On Easter Monday I took part in a concert in Dunkeld Cathedral to raise money for Syrian refugees. If that sounds grand, it wasn’t. It was very much a community event, conceived by the cathedral organist, Michael Anderson, and local poet, Kenneth Steven. All the performers were local and it was compèred by my neighbour, broadcaster Fiona Ritchie.
The cathedral was packed to its 300-seat capacity and there were people standing at the back. The concert was free and at the end volunteers took donations as everyone walked out. The proceeds were destined for Edinburgh Direct Aid, whose director, Dr Denis Rutovitz, had spoken movingly about the charity’s work in helping to set up and equip schools for Syrian children in the refugee camps of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, daily lessons being one way to help restore them to some semblance of normality and sense of purpose in life.
People gave generously and a day or two later Fiona emailed us all to say that taking into account gift aid, the concert had raised the tremendous sum of £3,600. But that wasn’t the end of it. Just yesterday she emailed again to say that not only had final tallying brought the total up to £4,500, but that someone who had been at the concert had last weekend sent in an ‘additional very large cheque’, bringing the total to over £20,000. A truly astonishing result from a community concert, as a consequence of which Edinburgh Direct Aid plans to name the next school it builds ‘The Dunkeld School’.
‘Community’ these days is a catch-all word par excellence, and one I often struggle with because it is so readily used to describe groups of people whose only commonality is someone else’s need for them to be connected in order to make a point. I can easily grasp the concept in the case of the Camphill community that I wrote about last week, a small almost hermetic society with a very specific identity and purpose. But being neither an economist nor a Eurocrat I find the idea of a European community, for example, almost impossibly nebulous, at least in a social sense (which is not, incidentally, to say that I have the slightest wish to leave it.)
I struggle with the concept also, I suspect, because I came to the idea of living in and belonging to a community relatively late in life. During my childhood we lived on the very edge of a community with which I had practically no contact at all, since I was away at school during the term time; and the community with which I associated during the holidays was defined not so much by place as by class.
My school friends were most likely to live in the New Town of Edinburgh, or at some pleasant address in the West End of London, or like us, in a house in the country. Spending time with them involved travelling and overnight stays and house parties (and a great deal of deference to adults whom we regarded as being almost of a different species). It was fun and the friendships were rich, but the sense of belonging it conferred was to something very different from what I was part of on Easter Monday afternoon.
Looking around at a sea of mostly familiar faces – friends and neighbours, local shopkeepers and B&B owners, acquaintances from the café and pub and health club, dog-walkers and young mums and other people one simply comes to know from daily life in a village – I felt extraordinarily lucky to belong to this place and these people and to be part of what was happening there that afternoon.
Luckier still, it strikes me now, given that this was precisely what those refugees for whom we had gathered had had torn away from them. Settled as we are, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be uprooted in the way they have been – a thought that makes the gift of the ‘additional very large cheque’ more poignant still.
I’ve written here before about how difficult it can be to explain exactly what our The Stories We Tell weekends involve. Here is an excellent account of a recent weekend by someone who took part.