John Bird: Kindness and other bear necessities

"I hope we have a thoughtful, upbeat, not ground-down, not defeated into defeatism, wide-eyed but kindly intended new year. I shall be struggling against all of those who pretend they know what’s going on in their legions of ‘broken news’"

I saw two films last year that were full of kindness. One was the kindness of a bear, a genuine kindly fellow, who saw no bad in anyone. He reminded me of my first mother-in-law who was always expressing kindness where others might have shown spleen. She once lived on a housing estate in the middle of nowhere and was putting in a small tree in the front of her house when a large boy-man came past, slouching his way forward. As he passed the house she said “Well give us a hand here then.” He stopped, astonished, and then after a moment’s thought got down and helped her do the task.

Later she bullied him into her kitchen and fed him a kind of deathly, but nourishing, mix of egg, bacon, chips, beans and all the toast he wanted, with endless cups of tea. She was in her 70s and the boy was perhaps 18, did badly, very badly, at school, and in life. But soon he was calling in and bringing his other family members, including his much-feared elder brothers and equally feared father.

They could not do enough for the old lady who was blind to their reputation, among police and social workers, teachers and ratepayers, and anyone else who lived on the local estates.

Paddington 2 was the film and I could not help thinking as I sat in the cinema about my erstwhile mother-in-law who seemed to believe in the sanctity of every human life. A kind of overwhelming love of people.

She lived through the war and was in the Land Army, a kind of attempt at being fierce and ferocious and warlike about the production of food, putting their back into keeping our island people free of hunger. She was possibly the last jolliest person I ever met, and who seemed to be made for life, with all of its vicissitudes. You spoke to her on the phone and there were no complaints or dread predictions. I imagined that if she met Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un she might have made them one of her all-day breakfasts and talked to them as though they were more human than they thought they were.

I would retitle ‘breaking news’ ‘broken news’, because rarely is it any more than who’s shagging who! Or who’s being hypocritical

For that was her magic: she assumed that you were kinder, nicer, more hopeful, more useful than you possibly saw yourself. She humanised you, and I certainly felt, at odd moments, the power of her simple message.

Back to today with a thump! I tried desperately hard to take seriously a programme over Christmas that spoke about big movements of time and desperation. I can’t think of any other way of describing what I heard. It was a very earnest Radio Four thing and I was in the car going somewhere. I went round roundabouts and down quiet roads to the sound of a radio questioner talking about the loss of faith, the triumph of populism, and the demise of the traditional political centres and I thought, what an ugly way of encountering a new year. How prescriptive, how closed down, how full of worry and fear, how predictable; and thought of what my one-time mother-in-law and Paddington Bear would have made of the subject. Paddington would have offered a marmalade sandwich to both, and my ex-mother-in-law might have made an all-day breakfast.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

The eternal gloom, the eternal angst, the eternal desperation of their thinking! How ugly to even be in a world where your commentators bounce along the surface of things gathering up headlines and supposed breaking news. I would retitle ‘breaking news’ ‘broken news’, because rarely is it any more than who’s shagging who! Or who’s being hypocritical.

Over Christmas I was on the TV ‘sofa’, an early-morning soft spot for a discussion about Centrepoint’s work around sofa-surfing; but not the kind I sat on with Brookemorgan Henry-Rennie that early morning. Rather, the thousands of young people who are a kind of hidden homeless, and of which I was once one. Former sofa-flipper Brookemorgan had been turned around by the work of Centrepoint and it was a very good piece of news; and at the same the time recognising that there was work to be done.

But under kindness is reality. And if you were to believe the reporters and constant commentators we have all lost all of our kindness, generosity of spirit, helpfulness, and replaced it with grasping and greed. Yet evidence of it surrounds us

But some ‘broken news’, that a certain former cabinet minister that we already all knew had been sacked for misusing public confidence and his computer on pornography, knocked us off the top spot at 8.10am. So we made the dread hour of 6.40am when the world is in their beds, but not the one where eight million watch.

The other film I saw that was about kindness was Dunkirk. The kindness of ordinary people coming to save soldiers caught on the beaches of Dunkirk and the supreme effort of navy and small craft crossing to rescue the men in arms.

dunkirk-fionn-whitehead-embed

That was a film to watch, that showed the frightened and the frightening, mixed in with the stalwart kindness and generosity of spirit that caught hold of our isles in the war years; though there was always those there to let the side down. The selfish and mean-spirited. But it was a film that to me was all about kindness and it was refreshing to see such expressions of it in abundance.

But under kindness is reality. And if you were to believe the reporters and constant commentators we have all lost all of our kindness, generosity of spirit, helpfulness, and replaced it with grasping and greed. Yet evidence of it surrounds us.

Perhaps we should ask the EU’s Brexit decision-makers to show some of the kindness we expressed a lifetime ago when our island people, as well as others, came to their rescue.

I hope we have a thoughtful, upbeat, not ground-down, not defeated into defeatism, wide-eyed but kindly intended new year. I shall be struggling against all of those who pretend they know what’s going on in their legions of ‘broken news’. And I hope you see what can be done even in the hard times.

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