The Royal British Legion club in Borehamwood is working to appeal to the younger generation and branch welfare workers know there are many people who could benefit from their help -- if only they knew they were there. CHRIS DILLABOUGH spoke to the two men at the helm
Camaraderie, the spirit of familiarity and trust that exists between friends -- that is what the Royal British Legion Club in Borehamwood says it is all about.
In the shadow of the council offices in Shenley Road, the other side of Elstree Studios from the town centre, a vital part of Borehamwood's social life is tucked away.
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Around 900 branch members can enjoy the building and its facilities -- rebuilt after a devastating fire closed it for seven months in July 1996.
Bosses say anyone is welcome as long as they uphold the aims of the legion, enjoy a sit down and a chat more than shouting to be heard in a crowded pub -- and know how to show respect.
Rules say any ex-service personnel or dependants can join -- and how many can say they have no relatives who took part in one of this century's conflicts?
"The image of us has been of a lot of old people walking around in Zimmer frames, but that's not true," said club chairman Ernie Lillie, 70, of Cowley Hill. John Brown, 68, of Morpeth Avenue, is head of the branch -- and in charge of the welfare side of operations.
"People imagine we sit around in our medals and talk about wartime experiences," he said, "but medals mostly come out only on armistice day, and there is little talk of life in combat."
The club is making a determined effort to attract younger people and their families, and the chairman said the new, modern look following the £100,000 refit has helped.
"It used to be mainly ex-service people but now that's changing.
"Increasingly, younger people -- associates and friends -- are coming in," said Mr Lillie, who came to Borehamwood after the war and worked at Elstree Studios, first as a prop hand and eventually as a property manager.
His wife is also involved in legion work and the couple have four children and five grand children.
He said many people who went elsewhere during the club's closure have not yet returned, and the club is keen to welcome them back.
Both Mr Lillie and Mr Brown admitted in past years the club had been 'cliquey', but not any more, especially as the new arrangement of chairs makes it hard not to mingle.
The recent bank holiday saw the club full of young people when members were encouraged to bring their families along. Each year the branch take around 300 children to the seaside, and there are plans to set up a legion football team for teenagers.
Unlike many pubs and clubs, the club is an easy place for people of different generations to meet -- and for Ernie Lillie this is a key ingredient of the "camaraderie" he wants the club to stand for.
Mr Brown said: "By coming here, younger people can learn to appreciate what they have through the sacrifice of so many people. We do not glorify war, but we do glorify the people who fought."
Mr Brown, who spent his working life in the clerical and management side of railway companies in London, came to Borehamwood in 1954 from Fulham.
Like Mr Lillie, Mr Brown's wife is also involved in legion work.
He said that includes selling poppies and catering for sellers on poppy day. The couple have two daughters, and four grand children. He was particularly pleased to see so many people in Borehamwood town centre show respect on Armistice Day in November last year by falling silent.
Mr Lillie said: "We do not select people, we take them at face value. As long as they show respect for the club and its members they are welcome.
"Like with a lot of organisations, a lot of people come along to try us out. Those who like it, stay."
While most members were immediately impressed with the new facilities, others -- perhaps more set in their ways -- took longer to get used to it.
When the club opened after World War II it was little more than a hut, with an Anderson shelter at the back serving as a bar.
But the legion bosses are confident there is now much to attract people in and around Borehamwood.
There are regular social evenings with music and dancing, affordable food and drink is laid on all day, and members can take advantage of coach outings, social trips to other clubs, and visits from other clubs to Borehamwood. Visitors have nothing but praise for the facilities in Borehamwood -- and just as important, the friendly atmosphere.
Good communication between grass roots club members and those elected to manage the club is vital, according to both men.
Mr Lillie said officers were voted in for one year, and if members did not like their actions, they could be booted out.
The voluntary work carried out by the branch's welfare committee is equally valuable, but not as visible as the social life in the club, and perhaps for that reason not as easily understood by the public, and even some club members.
Mr Brown said he welcomed constructive criticism at regular meetings, and he said any member was welcome to approach him at any time to discuss matters of concern.
"Members are generous (with money), they always have been, but it's harder to get them to give their time," he said.
He said an important part of welfare work is helping veterans claim the war pensions they are entitled to, and also state benefits.
"There is a preconception that we only help our members, and I want to emphasise that is not true," he said.
Many older people are proud and reluctant to claim benefits they regard as charity, but legion workers can help them get what they deserve.
"The Income Support form can be daunting to fill in," he said.
Most people over 70 will be ex-service, and "some of those aches and pains they are suffering from now are not just the aches and pains of old age."
A support network is important for veterans, many of whom suffered terrible atrocities and were forced to re-adjust to family life without the help of counselling.
Mr Brown said: "You can't compensate for that sort of suffering, but the legion is there to pick up the pieces."
A vital part of the legion's welfare work is taking housebound people -- ex-service people or their dependants -- on day trips, and arranging respite care to give carers a break.
Mr Brown said people would be surprised to learn just how difficult it is to track down those most in need of help.
He is convinced there are many people in and around Borehamwood who could benefit greatly from the help of his organisation. "There are 40,000 people in the district we cover: Borehamwood, Elstree and Shenley. Many of those are elderly. But a lot of people do not know we're here, because we're not in the high street."
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