The act of kindness that took my breath away

Published in the Evening Standard 30 March 2006

So I?m in a convenience store in west London. I?m in a hurry, scouring the shelves for Calpol, because my son has a temperature, when I hear a commotion by the cash till.

?No, come on. You can?t do that,? says a young woman.

?Just get on with it,? comes the reply.

The voices are raised. I assume there?s trouble. I get closer, to see what?s going on.

There?s a huddle of maybe ten people at the front, facing the shopkeeper. All have their heads bowed and seem to be concentrating deeply.

?Come on, you too.? Standing at the side is a man, perhaps in his fifties, who seems to be taking charge. I wonder if this is how a siege begins. He gives some money to the shopkeeper and then hands me a piece of paper: a set of three Lotto scratchcards.

?Get on with it. You have to do it here.?

Baffled, I look up at the shopkeeper, seeking an explanation. He smiles as if to say, ?Humour him.? I realise everyone inside, customers who walked in as randomly as I did, has got the same treatment: we have all been given, free of charge, our own chance to win a fortune.

I also realise that I?m not going to get out of the shop, still less buy any Calpol, unless I first take out a coin and scratch away. I?m a scratchcard virgin and it takes me a while to work out if I?ve done well or badly, but that seems no impediment. The other customers in the shop ? two teenage girls, an elderly man, a family with a young boy ? simply hand their cards to the man at the till, who checks them on his machine.

?Twenty pounds!? he declares, handing me a purple note.

?Well, obviously I can?t accept it,? I say. But the man who paid for the cards insists: those are the rules. The teenage girls nod.

?Well, let me share it,? I reply, waving it in his direction. He takes this as an insult; the shopkeeper scowls. I want to split the proceeds with the rest of our little group, but they shake their heads: I?m breaking the spirit of the exercise.

By now they?re distracted: the boy has won six pounds. Our benefactor is so delighted he buys another wad, costing him #30 ? and proceeds to hand them to a new wave of bemused customers.

I seize the moment to buy the Calpol. The shopkeeper tells me not to be worried by my good fortune; the man has plenty of money. So much that he plays this little game regularly. We smile in shared disbelief, I thank everyone again and leave ? smiling some more.

I find myself thinking of the old bumper sticker: Practise random kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Because everything about this had been random: from my walking into that shop at that moment, to my ticket with a winning line. But what it made it so unusual, what made it thrilling, was the sheer generosity of his action. A stranger had randomly spread about good fortune, at considerable cost, and for no reason other than that it gave him pleasure.

I find his conduct utterly intriguing. Our society, and not just ours, devotes enormous energies to understanding evil: Hollywood movies probe into the minds of serial killers, people lap up fiction which deals in horror and mayhem. Yet to my mind, just as baffling and mysterious is pure goodness. If extreme malevolence is fascinating and inexplicable so, surely, is extreme virtue.

That?s partly what led me to write The Righteous Men, which comes out this week under the pseudonym Sam Bourne. It?s a thriller, whose story turns, in part, on some unexpected and extraordinary acts of goodness. I regarded this aspect of the project as a particular challenge: would it be possible to write a thriller, a genre in which the action is usually fuelled by bombs and bullets, where a key element would be the deeds of those who do good?

I set about imagining the acts of extreme righteousness which feature in the book, taking inspiration for several of them from events in the real world. Last week yielded another real-life example that would have fitted in perfectly. On Sunday it emerged that one of the Conservatives? mystery backers was a Swedish sports equipment tycoon, Johan Eliasch, who had lent the party #1m. But Eliasch had been in the news a few days earlier, for spending #8m buying up his own 400,000-acre chunk of Amazon rainforest ? for the sole purpose of preventing logging companies cutting down the trees. ?The Amazon is the lung of the world,? he explained. ?It provides 20% of the world?s oxygen and 30% of the fresh water.?

There is something compelling about such an act; it challenges every assumption we have about human self-interest and the cynical pursuit of profit. Just like my man with the scratchcards.

And everyone can think of similar, if smaller examples. The wallet handed in with all the cash still intact or the motorist who stops to help you change a tyre. I once left my briefcase on a street: the couple who found it searched inside, tracked me down and got it back to me.

Such an experience leaves you feeling better about your fellow human beings, for sure, but also better about the place you live in. Nothing belies London?s image as a hard-edged city faster than one of those random acts of kindness ? and they happen every day.

There are ways to nurture that spirit. I?m particularly keen on those schemes which encourage people to leave a book for someone else to pick up ? or even to do the same with bicycles, dotted around the city. Failing that, we can all perform our own irrationally good deeds ? and then just sit back and marvel at the sheer, wonderful mystery of it.

The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne is published by HarperCollins, #10.

Last chance for a royal folly

Despite this week's scathing report from the Commons public expenditure committee, the Diana memorial fountain could still be a success - if it pays for itself

Published in the Evening Standard 23 March 2006

In a way, yesterday was ideal for a visit to the Diana Memorial Fountain. It was so bone-chillingly cold, there was hardly anyone about ? allowing the dozen or so spectators (most of them American tourists) to have the water sculpture all to themselves. They could stroll around the oval channel in Hyde Park undisturbed by crowds or noise, ?thinking about their lives, thinking about Diana,? just as the designer, Kathryn Gustafson said she intended.

Several seemed pleasantly surprised by what they found. Despite the House of Commons public accounts committee, which this week condemned the memorial in a scathing report as ?ill-conceived and ill-executed,? there was praise for it. ?I think it?s wonderfully simple and direct,? said Craig Shelter, from Philadelphia. Barbara Herod, in from Gloucestershire, reckoned the fountain had been unfairly maligned. ?I think it?s lovely. I love the dynamics of the water, the noise of it.?

It was hard to argue. The babble of the artificial stream, sometimes flowing slowly, sometimes like a rapid, is a pleasing sound in the centre of a London park. As we spoke, beams of winter sunlight reflected on the water. For a moment, the carpings of the MPs committee - ?This so called water feature will literally be a drain on the resources of the Royal Parks Agency for years to come,? said the Tory chairman Edward Leigh ? seemed like the grumblings of a few spoilsport misers.

But most days will not be like yesterday. Come the summer, the numbers will grow ? perhaps not to the 5,000 an hour that came when the memorial first opened and which so overwhelmed Parks staff, that the site had to be closed two weeks after it opened ? but grow they will. And looking around yesterday, I saw little to convince that trouble won?t strike again.

Everyone knows the litany of woes that befell the fountain; they have entered the capital?s folk memory. Within 24 hours of the official unveiling by the Queen in July 2004, leaves bunged up the works, prompting an overflow of water, turning the surrounding grass into a mudbath. Later that same month, three people who had been paddling in the water ? just as Gustafson had said they should - slipped and injured themselves. The culprit: algae growing on the stonework. At the start of 2005, the memorial was closed again, for five months of repairs.

You can see the results. Now a fence surrounds the fountain, one apparently made of green plastic and which might well have been bought at Homebase. To avoid the mudslide problem, a Tarmac-style path hugs the sculpture at several bends. New turf has been laid which, we?re told, functions like the grass on football pitches, draining water efficiently ? stopping what was meant to look like a meadow from turning into a bog. This week, though, came word of new problems, with reports of hairline cracks between some of the 545 blocks of Cornish granite.

Managers insist the first woes, at least, are solved. Now the rules tell visitors that they should ?Feel free to sit on the side and paddle your feet or hands.? They hope there?ll be no repeat of the scenes that first summer, when burly South African security guards had to patrol this area of contemplation and reflection, telling children to stay the hell out of the water.

Even if the fountain does shake off its initial bad luck, I?m not sure it?s worth the astronomic costs revealed by the public accounts committee. Already

Let’s keep the West End’s fizz

Published in the Evening Standard March 16 2006

Well, I'm feeling king of hill, top of the heap, A-number-one, because last week I got to see the new Sinatra show at the Palladium. The critics didn't like it much and I can see why: there is something fundamentally weird about watching a show with a missing star. The live swing band and troupe of dancers gave it all they've got, but they couldn't really hide the fact that the heart of this show is a series of TV screens - projecting a lead performer who is quite literally two-dimensional and, lest we forget, dead.

Still, I'm such a Sinatra fan that I enjoyed it. The songs are classics, his interpretations of them flawless; just to hear them loud and in a theatre was a thrill. Wisely, the producers preferred Trilby Sinatra to Toupee Sinatra, relying on the early Cole Porter gems and keeping the middle-aged, My Way bombast to a minimum. Despite the reviews, the audience is undeterred: the show took