Corona Chronicles.

Mersham’s Graham Norris tells how he set up a uniquely humourous, quirky and inclusive FB group ‘Help in the Ham’.

March 2020, those last weeks before we plunged into the first full lockdown. A time of toilet roll shortages, supermarkets turning into dystopian film sets as panicked shoppers filled their trollies and when many, who felt themselves vulnerable, pre-emptied Boris and took themselves into self-isolation.

Changing, turbulent times brings forth the adapters, the innovators and those who simply wish to help, however which way they can. Graham Norris, a train driver from Merstham, Surrey was one of those.

On 13th March 2020. Norris was working, he knew the news was grim, that a lockdown, whatever that meant was coming and that the lonely and vulnerable would be hit the hardest. He wanted to bring his community together, in an easy and necessarily virtual, supportive way.

Whilst on his tea break at Bognor Regis, Graham was hit with a sudden brainwave. It would mean setting up something he had no experience of,

but was something he felt, could have an immediate effect. He quickly logged on and with the the press of a few buttons ‘Help in the Ham’ – which from the off was akin to a virtual old fashioned village pub, with its humour, in jokes and inclusive support was born.

Graham’s very first foray into the world of Social Media groups began.

“I wanted to do something for the community that I care about.” Norris explains, “this seemed to be the easiest way of bringing folk together.”

He began , simply by adding 30 of his local friends , asking them to spread the word and add their Merstham friends. “By the time I got to Three Bridge, an hour or so later, we were up to 300 members”. Graham recalls. Help in the Ham was the talk of the ‘ham. Almost a year on, it boasts 2,000 members, around a quarter of the village’s total population.

Help in the Ham written in the stars.

Social media sites can be a difficult beast. To prevent the cruel and vindictive, they can sometimes be mired in a bog of rules and instructions. Whilst necessary, they can detract and turn local community pages into dry noticeboards, which in a physical form would be littered with out of date fliers for amateur dramatic groups, charity fundraising events and missing cat fliers.

Norris wanted Help in the Ham to reflect the essence of its membership, be a place for chat and banter as well as offering the day to day advice, the problem being, to achieve this virtual village pub vibe, some rules and admin help were necessary.

” To be honest, it was becoming a struggle running HITH on my own. I asked group members, some of whom were friends to become admins. They have been incredible!  Between us, we came up with simple rules. No selling, no politics and no offensive posts.

Our mantra? If its not kind, doesn’t help anyone in the ‘Ham then don’t post it.”

“There is no way I could keep an eye and make sure people don’t post inappropriate stuff, if the admins hadn’t stepped up. Membership was growing so fast and with a full-time job and young family it was really difficult.”

The early posts on HITH were a microcosm of the national picture, being concerned with supermarket shortages, the unavailability of online slots and knock on effects for ‘hamers.

“One of the first posts I vividly remember,” recalls Graham, “was a young mum who couldn’t get milk for her very young baby. Within minutes of her post, several group members offered to deliver the milk she needed. I knew then that this was a valuable much needed group.” He pauses, but the post that stayed with him? “A Merstham dad posted a video asking for help with his shielded kids. This family were missing many things. It literally broke my heart. I was beaten to it by dozens of ‘hamers falling over themselves to help.”

” It made his kids day. And mine.”

These anxieties eased, as it became apparent the nations food supplies and toilet roll were intact; replaced by worries around home-schooling and all the uncertainty. Fear not though, ‘hamers rose to the fore. Local teachers offered advice and other ‘hamers tips on maintaining fitness, craft activities and also, quizzes and challenges.  Encouraging the membership to have a go at something new, rather like its founding member taking his first steps into running a fb group.

“It is so heart-warming,” says Graham, “to see local people reaching out to neighbours who needed it.  Many members described the group as a lifeline.”

Local Shops, pharmacies and GP surgeries took to the newly minted page, to provide their community with valuable information. This, also gave rise to the much repeated question: “Anyone know what time the co-op opens? The co-op question, as unifying to the ‘hamers as ‘We will fight them on the beaches…’ was to our Grandparents during WWII. Sightings of the delivery lorry, as it majestically sailed into the village were as joy inducing as the coca cola truck at Christmas. Who could have guessed that the humble co-op would be the in joke, in this virtual village pub that was firmly taking root.

The infamous and beloved Merstham co-op.

“I love living in Merstham” muses Graham. “It is a fab place to raise a family. I live by the rule that if you don’t like where you live either move or do you bit to make it better.”

Without a doubt, Help in the Ham has made Merstham a better place; neighbours have made friends with neighbours, it has united Merstham and provided a wonderful lifeline to all ‘hamers.”

“There have been so many ‘that’s what the group is all about moments.'” Says Graham with pride and perhaps still slightly surprised still at how it has inserted itself into the local’s lives.

“Christmas was particularly brilliant in providing that togetherness vibe. A member had a brilliant brainwave in organising an advent window trail. The creativity! The village looked wonderfully festive and welcoming and it gave families a focus to their daily walks.

Something that Norris may not have envisaged on that March day of almost a year ago, is how Help in the Ham became a driver for local democracy. Merstham councillors have found HITH provides an instant, yet neighbourly connection with their voters.

“Members can tag their two local representatives , alerting them to a plethora of local concerns including the blight of dog muck, broken pavements, potholes and all those other issues that communities up and down the land battle with. The page is a great way of ensuring local accountability. It isn’t all about the tag, it’s about who else sees the tag.There is, no hiding and the local councillors have response has been magnificent”.

And as to the future for Help in the Ham?

“I plan to keep the group going, to continue to help those in our community who need it and provide the advice, the general chit chat and the laughs. We are also joining up with the local neighbourhood watch group to allay fears about crime. Together we are stronger.”

Back in March 2020, Graham’s used social media as a consumer. As with many good ideas, HITH was a brainwave – he simply wanted to bring people together. His lockdown journey has seen him become a social media community champion and have daily dealings with the sublime to the ridiculous to the life affirming. Him and his admin team are true community heroes.

 It is easy to knock social media and the problems it can bring. Some sites can be harbingers of spite and doom, spreaders of fake news, a force for disunity and discord.

Help in the Ham is a nugget of gold amidst the sand and a beacon of inclusiveness, support and a unifier through humour and lightheartedness. Graham’s vision remains intact. Help in the Ham is a fine example of how social media sites should be. Not only is it a wonderful thing for Merstham, Help in the Ham can also hold its head high as a prototype for local fb pages up and down the land.

Find Help in the Ham on Facebook. It is open to all residents of Merstham, Surrey.

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