Wednesday, October 12, 2011


When I worked in adult education in Manchester, over twenty years ago now, we had a number of students with mental health problems. Occasionally they were difficult people, but mostly they were delightful. One, who became a member of our pub quiz team, used to write letters to politicians and anyone in authority, all of which could be tactfully described as odd. I learnt to judge a politician by the replies that were sent. Most were of the standard 'thank you now go away' variety. Yet there were many more that were kind, supportive and simply nice. Only once did a single prominent politician take a letter seriously and sent a reply that was almost indistinguishable from the original.

I often think of that and of the time taken out of a busy life to simply be kind. It is a corrective to our overly cynical view of politicians. What they could never know is how much it meant to my student to be treated with respect and dignified with a proper reply. He was always proud and delighted. Whatever political differences I may have with them, I will always think back to those letters and recognise the decency that remains.

This was brought to mind by this lovely story, now all over the internet, about Christopher Hitchens, an eight-year-old aspiring freethinker and her request for recommended reading. It is more commonplace to be nice to a child, especially such a precociously intelligent one, than to an adult with mental health issues, but how much easier it would be for a celebrity to be either patronising or dismissive. Now, assailed by Christians because of her new found celebrity, she has found her own voice:
I've read the Bible and frankly it's ALL scary!!! You have to learn that sometimes kids need to boost their intellectual capability and look beyond God! 
In all, I take heart that the cause of freethought is alive and well in Texas and I have learnt something else, that one of the authors I admire can be added to my roll call of politicians as someone prepared to take the time to be kind. It is a special type of decency.


Will said...

that was a nice little story and all pete but one thing about it all really gets my goat. The shit about Yank 'freethinkers' and 'freethoughters' and shit like that. fucking nora, i would have all the freethinkers from yankland butchered in an abboitoir for being slime and tossers. just saying like. no offence like.

The Plump said...

Freethought is a movement that aims to liberate the human mind from all modes of religious thinking. Therefore, as Hitchens is an American citizen and writes firmly in that tradition, you seem to want to send him to the abattoir. This is an odd fate to will for someone who once inspired you to quote Blake. Just saying like.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think the reading list is a little odd for a young child? Some of it is dreary (Tale of Two Cities), some just wrong (Greek and Roman myths), and some far too advanced (Shakespeare and Chaucer). Wodehouse was a good choice.

What you recommend for a child, assuming she already knows about the usual (Spock, Dahl)?

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine use to have the following quote displayed permanently on her blog, It's so simple and so true, and difficult always to keep to.

"Be kind wherever possible. It is always possible." (The Dalai Lama)

Will said...

peter; literalist.

"Be kind wherever possible. It is always possible." (The Dalai Lama)


and just plain wrong. and also morally circumspect at the very least.

Anton Deque said...

I think Hitchens needed more time to work on a list; but his approach was a model of how to deal with a child; his first response to discover where her mother was for example.

Your use of the term 'decency' and Hitchens name attach themselves seamlessly to the one author i would have urged upon her: Orwell, above all the essays and journalism His views are wide ranging and what is better is his style is so worth (as he would have written himself) worth stealing. Also, I have vague memory of Orwell writing about children's reading.