Last Friday we had a party at the Mill Grove Badminton Club. It was the final evening of the season, and the members of the club, both junior and senior, gathered to celebrate the completion of yet another season. The club was established in 1951 and has continued on Friday nights ever since. In 2002 it held a golden anniversary party to mark the completion of the first 50 years. And now we have reached 58 years.
As an extended family we are blessed with an indoor badminton court on the premises, and we realise that this is not a normal arrangement!
But on the other hand I may have tended to take it for granted. On reflection I wonder whether in all the writing I have done about Mill Grove in books, collections and articles I may have underplayed the importance of this club in the lives and development of the children and young people who live at Mill Grove. If so, this column represents a chance to put things right and make the record straight.
In many ways the club is not exceptional. True, two of the players went on to play at county standard, and three played in university teams (Cambridge, Imperial, Edinburgh and Oxford), but for the most part the standard of play is average. And with just one court, the club is small with between ten and sixteen attending on a normal evening. The players, male and female, come from the neighbourhood, and get to know about the club through school, friends or the local newsletter of the Maybank Community Association.
But over the years it has been a setting where many of those living at Mill Grove have enjoyed Friday nights. And why might that be of significance? This is what I have been pondering. For many of them it is the very first group that they have joined of their own freewill: it is in short their entry into civic society. Here they have met with others, played with and against them (we play almost exclusively doubles), chatted with them, umpired or been umpired, shared a cup of tea or juice and biscuit or piece of cake in a friendly setting. Please don’t underestimate the value of this social contact and experience.
Then it has been a place where they have developed their badminton skills (we have coaching and concentrate on improving each player’s standard), and from this, confidence grows. Confidence has to start somewhere, and for some children this is the setting and the sport where it happens. If I have a philosophy of education (and I think that one has begun to emerge!), one of its components would be the idea that every child has a gift that is to be discovered and nurtured. For some this may be to do with academic subjects, but for many more it may be related to sport, practical activities, personal qualities and social skills. Sport is one of the ways in which many children discover a gift, and through that acquire self-respect and the respect of others.
Then there is the experience of discovering how a club or association runs: schools, churches, shops and other places like hospitals, social services departments and the like seem to run by themselves. There are people who organise and run them: all the child or young person needs to do is to turn up: the rest is done by others to them or for them. Here it is in effect a mutual society. Members take it in turn to set up the equipment, to prepare the food and drink, to wash up and clear things away at the end.
A small committee is elected at the beginning of each season to oversee the running of the club with a chair, secretary, treasurer, and social secretary. And from time to time this group consults with the rest of the members about things like membership fees, or the arrangements for running the junior section. For some youngsters this is the first taste of how organisations work.
In time some are entrusted with helping with the junior club, umpiring and coaching, encouraging and smoothing the occasional troubled players or situations. The adherence to and upholding of agreed boundaries is vital to personal development and social well-being. I have been pleasantly surprised to see how quickly these skills are realised and internalised: how socially mature some of the youngsters become so speedily.
Opportunities Lost ?
So you can see that I am not trying to describe a remarkable club (of the charismatic nature of something like the Simon Bolivar Orchestra from Venezuela, for example). If anything, it is the sheer ordinariness of the club that is so special. But it is dawning on me that very few youngsters nowadays have the chance of being part of a club or association like this.
When I was young I was a member of a Sunday School, a Monday evening club called Ropeholders that was concerned to help children in other parts of the world, and also school football and cricket teams. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was learning a range of social skills from teamwork, to the ability to get along with others, and crucially, leadership and becoming responsible for the running of the group or club. I was being trained for civic society, for social life (outside of family and school).
Now I do not want to underestimate, let alone denigrate, the social connections made possible through schools, and the internet through facilities such as Facebook. They have their place in personal development and social connections, but they do not serve the same function as our badminton club in real life interaction, and the modeling of what it is to be an active member or part of an association of people. And if one is to be precise, the club represents the very opposite of the sort of individualism characterised by internet activity which facilitates electronic links, often (though not always) at the expense of real life contact and communication in a social setting.
Learning about Living Together
A primary challenge of human life is to find and develop ways of living together. The history of the world shows that human societies have often been very flawed in this dimension of human living. And I am not convinced that in the UK we are doing very well when it comes to the schooling of the young in social engagement and civic responsibility. Sadly, some young people whom I have talked with in groups and clubs have told me that they are involved because it looks good on their CV! That is individualism writ large.
In the final analysis social cohesion depends not on (selfish or narcissistic) individualism in the hope that everything might somehow work out for the common good (a variation on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”), but on people being willing to accept responsibility for serving others. And that priceless social commodity needs nurturing and modeling.
Over Easter I was in Holland with some of the Mill Grove family. We were once again struck by the sheer number, quality and accessibility of sports facilities throughout the country. It was not just about sporting ability, or a counter to childhood obesity: this is a vital part of social life in the country. And the United Kingdom is a very poor relation when compared to this.
We were delighted to see one of our Mill Grove family who had settled there, now aged 34, not only playing football, but the social secretary of the local football club. In his case it was the Boys’ Brigade that had provided an early model, but it might equally well have been the badminton club.