Thursday, 18 July 2013

River dancing

Last weekend I found myself in an airless marquee watching my daughter perform with the Henley Festival Youth Orchestra. As I sat perspiring, alongside rows of other dutiful and sweaty parents, I realised that I had become part of a community. To add to the pathos of the moment, the orchestra broke into Gustav Holst's accompaniment to I Vow to Thee, My Country, a tune that never fails to stir, in my case, a latent kind of patriotism.

Henley Festival of music
Boats gliding past a floating stage...
The last time I felt so embedded in a community was during my school days, when singing allegiance to one's country was a common event during morning assembly. My twenties, living in London and New York, were the wilderness years: I preferred my independence to dwelling within a cohesive, social group. 

Now I have my own family, however, I have gravitated back to community living. It makes sense on so many levels, practical and otherwise: we share lifts, look after each other's children, monitor our neighbourhood and provide support in times of emotional upheaval. To some extent, we are motivated by self-interest, but we are also united by a sense of fellowship and shared values.

Community spirit in Western cultures is said to be dwindling. Populations are more transient and families more fractured, while communal institutions, like the church, have lost their influence. Certainly my anthropologist neighbour, who often visits Tanzania, remains impressed by the Maasai's strong sense of community, in spite of their poverty and lack of resources.

Here in Henley, our community is undoubtedly based upon privilege and wealth, but also a shared sense of pride in the place we live. In the space of a fortnight, our small, picturesque town, nestled in a bend of the Thames, has hosted the famous rowing Regatta and the Henley Festival of music. These two events attract visitors from around the world, but also bring the local community together in a bonanza of boating, picnics and dancing. 

Saturday night at the Henley Festival this year felt like a cocktail party of Gatsby-esque proportions. Friends mingled on the grassy banks of the Thames, against a backdrop of music, sculpture and roving street performers. Beyond this, boats bedecked in fairy lights glided past a floating stage. It was a night of hedonism for sure, but perhaps having fun together is the secret ingredient of any thriving community. In days gone by, carousing townsfolk danced around the Maypole. In Henley last weekend, we boogied with DJ Ben Zaven Crane.

My daughter's youth orchestra is funded by the Henley Festival Trust, a not-for-profit organisation committed to inspiring young people and supporting those with special needs. It is a nice example of an institution that promotes social projects in a host of different ways. A community has to stand on many legs and artistic expression is not the least of them. So, where once I sang for my country, now I vow to thee, my community, entire and whole and perfect down by the river on a summer's evening.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------


"I absolutely loved this book and will miss the family that I became so involved with over the past few days. I hope Emma has another book in the pipeline!" -- Annabel at CountryWives 18 July, 2013


I welcome reviews of my book on Amazon!