Sunday 30 May 2010

The Story of Setting Things Up

Late one night last weekend, I was playing around on Facebook and, feeling generally vague and detached, set up Skeptics in the Pub in Wales.

It was something I've been urged to do by friends such as Jack of Kent, Carmenego and many others. I replied I hadn't a clue how to set such things up, and if the Welsh were keen, wouldn't they have done it themselves? As far as I am aware, I was the only person in Wales to do the Ten23 homeopathy overdose. And I don't know any local skeptics.

That is, until I went along to a demonstration in Cardiff for proportional representation, which I should blog about - suffice to say we got our best audience when two riot vans arrived, though the police were pretty cheerful! - where I did actually find a fellow Pembrokeshire skeptic. That alone was pretty encouraging!

How are we doing, a week on? We now have 90 Facebook members. We have a Twitter account, and an e-mail address, We've had brilliant advice and support from Crispian, Jack of Kent, and Simon Perry; and we have had various promises of speakers. Dean has also made the following promotional posters . . .

And that's just the start of it. He's finding our venues, looking for speakers, generally doing all the fantastic practical stuff I can't do from Pembrokeshire - oh, and he's also launched a competition for our first night. (If you can't see it, I will write about it on another blogpost . . .)

We've also been contacted by a journalist who's thinking of doing a piece on Skeptics in the Pub in Wales as some local news, but neither she nor I know if that's going to go ahead.

So all in all, it's looking terribly exciting!

I'm still a bit clueless about the finance side, though have had brilliant advice from Simon Perry on that. Jack of Kent tells me we ought to form a committee. I don't know the first thing about committees. But the wonderful thing is that we are all playing to our strengths here. I can write, have ideas, and sniff out speakers. And there are other people who are doing the parts I can't.

Naturally some people have contacted me to object in some way. The most common complaint is, "How dare you call this Skeptics in the Pub in Wales?" Effectively, the complaint is that the name implies there can only be one group for all Wales. Well, sorry if it came across that way, but when I set it up I didn't know whether anyone would be interested or where they would congregate. I wasn't going to call it Skeptics in the Pub in Pembrokeshire, because I don't know if anyone would turn up to that. Or Cardiff or Swansea, because I don't know anyone there.

I was delighted to discover that there were many people interested in having one in Cardiff, and as more people arrived, it looked like Swansea might be a popular venue too. We discussed the idea of alternating between the two. That's one possibility - another is having two separate groups. In which case, Wales SITP was just a starting point - and that applies more and more if any more groups are set up. If you want one in Aberystwyth, Bangor, Llandudno or in a tiny village halfway up Snowdonia, neither I nor anyone else is stopping you from going ahead. Not just that, I'll help you!

What did stop people anyway?

And, on a pettier note, why do some people just moan instead of getting up and doing something?

I'll tell you a little story about me, now. It's not something I'm always happy talking about, but it's far enough in the past now that I don't feel too vulnerable revealing it.

I used to be one of those people who just moaned, instead of doing things. Not for all my life, I hasten to add. Throughout school I was very active - I made a point of talking to as many people as I could, going to lots of clubs and activities, interrupting every lesson with my own points to make, and starting petitions when a rule made life unnecessarily difficult. Then, when I was eighteen, everything changed. I took a gap year from university and moved 300 miles from home to do what I was told would be environmental consultancy work, and was in fact sitting around typing up health and safety policy documents and being the office scapegoat. To cut a long story short, all my health and confidence were stamped out of me. I spent two years unable to lie down even to sleep for the nausea, and the next two years in constant pain.

This was, of course, while I was at university - just the time when people should be active and able to start things off! But I no longer could. It took all my energy to drag myself to lectures. The doctors got fed up and sent me to the cognitive behavioural therapist, who told me that not only was the pain and nausea all in my head, but so was the workplace bullying. You read of people who bear pain and illness with beautiful energy, sweetness and dignity, from Freddie Mercury to Cousin Helen in "What Katy Did". I wasn't like that. I was grumpy, miserable, unable to believe any compliment, unable to trust anyone, and unable to believe that I had the right to do anything. I was probably very frustrating and depressing to talk to, as I couldn't be cheered up. When I saw others being proactive, I felt resentful. I felt as if someone had unfairly chosen them, to hand them some ticket of power or permission, some privilege not accorded to others.

I was very fortunate that I'd read Sattareh Farman Farmaian's wonderful "Daughter of Persia", which examines how some people feel they have the right to be active in their community, and others do not. I was able to observe this as a sort of scale, among international students, and when I lived in Spain. Watch for yourself how active people are, in that sense - it's very interesting. They feel, or do not feel, not only a sense of public responsibility, but a sense of initiative and bravery. When there's a problem in the community, do they attempt to solve it? If a traffic light is broken, do they call the police or do they leave it to someone else? If there's broken glass on the floor or about 1000 magazines thrown all over a set of marble stairs, perfect for tripping up the elderly, do they get these hazards out of the way? So I was able to see that my thinking was wrong, and begin to do something about it.

If you feel you cannot do things, and you don't understand people who do - let me tell you a secret. There is no special permission. There is no secret ticket. People who do things are not necessarily on an exalted pedestal. You can be one of them - unless something is very wrong, nobody will stop you.

I can't promise it'll always be a success. Three years ago, the government was shouting about how many hospitals it was going to close and there were a lot of local protests - "save our hospital" and so on. I tried to get the Brighton one and the Pembrokeshire one to join forces, and gradually create a national protest. I thought that several splintered local groups was the wrong way to go about it, a divide and rule scenario - it would be all too easy to manipulate them into playing against each other, trying to save their own hospital at the expense of others, when there was actually a national problem (for example, very long distances to hospitals in rural areas, or too many people in Accident and Emergency departments as it was, without taking most of these away). It didn't work - one was polite but noncommital with the other, and the other decided "they're NIMBY Tories" and not worth bothering with. This was extremely annoying and frustrating.

Yes, things may not go to plan. But don't let this put you off. If everything was a success, can you imagine what the world would be like? It's still worth trying. And you can still try again, later, in another way.

If you're reading this and thinking about setting up a Skeptics in the Pub group, or indeed anything else, but haven't been feeling confident enough to go ahead - please do it. Anybody can. You just need this little voice in your head to say, "Here is your ticket." I'm giving it to you right now.


Jack of Kent said...

Great piece, also thought-provoking.

I convene the Westminster group, and as I have said elsewhere: "when cats complain, they complain of herding skeptics".

And, yes, some are such moaners...

Sakib said...

I used to be just like you, whinging and moaning about everything! Now I'm positive and try to keep myself occupied with something as life's too short to complain! I do wonder if attacking street lights at night would be regarded as an act of terrorism?