A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#15 We Couldn’t Do It Without You: The Pros And Cons Of Volunteering
First published in Trad and Now magazine, April 2009
Ok, this could get messy.
‘Messy’ is a service I do often provide.
And if the only ‘Messi’ you’re interested in plays for the Argentinean football team, it may be best to fast forward a couple of pages.
I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteerism lately. And in choosing to write on the topic, I realise this is not a new subject, and it’s been covered substantially. Including in the pages of Trad and Now magazine in the last 12 months or so by others.
But I’m choosing to delve and dive a little deeper, as the hypnotist said to the snorkeller. And look at motivations, experiences, and the treatment of volunteers.
It didn’t come out of the blue. It comes off the back of a couple of rather trying personal experiences.
And for that I apologise now for the use of personal pronouns. It’s something I (pardon me) usually shy away from, but it fits the subjective nature of the topic.
Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, and in all levels of commitment, application and motivation.
Disclaimer: I am a volunteer. If you cut me in two, you’ll find a volunteer’s wristband and a couple of unused complimentary festival beer tickets. Always sad to find the latter.
There’s nothing necessarily noble or virtuous about being a volunteer. For serial helper-outerers, it’s just the way we’ve been hard-wired, often from an early age.
Volunteerism motivates us and drives us, sometimes in many worlds. For me it’s mostly (but not limited to) music, entertainment, and the arts.
I know there are hundreds of others who put in far more effort than what I get up to.
I, and many volunteers such as me, do not expect thanks or praise for my/our efforts. We don’t.
Sure, we’ll accept entry tickets and maybe a free beer or three and subsidised meals. But the ‘what’s in it for me?’ principle does not generally apply here.
Seeing a result and helping to facilitate some of the wonderful festivals that grace the calendar is what drives us. And it only drives us away when what we offer and provide is abused. Usually there’s quite the high threshold before it gets to that stage.
At a recent (unnamed) festival I had two rather unsavoury incidents that forever changed the way I approach my services offered for free.
The first I still can’t talk about fully. It was horrendous, and yet in some ways, I can hear my mother admonishing me with this, as she did as recently as a few weeks ago: ‘Well, Billy Boy, you know you bring some of these things on yourself’.
To cut a long story short, I made a mistake at about 2.30am, in a session bar with only four of us (singing quietly and talking about matters musical) and five of them (having some animated and VERY LOUD conversation that was booming out across the camp grounds).
Having listened to the tone, tenor and volume of the others’ shouted conversation for about 20-30 minutes, I decided to take a circuitous route towards their table by performing another service I provide that doesn’t really come under the MC/stage manager/bar worker duty statement: I clean tables.
Again, this is not me being noble. ‘Saint Bill of No Fixed Address’ is not on my business card. But one of the many things that frustrate me to tears is the fact that even at the most caring, sharing, green-tinged, wonderful festivals, a hefty slice of the punters just treat ANY flat surface as their dumping ground.
What the hell is wrong with these people? ‘Please take your rubbish with you’ and ‘Please use the bins provided’ is not just something we MCs say to fill in the gaps of our on-stage patter. It’s code-words for, ‘Jaysus, Joseph and the 12 disciples, people. Your mothers are NOT here to clean up after you!’
I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
It’s like the butt-suckers who believe that the ground and the bottoms of their shoes constitute appropriate used cigarette disposal. Agh! You can put whatever you like in your mouth. You can. And up to ten years ago, I used to puff away meself.
BUT FOR THE LOVE OF BOB, USE THE BINS!
Of course, we’re never going to completely sell that message, so late night rubbish removal is my thang.
I’m not ‘William, Martyr of Tuross’ while I do this. I have fun with it.
I spent a very diverting (and sobering!) hour and a half at Corinbank from about 4-5.30am, crushing cans, playing basketball with the wheelie bins (the wheelie bins beat me in overtime), leaping on tables, throwing, passing, slam-dunking, and generally carrying on. Not whistling while I worked, but maybe a little light yodelling.
It helped work some of the gallons of beer out of my system, I got to talk to a few punters I might not have normally talked to (yeah, right; I talk to EVERYONE!) and by the task’s end, about 27-57 little art installations and hundreds of cans, bottles, cups and plates had been removed.
And that was one less thing the morning crew had to concern themselves with.
Try it some time. It’s quite fun.
Where was I?
So, as the Fatuous Five continued their shouted conversation in the session bar, I made my way to them via a few bin loads of removed rubbish from the intervening tables.
‘Hey guys, great night, hey? Listen, what do you reckon we turn the volume down a bit because those campers [some all of 50-100 metres away] are probably trying to get to sleep.’
What followed was a 10-15 minute tirade of verbal abuse, with the threat of much worse than metaphoric sticks and stones (or knives – oh, yes). When one finally shaped to make good on the tough talk and stood up suddenly, sending his plastic chair cart-wheeling behind him, his neighbour saw some sense through the mists and pulled his mate back down. I’d gone into possum defence mode in the interim, and took the chance to slink away with my bushy tail between my legs, to run up the nearest tree.
Strangely, it didn’t rattle me much. It just made me realise that you can take being a volunteer, or trying to look after the greater good, too far.
Earlier that day (or technically the day before), I’d done what I thought was part of my job as MC/stage manager: informed the venue manager very calmly and matter-of-factly that there were some sound issues. It was enough to impact on the performers, the punters and the……………… that’s the sound of the MC talking without a working microphone.
Ah, don’t you love Chinese whispers? Ten minutes later I had two festival organisers and another cadre come down on me like a ton of bricks for reportedly ‘screaming, shouting and complaining’ about the sound. (I love it when others are foaming at the mouth, red in the face and screaming at me to ‘calm down’. Comedy gold.)
‘It’s not your place to be mentioning these things!’
‘Er, but I’m the stage manager.’
‘Well…. yes, but….’
I waited for something that looked close to reason and walked away unsated.
It was at this point that the first of many, many, many people (maybe you) were empowered to use this phrase, ‘Go away, Bill!’
I had individuals doing it; duos doing it; up to six people at a time doing harmonies. Hell, I had marquees full of 400-odd people doing it!
Again, it didn’t anger me. OK, it did, but I get over these things rather quickly these days. It did however make me ruminate again and further on a few facts:
1. You can take your volunteer duties too far, or further than others deem you should.
2. Some people do not want to be told about some things.
3. You can’t help everyone.
4. Sometimes you have to be selective in how, when and where you volunteer.
I actually went to a festival last year and (gasp!) bought a ticket. It was the weirdest sensation. I kept drifting around thinking, ‘Where do I need to be next? I remember: nowhere!’
So I will in future be very selective about which festivals I volunteer at. And I’ve since spoken to a number of people at festivals and happenings that I absolutely adore, not least for their treatment of their helpers. I’m going to one around about now where a highlight of my four days is hanging out in the Volunteers’ Kitchen.
If you don’t know me, I’ll be the one standing on my chair a couple of times on Monday, bellowing this fact in so in no uncertain terms. And thanking the kitchen staff.
Come join me on the 2am, ever-so-slightly drunken litter patrol.