As London's Olympic stadium resonates to another day of athletic thrills and drama, it still holds powerful memories of last week's opening ceremony. Danny Boyle's exuberant vision of the nation moved millions of people, not least his luminous, mattress-bouncing, swinging tribute to the NHS, an institution central to all our lives.
But there was another British institution on show that night. Its reach is equally broad, but its foundations are much, much more precarious: the micro-end of the charity sector.
Earlier this week I wrote about the experience of the small charity that runs the Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children, based in north London, which brought together 84 children between the ages of eight and 17 to perform the national anthem, in their pyjamas, to a global audience and Her Majesty the Queen, fresh out of her parachute. They sang and signed their hearts out, just two verses, tiny figures in a vast stadium of light and noise.
They appeared alongside titans of the entertainment world: James Bond, Mr Bean, Paul McCartney. But the global audience may not have understood that this choir inhabits a completely different universe. Founded nearly two decades ago in north London by two indomitable women, a generation of children (including mine) have been captivated with their eclectic energy and offbeat songs, all sung and signed. Instead of channelling disabled children into separate groups, their workshops are open to all. Danny Boyle's decision to use this choir was not random: it embodies his vision of an inclusive Britain. There were some children singing that night who defied all expectations of what they could achieve.
But the choir was founded on a shoestring and has been run on a shoestring ever since. A week since the opening ceremony, a wave of public interest has engulfed them. Updating the website, organising interviews with journalists, children for photographers, fundraising pages that work: tasks that would be second nature to large organisations have been a huge challenge for a charity this small.
Like so many other charities across Britain, they survive on a mixture of one-off, small donations and a thin stream of regular funding, via a few local schools, themselves under increasing pressure to find cash for non-essential activities. And like other charities, they don't ever want to say no to parents who can't pay the small fee for afterschool workshops, and so money is discreetly moved around to keep their doors open. But this means living in fear of an unforeseen bill or a broken laptop.
It also means a hand-to-mouth existence that will be familiar to anyone running a small charity. Bigger funders want transparency and precision in return for their money: applications are time consuming. You can't really get off base one without a fundraiser.
The choir received no funding for the ceremony: their expenses were met (two double decker buses and alot of sandwiches). This seems entirely right. Part of what made the ceremony so special was the contribution of so many thousands of volunteers. It's led to a palpable sense of goodwill in London, which has surprised the cynical and has yet to wear off.
It's hard to predict whether this mood will persist or change anything. Attempts by politicians to capture and direct the volunteering genie are liable to misfire (e.g. The Big Society). It will be interesting to see whether the Games as whole will be remembered for their volunteering or their corporate spirit.
The choir, meanwhile, hopes that a shoestring can be turned into something stronger.Suggest a correction