Voluntary association makes us tick

Last week, the Inkerman Area Residents Association, which has been around for the past 30 years in Kentish Town, north London, held its second-ever summer event: a party in Alma Street. Proudly independent of the council and political parties, the association is a forum for community activism.

It was a bright sunny day. Street stalls sold clothes, trinkets and food, from Lebanese koftehs to Jamaican empanadas, while local bands played. As well as face-painted children scurrying around in the potato and spoon race, there were elderly people in wheelchairs, women in hijabs, tattooed crusties and more.

Here were what Orwell would have called "characteristic fragments of the English scene" - though this new English scene, so multicultural and varied, would be almost unrecognisable to that cartographer of Englishness.

With the quickening pace of globalisation, linking us into an interconnected network driven by technology, communications and commerce, there's been a new emphasis on the local. Throughout the country, all the time, such voluntary associations come together. And though we're familiar with national events such as the Notting Hill Carnival or the Hay Festival, the fabric of society is made up of these small-scale institutions and gatherings that bind us together with invisible ties.

It can be easy to get carried away with the political and legal skirmishes in the third sector, obsessed with what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences", and forget the associational forms that are so important for community cohesion.

These are not groups that have sought the recognition of charitable status. They don't cost much. There's no anxiety of government influence. We needn't worry about effectiveness. Yet the habit of forming voluntary associations is a vital exercise of citizenship. People eating, drinking, dancing and playing together, helping one another and giving and taking in simple ways, develop what Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks calls "an unconscious choreography of mutuality". And in a small, intangible way, this sense of belonging, this social capital, makes our lives better.

Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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