
And I guess that’s the whole point of diversity – how do you know what skills people have, unless you open up the doors (or the street) and include them? I’ve had several job interviews (yes … still …) recently in which I’ve been asked: “What does diversity mean to you?” – and my answer is – it’s always all about the talent. Just like the childless person who assumed that, like him, our road was childfree, I think that many unenlightened leaders think that having more people like them in the leadership team is the only way to lead the company, or organise the street party.
But for me, the Big Lunch events are a great reminder of a couple of things:
- That I’m so lucky to live in this lovely street in this fabulously multi-cultural city;
- That not sweating the small stuff is generally a great idea – and we will usually get there, wherever “there” may be, in the end;
- And that the greatest outcome can always be achieved by having a mixture of talents and inputs from a wide variety of people.
Oh, and? Street parties are way more fun when you get blue skies and sunshine (2010) rather than dark skies and rain (2009).