SW11 Literary Festival launch
SW11 Literary Festival launch
The Mayor and Sponsors of the SW11 Literary Festival

This year’s SW11 Literary Festival launched at the Bellevue Pub on Battersea High Street earlier this week.

The theme for the year is Monsters: which might be offensive to some of the more genteel authors on the programme, but is all good fun. The festival runs from 17 September until 3 October (you can download a programme or get more information from the Clapham Junction town centre website).

Running throughout the festival is the SW11 Monster Hunt, where you can find various monsters hovering around the SW11 area. They are either in shop windows or found using an iPhone or Android app (I’m afraid I don’t have a link to the Android Marketplace version).

Rarrr, scary monster
Rarrr, scary monster

The launch event also created the opportunity to create your own monster – mine, of which you will see I’m very proud, is small but clearly that’s only so he can create terror in the most confined of spaces. You’ll also note that his wings are uneven. This is an evolutionary advantage, so he can fly in circles. Or something.

The festival always features a range events so there is something for everybody – and it provides a good excuse to get out and show support for your local town centre businesses.

The Prime Minister got the headlines yesterday for his ‘launch’ of the Big Society. Along with a lot of scepticism about what the Big Society actually means.

It is a concept that a lot of people are struggling to understand. And if you don’t understand something it must be wrong. Right? Plenty were there to criticise the “ConDems” (a joke surely as tired and as unfunny as New Liebore or Tony B-liar) for using the Big Society as a mask for cuts.

But at its heart it seems, to me, remarkably simple. It is an admission that the state just cannot do everything. For a start it’s just isn’t feasible for the government to carry on Labour’s spending, in 2009 they managed a deficit of £159.2 billion. Even allowing for reduced revenues and extra expenditure because of the recession it is clear that spending so much more than is coming in is totally unsustainable.

But there is a more fundamental issue: to what extent we should expect the state to provide for us? Yes, it should be a safety net and it should ensure that people have various minimum standards in their life. But should it intrude in every aspect of our lives? Or should it enable us to do as much as possible for ourselves and each other, and leave out the rest?

The fact is that the Big Society is already all around us. Last Sunday I went to The Big Lunch on Battersea High Street, an event put together by all the traders (everyone contributed except William Hill, who perhaps don’t feel part of the communities whose money they take). The council helped (or perhaps hindered) the organisation, but it was a prime example of a community, residents and businesses, coming together to do something special. And it was a fantastic day.

But it isn’t just high-profile events like that. A lady I have known for years has, during her retirement, given her time to a number of causes: she runs her Neighbourhood Watch, been a school governor and now volunteers as a reading assistant in her local school alongside various stints of volunteering she does for charities.

Near to me a chap runs a regular playgroup, charging a few pounds a session to pay for room rental, tea and biscuits he arrives in the morning and sets up with the help of the early parents and then at the end of the session clears up with the help of the late arriving parents.

We all know people who give something, whether it’s running a sports team or occasionally helping out a neighbour. They are the Big Society.

It isn’t pure altruism. I’m sure the businesses on Battersea High Street were pleased to have an extra 1,200 people passing through their street on a Sunday afternoon. And I’m sure that even my friend will admit that part of her motivation, as well as giving something back, is the warm fuzzy feeling that comes in return.

It isn’t an issue of getting people to do the ‘state’s job’ for free, it’s about questioning whether society is better off with people building and strengthening their own communities, or just relying on the state to do everything. And helping people get more by giving more to their communities.

In the words of the Conservative manifesto, there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.

At last week’s Northcote Road Carnival I was having a chat with Essential Local magazine about the event. One of the things they asked for was a quote about the day. And it was virtually impossible to give, because pretty much anything you could say was put on the bottom of a list of other (far more important) people saying much the same thing: fantastic day, congratulations to organisers, excellent atmosphere, etc.

So I tried to take a broader view and pointed to how it illustrated the unique offer and character of Northcote Road, which in turn illustrates the unique offers and characters of Battersea.

If you consider Clapham Junction as a hub, whatever direction you walk you are in Battersea, but each is a very different bit of Battersea. To the north, you go up Falcon Road, Battersea High Street and Battersea Square. To the east, my own favourite bit (obviously) Lavender Hill. To the south is St John’s Road and Northcote Road. And finally to the west St John’s Hill. While each share similarities, accidents of history, architecture and even traffic management means each has it’s own character and style. They attract different types of resident, different types of shop and different types of shopper – even though they are just minutes walk from each other.

While I’ve found it fascinating watching each of these evolve over the 12 years I’ve lived in the area, what has been most exciting is the past few when, it seems, there’s been a much stronger sense of community developing – and the resurgence in street-party style events has been one of the most visible aspects of this.

Last year saw just Lavender Hill hosting an event. This year they were joined by Northcote Road and St John’s Hill are planning an event in September. This isn’t limited to Battersea, only slightly further afield Old York Road will be having their third street party later this year and Southfields are looking at their first event this year.

I’m not quite sure what has prompted these events. Clearly there will be an element of seeing the success of one event and wishing to emulate it – but that is slightly simplistic, since a huge amount of work is required to organise one of these days, along with a significant investment in time and money.

But whatever the reason I’m glad that it is happening. One of the real shames of London (and I know I’m as guilty of this as anyone) is that we’ve lost our neighbourhoods – and anything that helps restore that community spirit can only be a good thing.