Fo a bit of context: I have moved 150 miles away from home to pursue an MSc at a good university. It has a great big Students Union (SU) building and more often than not there is a gentleman in the foyer selling the Big Issue, about my age. This means that he is homeless and is working to rectify that rather than just expecting others to do the heavy lifting. I find that most inspiring and endeavour to give him my spare change. However, this post is not about my charitable choices though, it is about Rob.
Today I spoke the the gentleman, he is called Rob. Rob stood there talking to me telling me a bit about his story and how, after 10 years, he has got his first flat and doesn’t have to live rough anymore. All the time Rob is holding a bulging rucksack and after a few minutes excuses himself to put it down. I asked what was so heavy and Rob astonished me with his reply.
Rob pointed at the SU foodbank collection and explained that he has brought in some tinned food for the foodbank. My jaw hit the floor and I checked that he, Rob, the chap selling the Big Issue, who has been homeless for some time, who is clearly just making it with a frayed shirt collar etc etc, was giving food to the food bank. In his soft voice he said, without any hint of irony, that there were people worse off than him, it was from his spare income (WTF???) so he was just giving the little bit that he could.
Capitalising on the shock on my face he wordlessly reached in his bag and produced a Christmas card for me, a regular. I was humbled and had to thank him and walk away as I thought I was going to cry from the huge mix of emotions that welled up in me. Shock, shame, relief, wealth etc. It really was rather overwhelming, for moments before I was cursing the feeling of deep fatigue brought on by my endless petty sicknesses that I have had since coming to Sheffield. It was a really sucky feeling that was jolted into perspective by Rob.
It is easy to intellectualise about the plight of others distant from you, share in a sense of empathy and be horrified at the people around you that don’t seem to care. If you want to do anything to make a difference this Christmas go up to a stranger like Rob, engage them in conversation and prepare to be surprised. Me? Stuff like this throws me more and more. Perhaps it is age.
Much as I expected, Mum read the last post. Apparently she is now interviewing Ninja for a one-off overseas gig. I am not scared as I know the CSC Ninja Squad will end up offing the wrong person. Mum has a propensity to grasp c. 50% facts in a way that only makes sense to her and puzzles the bejesus out of those in full receipt of reality.
I am reminded of a funny but apt phrase I am fond of that I learnt whilst in the police reserves. One slightly older and more experienced officer was keen on telling drunken arses whom were on the verge of arrest, “don’t confuse me with the facts, I have made up my mind” Their puzzled looks were priceless, just prior to the handcuffs going on. If they squeaked too loudly about fit of said ‘cuffs he’d give them a friendly pat on the back, as they were hoicked into the mini-cell in the back of the van, and assure them that , “don’t worry, I am sure they’ll stretch”. Oh how we laughed.
Back to more mother lessons and madness:
- Racism. Back in the 70’s mum would merrily re-tell jokes to us kids that, by today’s standards, would be considered racist. However, her actual regard for other people, regardless of race, was not tainted in this way. There was a big influx of Sikh immigrants into Western Canada in the late 70’s. The vast majority were agricultural specialists and in the time-honoured Indian immigrant fashion (Kenyan Indians, Idi Amin and corner stores in the UK anyone?) arrived somewhere with sweet FA, an incredible work ethic and tight family bonds. With this determination to succeeded and make a new life you’d get under-performing farms being taken over and magically the land would start producing vast quantities of fruit and veg. Oh how this made the lazy white racists seethe. We lived in a rural community and there was one such farm down the road. Some graffiti soon appeared on the road. A start and finish line that bracketed the Sikh’s property was sprayed on the road and hastily scrawled were the words, “Paki zone 500 mph”. Mum was appalled. I mean properly appalled. She took some homemade preserve – of which there was always a many and varied selection – as an offering and marched the quarter of a mile to the Singh family house. This was not a time for regular walking as that would just not adequately communicate the seriousness of the matter. This was proper pissed off English woman striding. The Home Counties twinset and pearls sort of pissed off that results in strongly worded broadside to the editor of a vaguely right wing broadsheet kind of pissed-off. Us kids were terrified as something had clearly set her off but, collectively, we all knew that for a change one of us wasn’t going to get some learning. It was not uncommon for Mum to become the self-appointed anti-racism, school fundraising, CSC writing standards or whatever Monitor. So, the Singh’s must have wondered what to make of this slightly demented middle-aged English woman holding marmalade and banging on the front door. Hints of the Raj… When they answered she went inside – she rarely ever required an actual invitation to as the sense of entitlement from “doing the right thing” didn’t require pleasantries – and proffered the culturally inappropriate preserve and announced that we, the wider community but she really meant she, didn’t all feel like that and in her view the Singh’s were very welcome additions to the community. She probably offered to locate the perpetrators as she knew everyone in this small rural community. You can imagine the Singh’s baulking slightly when the inevitable follow-up to the location offer was a public beating possibly followed by a lynching of these dumb white boys. She departed by apologising for the sorry state of the Canadian education system that their kids were to join, that lead to such poorly written graffiti. As any fule knos it was accusing them of being from the wrong country, Canada was metric, no road car can do 804.672 kmph and there ought to have been a full-stop in there as well.
- Immigration. Poor, did I mention we grew up pretty poor? Veg gardens, shopping at the second-hand clothes store, old and tired cars etc etc. Nonetheless, Canada took an influx of Laotian Boat People – refugees that escaped in tiny and vastly overcrowded boats, can you imagine what Health and Safety would say? – and we the Shadbolt’s (mum really) sponsored one of these families into BC. Because Mum spoke French fluently and so did the family matriarch they were matched. I can only imagine the poor woman that headed the refugee family being hit with the whirlwind that is Sara in best intentioned help mode. Though I suppose that if she had fled with family on an overcrowded fishing vessel then she had demonstrated that she could handle challenging situations. This lady and here family, who may well have been hoping to slip unnoticed into society, of a country that is made from immigrants of all flavours, was wrong. Like it or not she was going to be socialised, taught English, settled, integrated, befriended etc etc and that was that. Mother had decided what was best. End of. Still, you can’t argue the charitable intent and beggars can’t be choosers etc. According to my other brother, Eric, one of the youths is quite a handy Asian Gang member now. Mum takes the very sanguine view that Canadian prison is still better than the Laotian alternative.
- Sponsorship and Money Management. No one can budget like my mother. It is the only thing I have ever heard acknowledge my dad for. “He may be a bastard – or similar etc etc – but he taught me to budget” Despite spending many years in or near poverty she always had money for Christmas presents, bills and enough to sponsor a couple of kids through Plan. No matter how little we had, she correctly reasoned, there were always folk worse off.
- Fundraising. To carry on the financial theme it is worth noting that when Sara decided to raise money then it was damn well being raised. No seemed to be a word she was unable to process. Despite her English roots it is something that doesn’t trouble her. Relatively recently she politely demanded a decent contribution from a rock star. This poor guy had obviously figured that rural Canada was a good place to build a big pad all tucked away and melt into occasional obscurity. Wrong. Mum got wind of him and it was pointed out to him that as he now resided in the community and was clearly obscenely minted, an appropriate contribution was expected. As he was so put off I believe he gave her vastly more than the number she suggested just to be left alone. A very wise move imho…but wait until next year my friend. Not such a bright move after all, eh? The local primary school has her to thank for a pretty awesome adventure playground back in the day. It involved committees. However, I have a vision of a bunch of co-opted and terrified members doing exactly what the Chair – guess who the Chair was? – suggested they do.
- Homosexuality. Whatever, this comes under the heading of ethnicity as far as she is concerned. However, I do have a distinct memory of standing with hands on hips and thumbs pointing forward. She very sweetly whispered in my ear, “Don’t have your thumbs pointing forward my dear. Only homosexuals and interior designers stand like that.” WTF??? Baffled? You will be.
- Nudity. Mum just couldn’t be bothered with other people’s hang ups and would stroll around the house naked and often sunbathe as such. My mates and I were at a friends house in town when another friend, George, rocks up and is clearly traumatised. When we enquire as to the problem it transpires that George dropped by my house looking for me and my mother greeted him wearing nothing other than bikini bottoms (thank god for small mercies). When a slack-jawed George managed to stammer out that he was dropping by to see me he was promptly upbraided for staring at her chest. It was politely enquired of him – a 16-17y old Catholic boy – whether or not he would extend the courtesy of looking her in the eyes and not the chest. Poor bloody George was probably scarred for life. To make it worse for him she was his Nanny when he was a nipper. That and all the Catholic hang-ups I s’pose.
- Religion. Mum decided one day that we would all become Catholics just to get us into a good school. Not being content to do anything by halves she dragged us to Mass, hither and thither to church events and enrolled us in a Catholic school in Chilliwack. Though I am led to believe it is far more civilised now the ‘Wack was a shithole of a place. We were involuntarily baptised at about age 11. I protested strongly as even then I was pretty sure organised religion was an utter crock used to control poor and thick people. The approach to this dilema and moral crisis was laid out thus: if you say anything other than yes I will beat you to within and inch of your life. At 11 that is a no-brainer. I felt that if on some slim chance there was this all-powerful and understanding deity then he’d know I kept my fingers firmly crossed. Chris reminded me that he was an altar boy for the money from sing-a-longs, funerals, weddings etc. He got extra if he stood by the graveside. Obviously for some of the more innocent lads it may have been danger-money. Not for Chris, his mother ensured we’d have no wet and wooly behaviour. Dead is dead apparently. With hindsight I am not really sure she had fully embraced the whole Catholicism thing.
Chris has kindly supplied some food based memories.
- Eating. As Chris observed, I could probably write a book about Mum’s views on food. We both remember poor Nicky, our half-sister, taking a dislike to some broad beans. Nicky was told that if she didn’t finish them then there would be no pudding. Rather unwisely with the stirrings of pre-teenage defiance Nicky decided to stand her ground. Wrong. Mum’s view was that you finish the food in front of you, all of it. She wasn’t going to tolerate attitude from a young girl. Nicky sat there for several minutes making it hard on herself by eating them one by one. She then tried to pretend she was sick and spat some half-chewed beans back on her plate and claimed that she was ill. Mum breezed by, reiterated the finish it all view and then observed that Nicky was to eat the part masticated deposit. Mum then went further by explaining that we were all eating strawberry cheesecake now and it was far tastier than sicked-up broad beans. We three brothers we were pretty merciless and I can remember a lot of exaggerated enjoyment over said cheesecake. We were little bastards to poor Nicky. Siblings, gotta love ’em.
- Eating well on a budget. Two dishes have scarred us. The first was beef heart in peanut butter. If I’d have known vegetarianism was an option I may have swung that was. Foul doesn’t begin to describe it. The second was a memory that was re-ignited when Chris referred to stuffed marrow. The stuffing was delicious but the marrow was wet, squidgy and ‘orrible. It was homegrown so it was damn well being eaten. Chris couldn’t even look at a courgette for many years after leaving home. I’ll eat them but they aren’t no.1 on my list. The best intentions to feed hungry kids sometimes led to occasional culinary wrongs. Still, it was probably good for the soul to be force-fed the delights. When I had to eat a worm-omelette on a survival course it was not a challenge.
It feels like I have plumbed a line of enquiry here. It is also a good cathartic thing to get it all down. The kids of today eh? Don’t even know they’ve been born. Pah.