Friday, 13 August 2010


Flicking through the news section of the internet I come across this reprinting of this famous rat-race speech given by Jimmy Reid, in 1972 following his appointment as Rector of Glasgow University the year before.

I remember Jimmy Reid as a figure quite clearly. I was in my early twenties when I became aware of him as the man who led the work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyard, but that's all in the brief Wiki article I link to above. The point was, he seemed to be the epitome of a good man looming out of what I felt was a dark period.

In the speech he begins by describing alienation in simple human terms; moves on to criticise what was perceived by many, and certainly presented, as normal society, along with the idea of the rat race and the profit-at-all costs motive; considers its effects on the powerless and the unemployed; talks about what might constitute a better society including leisure and education, and ends by quoting Burns's revolutionary poem, 'Why Should We Idly Waste Our Prime:

The golden age, we'll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature.

It is the language of the time (Hungarian readers of Petőfi will recognise it immediately), full of confidence and idealism. It is the last line that has always presented difficulties. 'And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature.' We point, as we most often do, to the terrible cruelties of humanity and can scarce believe humanity to be 'good by nature'. Even if we suggest that we start off good then become bad we are left with the problem of how this happens, in other words, how evil enters the world and why, as a popular book had it, 'is everything shit?'

Clearly I am not about to answer this, but want to look at it another way.

I finished reading Sheena Iyengar's book The Art of Choosing (I featured a video clip of her lecturing earlier) and thought it very interesting and intelligent as well as playful, and, finally, deadly serious, but it was her Acknowledgements at the end that led me to this post. We are used to the corny thank you speeches at the Oscars and regard them - well, I do - with a certain weary horror, as if something genuinely valuable were being presented as glitter. Iyengar's thanks are not like that. They are long and detailed - they are specifically for specific kindnesses she has received at the hands of various specific people who had helped her in her research. They are genuinely touching without being sentimental.

I have been the recipient of a great deal of kindness in my time - I don't mean from people doing what they are professionally obliged to do, though I am grateful for that and some have far exceeded their obligations - but from people who were not obliged to do anything. The reasons for their kindness were mysterious. They owned those reasons and may hardly have known the reasons themselves. We can do good things for perfectly selfish reasons. Maybe we just like the idea of ourselves as generous-spirited persons in a position to dispense a little patronage now and then. Who doesn't like a little self-flattery, which always sounds much better coming from others? Maybe we expect thanks for our kindness, chiefly from those who have received it, but also, perhaps, from God, or our pacified guilt or superego. Maybe kindness is self-interest after all.

Actually, it doesn't matter. The benefits of kindness to those who have been kind are theirs to work out. The point is the effect on those who receive, or, as Bob Geldof once put it:' Give us your fucking money.'

We may then go on to argue that being a regular receiver of kindness is a form of humiliation, eventually breeding resentment, or- if we are of a Gradgrindish disposition - that receivers of kindness become uselessly dependent and a drain on the hard-working, charitable rest (the hard-line Tory argument, and the bottom-line hunch of the privileged generally).

Yes, but that is all by the by. It may be so, it may not be so. Both motive and effect are complex. The miraculous good thing is that kindness exists at all. For my part, as a receiver of kindness, I did not only receive the advantages that the kindness of others bestowed on me, but also - far more importantly - I received a model of the world.

Kindness exists as a model, a pattern in the mind (and heart if you want the full mind-and-heart set) that may be chosen. I don't mean charity, if by charity we understand simply the rich giving to the less rich, either as sop to conscience under strain or as tax incentive. Kindness is simply the possible that may be chosen at any time for whatever reason. It is a willed gesture and has to be so. It is the point at which the imagination may move towards Burns's line by an active effort of the will.

Acting kindly will not prove Burns's contention, but it shows the contention is important. How do you become brave? people have asked, often to receive the perfectly sensible and practical answer, By acting as though you were.. How do we prove that man is good by nature? By acting as though we were.

Nothing else required. Except courage - which you acquire by...

The two greatest virtues in the world: courage and kindness, either of which is diminished without the other. Solzhenytsin has it somewhere in Cancer Ward, where I first read it. It's a difficult model, but what other model is worth having? Or at least aspiring to?

In any case, RIP, Jimmy Reid.


Angela France said...

I've always liked the Henry James quote: "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."

It rarely costs us anything to be kind (except perhaps pride, temper,and other things we are better off without) and life is immeasurably improved by kindness.

Mad Men Girl said...

I am calling on the kindness of strangers. My request costs you nothing but a mouse click, but means an awful lot to me.

I've entered a contest to win a walk-on role on that retro-licious TV show "Mad Men".

If you wouldn't mind taking two seconds to vote for me, go to my blog, or use the following link, which will take you right to my picture:

Thanks a bunch!