How Can I Help?

Womad. And this time things are different. The sun is there and my wife’s on crutches, making the trawling round thing a potential pain – especially if that shin-deep festival mud returns to schloop and then unhinge your calf muscles from the back of your shins. So a series of pre-shindig conversations took place, once we finally committed to going, between the broken-footed one (who made it very clear she is not disabled, incidentally) and various Womadpeeps, about what might be done, maybe, in terms of helping her out. These friendly and apparently helpful exchanges having taken place, we booted up there; with about twelve names to refer to upon arrival.

A goodish three hour journey, including our smug wee detour round attritional and at that time surely baking queues and we cruised serenely into the Purple Gate untroubled. Jojo, our doggy but in fact heavily horse-pooh under-clad purple Megane with 158,000 on the clock having appreciated a cooling though incongruent glide through uberstoneywhitesville – those emphatically exclusive, beautifully wall-hung and wisteria-wafting villages south/west of Malmesbury. Given the stylistic limitations of said carriage, my discomfort with anything Posh-English and the demystifying NowPop booming from her inadequate speakers (because Yes, Of Course! The Kids were with us!) we may have done well to avoid a lynching. Instead, suddenly, we were there, in the brilliant sunshine, hearing cidery bass and brass booming amorphously in the leafy-balmy distance. Wow. Great. So… who did we need to find again? Tony.

Box Office… no… then that bloke… no… ask for…

In the glorious English summer sun Olympian but invisible difficulties arose. Things that kept just having to be ‘checked out.’

There followed a sadly predictable exhibition of traditional Brit(?) piss-poor ‘customer service’. Which in the context of this genuinely friendly festival felt jarringly disafuckingpointing, to be honest.

We were bumped disinterestedly from one ‘steward’ to the next and from one gate to the next for about an hour. Men and women, young to middle-aged displaying either that slightly hunted and need to escape face
or the drifting apathy of the too much skunk one that leads inevitably to lonely psychosis. (I hope.) To be fair one bloke was friendly whilst being completely open about the fact that he didn’t have the faintest idea what was occurring; fair enough. All wearing ludicrous – and possibly indifference-stimulating? – fluorescent orange or yellow.

I am aware that most folks will not at all have had this same experience but believe me, I do not exaggerate when I say it went right past shambolic – insultingly so – as we smelt disinterest more strongly than incompetence. (Pre –supervisor.) And I assure you we were more polite than the situation/the individuals invited/deserved. For longer. Until I thought you know what? My wife’s on crutches; it hurts – that foot, there! And this has like already been sorted SO many times!! Guys, you aren’t going to get away with treating us this poorly.

So we found ourselves before the Bloke Who Might Sort It, in the ‘shape’ of a body-less or at least strangely unphysical man of about 45. He was apparently narrowly post rehab of an either drug-based or (theoretically) psychologically reinvigorating sort; that – I can report back to his Bristolian therapists as they pluck their eccentric nose-hairs – failed, utterly. He paused profoundly for an age before saying anything, before … not saying anything. He asked questions suggestive of a mind fixated on butterflies and horse-dung beetles eating high tea; in Windsor Park; with a soundtrack by King Crimson. And he was in charge, in charge of this particular area. Wiltshire.

After a slightly bewildering minute or two, where I tried in vain to tune in to his cosmic vacuum, I became (for one of the very few times in my life) acidly-lucidly-angrily proactive. Justifiably. I put it to him pretty sharply that Whoa!! Maybe what the situation demanded was a re-wind to him (or somebody – anybody) saying Hey, welcome to Womad! You’re looking vexed, people. How can I help? Followed by the cheery ushering of us, the offended parties, through to the camping area closer to the arena – the one that 5 people had previously said we could and should head for. How life-threatening a decision would that be, for you to make, do you imagine? You being the supervisor?

I may have sounded like an arse; a complainer; something I promise you I am not. But I will own up to having an issue with the general level of (hate this word!) ‘service’ experienced in Britain. This is NOT because I am a monied traveller who has experienced much better elsewhere. This is not because I am some kind of Superior Git who expects the minions to fawn before my every call. And this is not because I am repelled in any sense by ‘those who serve’ – on the contrary I worked in restaurants and bars for years and feel strongly that everyone should serve the general public as part of a healthy preparation for life beyond. I am more often offended, in fact, by the conduct of those being served than those who serve.

However, people should be treated with courtesy and with sympathy by those who are directed to look after their needs. (Endof.) And I do think that we in Britain do this looking after thing generally very badly; either through lack of training or lack of direction or example or simply – and too often – through ignorance. I hate it and it embarrasses me.

I’m no salesman and no guru, for christ’s sakes. But clearly the nature, quality and manner of response to any enquiry is important. There is a moral imperative to be friendly and helpful and a more capitalistically inclined one to look after folks. I was struck by and have remembered the brilliance of a former Head Gardener at The National Botanic Garden for Wales in this; he would invariably offer How can I help? before really listening to any request or comment. His name? Wolfgang Bopp.

Certainly compared to this, not one of the first 7 or 8 ‘contacts’ we had with Box Office/Stewards at the Womad Festival was satisfactory. It was rather predictably lame, unfocussed, desultory, disinterested. Most employees showed neither the courtesy or the nous to listen or act. And given the location, the specific ambience, the crutches, the history of communications theoretically smoothing the way… it was crap. I’m not looking for sympathy; merely making some observations about this fascinating/infuriating evolved characteristic of British (Public?) Life. And by implication, maybe just wondering… is it just me that sees this as a(nother?) English Disease?

When we were finally waived through to what was actually the disabled camping area – something we had never specifically asked for, in fact – a big lump of time and energy and good will had been wasted. Really wasted. As we trundled rather apologetically in we were met by a steward in a wheelchair. He was genuinely charming, he was helpful, he was friendly and within five minutes we had the luxury of unloading Jojo ten yards from where we were to camp. Plus further willing help appeared whilst we were doing that now joyfully easy decanting of clobber. So we got our festival excitement – and more importantly our faith – right back. The important stuff – the music, the art – was a treat, naturally; more of that later.

2 thoughts on “How Can I Help?

  1. I wonder if we pass muster at general service these days, and have caught on sufficiently to do a semi-decent job of helping out people with registered disabilities – but when it comes to spontaneous initiative around temporary need we’re still looking rather too jobsworthy. I s’pose we can only hope all those suffused with initiative are swarming the shiny venues of Stratford. Tho as no bugger seems to have found their way from the Games into the West End yet…

  2. On the one hand, feels a bit mizz this knocking Womad thing. On t’other, we were insulted by the indifference we encountered. And that indifference did feel kindof typically British. Will be redressing the goodwilltoworldmusic imbalance by writing further (I hope) about lovelier things… like music/video/the sun!

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