A couple of calls that are hard to cope with without giving terminal offence…
A dear friend with a great heart want to join our teams in Zimbabwe and “help the poor.”
The trouble is that it is not as simple as it sounds. Unschooled friends always need a great deal of looking after and by the time they are into the job they are gone! The poor are not exhibits in a zoo, they are real life human beings with pride, as we all have, and they do not want to be patronised by amateurs, however well intended. And strange faces are a security risk. What are we do do if they are arrested and banged up in the local slammer?
Another caller wants us to “partner them” and I know what that means. There is an old advertisement that is said to read: “Communist with spoon seeks partnership with capitalist with pork pie.” Our caller has an idea and he wants ZANE to pay for it. I have been around, you know, and I fob this off in as kind a way I can muster! Raise your own money, sunshine.
Last month another person wanted us to lend our authority and networks to supply her funds to help a village school. I had to gently explain that she has to have a long term commitment and the programme has to be sustainable; if the donor gets bored or runs out of money expectations in the village will be thwarted.
All these initiatives may sound good but they have more to do with making donors feel good rather than helping the poor escape their poverty and grow tall.
Behind the Mask
An old friend told me, “Everything in moderation, except vegetables, laughter and sex.”
Not everyone has such a well-developed sense of humour at all times. He died recently, one of life’s great survivors who ended his days cheerfully and surrounded by his family. Many are not so lucky; it can be a viciously lonely world out there and many people are floundering with no one to turn to. Real friendship is a rarity.
Do you remember Lady Isobel Barnett? She was a celebrity in the late 1950s and 1960s appearing on panel games such as “What’s My Line?” With her cut-glass accent and polished poise, people thought she was an aristocrat but in fact she was no such thing. Her husband had been knighted as Mayor of Leicester and she came from a perfectly ordinary background, although she was a qualified doctor. As the years passed, the invitations to chat shows began to dry up, and requests for after-dinner speeches stuttered to a halt. Her husband died and her only child lived abroad. As the wheels of her life began to fall off, she was engulfed by the gnawing despair of loneliness.
The poem “Solitude” with the lines “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone” often proves true enough. Perhaps as a response to her loneliness, Lady Barnett began to shoplift and was caught with a tin of tuna and cream worth 87p. She had sewn a bag to the inside of her coat to hide the goods so she had no excuse. Found guilty and fined £75, she killed herself just four days later by throwing an electric heater into her bath.
Dying and Done For
When I was a district councillor, the chairwoman was a delightful lady, bright and commanding in a mumsy sort of way and with a naughty twinkle. We got on well. She was a paragon of respectability and married to a local headmaster. There were no children.
Then the locusts moved in: she lost her chairwoman’s role and then her council seat. Problems don’t come in platoons but in battalions: her husband died, and then her wrinkles widened into cracks. Some years later, the local news blared that she had been banned from driving for a drink offence; then there was another offence and a suspended sentence. I went to her house to commiserate and found her so drunk she could hardly stand. Soon afterwards she died from alcoholism.
In the Aykbourn trilogy of plays The Norman Conquests there was a wild party with the guests dancing along in a conga line around the house. They circled round the legs of their host who had hanged himself in the stairwell, and no one saw anything awry.
Mother Teresa used to say that although the poor of Calcutta had no money or assets, they at least had community. The poor can weep together and comfort one another. They can pray and share the little they have. All too often, all we have in the affluent UK are our masks of respectability and the good old NHS; oh yes, and our chanting we are “all right thank you”, and an endless drone about the weather.
In Betjeman’s poem “Song of a Nightclub Proprietress”, the protagonist says:
“But I’m dying now and done for
What on earth was all the fun for?
I am ill and old and terrified and tight”.
It sort of sums it up really, doesn’t it? Cheerful old soul, aren’t I? Still, stop moaning and count our blessings. Offenbach wrote in one of his operas: “When you cannot have what you love, then you must love what you have.”
I’ll settle for that.
Jane was recently away looking after our two granddaughters. I felt bereft even though she had left me copious notes about what to eat and when. She provided me with a tidy supply of excellent soup and cottage pie in the freezer, so I had no reason to grumble. (I never have good reason but that doesn’t stop me.)
One task was to look after and feed our grandson Daniel (aged 10) before he was due to star in a children’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
Daniel is delightful… though not altogether easy! He accepted that I was to feed him – he had little choice – with ill-disguised incredulity.
I set the table and produced the food.
“Where are the vegetables?” he demanded.
“Sorry, there are no vegetables… Granny must have forgotten.”
His voice grew steely and he threw me one of the withering looks that are his speciality.
“Granny always gives me peas and potatoes.” The silence grew as he ate.
The show was a great success then I delivered him home. We were both quietly thankful his stay was over and he was still alive.
When I saw his mother, Clare, I asked for Daniel’s confidential report on me?
It was short and pithy. “He said you were as he expected… though he did wonder how anyone can reach the age of 73 without being able to boil peas and potatoes?”