An Act of Kindness

March 16th, 2020

Acts of kindness, I have come to realise, are not entirely the province of the pious and the virtuous. Ordinary people routinely carry out acts of kindness simply through a desire to be helpful to those who may be in need of help. I was recently a pleasantly surprised but immensely grateful beneficiary of just such an act of kindness whilst travelling on my local train. On my journeys on my local train I often avail myself of the free newspaper that, these days, is widely available to passengers. I am particularly fond of whiling away my journey time by grappling with Soduku puzzles. But despite my fondness for Soduku, I do not always have the foresight to equip myself with the one implement that is indispensable when working with Soduku : a pen. Consequently, I often find myself attempting to solve a Soduku puzzle in my head rather than on paper, - by working out the appropriate square where a particular number needs to be placed and then retaining the position of that square in my mind. I should add that when exercising my mind in this way over a Soduku, I often find myself moving my fingers along the rows and columns of the puzzle to determine the right square for the right digit, which of course is the key for the solution of a Soduku puzzle. My finger movements, in a sense, betray the mental processes that I am engaged in. And indeed they did just that the other day, when I was on the train engrossed in mentally solving the Soduku challenge contained in my copy of the local free paper. I was scarcely aware of my finger moving back and forth across the Soduku grid in front of me but unknown to me, it did not escape the attention of a young lady who was sitting opposite me, reading a book.  She might have been intrigued by my strange antics but she quickly realised the predicament that I was in. She was clearly a Good Samaritan who wouldn’t walk by on the other side in a biblical sense and realising that I was in want of a pen to do my Soduku puzzle, decided to come to my aid. Rummaging into her handbag, she found a pen and held it out to me with a charming smile that invited me to use it. It was an invitation that took me by surprise. I was momentarily overwhelmed and humbled by this act of heart-warming kindness, which was as unexpected as it was spontaneous. I was only too eager of course, to accept her invitation but I like to think that even in my excitement at obtaining a much needed pen, I accepted her kind offer with a graciousness that matched her generosity. Having now been provided with a much needed pen, I was able to make rapid progress with my Soduku and even managed to finish it before arriving at my destination. It meant of course that I was able give the pen back to my benefactor and thank her profusely, although I am quite sure she would not have thought that a profusion of thanks on my part were necessary. She seemed to me to be one of those genuinely kind hearted souls that one meets infrequently but sufficiently regularly to serve as a constant reminder that kindness is by no means at a premium but abounds in the hearts of ordinary men and women. Indeed, just as it is often ordinary men and women who carry out extraordinary acts of courage and bravery, it seems to me that it is similarly ordinary men and women that carry out extraordinary acts of kindness. This lady’s kindness was extraordinary not perhaps in its enormity but certainly in its spontaneity. If kindness were measured simply on some scale of generosity, then this lady’s kindness to me might not be considered particularly out of the ordinary but kind acts are more than testimonials to munificence. On occasion they are an expression of a nature that is moved by an irrepressible desire to aid those in need, however small that need may be. Such acts of instinctive altruism become, in the enormity of their compassion, irrespective of the modesty of their largess, acts of kindness that may be perceived as truly extraordinary.  The alacrity with which this lady came to my aid when I was in need, was just such an act of extraordinary kindness.

Unexpected Acts of Kindness

August 14th, 2018

In a world which is increasingly notorious for being uncaring, there occur every now then, extraordinary acts of kindness which reaffirm one’s faith in the decency and generosity of ordinary men and women. One such act of kindness recently came my way on my recent visit to Scotland. I was attending a regimental reunion in the little town of Bathgate in Scotland. I arrived at Bathgate by train at what must be, for Bathgate, an ungodly hour of 7 P.M. The hotel that I was heading for was a good three or four miles from the station and was clearly to be reached by a taxi, - a bus service being non-existent. I made my way to the cab rank outside the station only to find it completely devoid of cabs. A couple of men and young girl were already there ahead of me, obviously waiting for a taxi to arrive. After waiting in vain for five minutes or so with no sign of any vehicle, let alone a taxi in the vicinity, I was on the verge of despair when I noticed that one of the men was speaking into his mobile. Suddenly fearful that the perhaps at this quaint rural Scottish railway station, a taxi might need to be ordered by a mobile rather than be awaited at the cab rank, I decided to ask the man on the mobile whether I too needed to phone for a taxi. It turned out that the man wasn’t phoning for a Taxi at all and as a local man he assured me that the cab rank operated in the normal way that all cab ranks did, except that we appeared to have arrived at at an inopportune time when there seemed to be a dearth of available cabs. In our shared frustration of prolonged waiting, we started a casual conversation to while away the time, in the course of which the man asked me if I had a long way to travel. When I gave him the name of the hotel that I was headed for, he remarked casually that it was on the way to the address that he and his friend were going to. After another, seemingly interminable wait of about 10 minutes, a taxi finally arrived and although I was resigned to this taxi not being for me but rather for the two men ahead of me in the queue, I was glad at least to have moved to the top of the queue. I only needed to wait now for the next taxi to arrive and indeed I might have done so, had it not been for the unexpected act of kindness that I received from the two men in front of me. Whereas I would have expected them simply to have got into the taxi and set off for their destination, they in fact did something that probably would not have occurred to me. They were clearly people of a much kinder disposition than I could ever have been and rather than leaving me to wait for the next taxi, they offered me a lift with their own taxi, since, as they explained, they would be going past the hotel that I was headed for and besides, it was unthinkable to them that I should have to wait another possible eternity in the cold for a taxi that probably might not arrive anytime soon. It was an offer that certainly appealed to me, - although had I been a man of principle I should have had none of it: it was something of an imposition on these two good men, albeit at their own invitation, to allow myself to intrude into their private taxi. Overwhelmed by their generosity, I attempted to show my gratitude by offering to share the taxi bill with them but they refused outright to countenance it.  It was as though they personified the old cliche that doing a good deed is in itself an ample reward. Humbled as I was by their innate decency, I climbed into the taxi and was naturally profuse in my thanks. Needless to say, that with two such eminently likeable people it turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant journey. We spoke about our plans for the evening: the regimental reunion in my case and a visit to a favourite pub in theirs. They dropped me off at my hotel and we said our good-byes, and once again they refused to accede to any of my repeated offers to pay. As the taxi pulled away, I found myself overcome with a profound sense of elation, - elation at having just experienced a moment that reaffirmed my faith in the basic decency of ordinary people, - a moment that made me realise once again that the world is not awash with wickedness, but rather the opposite, - that there is an abundance of good will and kindness amongst ordinary men and women, even though the proof of that premise may not reveal itself nearly as often as it deserves to do. This unexpected act of kindness buoyed me through the entire weekend that I spent in Bathgate and remained, for a long time thereafter, an uplifting source of warm comforting thoughts. 

Certainties of Life

August 2nd, 2017

There are times in life when one’s own certainties, however trivial, take an unexpected tumble in a crushing and spectacular way to end up in a heap of embarrassment. One such moment of embarrassment occurred to me recently when something that I was convinced was a certainty turned out to be nothing more than a fervent belief. I hasten to add that the certainty that I am referring to is quite trivial as certainties of life go. It is by no means some profound truth that is universally held to be undeniable.

The episode that led to this modest certainty being embarrassingly shattered began with my attempt at using the fairly recent innovation of on-line banking. I use on-line banking sparingly. I am not yet weaned from the pen and cheque method of money transfer. It so happened that I had not used the on-line facility of my bank for over a year. Had I known that sporadic use of on-line banking only caused the bank’s computer system to treat  an occasional customer with suspicion, if not downright hostility, I may well have foregone its use altogether. But bliss as I was in my ignorance of the mysterious ways in which the security of on-line banking worked, I proceeded blithely to tackle the first hurdle that confronts all customers of internet banking: the secure log-on. This consisted of a combination of three security parameters including a user-id, a so-called passcode, and a six-digit pin number. I had entered all of these with great care and utmost attention, when to my alarm, the log-on process asked for further, entirely unexpected security information that I was totally unprepared for. The log-on process, quite capriciously as far as I could make out, suddenly demanded to know what my father’s middle name was. Now I am aware that these kind of personal questions are a part of the checks and safeguards that are embedded in on-line banking systems for security purposes. Typically such security questions are asked when the user is unable to provide a valid password or has completely forgotten what it is. But I was incredulous that of all the questions that the system could have put to me for an additional security check, it should have been that about my father’s middle name. My incredulity was not as misconceived as might be imagined. It so happens that in the matter of security questions of this kind, the user usually has a choice of several security related questions from which he may choose one, whose answer would be something personal to him. Thus the user may opt, for example, to use the name of the last school that he attended, as the security question for an additional security check, - should it become necessary. My preferred security question has always been the one that asked for my mother’s maiden name, or so I had always believed until recently. I have a good reason for preferring to do so. My mother’s maiden name although of Indian origin happens to be sufficiently short and simple to make it easily pronounceable, even for those who as a matter of principle remain averse to pronouncing foreign names. My father’s middle name on the other hand, whilst also of Indian origin or perhaps because of it, is a tongue twister of such ferocity as to defy all normal rules of English pronunciation. To attempt to pronounce it is to submit to a verbal form of sado-masochism. I would therefore never have inflicted it on anyone even as a response to a security question, - or so I had convinced myself until being asked for it unexpectedly by the bank’s security system. My unshakable belief that I could never have used my father’s middle name, provoked in me such an unsettling feeling of paranoia that I convinced myself that somehow my personal details on the bank’s security system had been compromised, - most likely as a consequence of some nefarious hacking activity of which lately there seems to be so much coverage in the media. 


The dark underworld of hacking and cyber fraud holds unspeakable terrors for ordinary mortals like me. Amateurs that we are, we only skirt on the edges of the internet and have only a superficial understanding of its intricacies. I decided therefore that I needed urgently to seek expert help to deal with this frightening security beach. In great agitation, I phoned the helpdesk of my bank. The helpdesk assistant that I was connected to, was almost a model of courtesy and effortless efficiency. After successfully completing the inevitable security checks, I explained to him the purpose of my call: my possibly baseless but firm conviction that my security details had been tampered with. If this grave pronouncement had the Helpdesk adviser sitting up in alarm, my account of what had actually occurred may well have had him intrigued and possibly even hanging his head in despair: what was he to make of a customer who alleges that his so-called unique security question has been tampered with and replaced by a fake one? Conscious of the likely implausibility of my contention, I was hesitant myself as I began to explain to the adviser my reason for believing that the security question I was presented with could never have been one of my choice, - that my father’s middle name was so excruciatingly unpronounceable to native English speakers, that I would never have embarrassed myself or them by using it as part of a security question. I asked the adviser if he could tell me from his computer records exactly what my security question should have been, as that would address my fear that some hacking activity had maliciously altered my real security question to a spurious one that wasn’t of my choice. The adviser did appear to understand my concerns but such is the nature of the checks and safeguards that protect security information of my bank’s clients, that even the adviser could not tell me exactly what my security question was or should have been, as that information was withheld even from him. This of course was not what I had expected from the helpdesk, reassuring though it was to me that my personal data was seemingly inviolate even from casual access by the bank’s helpdesk advisers. 


Despairing at what I might do next, I asked the adviser, rather in the manner of a confused old man muttering to himself, whether I ought to try and reply to the security question, as requested, provide my father’s middle name, and be done with it, - no matter how hopelessly unpronounceable the name was. The helpdesk adviser’s reaction was one of enthusiastic support. “Why not,”  he said, “Go for it”. I wasn’t sure if I was quite so ready to go forth as boldly as the adviser’s exhortation had implied but under the circumstances I had no option but to act on my own suggestion and put my elaborately constructed theory of a security breach to the test. Certain in my belief that I would be vindicated by the outcome of the test, I typed in my father’s middle name as required by the security system and waited with smug confidence for the expected error message that would prove my point. I waited in vain. For to my consternation, and perversely to my horror, the system accepted my father’s middle name as the correct response to the security question. In an instant I realised that everything that I had averred about the impossibility of my ever using my father’s middle name in response to a security question now seemed utterly foolish. I made a pretence of being excited that that my security problems were finally over but I was actually quite wretched. I announced with fake excitement to the helpdesk advisor that the system had accepted my security response and allowed me in. I offered my apologies for having contacted him unnecessarily for a problem that turned out not to have been a problem at all. He was of course gracious about it, - indeed delighted for me, and bid me a cheery good day as he concluded our conversation. He may well have hung up with the satisfaction of having done a good job but to me the whole encounter had been an extraordinary experience. 

What had begun as a perfectly innocuous attempt at using internet banking had somehow left me pondering on the nature of life’s certainties. If a certainty of life could be as fragile as mine had proven to be, then my understanding of a certainty was seriously flawed.  I can now apprehend that certainties of life are least prone to being shattered when they are based on empirical evidence or received wisdom of many generations. Regrettably, the certainty that I had assumed, and which prompted me to phone the helpdesk in some panic, was based on neither. If I had only paused to think, I would have realised that my certainty was not a certainty of my life. It was rather a certainty of my imagination: I had conjured up a certainty in my mind from nothing more than a fervent belief that I would never have contemplated using my father’s middle name as a memorable security word. On reflection, I should have been wiser than to allow myself to commit the folly of ascribing to my fervent belief the attributes of a certainty. But I had done so and had accordingly suffered a shock when the assumptions of my imagined certainty had been proven false by the evidence of my own actions carried out in reality.



Uitilty of Cowardliness

July 30th, 2016

I have lost count of the number of times I have been spared embarrassment, - not by any exercise of wisdom on my part but rather by my unfortunate propensity to cowardliness. If fortune, as it is often said, favours the brave, then it cannot be denied that it sometimes intervenes on the side of the cowardly to save them from their own folly. This was amply illustrated in my own case recently when I foolishly took it upon myself to be civic minded. I had just set out on my usual gentle jog when going past my neighbour’s garden, I noticed a woman closing the lid of his “wheelie bin” (wheeled dust bin) as though she had just dropped something in it. My neighbour’s dust bins, like those of nearly all others in the road, are usually kept right next to the front garden gate, so that it is quite easy for strangers to drop waste material in it surreptitiously. Indeed, this kind of fly tipping, as it is called, has become quite a hot topic of public debate in recent months within the borough that I live in. The Borough Council has even coined a new label for it, - “Envirocrime”, and its monthly newspaper, exhorts civic minded borough residents to be active in helping to combat this new menace. The council’s exhortations seldom penetrate the dull brain of a 75-year old like me but somehow its campaign against fly-tipping had made a deep impression on me, and I was something of a recent convert to the need for vigilance against “Envirocrime” as I stepped out of the house that morning. Unsurprisingly therefore, it only needed the sight of a woman furtively closing the lid of my neighbour’s dust bin to stir the hesitant enviro-vigilante in me into a creature of fiery resolve, - or so I imagined. My initial reaction was one of indignation with words like “would you mind not dumping rubbish in my neighbour’s dustbin please, etc.” forming in my head. But predictably they never passed my lips, for that would have required uncharacteristic courage on my part. Resorting instead to discretion, I merely sauntered past the lady pretending that I had not noticed whatever it was that had just occurred. But however straight-faced I may have tried to appear, I realised straight away that in choosing to be non-confrontational, when nothing but bold action would have sufficed, I had failed miserably at the very first hurdle in my newfound mission to fight enviro-crime. The realisation made me feel wretched at my own cowardliness. But cowardliness had thankfully not diminished my capacity for cunning and in an instant it came to me that I could use guile to atone for my failure where courage had so miserably deserted me. So it was that I proceeded to enact an elaborate charade, which began by my stopping abruptly in my tracks and doing an about turn, having just scurried meekly past the fly-tipping lady. I then assumed a puzzled look and made an ostentatious show of checking my pockets in the manner of a perplexed man who had suddenly found himself bereft of something that should have been on his person. These actions of mine were of course designed to allow me to take a good look at the fly-tipping woman and more importantly, the registration number of the car that she was in, without arousing her suspicion or heaven forfend, her wrath at being observed. In the latter aim I succeeded admirably. Having noted the registration number of the car, I kept repeating it in my mind as I walked back to my house in order to commit it to paper before my notoriously non-retentive memory could set in. With the culprit’s registration number carefully recorded on paper for later action, I felt that I had done enough to take at least the first faltering steps to discharge the civic obligation that the council had urged on me in their crusade against enviro-crime. My next step was to go up to my neighbour’s house to advise him of what had taken place. It was of course quite safe to do so. There was no intimidating presence of a possibly wrathful fly-tipping lady to deter me, for I had taken good care to check that the lady had already departed from the scene in her car. To my dismay, my neighbour was out but that was probably just as well, as in my state of excitement, he would probably have found my breathless account of what had occurred a little too unnerving. Disappointing though it was, there was little to be done about my neighbour’s unavailability. As events were to prove, the unavailability of my neighbour was a fortuitous boon to me as it spared me some embarrassment subsequently. My neighbour’s unavailability meant that I could carry on with the jogging that I had intended to go on when I had first come out of the house that morning. Later that day, long after I had returned from my leisurely jogging exercise (it could actually be characterised as an exercise in “shambling”), I decided to go round to my neighbour once again to inform him of the “fly tipping” outrage that he had been the victim of in his absence. This time my neighbour was in and I proceeded to appraise him of exactly what I had seen. Recounting what I had witnessed only served to bring back an onset of righteous indignation, that left me spluttering incoherent phrases as I sought to offer my neighbour my sympathies, for having had to endure the outrage of his dustbin being misappropriated for fly-tipping. In contrast to my embarrassing agitation, my neighbour was the epitome of unruffled sang-froid. In a matter-of-fact voice, he merely said “let’s see what they have dumped in the bin. It was emptied only yesterday by the bin men”. We walked up to the bins with foreboding on my part as to what horrors were about to be uncovered inside the bins, when to my astonishment the first bin opened by my neighbour revealed nothing more shocking than an empty coke bottle. The other two bins were completely empty! For a second or two I was stunned and in a state of disbelief and complete denial: I could not possibly have been so mistaken about what I had seen that morning! I had most emphatically seen someone furtively opening a dust bin and dropping something in it! How could that be explained as anything other than outrageous fly tipping? But faced with the incontrovertible proof of the absence of any fly tipping, in the form of a solitary empty coke bottle, it began slowly to dawn on me that what I had witnessed earlier was not so much an act of environmental criminality, - rather a well-intentioned action of a civic minded woman anxious to avoid littering the street. It is perhaps a moot point as to whether the lady should have first sought the permission of the owner of the bin before proceeding to use it. I am aware that using someone else’s property without prior permission is not something that is to be indulged: it is termed colloquially as “taking liberties”. But in this case, the unauthorised use of a private bin was arguably not as reprehensible as the dropping of litter might have been. The pursuit of a higher goal sometimes outweighs the impropriety of its method and although the lady’s unauthorised use of a private dustbin was to be deprecated, it did achieve the laudable aim of keeping the street litter free. I was ashamed that I had attributed to this lady’s actions base motives that I had only conjured up in my own mind, but in my shame and misery I blamed not myself for my mind’s paranoia, but rather the high powered “enviro-crime” awareness campaign of the council. The campaign undoubtedly pursued a worthy aim but as often happens with well-intentioned plans, it seems to have been struck by the dreaded law of unintended consequences. In this instance, in trying to make placid mild mannered borough residents like me “enviro-crime aware”, the council had only succeeded in making us “enviro-crime paranoid”. As it was, it took all my innate cowardliness to ward off the embarrassment that could have befallen me. And therein lies perhaps a profound truth. Although, cowardliness can scarcely be considered a virtue, it too has its uses: as my example has shown, it is the best curb to rash acts of paranoia. If discretion, as the Bard tells us in Henry IV, is the better part of valour, then cowardliness is arguably the safer part of paranoia.

Old People

July 14th, 2016

That I am now quite an old man, is no longer in contention. The mere fact that many men and women that I meet in the street address me as “Sir” is ample evidence that I am perceived as person of pitiable old age. But it never ceases to amaze me how so many youngsters routinely associate appearance of old age with some by-gone era that predates even the oldest living person of to-day: they may quite easily, for instance, associate a man of seventy with the trenches of the First World War, as has happened in my case. I recently visited my optician for a routine eye test. On arrival, I was greeted by a very pleasant young receptionist who asked me if I had visited the optician before, in which case, she informed me, she could easily find all my details on the optician’s computer system. On my assuring her that I was indeed an old client of the optician’s returning for a check-up, she asked me for my name and date of birth. With some, entirely irrational, trepidation I provided her with the required information: my forename, surname and my date of birth, which was of course, 22-2-1940.  A flurry of finger tapping followed, to the accompaniment of echoing clicks from the ubiquitous computer keyboard that now adorns all shops and businesses. When the clicking ended, there was an ominous silence which I apprehended boded some inexplicable problem for which I might be held accountable. My foreboding was justified: my record, contrary to the receptionist’s expectations, seemed not to exist on the Optician’s computer system. And as I had feared, this eventuality only seemed to suggest to the receptionist that the information I had provided could not have been accurate; that she might have made an error in transcribing it into the computer, was a possibility that she was not about to entertain. Youth in its innocence tends to be oblivious to its own fallibility. Be that as it may, it was with the utmost courtesy that she asked me to repeat the details of my name and date of birth. More bemused than irritated, I re-stated my full name, followed by my date of birth. As I intoned my year of birth, 1940, I detected a faint smile on the receptionist’s face which left me in no doubt that she had just solved the mystery of my missing computer record. Curious to know how a computer record that had eluded the receptionist only moments ago, could now be about to make its appearance, I waited eagerly to hear what the explanation might have been. Alas when the explanation came, it scarcely served to flatter my ego. Showing scant recognition of any faux-pas that she might have committed, she said “Ah nineteen forty, - I thought you said nineteen fourteen!”. Unflattering as the assumption behind her remark was, it caused me more mirth than outrage. Mental arithmetic was clearly not her forte, or else she might have realised that even with my age-worn face, I was an unlikely centenarian. More to my disappointment however, what her unabashed explanation really revealed, was the inability of the young to comprehend the world of old age. To the still youthful, the aged live in a world in which there are no age differences: it is, in their perception, a world in which all the different generations of the elderly, however many decades apart, somehow coalesce into a single blob of longevity called “the old people”.