From the Main Join Me site (for reference only)
How did this happen? What's it all about? Who's behind it? Who's joining? What do we do?
Here're the answers to all those Frequently Asked Questions, in article-form...
THE JOY OF SECTS by Danny Wallace
It's a strange thing, admitting you're a cult leader. You've probably found this yourself. People tend to look at you slightly differently, don't they? They usher their children into the next room, and try to avoid all eye contact, just in case you can somehow hypnotise them into dressing entirely in turquoise, or believing the world is about to end, or that eternal harmony can be found in the gentle rhythms of the bongo drum.
That's usually what I find. Until I actually tell them about my cult. Because in my cult, there are no turquoise shellsuits. Nor are there are any bongo drums. Similarly, brainwashing isn't something we've much time for, there is scant call for space travel, and mass suicides are, at best, frowned upon.
Because my cult is a cult devoted to niceness. To kindness. To improving the life of a total stranger, if only for a moment or two. I call it The Karma Army, and I encourage my followers to carry out one Random Act of Kindness for a complete stranger, each and every Friday. I call these Fridays 'Good Fridays', and I ask my members to sign The Good Fridays Agreement.
It sounds odd, I know. So I'll give you an example... recently, I was on a train, sitting next to a lady called Helen. We got chatting. She asked me what I did, and I informed her, quite matter-of-factly, that I was a cult leader. She seemed to find this somewhat unusual. I told her that one of our beliefs is that it's always good to Make An Old Man Very Happy. She laughed, and jokingly suggested that I should make her grandfather happy. I asked her what would make him happy. She said he quite liked peanuts.
I immediately called my joinees into action. I sent an e-mail out, informing them of this old man, and of his taste for peanuts. And over the course of the next three or four days, that old man received, in the post, anonymously and from all over the country, about eighty packets of peanuts.
And was he happy?
He bloody well should have been.
But the strange thing is, I never set out to do any of this. And the fact that I now have a huge group of dedicated 'joinees' who do my bidding on each and every one of these Good Fridays is as surprising to me as it must be to you. Because I am, by my very nature, a lazy and shambling man. I get bored easily. I am messy and disorganised. If my toaster doesn't work properly, I hit it with a shoe. In short, I am not a man who was born to lead. I am a man who was born to stay in bed and have cups of tea brought to him at hourly intervals. But somehow... well... somehow I have become a Leader of Men. And Women. And - perhaps especially - Belgians.
I should probably explain how this happened. Early last year, my great-uncle Gallus died. He was, along with the overwhelming majority of my family, Swiss. With me being a 25-year-old Londoner, and him being a ninety-year-old Swiss farmer, it was rare that we would bump into each other on a night out. So rare, in fact, that I had struggle to remember, as I travelled to his funeral, whether we'd ever actually met.
It was at this funeral, in a little town near Mosnang, though, that I discovered an incredible fact about the great-uncle I'd never really known. It appears that in the 1940s, after he'd spent his days lying on the grass with his friends, rifles pointed at Austria and the Nazis, my great-uncle Gallus had become disillusioned with the smalltown way of life; disillusioned with the way his community was being run.
And so, naturally, he decided he would start his own commune. His grand idea was to invite a group of willing, likeminded people to live, work and play together on his land. He wanted, he would decide a week later, 100 people.
He got three.
I decided this was a pity. After all, three people was less a commune, more a flatshare. And it was this sense of pity, coupled with the ease in which I get bored, that led me to do something I would not normally do. Somewhere inside me, some of Gallus' genes must have been swimming around, causing mischief, asking odd questions. Because I started to wonder whether people would join me, in the way they'd never joined Gallus. And on a whim, and out of nowhere, I picked up the phone and called a local London paper. I placed a free small ad. And I asked people to Join Me. All they would have to do to Join Me, I decided, was send me a passport photo. That small amount of hassle, trust, effort and expense would be enough to prove to me that they were serious.
Sure, they wouldn't know who they were joining, or what they were joining, or why they were joining... or even what 'joining' meant... but would that be enough to put them off?
4000 passport photos later, I realise that was a silly question.
Not all my joinees came from that first small ad, of course. That would be ridiculous. No, I owe a lot to the internet, word-of-mouth, and the genuine excitement of strangers. I can't explain why, in those early days, people were so keen to join something when they had no idea what it was they were joining. Perhaps it was a sense of fun. Perhaps it was a sense of adventure. Perhaps there was a fundamental human need to belong that I tapped into. Whatever it was, a small community was forming, and bonding. And I was loving it.
However, I soon faced a very real problem. These people had begun to look to me as their Leader. And, as the ranks swelled and my pile of passport photos grew, they began to demand to know exactly what it was they had joined. This was troubling for me. Because I, being a coward and considerably out of my depth, just couldn't bring myself to tell them that there was no point. That I had made them join me on a simple whim. That there was actually nothing that I wanted them to do.
But I couldn't tell them that. So I had to find a point to the pointlessness.
Now, I don't know if you've ever started a cult, but one of the first things you have to do is decide whether to use your powers for good, or for evil. You will already have realised that I decided to work for good. And it was working.
The very moment I instructed my joinees to take to the streets and carry out Random Acts of Kindness for the benefit of strangers, in fact, they took to their task with determination and gusto. All over the country, little things were happening... little moments of joy in towns and cities across the land. Little events that were brightening up people's lives, even if it was only for a few seconds. Pints were being bought for strangers. Shopping was being carried. Cups of tea paid for. Boxes of chocolates handed out in the streets. Flowers deposited at old people's homes. Cakes left on doorsteps. Sure, none of these events was world-changing, but they were... well... life-affirming, somehow. Strangers being nice to strangers. For no reason whatsoever. And it continues to this very day.
All over Britain, and, in fact, all over Europe now, thousands of people are sticking to the Good Fridays Agreement and carrying out their little acts of kindness, for no reward or personal gain other than the warm glow they get from having done one. The Karma Army is non-religious. It's non-political. It's about walking into a pub, buying a pint, putting it on a stranger's table with a nod, and walking away. It's about offering someone your Mail on Sunday when you've finished with it. It's not about being thanked, or getting any credit, or going to heaven. It's not about changing humanity; it's just about being human.
Word has spread alarmingly quickly. The Belgians, in particular, have picked up on the message of the Karma Army, and I was left slightly bewildered when I was invited onto Belgium's number one rated TV chat show (that's probably where you recognise me from).
It was a particularly exciting day for me, as it was the first time I had ever been subtitled. I enjoyed that immensely, mainly because it allowed me to start making up new words and slipping them into the interview, in the cheeky knowledge that there was a man in the room next door struggling to work out what I was saying from a very battered old dictionary.
Well, you can't be kind all the time. But I informed the Belgians that the very next day I would be at the town hall in Brussels and that should they wish to turn up to sign the Good Fridays Agreement they should do so at 6pm with a passport photo.
At the allotted hour, I stood, slightly nervous, in the Grand Place, with a small sign saying JOIN ME BELGIANS. And a moment after raising it above my head, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by Belgians.
And that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd write. But it's not just Belgium... word has spread to France, and Italy, and Denmark, and, in the past week, Australia and America, too. The Karma Army is becoming truly international. And that fact alone has been enough to prove one, vital universal truth to me.
It's this: people are essentially good. I know that now, beyond any shadow of a doubt, no matter what I read or see on TV. Thing is, there's this strange social barrier that every country now seems to have. We may see people struggling in the street with something heavy, and, fair enough, part of our brain will always make us want to go over and help. But somehow, being nice has gone from being second nature, to being fifth or sixth. We don't go and help, because we're afraid of being seen as weird, or eccentric, or as a potential mugger, or as an American tourist trying to find a new best friend (I don't know which is more terrifying). Instead, we walk off, and we simply forget about it.
But my joinees - my proud and noble followers - have shown me that it's possible to break that barrier down. And not just possible, but easy. If you feel you've an excuse for doing something nice, no matter how vague or silly, then it becomes far, far easier. If you can treat it almost as a joke, almost like you're playing a cheeky prank on someone, you can be nice with almost no embarrassment whatsoever. It's like a live version Candid Camera, but one in which the victim actually benefits.
And the strangest thing is, if you'd asked me a year ago who I thought would benefit most from these Random Acts of Kindness, I'd have said it was the recipient. Now, though, I'm pretty sure it's 50/50. Thanks to these small and happy efforts, I've watched people come out of their shells, shed their embarrassment, make new friends. I've watched people become the people they'd always known they were, but were too shy to show. I've watched people glow as they made someone else smile.
Try it. You'll see what I mean. So when you've finished with this paper, look around you, and offer it to somebody else. The publishers won't thank me for saying that, but the person you give it to almost certainly will.
(First written for the Mail On Sunday)