JAMIE HARPER: Resilience

It’s been a week since I finished my residency at Trumpington Community Orchard and there are two things that have stuck strongly in my mind. The first is a community gathering that I attended last Thursday, the other is a role-play activity that I ran last Saturday, on my last day in Trumpington. So this blog will be dedicated to telling you about them and maybe weaving some kind of connection between them. We’ll see.

Over the course of the residency, I tried to find opportunities to learn about the area surrounding the orchard, so when I heard that a community gathering was planned, I was keen to attend. It took place at a local primary school in the middle of a big new housing development, part of the massive increase in the suburban spread of Cambridge.

As I walked to the school I was struck by how tidy and ordered the streets in the new estate were. They looked like Lego houses, almost untouchable, implacable under the pleasant glow of the street lights. I got to the venue and met Rachel, the organiser, and set about helping set up (I was early). It turned out that the projector wasn’t working and after a bit of fiddling I managed to fix it, which made me feel like a bit of a hero, although I should say that the problem was simply that the power lead wasn’t plugged in…

Anyway, after sorting the tech issue, I had a coffee and a bit of cake and waited for people to arrive. Slowly they made their way in: some parents with young kids, some older folks and the odd lone individual or two. In total about twenty people, which seemed like a decent turnout.

Rachel stood up to speak and welcomed people. She then explained that the purpose of the gathering was to help people in the community (both the new community and the existing one) to get to know each other so that in the vent of trouble or problems, the people of Trumpington could support each other and show resilience.

This word jumped out at me like a red flag. RESILIENCE.

Rachel asked the crowd what resilience meant. No hands went up. I didn’t think this was illustrative of a lack of knowledge regarding the definition of the word, it just seemed that people were thinking about why she was asking them about it. Eventually, I stuck up my hand and suggested that resilience might mean the ability to bounce back. The Powerpoint presentation subsequently proved that I was correct! But this time I didn’t feel so much like a hero.

Rachel then invited a guy called Charles to step forward and talk more about resilience. Charles duly took up his place in front of the projector and talked, with great honesty, about the times in his life when he had needed resilience to bounce back from problems. The presentation was interesting, and moving at times, but there remained a nagging tension in the air. Why was a social gathering with cake and coffee being used as a platform for a presentation about resilience?

Finally one woman spoke up and asked this very question, followed by another query about who was responsible for organising the event. These questions weren’t asked in an overly aggressive way, but it clearly put a spanner in the works from Rachel’s perspective. This wasn’t how she had hoped the evening would go.

She explained that she and her colleagues were from a mental health organisation, contracted by the local council to arrange the event. The fact that the gathering was a council initiative seemed to relieve suspicions a little, but only a little. It still felt odd.

Nonetheless, the evening carried on and became more relaxed as people were given the space and time to just have a chat with each other – in other words, the activity that they thought they had come there for. I had some more coffee and cake and chatted to a few people, but to be honest, my biggest curiosity was to find out more about the resilience agenda.

I talked to another member of the organiser team (there were three of them), a woman whose name escapes me who had been hanging in the background as Rachel facilitated the evening. She gave me a surprisingly candid answer when I asked her what the public policy impetus was for this kind of event. Basically, she told me, it was to save the government money. The idea being that you make a bit of up-front investment to build RESILIENCE in the community so that the State doesn’t have to pay for things if people have problems – cos their neighbours will help out, right?

At this point, I want to pause and steer away from giving the impression that Rachel and her team are evil neo-liberals. They all seemed to have genuinely good intentions in trying to generate a sense of community in the midst of the anonymous mass of new houses in Trumpington.

But, when I left the event, I must say that I felt a bit queasy about the idea of community. Is it a wonderful thing to have groups of people autonomously creating resources and opportunities for people in their local area, or is it just a way to roll back the State? This questioned kept rolling around my mind, but I cracked on with my ART and had a lovely play session on the final day with Ceri, one of the main people responsible for starting the orchard.

She’d been at the community meeting and had taken a pretty dim view of it, but we didn’t talk too much about that. Instead, we sat on a bench in the middle of the wild flowers and chatted about Cambridgeshire heritage apples (she’s a fan) and a bunch of other stuff.

Then we did some playing. Just the two of us.

The play started with us telling each other some stories from our own experience. We then used these stories to make some drawings of imaginary characters in imaginary places. We imagined characters about to set off on a journey, travelling through various landscapes to try to find some desired destination.

In the middle of this journey, the characters would meet, spend an imaginary winter together then travel on, either together, or alone. We then built a home as the starting point for the journey, using a bunch of random stuff liked tarps, blankets, cushions, string and gardening gear that I had brought along to the residency, and prepared to set off on an adventure.

My character was a 17 year old boy called Jan, whose parents didn’t pay him much attention because they were too busy trying to recover from some kind of war that had ravaged their home. Across the road, there was a group of bohemians (imagined) about to set off on tour and Jan thought that he could join them and play guitar in their travelling band.

After setting off, though it turned out that the bohemians wanted to go to the city which Jan didn’t fancy, so he took a turning off the road and struck out on his own. Then summer arrived and he found himself by an abandoned church.

This location arrived in my imaginings through a little design trick of writing ‘landscape cards’ before the play which were to be drawn at the turn of each new season to reveal a new location that the character had arrived in on their journey.

Jan spent the warm months basking in the awesome environment of the church and he duly found God. As autumn arrived, he moved on and came to a valley where he met a woman on the road. He was hungry, but she seemed scared of him. He talked about God and divine signs but this seemed to make her more scared, so he eased off.

She saw that he was famished and pointed out an apple tree. He ate an apple and felt good. They then walked on and found some late season blackberries which also tasted good. Jan told the woman that he was good at building stuff and asked if he could help at her house. She said she didn’t need that because she had her husband, but suggested that a local farmer might need help.

So Jan went to her village and worked with the farmer over the winter. Then spring arrived and he knew it was time to move on. He had a vision of finding a place by a lake and wanted to find it. He came to the woman’s house and gave her three children a gift of balloons. The woman was moved and was sad to see him go. Summer came round again and Jan found himself at a crossroads by a tavern, watching people hurrying towards the city.

He didn’t want to travel any longer, so he helped in the tavern, fixing the roof and setting out cups of beer for travellers. It was a grimy place, not his dream of the place by the lake, but he felt useful and decided to stay. And that was the end of the play, from my point of view.

What’s all this got to do with apples? Fair question.

I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with community. The idea of community as something that we make to increase our desire to be positively affected by others or community as something that we make so that other communities become other people’s responsibility.

Ceri is keen on Cambridgeshire heritage apples. Which is great for them but what about the other apples? Aren’t they allowed to grow here? The benefit of retaining biodiversity is clear: retain the specific Cambridgeshire variety to avoid the centralising homogenisation of the Granny Smith. But when does that become fragmented exclusionism?

So there’s a question – if we’re all thrown into a sociological or ecological melting pot do we become the same, or do we create discrete pockets of difference? And is it possible to be together and have a unified community in all our diversity, without losing that very sense of uniqueness?

Play asks some of these questions. We come to play from different perspectives, but we need to have enough of shared understanding to be able to play together. So in the larp that I make for this project, I will play with the idea of biodiversity along with the idea of the common and ask whether the two can successfully spend a cold winter together.

It’s on the 26th of October, by the way. Come and play.

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