Spectator: Absolute power

Don't give Lucy Baring a clipboard.

Give me an official T-shirt and a lanyard and I become a power-crazed, bossy person with a highly developed idea of my own importance forget Pony Club mothers! If you throw in a clipboard as well,
I become a head girl, but not of the popular variety. I only overcame a momentary disappointment at not having a whistle on my lanyard when a friend suggested I was getting confused with being a lifeguard.

Looking back, there may have been two factors that exacerbated my new persona. First, I was trying to make up for the fact that I arrived at the ‘induction’ meeting on Sunday having had a long and fairly liquid lunch and, second, I had been bumped, the day before, from books to bric-à-brac at the village fête. And this in year one in a new village. I couldn’t believe my luck, which was entirely down to being in possession of a wheelbarrow at the right time. They needed the wheelbarrow to move donated items from barn to stall and therefore they needed me, I decided.

I bumped along with the mugs, cushions, saucepans and suitcases and various people asked me questions to which I replied ‘Well, I’m not actually on bric-à-brac…’, but I knew, deep down, that the opening was there. And when it came, I gave books not a backward glance. The bookstall was a well-oiled machine with a central location. Bric-à-brac just looked mad. And unmanned. Within minutes, I was selling souvenir eggcups painted with pictures of Bodrum.

I ditched the half-burnt candle embedded with dust and flies. I laughingly showed my former employers on books the jug with the stained bottom, astonished at how dirty it was. It was their jug and they went off to wash it. I wondered about the banana slicer, the raffia hoops onto which one might place socks perhaps, or ties, or attack with darts. And the slice of ancient treacle tart that turned out to be soap.

I was on my favourite stall and I couldn’t let go even when the regulars suggested tactfully that I might like to take a break. I’d tasted the cut and thrust of the retail transaction and I was hungry for more.

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The next day, I was given a T-shirt printed with Chalke Valley History Festival and, giddy from bric-à-brac, I lost my head entirely. There was a moment, early on, when another middle-aged lady and I were happy to be patronised by our bouncy 18-year-old colleague, who clearly thought we were
too old to be of use. But only a moment. Within an hour or two of people asking for directions, I found the head girl I never knew was within me. It was not a pretty sight.

By the time, I’d been put onto The Trench, which had lost electrical power earlier and which now had a backlog of schools wanting their timed slot, I’d turned into a martinet, who gave teachers a run for their money. I was relieved from duties by other volunteers to whom I tried to explain my inexplicable system.

‘Good heavens,’ they exclaimed with awe. ‘You really have been on the front lines.’ ‘Well,’ I replied with false modesty as I reluctantly handed over, ‘it’s been a little tough at times.’ I didn’t want to abandon the post to which I’d become so attached. And I now had a clipboard as well as the lanyard. I started approaching happy strangers who didn’t need my help and who backed away hastily.

There are a couple of things that I still don’t understand, however. How did the two women who were actually in charge deal with every potential problem with grace, humour and efficiency and without a trace of bossiness? And how, when I revisited my trench because it turns out I’m a control freak who couldn’t stay away it seemed to be running efficiently and calmly? Without me.