Published: 8 September, 2011
by PETER GRUNER
GROUCHO Marx famously said he would refuse to join any club that would have him as a member. However, being part of an organisation appears to be something of a national obsession, according to Highbury author Henry Hemming.
His book Together celebrates this country’s extraordinary abundance of clubs and societies.
He argues that rather than being “broken”, Britain is in fact thriving thanks to millions of self-help and voluntary groups.
From fancy rat and rabbit groups, to local choirs, charities and tenant associations, there’s a club for every taste and persuasion.
Hemming, 31, rejects reports that traditional neighbourliness is on the decline and that people are lonelier than ever before.
He said: “I originally thought I’d be writing a book about the decline of people belonging to clubs and societies in Britain. No one was more surprised than me to discover that the opposite is true and that more people are joining up than ever before.”
He argues that thanks to the internet, including Facebook and Twitter, there is now a worldwide community that wants to communicate.
“Witness the Arab Spring,” Henry said. “A lot of it was generated by the internet and word of mouth. And then there’s the aftermath of Britain’s riots. Who would have guessed that so many people would come forward and volunteer to help with the clean up? It was all possible thanks to the internet.”
Britain’s famous Blitz spirit has meant that whatever the problem or catastrophe, there’s always a self-help group.
Henry added: “King’s Cross United is made up of 100 passengers and survivors of the July 7 suicide bombs on the Underground. The movement came together to care for and comfort each other, to remember the dead, injured and bereaved.”
The General Household survey estimated that the percentage of Britons who belonged to clubs had risen from 34 per cent to 38 per cent between 1996 and 2002. Of those who took part in the British Social Attitudes Survey of 1998, 21 per cent said they belonged to community groups, while 26 per cent were involved in sports and cultural groups.
The internet has sparked a revolution in the proliferation and promotion of clubs and organisations. Now groups can advertise and gain new members – for free – on the web.
A small group of belly dancers called the Desert Divas suddenly found they were getting an upsurge in calls to perform once they appeared online, while the Greater London Dutch Rabbit Club attracted new members with their web presence.
Emails add to the feeling of fellowship within a group, according to Hemming. “The messages that are sent might contain advice, tips and other shards of information. They bring people closer and generate a greater sense of camaraderie than was possible before the internet.”
He admits the internet, as well as being a power for good, can also be an engine for bad. As we now know, many of the rioters used the web to organise their activities.
Successive governments have promoted volunteering, calling on people to give up time to help a good cause.
We know why.
Prime Minister David Cameron has his “Big Society”, but New Labour also encouraged civic participation with their “V Day” for Volunteering Day.
Historically, Britons have been a nation of society founders.
The country’s largest conservation group, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, began in 1889 when a handful of women from Cheshire started to campaign against the fashionable use of the great crested grebe feathers.
Hemming explained: “We are altruistic. We form groups to protect those who cannot help themselves even when there is no short-term or long-term threat to ourselves.”
Hemming grew up in West London and has lived at Highbury Barn for five years. He says shops in the area are part of the close-knit community.
“I use small shops as much as possible. These outlets manage to survive against competition from the big supermarkets thanks to the support they get from the local residents.”
Hemming revealed that he also makes use of clubs.
He’s a member of a five-aside football club in Battersea and he belongs to a creative writing group who meet in various pubs in the West End.
• Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things. By Henry Hemming. John Murray £9.99