I’ve lost the plot. I know this because I’ve just opened the curtains of a sunny spring morning to be confronted by a jet black squirrel, swinging upside-down from the bird table outside the kitchen window. There’s no such thing as a black squirrel. The beast doesn’t exist any more than does the gorilla Mrs P fed with leftover sausages yesterday lunch time, or Michael Jackson, for whom I was so nearly obliged to make a cup of tea last week. There are no black squirrels. I scridge up my eyes and count to ten slowly. It’ll surely be gone when I open them. It’s not. Instead it’s sitting there, feeding its little face with the remains of last night’s supper and thumbing its nose at me. I consider running for the camera, but just as if it’s read my mind it ups and skedaddles to the safety of the cherry tree. That tree’s so overgrown it could house a whole pantheon of mythical beasts and no-one would be the wiser. I sigh, and do the first sensible thing I’ve managed this morning. I send a text message to my son, who knows more about these things than I do: Is there any such thing as a black squirrel?
It turns out there are black squirrels in the world after all. I’m retrieving the precisely-timed bowl of porridge from the microwave, and wondering whether adding extra salt would help balance the sodium deficiency that’s had me up all night chasing babies out of Mrs P’s bedroom, when the reply arrives: They’re mutant grey squirrels apparently. You live and learn. I grab the Daily Express from the letterbox and head upstairs with breakfast on a tray. Mrs P smiles beneficently as I set it before her.
Do you know dear, I thought you had a large, pink, floral object on your head.
She seems delighted to have caught herself out in a hallucination. It’s going to be one of those days.
A good many years ago I had a really nasty bout of gastroenteritis. It was ten weeks after I’d married Charlie’s predecessor, and we were living the dream in a damp little cottage in the shadow of the Westbury White Horse. Mobile phones were the stuff of fantasy. The nearest call box was fifteen minutes away up a steep hill, and the bathroom was on the backside of the moon. I’d lost a stone in the first two days of the illness, and I’d been vomiting continually for a week. I weighed less than eight stone when they finally carted me off to the local cottage hospital. The lady in the bed opposite looked a hundred through my nineteen-year-old eyes. She was confused and unhappy. Nurses came and went with brutal efficiency as she cried and called out. They were young and strong, and they shouted and scolded. I wondered how they didn’t realise they’d be old themselves one day. Did they think she’d always been that way?
The world I grew up in had a very different moral compass from today’s. In the wake of two World Wars, Britain was about being fit for heroes to live in. The NHS was not quite six years old when I was born, and I was shocked to discover that not long since, people had died of treatable illnesses simply because they were poor. I couldn’t get my head around that, any more than I could figure out how the refugees who fled the onslaught of World War II could have deserved their suffering. Weren’t people’s lives more important than money or politics? We humans like to think we’re a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom. A civilised and cultured species, capable of rational thought and sound moral reasoning. It turns out moral reasoning can be a double-edged sword though, and somewhere during the 1970s, the moral code I’d absorbed as a child began to do cartwheels.
My first daughter was just a year old when we moved house on Thursday 3rd May 1979. It was the day Margaret Thatcher was elected. I still remember sitting in the midst of the packing boxes in tears as the early results were declared. What kind of a world had I brought my child into? The following morning Mrs T stood triumphant on the steps of Number Ten and quoted St Francis of Assisi. Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope. Talk about standing the truth on its head. I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian at any stretch back then, but everything in me screamed against her twisting the words of a man who lived his life from compassion, empathy and peace. Growing up in a Methodist church, I’d imbibed more sermons on loving your neighbour than cups of tepid tea. I didn’t think much of tea as a child. The Good Samaritan was my role model. The Golden Rule – treat other people the way you would want them to treat you – was my life plan. Now I found myself adrift in a world where it was every man for himself, there was no such thing as society and devil-take-the-hindmost had become morally acceptable.
I’ll admit now I didn’t much like John, but Charlie’s predecessor found him good company, so I was obliged to make tea and be polite from time to time. John was one of a peculiar new breed of 1980s Christian. He believed wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. If you prayed hard enough and believed strongly enough, you could have anything you wanted. Maserati. Villa in the south of France. Private jet. I’m not sure how that one worked for St Francis or Mother Teresa. This kind of approval from God was dependent on nothing but your level of faith. Empathy and compassion cut no ice with John’s god. I used to like to throw the odd spanner into the works of his self-assurance.
So, what about the Good Samaritan then?
He put down his teacup and looked at me pityingly. He enjoyed his belief that women were inferior beings. I persisted.
Didn’t Jesus say we should behave like the Good Samaritan?
His smile grew more patronising. It turned out I’d completely misunderstood one of the best-known parables in the New Testament. So far as I could ascertain from his rambling exposition, the object of this parable was not to teach us to do good to others, but to encourage us to go out and get beaten up by robbers so others could do good to us. Who knew? Doesn’t that just go to show what can be done with a good bit of moral reasoning? To this day I regret not having had the presence of mind to ask whether he’d tried putting this priceless piece of theology into practice.
And so, via Mrs Thatcher, Ayn Rand and the Johns of this world we’ve arrived at Donald, the logical conclusion of a code of moral reasoning where money trumps empathy. Money is considered the inevitable outcome of hard work and moral probity, even though it can be argued that Donald Trump might be wealthier now if he’d invested his inheritance and twiddled his thumbs all his life. Work that doesn’t attract money is invisible and without value in a world where everything has its price.
The trouble with the values I grew up with – compassion, empathy and caring – is that they can’t be quantified. You can see money. You know where you stand with a price tag. Who can put a value on consoling a distressed old woman, or chasing a hallucinatory dog out of a kitchen? On baking birthday cakes, bathing scraped knees, making home-made play dough, or reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe until you know the half of it by heart? Who’ll tell me the price of a cup of tea with friends, the value of a slice of cold toast on the way home from school, or how much all those gingerbread men were worth? Who can say working a year with no pay for a project whose funding was axed was pointless because no money changed hands?
There are those who think I’ve lived foolishly, and if wealth is the measure of success I have to admit they’re right. I’ve cared too much. I’ve ended up long on crazy stories but short on cash to the edge of destitution. I can’t quantify compassion, and black squirrels pin down more readily than empathy. Yet if all the above is foolishness I’m proud to be a fool, and that’s something no political, economic or moral tide will ever be able to sweep away.