diamond geezer

 Monday, September 12, 2005

Berliner-style post

Why do we bother?

I visited a tourist attraction on the outskirts of London over the weekend. I don't need to tell you which one (because I'm saving it for a feature I have planned for November) but I will tell you the one thing that struck me most about my visit - the lack of other visitors. Not that the site was in any way empty. The attraction was staffed by an army of volunteers: collecting the entrance money, selling souvenirs, stewarding in the car park, leading guided tours around the site or just wandering around and keeping the few visitors happy. Some volunteers stood waiting beside their displays in case anybody wandered up and wanted to ask a question. Some prepared sandwiches in case a hungry diner had failed to bring their own. And a large group of weekend-only soldiers recreated a pitched historical battle, complete with real guns and explosions, to an audience considerably smaller than their own regiment. The whole day out was professionally executed to a very high standard, but I couldn't help thinking that all this effort was somehow wasted on the few of us who'd actually bothered to turn up.

There are hundreds if not thousands of tourist attractions in the London area, each with a potential audience within travelling distance of more than ten million. And yet half of a thousandth of one percent of them had bothered to share my day out with me. Presumably the rest were out shopping, or were watching the cricket, or were visiting somewhere else, or were too poor, or were just wholly disinterested. It's much easier somewhere like Ipswich, where the number of visitor attractions barely scrapes into double figures and is easily assembled into one manageable list. But try searching for somewhere to go in London and it's much harder to pick out the tiny gems amongst the big name attractions, and the smaller sites often drown in relative obscurity. So the volunteers turn up, unlock the gates, hang around for almost nobody to turn up, wait all day, then go home ready to repeat the whole process again and again. Why do they bother?

I expect it'll be even worse at London Open House weekend next week, not least because of a wholly unwieldy search engine. A few big name projects in the centre of town will have queues stretching round the block, while special one-day openings at tiny properties in Upminster, Croydon or Ruislip will go unnoticed. And it all comes down to choice. The public like a wide choice so they can select where they want to go, but for such a choice to be available every option has to be fully staffed even if it's a choice nobody chooses to make. It's the same reason why buses run empty, why attendants in art galleries spend hours alone with their paintings and why charity shop workers wait hours for one potential purchaser who may never arrive. On another level it's why volunteers repair dry stone walls that only a few sheep will ever see, why neighbours pop nextdoor to talk to old people for whom they have no responsibility and why lifeboat crews ready themselves for incidents they hope will never happen. And, you could argue, it's why millions of bloggers bother to blog, even when virtually nobody else will ever stumble upon what they have to say.

If you think about it too hard, much of life is a complete waste of human time and resources. So much of what we all do goes unnoticed, overlooked and underappreciated. But thank goodness for volunteers, because society would be far less diverse and far more commercial without them. And a special thank you to the good people of north London who allowed me a fascinating glimpse back into the past over the weekend. I now have no need to go back, but I'm glad to know that you'll be there for the few that follow me. Thank you all for bothering.

(If the Guardian can switch to 'narrower and shorter', so can I)

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