Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: For every ranting extremist, there are thousands of good people. Kindness is everywhere

An uplifting play with a gentle main character was a balm to my soul 
November 1, 2023

There is the taste of blood in my mouth. The inside of my lower lip is bitten through. My know-all watch is constantly telling me that my heartbeat is dangerously irregular. Obsessively watching on TV the unspeakable cruelty engulfing the people of Israel and Gaza, I am in despair. 

In the midst of this horror, out of loyalty to my dear friend Jenna Russell, I went to the theatre to see her latest musical show, Flowers for Mrs Harris. It is the story of a cleaning woman who falls in love with an exquisite Dior dress that she sees in a client’s wardrobe. She decides she must have one of these beautiful works of art in her life. On her quest to obtain the dress, Mrs Harris—played with heartbreaking simplicity by Jenna—meets many people and her kind and caring nature gently transforms their lives. I went with my tough, cancer-surviving daughter, and we both spent two and a half hours weeping uncontrollably.

We were weeping not from grief, but because we were witnessing human beings being gentle and loving. Sentimental nonsense, I would expect myself to think. Or as Marx said of religion: “[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Yes, bring it on. Heart and soul. I want some of that, please. 

And it is to be found if you look, Sheila. Sometimes in unexpected places.

Yesterday, I was in Brixton prison. I went with two women, full of heart, who run an organisation called the Liberty Choir, which goes around the country working with groups of prisoners to get them talking and singing.

I suspect the motivation for some of the attendees is to get out of the grotesque cells, that they share although they were built for one person, banged up sometimes for 23 hours a day because of a lack of guards to get them out. I asked some if the sun shone in the pitiful yard where, if they are lucky, they get to walk round in a circle. I was told it didn’t, but they all knew the exact time every day that it shines through the windows in their cells. 

I enquired of one prisoner how much more of his sentence he had to do, and he said 1,160 days, which was the only way he could bear to count the time he had left in this hellhole.

Whatever these men and women have done, most frequently because of drugs or mental health problems, we should at least house them in a civilised fashion, not alternately frozen or suffocating, in mouse-ridden boxes where they eat and shit. It was a bleak nightmare of indifferent neglect, but for the practical kindness of these stalwart Liberty women and their helpers. They not only cheer up the prisoners weekly, but they are there for them when they come out, blinking and confused, often into a blank future.

Despite dire warnings about loads of “criminal immigrants” supposedly swamping our country, I have seen communities welcoming Ukrainians and other refugees with great kindness. I have been the length and breadth of the country on a book tour and discovered that, for every ranting extremist the news camera has managed to dig up, there are thousands of people organising refugee events and literature festivals, running charities, manning lifeboats, clearing litter, rescuing abandoned animals—you name it, there is a volunteer organisation dealing with it. For every person incited into violence, there is an army of people quietly getting on with being good. In the midst of stories of inhuman savagery, it is well to remember that.

It has taken me some time to adjust to the change of attitude towards me now that I am old. Mostly I am overlooked. If I go to a restaurant with younger folk, the waiter seldom addresses me. “And what would she like?” It costs me a large flamboyant tip when I reveal that, not only am I capable of ordering my meal, but I am the one paying—and generous with it.

The first time someone offered me a seat on the tube my blood ran cold and I laughingly rejected their kindness. Now I would grab their hand off. If they tenderly call me “my love”, I don’t feel patronised, just grateful for their affection. I will accept a supporting arm, and my suitcase being put in the overhead locker, with gratitude. I relish the kindness of strangers. 

Let us pray that whatever excesses injustice or rage incite us to, our innate reason and compassion will eventually hold sway.