30. Philanthropy, partly by accident.


Poor Allan!

In an attempt to freshen up the local pub, the new landlord has misguidedly brought in musicians on Saturday nights. I fell victim to this last week, when I had to order some complicated drinks, standing right in front of a Rod Stewart impersonator, who in turn was standing in front of a disproportionately large sound system.

No disrespect to Rod, but he has never been a favourite and I am proud to say I have none of his work in my possession, not even on the 80s compilation album I won in the Secret Santa last year, nor even on old DC90 cassettes in the attic. (Regular readers will anyway know that I have destroyed all these).

The effect of standing in front of a wall of sound is disorientating. Look what happened to Phil Spector, for instance. This is why I didn’t immediately notice the bar lady had made a mistake with the change, in my favour. The four drinks I finally ordered – using mime – came to £12.60. I gave the bar lady a twenty pound note and she gave me £12.60 change. I presume she chose the wrong one of the two numbers on the till display.

I soon realised the mistake, but here was a minor ethical dilemma: since the lady’s boss is working right next to her, will it cause her harm if I point out the error? But then again, should the boss not be aware that his employee might be prone to error under harsh environmental conditions?

I made the refund of £5.20 as discreetly as I could during the intro to Maggie May.

The point is, the cost of being an honest man, this week, is higher than usual, but is still only £5.20.

Most weeks there are no opportunities for honesty or dishonesty, where prices are set on barcodes and payments made electronically. It doesn’t cost much to be honest. And it also doesn’t cost much to be generous.

I once read an article by psychologist Dorothy Rowe, asserting that giving someone a present could be quite an aggressive act. In particular it could represent an intrusion into the person’s life and an obligation on them to return the favour at some point. It’s a little bit like a bribe, in creating a sense of unease for the recipient. Even though we live in the age of sellotape, gifts often have strings attached.

I’ve used this notion as an excuse for not sending Christmas or birthday cards for the last few decades. I have other reasons for this, such as not wanting to support a pointless cards and gift shop industry – maybe I am just uneasy about the name Clinton’s – but the real reason is that it is a laborious task that we could all do without.

On reflection I have to admit this act of scroogism has been misguided. The real cost of being a generous person is actually quite low in the modern world. The opportunities for day to day acts of generosity are limited, boiling down mainly to paying for drinks. And even these acts are often rewarded by reciprocation, or retaliation.

Obviously the situation is more difficult when it comes to charitable giving, or taxation, as this is sometimes called. And there are similar ethical arguments about distorting the power relationships between rich and poor countries.

Dorothy Rowe also said: ‘In mental distress the real problem always arises from some kind of threat or insult to the sense of being a person. This can be hard to uncover, and difficult to ameliorate. It is never amenable to a quick fix’. Both giving and receiving charity is a lot more complicated than it first seems.

But there is a clear win/win with charities, where they will accept a lot of the stuff you don’t need or want, and will even come and take it away. They get richer and you get richer inside. Thank you the British Heart Foundation for taking my stuff and making me a better person.

There is a little bag of nuts and bolts to put it back together, taped to a leg, but there are no strings attached.


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