As soon as we set off a team of flies like paparazzi home in on me and zip about my head – not Jane’s – for the rest of the day, why not Jane? I edge towards her. In the hope a few will be attracted to her but no such luck. What do the flies know that I don’t?
The first part of the morning was spent in Arcadia. We walked through a beautiful farm straight out of one of my childhood dream books: “Pinner Potter Meadow”.
Pinner Potter Meadow
We travelled through the Entwhistle farms, through light green and lush fields on which jigged a scattering of lambs on spindly legs; cows stood waiting to be stroked; we scrambled down small thickly shrouded valleys; thickly tufted emerald coloured trees stood proudly like sentinels as they nodded a whispered greeting to one another.
Then the landscape radically changed; we walked under vast rapidly darkening slatey skies. We forked left onto a road that divided light green and brown speckled moorland that stretched to the horizon. On my left stood dark and gloomy buildings like the set in Jamaica Inn. On each side of the flat moor sprouted shapeless bastard shrubs like acne: thousands of anaemic thistles like tiny triffids shivered in the soft air. We crawled up Grizedale Fell and then, chests heaving, we strode towards Calder Fell.
One of the Zane donors told me that he had decided not to continue to support us because he had met a beneficiary of ours and didn’t like him!
What an extraordinary admission. The good Samaritan didn’t make the man who had been set on by thieves complete a questionnaire to establish whether he was politically correct and “likeable” before helping him. He helped him because he needed help. When Oxfam assists, say, the Syrian families they don’t only help the deserving ones. They help all who are in need irrespective of their alleged moral standing. If only help is to be given to worthy and kind and virtuous people, who will help us when we are in need?
A Formidable Lady
Jane is remarkable. When I married her Humphrey Scott Plummer, her father, told me that he had set up the so called JD Club named after his Johnston Douglas female aunts who were like Scottish versions of Wilde’s lady Bracknell.
Jane is a formidable organiser and tends, dare I say it, to take after them. In other words, she is a tad bossy. In fact she gets to be more like General Montgomery each day that passes.
If David Cameron wants to use her as, for example, an EU envoy then she would surprise us all. She would charge into the office of Herr Junker and out would go all his gin bottles for starters. Then she would grab president Hollande and out would go all his mistresses. She would then get him to lose a couple of stone. It’s a good job Berlasconi has already bitten the dust or she would set about him. She would do all this with great charm.
It’s a good job much of her focus is spent on our fool dog or she might spend even more time sorting me out!
Manners Maketh Man
We live in rude times. Occasionally, I make gifts of money to members of the younger generation – probably not much in the scheme of things, but every little helps. Usually I receive an enthusiastic thank you letter, but not always. From time to time, I hear sweet nothing.
Imagine that! I was brought up strictly, and made – absolutely made – to write thank you letters, so much so that thanking is part of my DNA. But some of the young (and it is almost always the young) do not bother. They should reply even for the most selfish of reasons, because the gifts will certainly stop if they don’t! So that is one example of bad manners.
My phone rang as we were walking today. A soon as I answered, a voice started speaking on the presumption that I was bound to know the caller’s identity. I realised who it was as the conversation developed, but just to make a point I asked who was speaking? “Henry of course!” said the voice. But why should Henry presume he is unique in my life?
Of course, the trouble is that Henry doesn’t know how irritating he is. He’s all of a pattern with the people who arrive at a meeting, dump their miserable mobiles on the table and then wait expectantly for a call. This is a statement proclaiming, “I am far more important than you are.” Just as annoying is the theatre or train station clerk who suddenly answers a ringing phone while speaking to you. I am always tempted to lean over and cut off the call, though I am sure that would be regarded as committing some sort of assault.
How brutalised gentle manners have become. A vicar friend told me that he was used to phones ringing during memorial services. “But,” he went on, “I can never get used to people answering calls during the eulogy!”
Then there are the maddening people who come up to you at a party and say, “I’ll bet you won’t remember me?” The trouble is they do mind when I have to admit they are quite right. I am not good at matching names with faces when I see people out of context. It’s far better when you meet someone to presume they are as mentally challenged as yourself, and to put them out of their misery by immediately volunteering your name.
Each year, we receive Christmas cards from John and Mary? Who the heck are they? And why do they presume they are so famous? I suppose it’s a sort of vanity. I recall when I was an MP, aged crones used to fix me with an ancient eye and demand that I hazard a guess at their age? “At least 110,” I would say (if I knew they were Labour voters, that is).
Edith Sitwell once told a friend, “We arrived in the Cafe Royal and, my dear, it became absolutely clear that the head waiter had no idea who we were! We were forced to tell him.”
“And who were you?” came the cold reply.
Former head of the army Lord Inge once told me that in a meeting he was interrupted by a secretary saying, “Number 10 on the line!”
“Number 10 where?” he replied testily.
I wish I had such speed of mind. I always think of neat replies weeks later.
Name-dropping can backfire. Noel Coward once strode into the Savoy Grill with a friend. He spotted an acquaintance at a table and introduced his friend with the words, “Harry, meet my very good friend, the King of Norway”.
The king leant forward with a lazy smile and said, “King of Sweden actually!”
Here to Help
As you may already know, Jane founded the Community Emergency Foodbank (CEF) in Oxford some six years ago. Since then, Jane and her team have provided food for over 11,000 people.
Food banks have become a political hot potato. Inevitably, there are some who want to beat the government round the head on grounds of “growing food poverty”, the implication being that if benefits were increased then the need for food banks would diminish. I’m not so sure. Food banks have been a vital and growing service in Germany for many years, so the need is not unique to the UK.
But the political row rumbles on for politics is often not so much about issues as about making noises. To blame the increasing need for food banks on an “uncaring” government is a convenient sound bite.
In fact, the reasons for the growth of food banks are complex. In 2012/13, Jane and her team fed some 3,300 people and distributed 40,000 items of food, an increase of 70 per cent on the previous year. Welfare reform has left gaps and I hope these will be corrected in time. However, in the unlikely event that the provision of welfare benefits was to be substantially increased, the need for food banks would continue unabated because no government of any stripe could create a system of relief that caters for the many human dramas – prison, gambling, drugs, desertion, sudden job loss and the gaps in benefit provision created by changing circumstances – that afflict families. Further, the substantial publicity surrounding the rise of food banks in general means that people are now more aware of the service, leading to increased demand.
In fact the provision of food is a very efficient way of distributing emergency aid. It cannot be smoked, drunk or gambled away and I reckon that CEF is here to stay.
We have been asked if it would be a good idea for government to become directly involved, but I think that would be disastrous. Great movements like Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army – and ZANE – should grow from the ground up, not from the top down. Ronald Reagan’s old line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’” has an element of truth in it.
This is one service much best left to volunteers.
Some of the users of food banks are caused by the absurd bureaucracy where a change from ESA (Employment Support Allowance – paid to those medically unfit to work) to JSA (Job Seeker’s Allowance – or unemployment benefit), or vice versa, is not instantaneous, although the money is usually identical, but can take up to a month. So what can they live on? Although the amount paid is backdated to the changeover this can often lead to a mis-spending of a “windfall”.
On name dropping I like the story of the self-important man at an airline check-in who was worried that he would miss his flight and wanted to jump the queue. “Do you know who I am?” he shouted. The girl at the desk switched on the microphone and said “we have a man who is not sure who he is. If anyone can help please come to check-in”. This was, unsurprisingly, in New Zealand.
I have three cousins who grew up in Rhodesia but left when Mugabe arrived. I greatly enjoy your blogs and your Christmas poems. I hope the weather continues to be benign for your walk.
Why does your dog not walk with you?