Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Week 1: the Big Lunch


Our Time of Gifts starts in a London street: the modest 1930s terrace of 3-bedroomed houses we call 'home'. It begins with an afternoon spent sharing food with our neighbours, and a dramatic set of events that show how sharing can - quite literally - save lives.

For the first week of my year-long experiment in giving stuff away, I decided that preparing food for other local residents would fit nicely with the ethos of the venture. So, just like the last three years, we joined in with a street party organised as part of the Big Lunch.

The Big Lunch is run by the people behind the Eden Project, "for neighbours from different generations and backgrounds to hear each other out and share stories, skills and interests". The name they give this is "human warming", and the idea is for everyone to bring along a dish or two, as part of a communal feast. This year the Big Lunch took place on Global Sharing Day.

According to the Big Lunch website, there will be "two million more single-person households by 2019". But our own street is crammed with families. Since we arrived, at least four other couples have moved in, each with one or two children below school age. 

On the day of the street party, the bouncy castle, face painting and craft table proved to be an irresistible draw for the street's youngsters. By just past noon, the car-free strip of road was ringing with excited shrieks and the occasional howl. But, of the 40 or so individuals who joined in with the afternoon's festivities, at least a quarter were older residents. And I had conversations - over barbequed sausages, rice salad and chocolate refrigerator cake - with a couple of individuals who live alone.

One of these, Martin (not his real name), had already become our friend. Last summer, he invited us round to his garden, so our son could pick his strawberries. He gave us a few spare plants, whose fruit we gobbled eagerly the moment it ripened. 

Martin is in his mid-50s, disabled, and is renovating his house using his own labour. Whenever we cook up a big batch of home-made soup, we usually take some round for him. And if we need a hand with lifting or carrying, we just knock on his door; he does the same.

Martin left the Big Lunch early. As he wandered back to his house, he crossed paths with Ashley and Ada (also not their real names), a young couple who have just moved into the street. They had briefly met already, but Ashley and Ada hadn't realised we were friends with Martin; we were able to make an introduction 'at a distance', by telling the couple about our mutual neighbour, and his generosity with strawberries (as well as other fresh produce).

It was an introduction that quite possibly saved his life.

A few nights after the Big Lunch, I was sitting in the back garden with some friends, when Ashley and Ada knocked on the door. Martin was in his car, and they couldn't get him to respond. As they'd discovered we were his friends, they came to our house first to find out whether this was normal behaviour; in our 'manor', people snoozing in vehicles is a common sight. One of my garden companions had also noticed Martin, but because she'd passed two other people lounging in cars on her short walk to our house, she thought nothing of it.

But no, this wasn't normal for Martin. We dashed outside and, after a few more knocks on his window and attempts to rouse him, we called the ambulance. Our fear was that he'd suffered a heart attack or a stroke, but when the paramedics arrived and broke into the car, they discovered that he was having a diabetic hypo. Serious, and potentially life-threatening, but not as dangerous as we'd initially feared. The medical team moved fast. Glucogel was administered, followed by our own contribution: several cups of hot, sweet tea and a super-strength glass of ribena.

Martin recovered rapidly, and was home from hospital by the next morning. But if he had remained in the car all night, without any food or medicine, he could have gone into a coma, suffered brain damage, or even died.

It might not strictly be true that Martin has the Big Lunch to thank for sending people to his assistance. Ashley and Ada may have phoned for an ambulance anyway, without first coming to us, his friends, to find out whether calling emergency services was the right thing to do. But, then again, without a mutual acquaintance to act as reassurance, they might have just walked past the car, like all the others who strolled by during the two hours he was sitting there, barely conscious. People can be precious about privacy, and some Londoners see a knock on their car window as an invasion. Unless you are familiar with your neighbours, it's difficult to know where boundaries sit, and what lies within the bounds of normal behaviour.

So, without our Big Lunch street party, Ashley and Ada might have decided to leave Martin to enjoy his sleep in peace. Then, this chapter of my story would have had a very different ending.

But instead, we'll hopefully be picking strawberries and sharing soup with Martin for many years to come.

Week 2 of Our Time of Gifts features our Big Lunch collection for the local FoodBank. Follow me to find out what happened when I delivered our street's donation.


  1. Very moving highlights the real importance of community. I hardly know my neighbours and I hate that.

    1. It's so common, though...this is the first place I've lived in London that's felt properly 'neighbourly'.

  2. Incredibly powerful story, not only because it's lovely to hear of neighbours being neighbourly, but because we all recognise that the alternative - of choosing not to take action - could easily have occurred. I believe this is a reflection of our decayed sense of community.

    1. Yes, and also of people feeling they need to distance themselves from neighbours, for various reasons. I'll be coming back to that, as I think it's an interesting point....

    2. Yes, lots of people live with virtual blinkers on all the time.

  3. Wow, what an amazing outcome! I think you can see this as a sign that giving things away is the right thing to do - a small gift keeps giving and giving.