When I was a kid, apart from a Mary Quant Daisy Doll and a plastic nurse’s apron (free with Twinkle), my favourite toy was a Post Office set. It’s taken me half a century to realise that I’d chanced upon the perfect combination of public service and shop.
Fast forward fifty years. I’m approaching six months as a freelance worker and born-again capitalist. And after a rabbit-in-headlights ‘honeymoon’ period (well, hardly), I’m finally starting to feel I’m holding it all together. Shopkeeping is definitely a big part of the mix. I’m feeling anticipatory about having a stall at Wath Christmas Market for my Neal’s Yard stuff later in the month (I make zero money from this enterprise, as I spend it all on nice things). And I go to sleep after Slimming World on a Monday unbelievably thrilled at the thought of counting up my cash the following day.
I’m no Fagin. But what’s it all about? I genuinely don’t think it’s avarice, I’m not greedy and I don’t actually care how much it adds up to, as long as I’ve covered my backside financially. But I’m shocked by how liberating it is to earn money this way – and by how thankful and relieved I am not to work in the public sector any more.
I have these conversations with my friend Mel Swanwick, who opened the Wath Tap micropub* in our village 18 months ago, after a long career as a community worker. We excitedly tell one another how nice it is that the harder we work, the more financial reward we get – and then we giggle together guiltily, even look around to be sure we’ve not been overheard. We might describe ourselves as public servants in recovery 😉
And yet…our work still provides a public service; it’s just that these days we are social entrepreneurs. Mel set out to open a pub where seniors like her dad could feel comfortable. Dogs and takeaways are welcome, Yorkshire Tapas** and left-over chips are often found on the bar and when there’s a singalong everyone joins in. Mel is involved in local politics and does sterling community work, bringing together local traders and consumers in our ungentrified, former coalfield village.
Similarly, I’m blogging not blagging when I describe my freelance Slimming World career as the best community empowerment I’ve done. Those Mondays in Mexborough give me a reach I could not have achieved as a community worker employed by the NHS, the local authority or even the Community Partnership, which was as riven by politics as any similar organisation. A broad (for Mexborough) social demographic of women (and men) come for unpatronising, non-infantilising group coaching and over the past weeks I’ve watched confidence, agency and personal power blossom exponentially in relation to pounds lost. It truly is social purpose Slimming World and while I don’t make the same grand claims for selling the little blue bottles I can certainly account for a few more people in the world (including myself) practising their values by making ethical skincare choices.
I still do the education things I did before – writing, speaking, teaching, coaching, researching, social media – but now I get paid for (some of) them, rather than doing five of them for free on top of my #moreforless working hours.
The difference is freedom – from hierarchies, structures and systems. I was fortunate to learn my craft, start thinking for myself and explore my personal/professional values as part of a public sector which arose from the undeniably sound principles of the Beveridge Report. I probably couldn’t have forged this new rhizomatic path any time before now. Certainly it took decades before I figured out that I didn’t have to work for anyone – that I could, in fact, manage myself in working for public good. My reasons for that are complex and I hear their echoes all around me, but essentially we are all caught up in the death dance between capitalism and a Marxism which finds its expression in state control. Even now it is incredibly difficult to talk, tweet and write about this without being perceived to be on one ‘side’ or another.
On my way back from Wath Tap, after a few drinks with my son, I have an occasional habit of inventing new political systems, which I’ve then inconveniently forgotten when the next morning comes around. So I don’t have the answers. But I’m actively seeking out others who think similarly to me, that it is possible to re-imagine a public service where we all contribute equally, without any individual being patronised, disempowered, oppressed or ignored. My own ideas are emerging. Watch this Dancing Princess follow those new golden threads.
*Disclaimer: my son works @wathtap when he’s not at uni. Welcome to Dearne Valley village life!
**Black pudding, dripping cake, pork pie…you get the picture #pigproducts