Sometimes we think we don’t know how to help – and sometimes we think we do.
A while back I shared a post on Facebook about bees. What a hard time they’re having. And a Facebook friend commented, ‘Reposting a post doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. Sadly, this is what people think is protesting nowadays’. That stung – and I found myself scrabbling to tell her what I was actually doing about it – encouraging clover in my patch of lawn instead of keeping it in bowling-green trim, planting flowers the bees will like. And so on.
Most of the time we see things in the news, terrible events, and we’d like to help but we feel powerless. Often we’re too far away and so it’s a question of paying out money; it’s the quick way to feel you’ve contributed and all right if you can afford it. Affordability being always relative. I remember checking out a £5 pair of jeans in a charity shop and thinking, if I can spend this on clothes I can give the Big Issue seller £2.50 for a magazine. Since then I’ve been a committed buyer and it’s my favourite publication. The bonus to this commitment is that I feel free to come and go in Bridport, my home town and where I now live again, without feeling I’m ignoring or avoiding the Issue and its seller: usually Illy but sometimes Carina – both living in a hostel in Weymouth, both from Bosnia. But that’s another story.
That Friday, 17 February 2017, something online reminded me, was National Random Acts of Kindness Day. I’m all for being kind but also felt a little wary of the idea of having to be reminded. Later on, I opened the Bridport News (my second favourite publication) and there was the story of Trish and her disappearing novel. I remembered it from 2012 – perhaps because I was paying attention to everything in Bridport then, even though I wasn’t living there at the time. I was in the house in Wales that still felt so empty two years after my husband had died. I’d wanted to start working again and had started writing a novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, set in a fictionalised version of my home town and in Cardiff and anchored in real time.
Trish is blind. She was writing a novel with a pen along lines marked out by elastic bands. Every week her son came over and read her words back to her. She had quite a burst of inspiration but when she showed him what she’d written there was nothing to see. Her pen had run out: 26 blank pages.
Her story and the response bounced from the Bridport News into the national press because Trish’s family had the idea of phoning the police and asking for the fingerprint section. Over the next six months and in their lunch hours, staff at Dorset Police HQ recreated Trish’s missing pages from the impressions her pen had left on the paper. These were kind people who knew they could do something practical and and decided they would do it too. So far, so heart-warming.
Last week’s update was another matter. Trish has finished her novel, Grannifer’s Legacy, but now she has terminal cancer. No treatment offered, except care. She’d love her novel to be published, perhaps in time for her mother’s 90th birthday in May. If Trish has that long.
Who brought this to the Bridport News? Trevor Chambers. A kind man, a mathematician, retired, who started off as a volunteer driver for the Blind Club and ended up being the entertainment too, singing and playing the guitar. He wondered was there anybody out there who could help? And asked them to print his phone number.
I closed the paper. I opened it again. Sometimes things are happening far away and you feel helpless. I thought, I don’t know if I could help. And I told myself: be realistic – you could do something.
Before I called Trevor, I tried Facebook and immediately two of my former students responded. If there wasn’t any possibility for traditional publishing – tricky given the timescale, then maybe self-publishing was the answer. I’m sure a bunch of us could get together and help, was one comment. But how? I wondered. And another – with self-publishing she could have a book in her hands within a couple of weeks. I’m sure – but for me that would still be a steep learning curve. Maybe we needed someone close by.
So I tried a local contact, Frances Colville, who’s a writer and professional proofreader. She runs a writing group and has put together some anthologies. But sadly, the person who brought those to publication has gone abroad. She herself was very busy with her daughter’s wedding coming up very soon. Why not try Magic Oxygen, a company in Lyme Regis? They were next on my list. I spoke to Simon West, told him the story. He was interested but they were too busy. If only it were later in the summer. But he offered me an hour of his time the following day, to talk me through the process. Frances meanwhile, had emailed a PS, with a kind offer of free proofreading.
Then I tried another person I knew who lived locally and had self-published a book, not knowing if I would get an answer. And at last I phoned Trevor. ‘I just wondered if you’d heard from anyone.’ I asked. ‘Not apart from you,’ he said. ‘You’re the first.’ I’m so rarely the first for anything. Hang back and see what happens – that’s my usual style.
We had a good chat. The novel had been typed up by another kind woman called Carole and he’d gone through it and checked it for grammar and punctuation and hacked down a forest of exclamation marks. But how to go about the next step? I told him of my small experience with publishers and that there were people who knew about self-publishing if he wanted to go down that route, and about all the offers of help that had come in so far. We both felt something could be done.
By the next morning there were all kinds of choices. Trevor and I had made friends on Facebook and he was able to join in with the talk on my timeline and had an offer to take the novel from word document to publication from the friend who’d talked about it the day before. The other friend came back and asked what genre it was, to see if she could use her industry contacts. Trish’s family posted that they had set up a Facebook page and a Justgiving page for crowdfunding.
Less than a week later, the total had reached £600. And the same day, Magic Oxygen rang back to say they’d love to help, after all. And although there were by then other offers, it looks like that’s the way it will go. So Trish will have her novel, I hope, very soon.
Still I found it hard to stop asking around, just in case. Even my local butchers, R.J. Balson and Son, were happy to give up shop time to tell me about their experiences of bringing out their own book to celebrate 500 years in business. Another possible avenue – with the services of a local printer – although the time scale, though fast enough in normal terms, might still have been too long. More people than could help, wanted to help. Sometimes with information, something with money, sometimes with something practical.
In my experience, when you know someone doesn’t have very long to live, you’d do almost anything to bring them a piece of happiness. You can give comfort and look after someone but still you feel helpless in a way because you can’t change what’s going to happen. You can only try to make it easier. Perhaps we’re all being kind to ourselves by trying to help someone else. It doesn’t really matter – it just seems like a good time to say that people can be kind. They do want to help – if only they know how.
So there it is. The offers are still coming in: the self-published local author told me about her experiences and said get back to me if I can help. A friend asked a friend and he sent me a checklist of what to do in self-publishing that made it all look straightforward. Another friend offered to make an audiobook. I’ve learned a lot in the last week. I don’t know that these count as random acts – perhaps not. As it turns out it wasn’t even an official #RAK day in the UK – that will be on November 13, which is also World Kindness Day. But I know that the big news is, so many people will help if they can; so many people are kind.