Sitting up front in a bumpy minibus, I watched the landscape change as I looked at the hedges hemming rolling fields with villages dotted across them, church spires and clusters of houses scattered throughout. We bundled round the lanes and passed a bus stop, pausing 100 metres further on in front of a small bungalow. The driver stepped out, opened the door, and helped an elderly lady board with her shopping bags, not yet filled with the week’s provisions. As the lady joined her friends in the back of the bus, I asked Bert, the driver, about the caring role he took on. He replied:
“I’m a driver: I don’t help people that much. I’m not a carer or anything like that. I don’t do things for free.”
Bert’s quote contains remnants of many discursive tropes that surround caring and working in Britain. Care and work are placed in opposition to one another, as evidenced by the foregrounding of Bert’s job title, ‘driver’, with the role of ‘carer’ commonly associated with ‘doing things for free’. Using the context of research I carried out with a community transport charity, I will explore the tensions that caring and working can bring in practice, and consider how dependency stigmas are experienced by the users of the service. I will consider gifting as a mediation of these issues and propose the concept of ‘caring-work’ as a way of emphasising the dynamic relationships involved in the network of care I observed.
I embarked on my research with a community transport charity in the south of England, which I shall call Forest Green Community Transport through an interest in rurality and mobility, stemming from a place of personal concern and frustration. Having grown up in a rural area in England with much of my adolescent socialising at the mercy of the one bus that ran through my village, I knew all too well the difficulty of life in the countryside for those that do not drive. Over the last decade more than 25% of rural bus routes have been cut[i] meaning that county councils or community initiatives step in. Forest Green Community Transport (FGCT) provides mobility to elderly, rurally isolated, and disabled people across the area it serves. One type of key service offered is demand-responsive ‘DART’ services, that function as a bus route based on demand – often running once or twice a week, they make a route through villages towards a town centre. This allows users to go to the shops, visit the post office or bank, or meet up with their friends. There are also ‘dial-a-ride’ services, where individuals or small groups can arrange a trip like a taxi – for example, to take them to a doctor’s appointment, go to the hairdressers, or to go to a social club. Groups such as an Alzheimer’s society or an AgeUK lunch club could also hire the bus to pick up members and bring them to their events.
When I first turned up at the abandoned airfield where the buses are kept, I was anticipating talking to the passengers about the freedoms that the bus afforded them, the places they could go, and their experience of rural isolation and life. Although this was a key topic of conversations, with passengers commonly invoking the terms ‘lifesaver’ or ‘lifeline’ to describe FGCT, I was much more struck by the way in which people valued the experience of the journey itself more than the destination they could reach. This was in part due to the social connections forged between passengers who often lived alone or were isolated from friends. The journey was an opportunity to chat, talk about life, and complain about the issues of the day. It was also a way to be involved in a network of care in which the drivers played a key role.
I saw drivers taking shopping up to third floor flats, spending ten minutes helping a nervous and frail woman down from the bus on the motorised platform for wheelchair users, and calling family members to find spare keys of people who had forgotten where they put them. I heard about people whose grave illness or even death had been discovered by the drivers of GFCT when they didn’t turn up for their lift, and the drivers noticed and cared, alerted families, investigated themselves, or called the police. Drivers routinely deviated from the official routes so they could drop people on a less busy part of the road, and often stopped at people’s houses instead of the allocated bus stop. They joked, sympathised, and listened with all passengers, remembering the details of their grandchildren, previous careers, or medical issues. Conversations that I assumed to be banal, like Len arriving at Brian’s house five minutes early to chat and ask if he went to boules last week turned out to be motivated by care: Len told me that he sees a detachment from activities like these as a warning signal for a possible decline in elderly health. He asks his father-in-law, who attends the same boules club, to let him know whether Brian goes the next week.
When I asked about these forms of care and community making I observed driver Nish told me ‘drivers don’t come into it, they’re just doing their job’. The next day as we pulled into the town centre bus station and passed a public bus, driver Len said ‘those bus drivers won’t get up and help. That’s the difference between us and them. If people struggle, they watch them struggle’. Nash and Len’s statements demonstrated two attitudes I found at GFCT – that it was ‘just a job’, and a recognition that there was an added layer of care and expectation of providing help.
There has been long-standing debate on the nature of care and attitudes to care in work, where it is asserted that ‘true care cannot be performed in the context of paid work’ (Lane, 2017: 4). GFCT’s position as a charity opened questions about the relationship between service, charity, and paid employment. It is often assumed that people engage in charity work, particularly volunteering, out of the ‘goodness of their heart’ and motivated by their care for the people or cause that the charity represents. Rosie Read has written about tensions between volunteers and waged workers at a charity providing online and telephone counselling in the UK (Read 2021). Volunteers harboured a worry that waged workers would not do it for ‘the right reasons’, displaying the attitude ‘if one is being paid to do it (…) is it really care’ (Lane 2017: 4). Does Bert’s statement that he ‘wouldn’t do it for free’ mean that he is incapable of showing true care to his passengers? Bert had gone ‘viral’ (in the modest sense of circulating the cyber-space of the local area and culminating in around 200 likes on Facebook) for a video posted that showed him waiting at a train station for a train to go past as he knew that the 8-year-old grandson of one of his regular passengers loved trains. As the boy was spending the holidays with his granny, Bert made an effort to deviate from schedule to watch the train go by, much to the enthusiastic delight of his young passenger. A comment on the video said it was ‘rare to see this kind of care nowadays’.
This comment touches on a long-standing attitude in Britain that care and community is deteriorating. This is coupled with steady cuts to services such as rural transport meaning that charities are increasingly being relied upon to provide services previously provided by the state (Read 2021). This can cause anxiety given the stigma often associated with receiving charity or being part of seemingly one way exchanges. In a study of UK rural car use, Shergold et al. found amongst elderly people without cars or who were unable to drive that ‘the use of lifts from friends and neighbours was often limited, as people might feel they were abusing friendship to seek lifts’ (2012: 77). This demonstrates the difficulty that people can have navigating the intersections between sociality and dependency. The community transport model alleviates this anxiety around commodification of friendship by offering a clear service, yet within this service passengers also struggled with dependency dynamics. Shergold’s study found that using a car was an important measure of independence for their elderly interlocutors, and that feeling independent contributed highly to their well-being. Ethel, an elderly lady in a wheelchair caught me watching her as she wistfully watched cars going round a roundabout and said that she greatly missed having a car – ‘I was independent, you see’. While all passengers were extremely complimentary of, and grateful for, the service GFCT provided, they strove to assert independence within what could be a perceived reliance on charity or a lack of autonomy. Ethel, for example, refused to be helped while clipping the straps of the bus to her wheelchair, and male passengers, in particular, refused help carrying their shopping even if they appeared to be struggling. Despite the legal requirement for passengers on the minibus to wear seatbelts, Bert explained that he only made ‘little kids’ put them on as ‘people like to be responsible for themselves’.[ii]
Passengers often brought gifts for the drivers – I saw sweets, chocolates, home-made cakes, and apples from someone’s garden being presented to the drivers throughout my time there. On one particularly memorable day, when it was so hot my legs were stuck to the seat and opening the window only made it hotter, Fred hove into view in the wing mirror carrying a box of choc-ices that he presented to me and Nish, the driver I was with that day. The choc-ice was made even sweeter as I remembered how proudly frugal Fred was, with one of his favourite conversation points being just how crazy prices were getting and exactly how he was budgeting. Perhaps it is the stereotypical anthropologist that can’t help but look the gift horse in the mouth, but it felt as though people sometimes offered these gifts as an alternative form of payment. Possibly a way of mediating the service they received from the charity (which was free to them) and inserting a sense of exchange that made it closer to a normal public bus service. This has some parallels to the way that disabled communities in Kinshasa issue contractual documents when receiving money from begging, earning them the name ‘documentaires’, as a way of legitimating the one-way exchanges they engage in (Devlieger 2018). From this point of view, the fact that the drivers were paid, rather than volunteers, was helpful as it meant that passengers did not feel that they were unduly dependent on someone’s good nature, but that instead they were legitimate users of a service. While drivers were ‘just doing their job’, passengers were also reassured that they could rely on the drivers to care for them when needed.
There are many ambiguities and potentials for contradiction within the relationships that made up GFCT and the communities it both served and created. Drivers sometimes bemoaned the limitations that ‘just doing their job’ created – with Nish lamenting that ‘you want to do everything you can for these people, but in the end you are just the driver’. This limitation, however, did not prevent them frequently going above what would be expected in the comparable role of a public bus driver. They consistently provided levels of care for their passengers which facilitated networks of care, community and friendship that made isolated individuals confident in the service and helped maintain their independence. However, this independence could also be felt as a stigmatised dependency on charity which passengers and drivers mediated by emphasising the paid nature of the drivers’ work and by creating a sense of fair exchange and compensation through gifting. These ambiguities are underlined by popular opposition between care and work and the associated idealisation of independence within the same ideologies at the root of the service cuts, paradoxically creating new dependencies on charity and community services. If I was that archetypal anthropologist, I could blame it all on neoliberalism, but so as not to be, I will let Carrie Lane do it for me: ‘neoliberal reforms have fostered levels of insecurity that dictate increased reliance on others to compensate for the withdrawal of government and corporate support’ (Lane 2017: 5)!
Tracing some of the caring dynamics at play in Green Forest Community Transport draws attention to the webs of dependency, ideology, labour and care that are present in many workplaces, charities, and even friendship networks. The troubling juxtaposition of care and work feeds into the ways that explicit care work is devalued in the United Kingdom, and across the globe, whether through low wages, or the expectation that those working in jobs associated with forms of care are doing it for something other than financial reasons. This has manifested in the critical reception to recent nursing and teaching strikes in the UK. While it is true that the care aspect of work is often rewarding, this does not pay rent, or put food on the table.[iii] These discourses can also stigmatise those that receive care, which passengers may look to mediate by emphasising their receipt of service, rather than care. To do justice to these tensions, and those that the drivers felt in navigating their role at the intersection between service and care, I suggest that we embrace the framework ‘caring work’ to describe work that is of a caring nature but is not typical care or charity work. The ‘ing’ of caring emphasises the dynamic and active role that drivers have in shaping community and providing care, and highlights it as an intrinsic part of ‘just doing the job’. I hope that this may provide a framework for considering the ways in which our work is caring, yet still work, and allows people to embrace being cared for, while still maintaining feelings of independence and autonomy.
[ii] Some drivers were stricter about this, and would put seatbelts on for passengers if they judged them to be particularly frail.
[iii] Consider MP Simon Clarke’s comment that nurses who had to use foodbanks were simply not budgeting properly. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-64317593
Flora Cooknell is a graduate student in the department of Social Anthropology funded by the ESRC. Her research is focused through the core question of how experiences of rurality intersect with and compound inequality and poverty in England. Through research in a village in the south of England, she hopes to bring together themes of landscape, belonging, kinship and (dis)connection to push against an idealised vision of life in the English countryside. By dissecting England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ she will provide critical insight into contemporary experiences of rurality as people maintain and navigate life.
Devlieger, C. (2018). Contractual dependencies: American Ethnologist, 45(4), 455–469. https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12701
Lane, C. M. (2017). The Work of Care, Caring at Work: An Introduction. Anthropology of Work Review, 38(1), 3–7. https://doi.org/10.1111/awr.12107
Read, R. (2021). Unwaged labour intensified: Volunteer management and work targets at a UK charity. The Sociological Review, 69(1), 223–239. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120938291
Shergold, I., Parkhurst, G., & Musselwhite, C. (2012). Rural car dependence: An emerging barrier to community activity for older people. Transportation Planning and Technology, 35(1), 69–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/03081060.2012.635417