Friday, August 15, 2008

Compare and contrast

This evening, in my role as Chaplain I attended an emergency general meeting of the members of the United Services Mess, which is facing a financial crisis that could lead to closure. The committee had to report that they were compelled to make their much valued Steward redundant, as a result of plummeting revenues, caused by poor attendance. In order to save the Mess - now in its hundredth year, many changes will have to be made in the way the place is run, subscriptions will have to increase, membership qualifications will have to be broadened - not least where women service personnel are concerned.

The committee has an ambition to do more with voluntary help from members, as happens in lots of service clubs. But for the Mess this represents a significant change in culture and ethos, plus it requires the diplomatic skills of those experienced in handling volunteers. This is where the inclusion of women, with their strong collaborative culture could be most beneficial. Not that the women do all the work, but that their powers of organisation and persuasion, which function differently from masculine models, be allowed to make a contribution that involved everyone in re-creating what is in many ways a strong community based around shared experience of service life.

The Mess building is a problem given that it has no lift, and a substantial number of ageing members. Equipping it for today's access requirements is a big financial challenge for a small private organisation. Restriction on vehicle access in the neighbourhood is also having an impact on the use of the place by both clientele and those servicing the events taking place there. It's the kind of issue that hardly figures in urban planning discussions dominated by the grandiose ambitons of the big economic players. Yet, places like the Mess are part of what gives the City its convivial characteristics for people across the generations. When the redevelopment work is finished, and if the hundreds of apartments are populated with the predicted mix of yuppies and grey panthers, they could well be a different kind of clientele interested in the Mess. But for the moment, only drastic measures will ensure survival. Otherwise the centenary dinner next January could well be the Mess's final act.

It's interesting the reflect upon the differences of fortune between the Church and the Mess, viewing both of them as 'small businesses' as understood in contemporary terms, especially as the voluntary enterprise of women selling tea and cakes to the public predominates in the economic health of St John's, whereas an all-male preserve selling mainly beer and occasional meals to a select clientèle strives and is now failing to compete with scores of places with the same kind of 'retail offer'. What the Mess must discover how to do better is to make the most of itself as a place where military history and culture is cherished, in an environment that brings something unique to the City's social scene.

It was good today to welcome for a return visit and organ concert, Keith Dale, the director of music at Holy Trinity Church Geneva. A hundred people came to the lunchtime recital at St John's. The numbers have built up to their former level very quickly following the six month interruption due to the re-decoration of the nave. All this is due to the energy invested in the 'Cardiff Organ Events' promotion of recitals in the city centre, spearheaded by our own indefatigable Organist and Curator Philip Thomas. Everyone comments favourably on how beautiful the church now looks. I take pride in telling everyone who comments that the £100,000 cost of the work was afforded due to funds raised by Tea Room volunteers over a seven year period.

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