Sunday, 2 July 2017

Helping People

Howard Jacobson was on Point of View on Radio 4, talking about Manchester and the night when a young man blew himself up there, killing and injuring lots of people. I was driving through Hertfordshire, listening to him. This is what he was saying:

"When I heard of taxi drivers offering their services gratis on the night of the atrocity, ferrying parents and children home from the event, helping the distraught search for missing friends, I thought of my late father, who drove a black cab in Manchester for many years and would have acted in exactly the same spirit. He saw his taxi as something between a fire engine, an ambulance, a police car and an advice centre. Had I offered to admire his finely evolved sense of social responsibility, he'd have accused me of using unnecessarily long words. He was someone who just liked helping people out. Being useful defined him as a man. In this he was of his time but also of his place. It isn't to sentimentalise Mancunians to say, well, that they have a finely evolved sense of social responsibility. Put more simply, they seem nicer up there than down south. There isn't that angry scramble to make money and get ahead that you feel in London. It isn't dog eat dog; it's dog help dog."

I didn't hear much after that, as I managed to hit a bollard and my tyre immediately went completely flat. I parked outside a shop. It was a Sunday evening and I was in a very small town where no one was around and very little appeared to be open.

I knew that in theory my insurance company was supposed to supply me with roadside assistance but when I rang them, after I recovered from the shock of discovering that, as I'm insured in Belgium, I had the choice of talking either in Flemish or French, but not English, (derr, Zoe, what did you expect - it is not a trilingual but a bilingual country) and after me and the woman at the other end of the line had negotiated our way through whether I had a trailer - as I didn't recognise the word, she had to go through a long explanation about a thing you pull behind the car sometimes, if you need to load up rubbish or furniture; ditto with the concept of a roof rack, another piece of vocabulary I've never needed until now - it became clear from her questions about whether there was a hotel nearby, (no), and whether I had a credit card on me, should I actually manage to find a hotel nearby with an empty room, that I might be in for a long, long wait.

But at that moment I noticed movement outside my window. A very young man was gesticulating, in what I thought was probably a friendly manner, through the glass. Ignoring childhood strictures about not talking to strangers, I wound down the window. He grinned at me. "Would you like some help" he asked.

He then proceeded to change my tyre for me while his girlfriend told me how they'd met in the air scouts and how she'd just finished her GCSEs and he'd done them last year and was now working as a mechanic, (or possibly a trainee mechanic). The only way I was of any assistance was in accessing the internet to locate where my spare tyre actually was - I didn't even know I had one - and how to retrieve it. His explanation, as I thanked him over and over again, was simple. "I like helping people", he said.

I got his girlfriend to give me an address and I posted them each a box of Belgian chocolates, which unfortunately arrived in England during the recent heatwave. I hope they reached my benefactors and were not too ruined. It seemed a very small gesture, compared to what he in particular had done for me. Which was:

a. to prove that Jacobson is wrong about the South of England, which contains people as 'dog help dog' as anywhere in the North

b. to cheer me up about the state of Britain, (perhaps even the world), by demonstrating that it contains people who like helping people so much that they go out of their way on a Sunday evening, wasting quite a lot of time and energy, when they could just whizz on home

c. to inspire me to lead a life that is a great deal less selfish

A week after that I flew back to Australia to see my mother. On my first day home I persuaded myself to go to the fruit and vegetable market, even though I didn't feel much like doing so. Thank heavens I did. For it turned out it would be my very last opportunity to encounter another beacon of kindness, a shop assistant called Robyn, who has worked there for years and who I have loved since the first moment I saw her. That day was her very last day working - "It's my legs", she explained, "I am 71 and they just hurt with all the standing - but I am a bit nervous as I'll miss all the people I meet".

Robyn has cheered me up with her warmth and sympathetic nature for years and years, but what I hadn't realised until I went there the other day is that I am not the only person she has been cheering. There were hordes of people lining up to say goodbye to her, some in tears, all sad to see her going. By just standing at a till and being friendly and interested, Robyn has been improving the existences of dozens and dozens of people over several decades.

I may be a bit slow on the uptake, but I think possibly the universe is trying to tell me something important with these small reminders - something about how making a community and a good society can be the work of individuals, each of us using kindness, warmth and generosity as the building blocks. You don't have to go to Manchester to find these qualities but, instead of some of the things that education, the media, practically every outside influence currently puts emphasis on, these are the elements we all need to cultivate within ourselves.

Me especially.


  1. It occurs to me that in Manchester Mr. Jacobson may have lived among cabdrivers and others of modest means, and that in London he probably lives among the busy and ambitious. And quite likely there is a higher density of the latter in the south of England than in the north now. Having said that, I should say also that the well off can be kind and helpful--long ago a vacationer from New York went some miles out of his way to drop us at a service station after our car's water pump failed.

  2. And actually I saw a man helping two other men with a tire in Washington's Rock Creek Park this morning. In this case it wasn't strength or expertise that was needed, rather a tool, perhaps a jack or a wrench.

    1. I suppose many people, me included, may be good willed but totally impractical. Not sure whether I'd have appreciated moral support -rather than practical - with my tyre although anything is better than just being left isolated and worried by the side of the road.