W hen I was a lad, I loved the works of Ian McEwan. I wolfed down his first, The Cement Garden when I was far too young to be reading such dark materials, in this case, a kind of retelling of The Lord of the Flies meme, but with incest at its fore. But his second, The Comfort of Strangers, had a deep, powerful effect upon me. There is a haunting phrase that formed my views in a primordial, deeply embedded manner, where one character following a horrific incident is left to voice McEwan’s theme: “how the imagination, the sexual imagination, men’s ancient dreams of hurting, and women's of being hurt, embodied and declared a powerful single, organising principle, which distorted all relations, all truth.”
I have often felt tortured by the question of violence against women, both physical and psychological, and have women friends who have recounted to me deeply distressing accounts. But that is for another post. Today, I want to focus on the kindness of strangers, a quote from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. She says to a doctor who has come to take her away to a psychiatric institution, showing she has finally lost all connection with reality, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
But “the kindness of strangers” is a phrase that deeply resonates with me. I have received much kindness, and conversely shown much kindness to others. I give financial support to my beloved family in Cuba and others there, and I have always tried to help people here in Valencia when I can.
This week, this came back to haunt me when someone whom I had trusted enormously, and given a huge amount of assistance and support, betrayed me enormously. My lovely friend Martina – Tank Girl – came round this morning, as she does most days, to check in on me. When I told her what had happened, she was furious, and said, “Your trouble is that you are lovely and generous and trusting, and there are bad people that will take advantage of you. Please stop it immediately.” And this afternoon, two others suns in my sky, Yusnay and her younger sister Ceci, in Cuba, wrote separately saying much the same thing, that I need to learn whom to trust and help, and who is going to cheat me.
Then this afternoon, my friend Marika – she is from Venezuela and always addresses me as Marika, a term that Venezuelan women use for each other that is considered offensive in other Latin countries and here in Spain – got in touch. Marika stayed with me for a week in the summer when she was stuck for somewhere to stay, and was the perfect guest, spotlessly clean and respectful. So naturally, I said yes, take the den, it has a sofa bed and a TV with Netflix and Amazon Prime.
A word about my flat. When I came out for a few days to recce flats with my great pal Richard Simpson a year ago, I had filtered my search to view only flats with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Each time, the lettings agent would ask me with whom I would be sharing. When I replied, “nobody”, they would look at me as though I were crazy so I would be obliged to explain. One bedroom for me. One for my daughter. One to use as an office. One to use as a den with a sofa bed for guests (this was before we knew what 2020 would hold in store for us). And a second bathroom for my daughter since we don’t like to share showers and so forth. (Yeah, I know. We’re weird. See the sign hanging in my office where I am writing this.)
So what that means is that I have a den I can lend to waifs and strays. As I say, Marika stayed for ten days in the summer and was the perfect guest. I then lent it to someone when he fought with his boyfriend and he moved in. That didn’t work out so well, since he then showed no sign of wanting to move out, and why would he? Rent-free, and I was a mug, lending him money and paying every time we did anything. After two months, I had to pull the plug.
Then a couple of weeks before Christmas, a chap posted in a Facebook group for Valencia-based immigrants (they use the word expats but I hate that word), saying he would be returning to Valencia the following day and would any kind soul let him stay while he looked for a flatshare? I did so, and Chris was a great chap, by coincidence a friend of my great pal Pim, Dutch Piet. Very respectful, very proper, and after two weeks, he found a flatshare on Christmas Eve. He left me a note that was so beautiful I hope he will not mind me reproducing it here:
I wanted to say a huge thank you for taking me in when I had nowhere to go and for being incredibly amazing. While I stayed with you, I will never forget your many acts of kindness towards me; I am extremely grateful.
I hope that we will remain friends and that I can take you out for dinner to say thank you for all of your support and love. It makes me smile to remember our first meeting (only a fortnight ago, imagine!) where you quoted Buddha and other writers, and I felt like I was listening to God!
Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021.
All my love, always,
What a wonderful chap, and so rewarding to help someone so respectful and appreciative. “Appreciation is an excellent thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us, as well,” said the 18th-century satirist, rationalist and scourge of Christianity, Voltaire.
And there is a strand of thought in Buddhist belief that the giver should thank the recipient of a gift for accepting it since it generates good karma, what Buddhists call universe brownie points.
In my last post, I paid tribute to Greg Jackson and Stuart Jackson [no relation] at Octopus Energy for all they have done for me. Today, I wish to correct a glaring omission, Agnieszka Bogdanowicz in the accounts team. She is mi angel de facturas, and deploys kindness and tolerance in equal measure. In nearly two years, I am yet to submit one without errors that she corrects for me with affection and amusement. She also often checks in on me to see that I am coping, and today told me that her team take an hour each week to play a game over Zoom and that she would like to invite me to join to help me cope with my sadness and isolation. Octopus operates a Listening Ear service where colleagues are encouraged to speak to each other and they have a list of those who have been trained in counselling. What a wonderful company; they have been a lifeline in so many ways since I arrived here just before lockdown. (I may or may not have been known to send Agnieszka a tipple of burgundy from time to time to show my appreciation and the high regard in which I hold her; a gentleman never discloses.)
And today my lovely Brazilian friend Zilda got in touch to offer her own “listening ear”. We are now entering another lockdown but we can have friends over up until 10pm so we are arranging a dinner at mine. Here is a picture of her from the evening I took her to l’Eliana to meet my great pal Conor Wilde of Found Valencia; a diffident chap, naturally, he is not looking at the camera. Through Conor, I have formed a warm and close friendship with his PR adviser Claire Mason, originally from Jo’burg, now trapped in lockdown in Dublin, but will be coming out to Valencia to see us as soon as she is allowed.
And then I went to Mercadona, where I bumped into lovely Barbi from Interno, there with her sister, and we arranged that they will come over another night. I am not so foolish as to attempt to cook for Italians so we agreed we will go to Mercadona for the ingredients, and they will cook.
To put things in perspective, my friend Miriam, who lives in Santa Cruz del Norte in Cuba, also got in touch tonight.
I asked how she was. She said, "Things are very bad here. We have curfew from 6pm to 6am. We only eat one meal a day. There are great shortages, and the prices are in the clouds. We are very stressed and very depressed." She then asked about my family in London, very worried at the news coming out of the UK. Miriam never asks me for anything, only to talk to me and to check that I am OK. It puts everything into perspective.
So there we go. I have to go and prepare the den before Marika arrives. So what is my point?
Well, this, I think. Of the four times I will have lent out my den, only one has let me down. And of the many times I have helped people with financial support, only three have betrayed me (two Cubans, one there and one here, plus a Paraguayan). But if I were to turn around and say, don’t trust Latins because of these isolated incidents, what an insult that would be to the many Latins who love me and care for me so much.
It is better to give than it is to receive.
Love is always the answer – even when sometimes you lose sight of what the question is.