Home » Backpacking in Thailand » A time of gifts

A time of gifts

A former partner of mine died from breast cancer in 2014. She’d been an ex- for a while, and had only a few months earlier had a miracle baby with her new partner, at the age of 41, making the whole affair that much more poignant.

A multi-talented musician, for years she had led local choirs, and taught piano and singing to a string of grateful and adoring private pupils, me included. As a sonic artist, she created deeply meaningful and delightfully obscure ‘events’ and ‘interventions’ under the unsuspecting auspices of the local Arts Council. Consequently there is a large community of people in the area for whom she was an inspirational figure.

Since she died, there have been some more-or-less successful attempts to stage one-off choir reunions in tribute to her memory. But there has been no attempt so far as I know to build a coherent and lasting posthumous tribute. So I was not surprised to receive an email from one ‘fan’ who is proposing to put her name on a T-shirt and go on a 10-kilometre charity run to raise funds for cancer research.

Why am I mildly irritated by this proposal?

When someone has died from cancer at a young age, you might feel that if they had lived in a big city with big teaching hospitals and research facilities, where they try new stuff on you, and not had to rely on the skills of a visiting oncology team at the small district hospital, they might have made it through.

It seems to me not an unreasonable, nor an unworthy thought, under the circumstances, that her death was arbitrary and unnecessary and cruel – part of that ‘postcode lottery’ politicians grumble about, but do nothing to resolve, in our health service; enough to turn an agnostic off religion entirely.

It’s probably unworthy to think that thought, because my first wife died from cancer, and she had a public persona in the media, connections, a good income, and all the resources of a large London hospital at her disposal to make her well, and they too failed in the task – well, it was twenty years ago. Cancer is still not easily cured. Too many people still die from it, when they quite properly oughtn’t to. Yet we seem on the verge of a breathrough. Tough on you if you went yesterday.

The woman who is proposing this fundraiser was briefly one of my ex-‘s nursing team at the hospital. She barely knew her otherwise. Certainly not as I did, to the extent of knowing her capricious and complex ‘offstage’ character as well as her teaching face, her patient face. This person came along to the choir maybe half-a-dozen times. Yet she hopes to create a brand and to exploit it – for what? How does this gesture help to make a difference?

It seems so glib, such a sad modern cliché, to exploit a dead person’s name without asking anyone who was actually close to them, the family, just to raise a few pounds on a fun-run, a few hugs and high-fives and tears, and then give it away to one of those endlessly demanding, faceless ‘research’ charities. It’s a meaningless gesture, frankly. But I should be charitable. Perhaps she was genuinely moved by my friend’s plight and can’t think of a better way to help. After all, what have I done since?

How much better, more imaginative, more in the spirit of my former-partner, more socially useful would it be to raise money for musical education for children, at a time of cutbacks in schools; for a music prize, offered through the county’s structured music development system, to promote live music in the community, or music therapy in hospitals? Maybe to find a composer, commission a piece.

Then what about the baby, the father? They have expenses and little money to cover them. There was no insurance. There is not much income, I believe. What about an endowment for the child, to help give him a future? Would it seem too patronising to offer them some needed help? Surely, even to make a donation to one of our local hospices, or to a specialist cancer nursing charity, would have some more appropriate and useful purpose of which my former-partner could approve?

But not to some general ‘research’ fund, one of those vague promissory outfits with a well-padded boardroom full of silver-haired medicos in Savile Row suits, fundraising monkeys and PR practitioners, that has produced almost no progress in the field for fifty years – and why would they? It’s in their own interest not to be too successful.

I’m sure this woman means well, but I’m not going to sponsor her on those terms. Does that sound churlish? I’ve had to consult another recent ‘love interest’ on the ethics of all this, because she’s an expert on ethics and I don’t know if I should say something, but it seems that whatever I say is only going to make things worse and create discomfort all round.

Is there a way of putting this campaign on the right rails?

My recent ‘interest’ tells me, basically, to calm down dear, let the poor woman get on with whatever she wants to do. She’s not doing actual harm. It’s perfectly easy just to ignore what she’s proposing, and if I’ve got a better idea for commemorating my former-partner in a more appropriate way, then maybe I should get on and do something about it myself?

I would love to, but I haven’t an organising bone in my body.

And now, there’s Nepal.

What can one say? They’re in a desperate state, but one has the suspicion that money won’t really help. They seem unable to work very constructively with the international aid community.

The thing with the three RAF Chinooks, that we sent them plus crews all the way from the UK and they said they didn’t want them because the downdraft from the rotors might damage the temple roofs, was instructive. It was bullshit.

Why in a land prone to frequent tectonic movements that trigger landslides that cut off roads were all the emergency gear and medical supplies and rations and ‘dozers bottled up in Kathmandu, when the obvious strategy all along was to regionalise stores so as to get emergency aid quicker to outlying villages in the event of a perfectly predictable calamity?

My first thought was that, as soon as my money arrives, I should send them £100. But then I thought, they don’t need more money, they need competent government, with joined-up thinking, directed towards serving their people. How is my £100 going to produce that? The aid agencies have money, they just have a problem using it in a chaotically governed state.

So now I feel guilty, because there are clearly deserving families shivering in tents, but I’m going to stick to the rational line: my £100 isn’t going to help anyone directly. It’s going to be pissed away flying out more aid ‘experts’ who won’t be able to achieve much more than the stricken people will in time achieve for themselves, because that’s how resilient they’ve always been.

Only now, I’ve had an email from Dirk. Dirk runs a brilliant website from Belgium, teaching jazz guitar. And according to Dirk, there’s a school for jazz players in Kathmandu! Who knew? And they’re running an appeal!

So my £100 isn’t going to the Disasters Relief Committee or to Save the Children, or to buy and fly-in some inappropriate Western stuff the Nepalis won’t have a use for. It’s going to help keep real music alive in the rubble.

Somehow that makes me feel a lot better.


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