A friend whose husband works in the telecoms industry arrives with a hamper of goodies. Phoning ahead, she asks if there might be anyone who would welcome it. Certainly there would.
‘Hamper’ can mean anything; most times it’s a bag of groceries with a few goodies thrown in. This is the top end of the scale, though. It’s actually a large square wickerwork hamper. I eye covetously a few of the bottles and boxes in it, but I know where it is going tomorrow: to a house where both parents work and still find the going tough. They will have put their children first in their shopping; this is something for them; a random act of kindness, not from me, but from the person who brought it.
The Irish Presbyterian minister and wartime RAF Chaplain J.W. Johnston published a collection of poetry in 1944, Poems of Parachute Padre, one of those poems, “Depression Christmas”, reflects on life in Belfast a decade previously.
Corner of Bellevue Street: December night,
The dirty slush is gleaming in the dark,
A gusty wind makes all the gas lamps flicker,
Christmas is in the windows. Lights from shops
Shine on the pavement and the slanting sleet,
And on the passing faces, an out-of-work
Stands gazing, hands in pockets, meagre frame
Slumped in his clothes, cap over hopeless eyes;
Woman beside him, puny child in arms,
A thin shawl drawn round both. Expressionless,
They gaze with dull eyes apathetically,
‘All that you need for home we can supply’
So runs the sign, but they stand motionless,
The sleet slants down upon them. The child cries,
The woman shivers and moves on. The man
His baggy trousers holed about the knee
And frayed about the ankle, stands in light
A moment, and goes after aimlessly,
The night hides both.
Yes, everything for home – behind glass windows!
Those who lived through the 1930s would justifiably argue that nothing now could compare with conditions then; but, if one was in the business of ranking misery, it might be pointed out that nothing in the 1930s could compare with Ireland in the 1840s.
The material conditions in 2008 might be infinitely better than those seventy-five years previously, but human thought and feeling do not change. The sense of alienation felt by those struggling is every bit as strong, perhaps even stronger, for the community bonds that once united poor people have long since disappeared; people sink or swim by themselves.
One hamper will not change anything, but if, for a moment, it creates a sense that the world is not an entirely malevolent place, then it will have been worth it.