Rotary Lunch

My hosts - Pickering Rotary Club

My hosts – Pickering Rotary Club

Today I have had an excellent lunch of roast lamb as a guest of the Pickering Rotary Club up here in rural North Yorkshire after which I was expected to sing for my supper, or to be more precise give them a talk about my involvement with VSO.

I had spent quite some time trying to decide what to say to them – the thought of getting on my feet in front of a room full of people doesn’t bother me at all, but usually it is in my role as an auctioneer which after 30 years comes naturally, like a second skin, and I know automatically what to say. All I normally have to do is to open my mouth and the words tumble out! Today however would be rather different. A short speech to a group of about two dozen local business men, many of whom were already known to me, and I was not sure what to say to them.

My plan was for a talk in three sections – a little bit about myself and what had led me to the point at which I was about to depart to a new life in the Gambia – that should fill up a bit of time; a middle section telling them about VSO in general terms (brief history, vision and values, funding, and that sort of thing); and then some details about my destination country and placement. I typed out half a dozen pages of notes to prompt me and wondered whether they could be spun out to 15 or 20 minutes, or if I would have to insert more padding, so armed myself with some crucial facts and figures, discovered during my recent research about the Gambia – just in case. All important information no doubt, but a bit dull. Perhaps I would know if they were finding it interesting by the lack of any obvious snoring, and if necessary I could always make up time with questions at the end, and hope they asked me about areas I had researched, so that I wouldn’t have too many “don’t know”s.

In the event the time flew by and after thirty-five minutes or so, still only halfway through my narrative, the President politely informed me we had run out of time! I had hardly glanced at my notes except for a few key points, the Rotarians still seemed awake and I had only just started the section about the Gambia.  However, business was calling and it was time for many of them to go back to work so I came to an abrupt stop. Nevertheless they very generously gave me a cheque for VSO – I’m not sure whether they were grateful for my talk, or just thankful it was over, but I will no doubt find out next year when I return from West Africa as they had previously asked me to speak to them again after my placement, so it will be interesting to see if that invitation still stands twelve months hence!

How did I feel it had gone? Well I was grateful for their patience and generosity (and their excellent hospitality), and surprised to find I could fill the allotted time so easily. I had no doubt spoken too long about some things and could have easily missed out some of the less interesting bits. Next time I need to plan more carefully, and put a watch on the table in front of me, or ask a friend to give me a five-minute warning so that I can wrap up gracefully rather than have the walking stick dragging me off ignominiously into the wings.

So, to the gentlemen of Pickering Rotary Club – many thanks for good company this lunchtime, a tasty meal, and for your most generous donation to VSO.

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Thoughts of England

As part of my preparation for a year abroad I have compiled a photograph album to take with me, partly for my own pleasure, and to remind me of home when I feel the need to see familiar faces and reminders of “my life before”, and partly as a conversation piece to show my new friends in the Gambia what that life was like, as I’m sure they will be just as fascinated by life in the UK, as I expect to be by their life in West Africa.

This album began as a collection of photographs taken from my youth to the present day, so shows my childhood home, my parents and siblings, friends from university days in Newcastle, family life, scenes from my work at auction sales and on the farm; family, friends and colleagues from the present and recent past, and scattered amongst them for variation, pictures of the area in which I live.

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Not just the picturesque moors and dales of North Yorkshire, but also the splendours of York Minster and Castle Howard, the small market town where I live, beaches at Scarborough and Filey, cattle markets, pheasant shooting with local farmers, and of course a picture of H M Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family with the Bishop of Leicester attending a church service. I thought it would give a window into a different world and show how the English live, but this weekend I have added to it something quintessentially English which will probably be completely incomprehensible to a West African farmer.

For this weekend I have been staying with friends in a small village in Northamptonshire and attending the annual Farthingstone village pantomime. My friend Peter writes a script (Jack and the Beanstalk this year, based on the well known fairy tale but with plenty of local and topical references) and he and a few locals spend several weeks rehearsing and then put on three performances of a two hour show for the entertainment of the villagers and to raise funds for the village hall.  It’s certainly not the National Theatre as the hall is tiny, with an open stage at one end, no curtain, only one exit/entrance to the stage, and about ninety seats for the audience, which were all filled at each performance.  It’s amazing what they achieve in the limited space but they put on a very entertaining show for children and adults alike with plenty of jokes, music, singing and audience participation.

The performance on Saturday night was recorded so I’m hoping to be able to load a copy of the film onto my laptop. I have no idea what the Gambians will make of it – a rather large and well padded dame with bright orange hair and lipstick applied with a yard brush singing falsetto, a French maid with feather duster and dubious accent, a sinister “baddie” in black leather trench coat and jackboots, a lovable pantomime dog, an emotional Irish nun, and a large hairy green Scottish giant may all need translating. Still although the dame may take some explaining, at least there wasn’t a principal boy too to complicate matters – that might have been just too much! As for magic beans which grow overnight……oh well, hopefully the farmers won’t expect me to provide new seed as part of my placement with the Ministry of Agriculture and perhaps some of the other volunteers will understand!

Four Days A Week

Yesterday was an important day for Gambians, and also possibly for my life as a volunteer, because with effect from 1st February, President Yahya Jammeh has ordered a four day working week for the public sector saying the shorter week will give The Gambia’s mainly Muslim population more time to pray, socialise and tend to fields. As a result, as an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture I expect I will find myself working a four day week Monday to Thursday instead of 8am to 5pm on five days. The private sector will still work on Fridays but will not be able to do any business with the government on that day, and state schools will be closed, but will be allowed to open on Saturdays instead.

President Yahya Jammeh

President Yahya Jammeh

I suppose the Gambians will soon get used to not being able to contact a government office on a Friday, and I must say the idea appeals to me as although I’ll still be putting in 40 hours work each week, I’ll have a three day weekend which will allow me more time to explore the country, although of course it will also probably mean I’ll be going home from work in the dark each night. This idea has been tried in some other countries – it’s popular in the Netherlands for example, and in some states of America, with varying degrees of success, but I’ve never come across it here in the UK (except during the miner’s strike in 1974 when the whole country was forced onto a three day week by power cuts). This shorter working week has in the past been promoted by some as a way of cutting energy costs for heating and electricity but this will hardly apply in the Gambia; or as a means of reducing carbon footprint by cutting down on motor vehicle use. If working hours were reduced too we could slow down our busy lives and it could open up employment opportunities for more people.

John Maynard Keynes thought it could be taken further still when in 1930 he asked:-

“What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?…..we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person….. to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil……..For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Source: Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren

I wonder how such a reduction in working hours would affect us here in the UK where we seem to view long hours as a virtue, or a sign of success. What would happen if we all worked a four day week  – it would certainly make life easier (and cheaper) for some who would only have to put up with the daily commute to work on four days, but there are bound to be some disadvantages too – would I be able to get a plumber if the pipes burst on a Friday; and if so would I be charged double time for weekend working? Would the minimum wage need to be reviewed, and would this entail a change to the support systems for those on low income. It would certainly in my view lead to a healthier work/life balance, and might even promote a stronger work incentive in some of those who have never held a full time job.

I leave you with another work related thought,  from the Dalai Lama:- “[Man] sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”