War and Wheelbarrows: Community Spirit and Individual Dedication

01 Sep 2023

How many people make a community? 10? 20? 100? I don’t think there’s an exact number, but a healthy community definitely needs at least one community-spirited individual, because good things don’t happen by magic. I’m thinking of people like my friend Lt Col (Retd) Tony Blanch, who was Wiltshire County Chairman of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Tony died of cancer in March; and yet, a month or two before he died, he bust a gut to secure a £1,000 donation to a Wiltshire charity I’m a trustee for. Tony was one of those people who really do put community first. He was always thinking of others, and always happy to help, even in difficult circumstances.

So, I was delighted to hear that the theme for the fair this year is Community – because of Tony, and because this has always been important to me too. But first, an admission: I’m neither military nor a military wife, though I did do four tough months at Sandhurst, many moons ago. It didn’t work out (turns out, I wasn’t tough enough!) but it certainly was character-building, and also the place where my fondness for all things community began. Because the military knows how to do community: leadership and teamwork; serve to lead, etc etc... And such was the team spirit at Sandhurst that even after such a short time, I did find it a bit strange going back into ‘normal’ life, where community wasn’t as prized.

I’ve since noted that whenever something needs doing in a community (in Wiltshire at least), it’s often military and ex-military people that are the first to step up. I live in a village on Salisbury Plain, and we’ve had some brilliant events in the last year or so – for example for the Jubilee, the Coronation, and for Wiltshire Day in June. And always, some of the keenest and most dedicated volunteers are military and ex-military. One in particular stands out for his incredible community spirit (though I’ll not mention his name here, for privacy). This ex-Army local legend is retired, but if there’s something to be done, you can guarantee he’ll be all over it! You can rely on him to be happily helping with planning, procurement, setting up, directing and clearing up, and already be thinking about the next event. I’ll never forget his military-precision planning for our Jubilee wheelbarrow race. It was impressive stuff!

The last year or so has also made me think about a better-known military/community hero: the Queen. It’s been just over a year since Queen Elizabeth’s death, but many of us will never forget her commitment to duty and service – and to a rather larger community than one small village! On her 21st birthday in 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth was visiting Cape Town and made her famous broadcast to the Commonwealth, saying: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. The Hon. Second Subaltern Princess Elizabeth had started out serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the war, and she never stopped ‘doing her bit’. What an example she was, and one who will continue to inspire good deeds for many years to come.  

That said, let’s give others their due: you don’t have to have served in the Armed Forces to practice altruism. There are armies of volunteers out there, helping their communities in big ways and small, every day. A lot of it goes un-thanked, but without them, society would seriously struggle. For example, far fewer of us would have got through Covid had it not been for the many volunteers delivering food/medicines and helping with vaccinations. Sadly, some people have the impression that only rich people can and do contribute, and this reinforces the class divide that often exists in villages. However, they’re wrong. Every little helps, and in fact, time can be a much more valuable contribution than money. The person featured in the book that I’ve written – ‘Unbelievable! A Working Country Life’ – is a quietly-altruistic, working-class country man. Martin Aris, a river keeper on the Wiltshire Avon, is 70 something but, among other things, possibly Wiltshire’s oldest paper boy. He delivers newspapers through the village, unpaid, because he was brought up to help others and can’t imagine any other way. He goes out of his way to assist people with various other jobs, too. ‘In-kind’ contributions like these keep the wheels turning, and make life a bit better and brighter.

And that’s perhaps the thing: being community-spirited and taking part in community events is good for you! Life would be much duller for all of us without these events and the altruistic individuals that make them happen. Aristotle once said: ‘What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good’, but I’d add: ‘and have fun’. Our recent village events have been so good and such fun, because we pulled together to make them a success; and always with a smile. The benefit comes not just from delivering the event, but from getting active, making new friends, learning new skills; even crossing divides. And in a world where we’re becoming more and more individualistic and even lonely, I’d say we need community spirit more than ever.

So, I hope the Early Early Christmas Fair will all come together and be a roaring, fun-filled success: for the customers, the charity, the volunteers, the stallholders and the military community. I’ve no doubt that good old Tony (and maybe Her Majesty) will be smiling down and willing us on. The Armed Forces do so much for us – from warry stuff to wheelbarrow races. It’s time to return the favour.

Victoria Walsh is an EECF stallholder and the author of humorous Wiltshire biography: ‘Unbelievable! A Working Country Life – the story of Martin Aris: farmer, river keeper and mischief-maker.