Let them eat cake

I now understand why Boris Yeltsin bribed the Russian coalminers. It’s become clear to me over the past few weeks how well bribery works – whether it be in the form of cash, alcohol or in my case – cake.

Last month’s charity fundraising teaparty didn’t get the response I’d hoped for. The emphasis was too much on extracting charity donations from guests and not enough on what they’d get out of it. So this Sunday – when attempting to get residents together in my block for the very first time to form a residents association – I knew I had to offer them some inducements.

I worked hard on the invite placed in the hall noticeboard. It went through several drafts, each one featuring the words cake and tea in increasingly large font. The last version screamed out ‘tea and cake’ and ‘please come’ in bright red, insiduously friendly typeface. And it worked! Four people came. Perhaps I’m slowly learning the art of being a community activist.

Rule 1: No matter how urgent or deserving the cause – you have to sell it to people, in terms they can relate to.

Rule 2: You have to get their attention, somehow, and bribing them with food and drink works some of the time.

Rule 3: Finding a convenient time to meet said community can be difficult when much of your area is lowly-paid and multi-cultural.

People here tend to work extra hours, weekends, and nightshifts. I chose 4pm on a Sunday because I hoped this would be the best time for everyone. Unbeknown to me it coincided with Nigeria’s Independence Day and many of my neighbours spent most of the day in church. And tea and cake at 4pm aren’t much of a draw when you’re observing Ramadan – the time of fasting during daylight hours…whoops! That didn’t stop one of my Muslim neighbours attending, but I felt awful scoffing tea and cake in front of her. For many of my African neighbours Sunday seems to be entirely devoted to church, family and wearing incredibly beautiful clothes. My next step will be to ask all the residents here again what time and day is best for them. Let’s hope they can all agree.

I’m beginning to realise there’s an uneasy equilibrium in my housing block. People are pissed off with things but they relish their autonomy and privacy. They like being invisible and being left alone. I’m the same. But our disengagement has cost us:hiked-up service charges, crap service, crime, pollution and loneliness. People complain when I see them on the stairs but they’re reluctant to come out of their little boxes to do anything about it. Each resident here has their own flat, and it’s their own private kingdom. They don’t want to endanger that – they don’t want to pop out of their shells in case they get hurt. I’m not entirely sure what it is they’re afraid of, but they must be, because several neighbours were around during the meeting but failed to make the journey up one flight of stairs to join in. Why? Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they don’t want to mix with certain people from the block. Maybe they think they’ll be forced to do things they don’t want to do. Maybe they think they’ll lose their independence. They might be confronted with things about themselves they don’t want to hear. I was. Apparently my partner stuck a nasty note on a residents car two years ago. He’s the gentlest kindest friendliest bloke in the world but he must have been having a bad day. I cringed an apology.

But it was worth it! It was fun and it was exciting. At one point there were four women in my front room, laughing, joking, sharing problems and agreeing on solutions. It felt like an historic and powerful moment.

Malcom Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, relates how student innoculation rates went up by 30 per cent at one college simply by giving them a map of how to find the surgery. That was that situation’s particular ‘Tipping Point’. I’ve been trying to find ours, here in inner city south London. It might just consist of: increased service charges, a convenient time plus CAKE.

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