Public decency


On the way into work this morning I saw a book leaning nonchalantly against a bin. It seemed unaware of the passers by and pass by they did. Pushing aside thoughts of anthrax scares and guerilla marketing tactics, I looked furtively around to see if anyone might challenge me and picked the book up to learn more.

Tucked inside was a boarding card with a name on it.

How very exciting: a chance to play detective!

At about five I remembered the book, which goes some way to illustrating how busy work is at the moment, and returned to the boarding card. A Google search and 1,200 results later, I tried the name again with the city of origin. It seemed he had been there on business. I delved a little more… And – amazingly enough – success!

I called his workplace, asked to be put through and was met with a rather bemused man at the other end. I explained what had happened, and he called me out: “I bet you had fun sleuthing!” Well, yes. I had a lot of fun.

Putting the book and a covering note in an envelope to be left at reception, I had a stupid grin on my face for a job well done; I had channeled my inner Enid Blyton character and come up trumps.

It wasn’t until I told one of my colleagues that I realised how very unaltruistic I had been in my mindset. He commented that if there were such a thing as karma, it should be shining upon me soon. But it didn’t feel like a good deed that should reap reward so much as a necessary one, and one that brought me all the pleasure. I had found the bookmark less than a third of the way through the book and would feel quite bereft if I’d lost a book I hadn’t had the chance to finish. It was a genuine case of doing unto others. Besides, I love trying to find things out…

I wonder about the phrase “good deed”. Who is it good for? And are all deeds meant to benefit someone in order to be good, or can they be good in a more abstract sense? Can they for instance be good for the moment, good for society, good because they express how we can work together, rather than be measured by who gained there and then?

I believe that good deeds happen all the time on public transport; simple gestures such as holding back the tide of humanity for someone else to buying a ticket for someone left short to returning something precious.

I don’t believe the people that do these deeds do them for personal gain – since by and large people rarely meet again – and I don’t believe it’s because they conform to some religion.

I believe that the transience of life on a commute gives rise to a new way that people interact – and good deeds are the bright side of that.


True compassion means praying for UKIP


We pray for the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who is in hospital following a light airplane crash.
We would also like to pray for our outgoing MP, for all the things he has done and for our new MP as he takes up his new role.

– Prayers of Intercession, Sunday 9th May

In church this morning this was what the lady doing the Prayers of Intercession said. I looked up sharply and didn’t know whether to laugh or snort in derision.

Praying for Nigel Farage. Seriously?

For that matter, praying for both MPs and not just the one I supported? This was not an intercession I felt at all happy with. Until I realised how much the last month of politics has chipped away any thoughts of compassion or understanding I might have had for the opposition.

It reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s song National Brotherhood Week:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks.
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
Lena Horne and Sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek.
It’s fun to eulogize
The people you despise,
As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks,
And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
All of my folks hate all of your folks,
It’s American as apple pie.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans ’cause it’s very chic.
Step up and shake the hand
Of someone you can’t stand.
You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.

But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week,
It’s National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
It’s only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

– Tom Lehrer

It feels as if election campaigns are a chance for anti-National Brotherhood Month. For a few tense and intense weeks the general public express views that range from being mildly wary of immigration to downright racist. The media speculate openly about candidates’ class, speaking about “posh” people in a way that if the subject were the opposite would be unacceptable. Those not voting for the BNP or UKIP deride those that are, without considering their reasoning may be borne of personal experience and pain.

Yes, Nigel Farage is responsible for some of the rabble-rousing and anti-Brotherhood feeling, but he was also injured quite badly and deserves as much compassion as we would give people whose views we do agree with.

But I’m not that good. I do feel ashamed at my reaction to the prayer this morning: shame at my own failing to love my enemies, shame at my sheep-like enjoyment of following trends and reserving contempt for people I have never even met.

I am afraid of what other parties could achieve through power – and not just the more extreme ones. But what other options are there besides protest or prayer?