Reading carefully through all the “Special Resolution” bumph which came with this month’s “What’s Brewing”, and also looking at the “manifestos” presented by the candidates for the National Executive election, I was reminded, yet again that the biggest problem facing CAMRA today is not that of where to focus future campaigning, or indeed whether the organisation should embrace “other types” of beer.
Instead, the elephant in the room, which no-one seems to know how to address, is that of a declining active membership; along with that of an increasing aged one. Rest assured though, for CAMRA is not alone in being hit with this double-whammy. Other membership based organisations are equally affected, as I discovered last week.
For some time now I have wanted to become more involved with the activities of the town where I live, and find some way of contributing towards what goes on in Tonbridge. A friend of mine belongs to a group which carries out voluntary work at the local Haysden Country Park, but this involves a regular monthly commitment, every second Saturday.
My friend is retired, so is able to give more freely of his time than I am, and whilst the outdoor work does sound appealing, the monthly involvement is something I am unable to commit to at present. Instead the idea of becoming a member of Tonbridge’s twin-town association seemed more appropriate.
Tonbridge has been twinned with the German town of Heusenstamm since 1984, and there are established links between many local groups with their opposite number in Heusenstamm. These include music and theatre groups as well as schools and sports clubs, and these participate in shared activities, including exchange visits and joint ventures.
The Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, aims to bring together those who are interested in twinning, to encourage people to take part in visits to Heusenstamm and to receive visitors from Germany. It also helps and advises those who wish to make private visits, and to meet socially.
Heusenstamm lies in the Frankfurt Rhine Main Region to the south east of Frankfurt am Main, and is one of several towns in the Offenbach district of the state of Hesse. It has a population of around 18,000 people, which is just under half that of Tonbridge. Both towns have a number of historic buildings, including a castle each.
As someone who visits Germany on a fairly regular basis, the idea of joining the Friendship Circle seemed a logical one, particularly as Heusenstamm is situated in a part of the country I am not familiar with. I am reasonably fluent in German, so I thought this also would be of mutual benefit. I consequently filled out my membership form and posted it off with my £10 annual membership fee.
A few days alter I received a call from the secretary, thanking me for my application and welcoming me to the group. She informed me the association would be holding its AGM the following week, and asked if I would like to attend. I said yes, and so last Tuesday evening I walked down the town’s Rose & Crown Hotel, ready to meet some of the group’s members.
It had been explained to me earlier that the AGM would take place after the Circle’s Annual Dinner. It was too late for me to have booked a place, but this was not a problem as far as I was concerned. On arriving at the Rose & Crown, I was shown into the function room, and introduced to the secretary and chairman.
So far so good, they both seemed very pleasant and helpful people and were obviously pleased to welcome a new member to the group. Their pleasure was no doubt enhanced by the fact that not only did I represent “new blood”, but compared to the rest of those present, I was positively youthful.
Now I am no spring chicken, but looking around, I can safely say that with the possible exception of the town mayor (who was probably present in an honorary capacity anyway), I was by far the youngest person in the room. And I thought CAMRA had a problem!
I sat and listened politely as the meeting worked its way through the AGM agenda. In many ways it was similar to a CAMRA AGM, with reports from the chairman, secretary and treasurer, the presentation and approval of accounts etc, and when it came to the election of officers, the similarities became even more striking.
There were no takers for either the position of chairman or that of secretary. This was despite both incumbents having expressed a wish to stand down. It transpired that both had served over 20 years apiece; small wonder that they fancied a rest! With no possible successors coming forward, they both agreed to carry on, but as the secretary confided to me after the meeting, being an octogenarian is all well and good, but the group was definitely in need of some new blood.
This of course was blindingly obvious, especially to a newcomer like me, but being a newbie I had no intention of putting myself forward; not until I had learnt a great deal more about the group and its German counterpart.
And therein lies the problem facing voluntary groups today, as for whatever reason, people don’t want to get involved to the extent they would have done when such organisations were founded. I include CAMRA here, of course, as well as the Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, and there is no easy answer.
I left the meeting, as soon as it was polite enough to do so, and made my way to Fuggles. I ordered myself a well-earned pint of Larkin’s Porter and sent a text to Eileen, advising her that I was the youngest person present at the meeting. “You won’t be going again, then?” was her response.
I didn’t reply straight away, in fact it wasn’t until breakfast time the following morning that the matter came up again. “I’m not sure,” was my honest response. I don’t mind getting involved when the group have visitors over from Germany; that way I can put my language skills to the test and get in some much needed practice.
I would also be quite happy to travel over to Heusenstamm, when the town holds its traditional Christmas Market, known as the Nikolausmarkt. That way I can get to know people better, and also lend a hand with the English Produce Stall which the Friendship Circle run at the market. But joining the committee would be a completely different ball-game and not one I wish to contemplate at the moment.
As with CAMRA the problem is all too obvious. Both groups need to attract younger people to their ranks, or they are doomed to wither and die. No-one seems to know the answer, but the simple fact remains people just don’t want to get involved with voluntary organisations anymore.
In some ways I felt relieved that it wasn’t just CAMRA who are affected by this lack of involvement, but I feel the answer is much more than just a generational thing. Society today is much more fractured than it was a few generations ago, and people seem so much more wrapped up in their own little bubble.
Whether this bodes well for society in general, remains to be seen.