Last week, at around 11.30pm, a neighbour in my tenement block made it to but not through her front door. She’d got into the close, but was slumped in the stairwell; the remnants of the Office Party were regurgitated over the bottom step. I felt uncomfortable about dealing with this young woman who I didn’t recognise, but luckily an upstairs-neighbour arrived.
“Oh dear,” we both said to each other. My neighbour prodded the woman into consciousness, and we ascertained that she stayed in the flat opposite. We extrapolated keys from her. After getting the woman through her front door, my neighbour went up to her own flat leaving me to deal with the leftovers. “Do you have bleach?” she checked.
“I have bleach.” I assured her, and set about boiling a kettle and sourcing a mop. Half an hour later, having shovelled what amounted to barely-digested bruschetta swimming in prosecco into a plastic bag, doused the steps in bleach and boiling water, swept, scrubbed and mopped the whole ground floor, I felt an odd mixture of irritation and self-satisfaction.
The following morning, the upstairs-neighbour emailed me to say what a good job I’d done. “I hope she's not feeling too rough this morning,” she wrote, adding, “I'd be mortified!” Of course, she may not remember a thing about it. I was not expecting a thank-you from her, for either or both of those reasons. My work-colleagues had a different take on the incident.
“You should send her the bill,” they said: “Labour, equipment, anti-social hours – charge her double.” Oh, please. How miserable and selfish, to respond with base greed after having helped someone in need. I don’t care whose fault it was that she’d over-indulged at the Office Party (except that I suspect her colleagues cared less for her safe journey home.)
The so-called ‘season of good will’ brings out the worst in people.
When someone is in a mess, no matter what the reason, no matter what they’ve done, no matter who they are or where they’re from, if you fail or neglect to help them it makes you the weaker person. Compassion is not a quid pro quo arrangement either. It is simply shows the Golden Rule, to treat others as you expect to be treated yourself. If you only help others expecting a reward, you shouldn’t hope for charity in return when you are down or out.
In my youth, I was scraped up from the pavement in a state of inebriation on two occasions. Once, by the Met Police who took me to Paddington (not the train station) for the night; another, when I was 17, by a neighbour who took me to hospital and called my parents. They were firmly instructed not to give me a hard time over it. One of the nurses knew who I was, and was telling everyone, “Oh, but he’s got such a beautiful singing voice.”
Neither my voice nor I felt beautiful for a day or two. My parents never got to the bottom of why this drunken spree was a cry for help... but at least they didn’t punish me.
During this festive period, whether you helped the homeless or supported refugees, visited someone in prison or hospital, or spent time with friends, family, or insufferable relatives, was it out of compassion alone? You won’t be rewarded in heaven: there’s no such place. On earth, you only have one chance to do Good. And if you fuck it up, let’s hope someone will hear your cry for help and come to your aid – even if just to mop up the detritus.
Meanwhile, here’s a piece of doggerel about doing good deeds... and some of the modern martyrs on the front of Westminster Abbey.
Saints for a Day; Martyrs for What Cause?
Sometimes I wonder if the sanctity
of Saints is best remembered
among more secular hagiography,
rather than for what they did.
In January, Saint Kentigern is celebrated.
Better known in Scotland as Saint Mungo,
since his beloved relics are now consecrated,
buried below his own cathedral in Glasgow.
Saint Valentine is patron of love and romance –
though proving this connection’s pretty hard.
Yet retailers of tat snap up the main chance:
If you love someone, why not buy them a card?
Saint David, likewise, is popular with florists
and vendors of leeks. But who’d have thought a
country would commemorate, by getting pissed,
a man who lived off vegetables and water?
The Irish, on the other hand, have quite a lot
to thank Saint Patrick for, not least, explaining
impossible doctrines with a three-leaf shamrock:
Now that makes Guinness worth draining.
England’s megalomartyr of Gregorian Sacramentory,
George, slayed what didn’t exist in the first place.
That dragon, like most legends, was imaginary –
the English really are an inventive race.
Saint Andrew, an Apostle, became a fisher of men.
But, as a Martyr, was crucified askance;
his grisly saltire now turned national emblem
allows us Scots to celebrate his death with dance.
Saint Nicolas – now also known as Santa Clause –
has become a patron for the spendthrift greedy.
But he used his bags of gold for a good cause,
to rescue the destitute, pickled, and needy.
Illuminating Lucy with her candlelit corona
lends to Sweden’s darkest day a lurid light:
This stubborn virgin takes on the persona
of a girl with cinnamon buns, dressed in white.
King Wenceslas looked out on Boxing Day
for the feast of Stephen who was stoned.
Not that sort... people are still stoned today
for acts that don’t need to be condoned.
Ever since Mary Magdalene was pardoned
by the man who said: let the one without sin
cast the first stone, men’s hearts hardened
against justice, equality, liberty and pacifism.
Two millennia later, another set of martyrs
came to challenge those who judge, condemn
or silence: here’s a handful, just for starters;
none were ordinary women, nor ordinary men.
A Grand Duchess called Elizabeth, in the grips
of Tzarist Russia, sold her opulent possessions
to care for the poor. Unfortunately the Bolshviks
took care of her through state-endorsed execution.
In 1940s Auschwitz, among the genocide of Jews,
a priest called Maximilian Kolbe gave his own life,
not for the sake of his religious influence or views,
but for another man’s life: a selfless sacrifice.
Manche Masemola, of the Transvaal Pedi Tribe
refused to marry for any other reason than love.
Her parents brutally killed her and dared to ascribe
their motive to her belief in a God above.
Another, placing grace above religious ideology,
Bonhoeffer, daring to stand against the state
of Nazi rule with a seemingly simple theology –
The Church exists only for others – met his fate.
And how to precis Romero’s state-led execution
In a quatrain? In a country led by corruption and lies,
He was a catalyst for moral prophecy: a notion
to which our ‘post-truth’ culture may become wise.
A woman known as Esther John turned her back
On her homeland to teach other women to read.
But her folks disagreed with her mission, tracked
her down, murdered her as she lay in her bed.
Martin Luther King Jnr refused to keep silence
in the face of oppression and racial segregation.
Challenging the existing order with non-violence,
His birthday’s now an annual, national celebration.
Yes, there are many modern saints and martyrs
Who have died defending basic human rights.
They may not feature in liturgical calendars,
But remember them as you turn on your Christmas