The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Last week, my brother died. It was not unexpected. But since he had only just turned 49, it was very sad. As he is married with two kids, one 20 and one 18, it is a tragedy that will hit their young lives. He was an incredibly good person, far more lovely than me (which is setting the bar pretty low, I know, but he really was). We arrived at this point through an inexorable, distressing and exhausting process that began back in August last year (two days after my own near-fatal heart attack – Derm had always copied me as a child, but this was one event that I wish he hadn't emulated).

I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. The next day, I had a commitment to give a speech at the National Union of Journalists. Well, not so much a speech as a slide show. I had planned to prepare my presentation thoroughly, put cubes of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks and place a large glass bowl on the desk into which people would drop their keys. I'd even invested in pampas grass and wind chimes outside my front door. (OK, I hadn't really.)

But in the event, when I dragged my photos into a Dropbox folder at 16:51, having promised to be there by 18:00, imagine if you will when the bar indicating upload progress told me the process had "about one hour remaining" (left). Uh-oh. Then I found a flash drive with photos from a press trip given to me by some tourism board or other. I dragged the folder onto it and it uploaded in about two minutes. I slipped it into my pocket, and skipped nonchalantly out of the house into the spring sunshine, whistling (that's a lie, I can't actually whistle, though my mum can, which I used to find really annoying) "fi fol-a-ri dee – a writer's life for me."

The tedious detail of not having prepared a single word bothered me not. In the event, I stood up and extemporised for two hours. No one got up and walked out, which I am claiming as a personal triumph. My thanks to the great Tim Dawson of the NUJ for facilitating. There was a good crowd, including the managing editor of a national newspaper with whom I had struck up a pleasant rapport over a three-month process of being sacked more than a decade ago, with weekly chats, tea and sympathy. (He told me it had been "one of my most pleasant sackings", so I should probs put that on my website: "Trouble-maker. But ultimately affable.") 

My ex-wife turned up, as did my daughter Evie. They really enjoyed my talk about the young lady selling Monster Cock Potion at a market stall in Bamako, Mali (right), and the fact that the potion was illustrated with a photo of a man with a penis the size of a toddler trying to have sex with a young woman. Or perhaps I mean endured, not enjoyed. Whatever. 

Anyway, in the audience were lots of friends and colleagues and the lack of preparation didn't seem to be a problem. We laughed. We might have had a tear or two. And we had lots to drink. It's what Derm would have wanted...

W  ork has been amazing, too. I'm working at Octopus Energy doing words an' shit. (How I ended up there is an interesting story, you can read it here.) They have been supportive, lovely and kind. Special mentions for Greg, Rebecca, Becca, Tim (who has been a tower of strength) and massively for lovely Lara. Such supportive types. They have told me to work if I feel like it, and not to if I don't.  As it happens, an ex-girlfriend had some wristbands made up that say WWDD – What Would Derm Do? 

Derm ran a business and was a superb employer. Many of his staff have come to the hospital over the past few months and cried their eyes out while laughing through tears at some of his Dermitudes and examples of his kind, generous, chaotic but love-filled Dermness. He took his commitments to both his employees and his clients extremely seriously. Lorraine, who has taken over running his business still under his name – a lovely touch – and Debbie, the office manager, were laughing about how they generally had to leave a box of tissues in the meeting room when clients of a certain profile came in. The meetings would overrun massively, and Derm would hug and console the person. Somewhat unusual for a firm of accountants, but that was Derm. He did everything on his own terms.

So What Would Derm Do? Derm would have said, "Euge, there's nothing to be gained by not going to work. You can't do anything to change the situation, and you have a duty to your employers because they have been good to you. Get your arse off to work." So I have been. 

O n Thursday night, I met up with a pal who has become a good mate. He's a journalist-turned-paparazzo who drinks too much, invades celebrities' privacy and thinks he has the right to splash intimate details of the lives of Royals and the stars all over the tabloids. Though I'm sure he has some bad points as well. Earlier that day, I was on the phone in Golden Square next to a car that had a sign saying "FRANK SKINNER" in the passenger window. Frank came out of a radio station and looked slightly lost. I caught his eye and pointed to the sign. He ambled over with a smile and gave me a wink. Class act.  

Unlike Hugh Grant (left). We saw him outside the Coach and Horses of Norman Balon/Jeffrey Barnard fame. He gave us a filthy look and clenched his fist. I assume he was Hacked Off about something or other. He was stumbling about muttering to himself. A family of tourists who looked Chinese were trying to get him to pose for a picture. One of them tried to put his arm around him but said, "Look, just fuck off, would you?" Charming chap.

So we went old-school. We consumed Picpoul de Penet as though it were still in fashion. (If it isn't, it should be. 'Andsome tipple.) We saw off a couple or three of bottles. Then we went to a tapas bar that was still serving and drank more. I managed to stumble onto the last Tube home. Somehow, I woke up in Golders Green, a ghastly, dreary place that is dead in its soul and also in the early hours of the morning. 

I went to pull out my iPhone to summon up an Uber. Only to find I'd been pick-pocketed. My iPhone was conspicuous by its absence. After half an hour standing around this moribund place where they used to hang highwaymen (I don't actually know that, it just feels like that sort of place) I managed to flag down a black taxi. When I told him I needed to go to Walthamstow, he said, "I'll do it off the meter for £50 cash – upfront". I considered for a moment taking my custom elsewhere but realised I was in about as strong a negotiating position as Mrs May was for her Brexit triumphs and said, "Fine," and went to the cashpoint.

Finally, when I got home, he said, "Because you have been such little trouble, here's five quid back." So that was nice. I spent the whole of yesterday on the phone to EE Customer Service, especially the lovely Marnie. I was moved to tweet this:

 She could get a replacement phone out to me the next day, she said. I said, "What about if I go into an EE store?" She said, "Fill yer boots." So I did. But in a complicated sub-plot, after an hour on the phone, Archie (who was born Russian but became Lithuanian because they redrew the borders) said: "I can't offer you the deal they offered on the phone, I don't have the authority." He spoke to his supervisor and they phoned the manager, who said, "Oh, OK, just do it" to get rid of me. Which was nice. Then Archie said, "All I need is your passport to prove your identity." I said, "I've verified my identity with your colleague on the phone with my security questions." He said, "No, that's just for telephone. In-store we have to see your passport." I counted to 173 to stop myself going postal, took a deep breath and got the bus home. Since I am over the age of 30, I am aware that that makes me a failure in Margaret Thatcher's eyes. But since she is brown bread, I reckon I have had the last laugh.

Anyway, an hour later I was back. I sallied forth with my new phone – eventually. I went straight to Waterstone's and bought The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that I have been meaning to read for about 30 years. Then I stopped at a kiosk where an engaging young man called Kieran told me all about the National Deaf Children's Society. I thought, #WWDD? And I thought, you know, why not? And I signed up to give a tenner a month.

When I got home, I saw emails from EE saying someone had tried to register my iPhone at 02:43am the night before. I thought, which is the real London? The one where people mug you and rob you, or jostle you on the Tube, or start shouting at you on a late-night bus? Or the guys at Waterstone's who spent ten minutes telling me why The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the greatest socialist novel ever written? Where Marnie from EE spent ages helping me with my problem and getting me a new iPhone (upon which Apple magically restored everything including photos and messages from the Cloud)? Where I spent half an hour chatting to Kieran, one of the most engaging and thoughtful chuggers I've met? Where my friends regularly text me and ring me to check I am OK? Where Lara from Octopus emails me regularly to say she is worried about me, and wants me to take it easy?

I know what Derm would do. He'd say, "The latter, Euge. Look for the good in people."

So that is precisely what I shall do.