As the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love begins this weekend (until Sun Aug 31), we’re celebrating some of the capital’s loveliest residents. From record-breaking feats of kindness to hugs between complete strangers, get ready to puke with joy…
1) The do-gooder group with great big giveaways
The Kindness Offensive
‘Our aims are to have fun, be kind and inspire as many people as possible to do the same.’ David Goodfellow
They called him the Phone Whisperer. Whatever he wanted – brand new toaster or a ticket for a sold-out Rolling Stones gig – he’d pick up the phone, sweet-talk the right person, and get it, completely free. A chance meeting with this legendary blagger put Londoner David Goodfellow on to a new path. Goodfellow was fascinated, and asked the Phone Whisperer to teach him the craft. Just a few lessons later the rookie had swag pouring through his door.
It was then he was faced with a Spider-Man-style ‘great power… great responsibility’ dilemma. Could he use his powers for good? Goodfellow and his flatmates went out into the community, looking for ways to help, and two days later had sorted out a birthday party for an 11-year-old girl (including juggling lessons and ringside seats, all courtesy of the Moscow State Circus). The Kindness Offensive was born.
The Mountain of Food Project followed, which delivered more than 25 tonnes of free food to the hungry and homeless of London. That was just the start, however, with the group swelling to 4,000 volunteers in six years. During that time they’ve fed more than 2 million people, provided a toy for every child in a London hospital (twice!) and set the record for the largest free giveaway, distributing more than 39 tonnes of goods in one day. When it comes to banking karma, these guys are the Goldman Sachs of goodwill.
From homeless people to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, everyone is welcome to join The Kindness Offensive as a volunteer.
2) The bloke who wanted to make a difference
The Free Help Guy
‘The project’s driven by a simple and straightforward desire to do what can be done for others.’ The Guy
It started with a simple Gumtree ad: ‘Does anyone need any help?’ This may have been a bit vague and dodgy-sounding – by the Free Help Guy’s own admission – but over six months it elicited more than a thousand requests. ‘Can you help find Charlie the cuddly toy monkey?’ ‘Can you help me sell The Big Issue?’ Even: ‘Can you be my pimp?’
That was back in March 2013. Now, the Free Help Guy’s idea is an agenda-free collective; for every five emails asking for help, there’s one offering it. As a result, the Guy (he prefers not to use his real name), an unemployed altruist, invented the Help Mob: a gathering of public-spirited strangers working on a specific task. In February, one such unit helped a young girl from Notting Hill find a compatible bone-marrow donor by encouraging Saturday morning shoppers to go for a cheek swab. This is one case where the mob deserves to rule.
Want to prevent blindness in African children? Reunite a tourist with their memory card? Sign up online.
3) The cosiest caff in London
Nana: Comfort Food Cafe
‘The nanas are the hostesses with the mostesses. They have a lot to share about life. Why should all that knowledge be locked up in a house?’ Katie Harris
Katie Harris had hit upon a great hangover cure: a soft-boiled egg and some mollycoddling at her nana’s house. If only, she thought, she could pass on the experience? Then Harris saw a great opportunity: a café serving up nostalgic treats, with older ladies taking a share of the profits and, in turn, putting their superb nurturing skills to good use.
The Nana café’s first incarnation was as a pop-up in late November 2012, at which 2,000 cuppas were poured by some enterprising old folks. Just a year later (backed by a Kickstarter campaign), the permanent café opened its doors on Brooksby’s Walk in Homerton. A ‘Nanafesto’ mission statement is due later this year, but the nana revolution has already begun. Are you lovely enough to be a nana?
4) The nicest way to meet those people next door
‘It’s my response to living on a road where I still don’t know anyone. If I can’t change the world, perhaps I can change a street.’ Jemima Wilson
Try as they might, no cow can take the place of a person. Which is why, growing up on a rural dairy farm, Jemima Wilson longed for the buzz of the big city. She thought settling in London would result in more human interaction. But, as a student living in Stepney, she found that people kept themselves to themselves and she was soon missing the Friesians.
Unfazed, Wilson tried to find out who her neighbours really were. She went door to door, posting a letter to each (with crayons and Blu-Tack included), asking them to draw a portrait of everyone in their home and stick it in the window. Within a week, there were 35 pictures on display, including one with a sad face and the words: ‘Lovely idea. Shame I can’t draw.’ Most, however, had put smiling, artistically expressive faces to their households. We’d like to see a cow do that.
Now Wilson is looking for others to give their street the Dear Neighbour treatment.
5) The cuddliest cause in the city
‘The main thing is: Guerrilla Hugs are free. We make a positive impact on a large area by doing something simple and then we leave.’ Majella Greene
Majella Greene had pressed pause on her love life, instead concentrating on her social work and raising her son. Months went by without any kind of platonic embrace. One day, Greene was asked to help a friend’s uncle with some shelving. A thank-you squeeze made her realise what she’d been missing – hugs!
It got her thinking: were there other people out there who needed a hug? Inspired by Free Hugs Campaign pioneer Juan Mann, and influenced by science (Greene has a masters in positive psychology), she set up Guerrilla Hugs: taking human touch to the masses one cuddle at a time. Greene’s small but jolly band of guerrillas (not gorillas: ape hugs should only be performed by trained professionals) first hugged it out on Carnaby Street in March 2011, clasping dozens of happy shoppers. The positive reaction encouraged her, and she’s been facilitating hugs ever since. Greene’s cause has a growing fanbase, and no wonder – it’s a touching philosophy.
Sign up to be a Guerrilla Hugger. Several mass hugs are lined up for this summer.
6) The project to get London gabbing
Talk To Me London
‘Simply having a conversation can make someone feel less isolated and improve their wellbeing.’ Polly Akhurst
[© Artmongers. www.artmongers.org]
When Polly Akhurst went to study in the Italian city of Ferrara, she feared a year of isolation. But, by getting into the swing of smooching cheeks and trading ciaos, she found it easy to make friends.
A year on and back in London, Akhurst soon became saddened by the lack of chat on the tube. Londoners, it seemed to her, were a lonely bunch, who’d much rather crush candy than start a conversation. Working with Ann Don Bosco, she set up Talk to Me London, an organisation aimed at facilitating natter in the capital, in the belief that good things can come from a simple pow-wow between strangers.
After a successful pilot in New Cross late last year (bus stops were turned into ‘talk stops’, see below), there’s now a Talk to Me London day planned for August, with a taster happening at the Southbank Centre on Sat June 28. Face-kissing optional. And start saving up all your classic banter for Talk to Me Day on August 30.
7) The local shed for retired supermen
Camden Town Shed
‘When men retire they hit a wall. With the loss of routine and mates it can be really hard – you’re just wondering what you’re doing with your life. The shed offers these men a sense of purpose.’ Mike Jenn
Two days into retirement, and Mike Jenn was already bored. When his son mentioned the Men’s Shed movement (a popular pastime for retired chaps in Australia, with over 1,000 community sheds spread out across Oz) Jenn reached for his tool box. The result was the Camden Town Shed, erected in May 2011 and the first of its kind in the UK (there are now 63).
The superman-cave gave retired or out-of-work blokes a space to pursue their interests. No, not beer-swilling, onanism and watching daytime TV – the men had a lot to offer the community, and started doing odd jobs to help people out.
To date, Jenn and his group of fairy grandfathers have built the main gate for Calthorpe community garden, created a play castle for disabled children, and helped stock African Training Schools with tools. In 2012, Jenn even found time to take the craze to South Korea, after a government delegation visited the Camden shed and wanted their own. That’s one global old boys’ network we can get behind.
Retirees and those on redundancy pay, anywhere in London, are welcome on Tuesdays. A mixed session runs on Wednesdays.