Generosity: A True Act of Heroism

When I talk to anyone about Duncan and ask what he was like, I hear all kinds of stories, but everyone always ends up talking about how generous he was.  Duncan was many things to many people, but all agree about his great heart and that he really did have a soul of generosity.

Ducan smiling 1

Duncan was the original Jack.  Jack, like Duncan, is many things – quick-thinking, self-reliant, adventurous – but at his core, he is generous.  So many stories start with Jack’s mother giving him the choice of ‘Take a whole bannock with my curse, or half a bannock with my blessing’.

Jack would never take the whole bannock – the curse or blessing is almost irrelevant – he would never take extra for himself, to leave his mother with less.  When Jack sits down to eat his half bannock and a stranger appears, he shares his meal without thought or hesitation.  It’s an accepted line in a story.  It rolls off the tongue and we accept it as part of the formula. I think it’s rare that the storyteller or listener ever stop to think about it very much, except that Jack has followed story protocol and will probably be rewarded for it later.  But when you do stop and think, it is an enormous act of generosity, done without regret or bitterness.  Jack shares his food with a smile.  They sit, eat, talk and share company together and when Jack walks on, he has nothing left in his pockets.  Whatever happens later in the story, this is the act of a hero.  He has no idea where or when he will next be able to find something to eat or drink.  He has faith in the world and his own abilities.  When tomorrow comes, when hunger comes, then he will deal with it. How many of us could do that?  Share our last meal and not begrudge the giving of it in some small part of ourselves?

Generosity has always been an act of bravery.  It has become less valued in British society.  Giving hitchhikers a lift is generally considered an act of stupidity rather than bravery.  We don’t open our hearths to strangers and instead layer up locks, bolts and security systems. We act as though our land has become less safe, more full of danger, but I don’t think that’s true.  At any time in history, opening your home to strangers, or letting them ride on your cart, has carried an element of risk.  It is not that the world has become more dangerous, but that we are more governed by fear.  In the past, hospitality was associated with honour: it was a sacred duty. So much emphasis was placed on it because it took bravery.  Bravery to face the unknown, the other.  Bravery to share limited supplies.

Duncan grew up in a family where every possession had to earn its place.  Everything needed to pay its way, be worth the effort of being carried from place to place.  One of the most powerful stories Duncan ever told me was about the day when his father decided to give up the tin-making.  People stopped wanting tin pots and pans when cheap aluminium pots and pans and plastic became widely available. Duncan’s father took all the tin-making tools that had been passed on to him by his father and buried them, those tools and skills never to used again.  The most important things were the things that you carried inside you.

Stories, songs, knowledge of your family, knowledge of the landscape and the skills to live off the land.  What kept you alive was a strong body and a strong mind.  Duncan was proud of being able to write.  It was something his father was determined all his children could do (and that’s another story), but that didn’t mean you relied on it or used it as a memory aid – then you’d have to pay for pencil and paper, carry them around  – and what happened if it rained and it got wet?  Duncan trained his mind from an early age to remember and to pack the things he needed up in his mind just as neatly and efficiently as his father packed their belongings into the handcart.

Duncan’s attitude and the way he was brought up was to live in the moment.  How many mindfulness and meditation courses try to teach stressed out members of Western civilisation this?

I grew up as one of the tomorrow people. My mum was brought up in austerity after the second world war by parents who scrimped, saved and managed to build their own house. My parents scrimped and saved too, bought their own house, life insurance and paid into pension plans.  Our eyes skimmed over today, always laying up stores for tomorrow.  Principles to aspire to and admire within settled British society.

I am a hoarder.  My shed is full of books.  I grew up an avid reader, encouraged to read – something I have always taken great pleasure in, but I never trained my brain to remember all the stories I read and heard.  I remember some, of course, but I rely on books to follow up half-remembered plots and strains of stories.  My kitchen cupboards are always full.  There is a genetic slice of me inherited from distant farming ancestors that fears the harsh winter and worries whether I will I be able to feed my family.  When the current pandemic arrived, along with coughs and headaches and the necessity of staying isolated for 2 weeks, I realised that we would be absolutely fine for at least 2 months, let alone two weeks – even if some of the meals became a little strange or monotonous!

I am surrounded by physical memories.  Holiday souvenirs, photographs, gifts from friends.  I like having an olivewood breadboard that reminds me of being in Majorca every time I use it.  I love all the pictures on the wall that range from a Katherine Soutar Caddick original from my first CD, to my aunt’s watercolours of Bournemouth, to my children’s first creative explosions.  They are all things that I would find hard to part with.  I would never turn up at Duncan’s door without a gift, but it would be usually be something we would eat and drink together. I would take him brass figures, clothes, souvenirs from festivals etc too, but I would know that they would become gifts for the next person to walk in through the door.  When you gave Duncan a gift, you were giving him two gifts – the pleasure of being thought of and the pleasure of having something to give away.

One time, a young film maker, Andy Benfield, was making a documentary about Duncan and me.  The three of us packed up Andy’s little car with tents, supplies, film making equipment and set off north to Furnace, to revisit where Duncan spent his winters growing up.  On the way we stopped off to visit Martha, a Traveller woman that Duncan met when they were in the teens, and had recently got back in touch with.  Andy and I thought we were only stopping in for a cup of tea, but as soon as we got through the door, Duncan asked Martha if she’d like to come on a road trip with us.  I saw the panic in Andy’s eyes – we had only brought enough bedding, supplies etc for the three of us – and there were only three seats in the car.

‘Ach, don’t worry, Martha can sit on my knee!’ said Duncan.

‘But we need to get on our way, we’ll lose the light’ said Andy, ‘Martha won’t have time to pack’

‘I’m ready’ said Martha. She picked up her packet of cigarettes, put them in her handbag and stood up, instantly ready to walk out of the door.

I would love to have that self-confidence.  To know that I have the skill and mental strength to survive with whatever I happen to have on me.  To know that I can endure what may come and take pleasure in the moment, without letting fear of tomorrow overshadow my today.

I don’t think of myself as a materialistic person.  I buy clothes from charity shops and furniture from the auction, happy I’m recycling things.  And yet, I am forced to confront the fact that I am ridiculously attached to stuff.  I don’t have a lot of money, but I don’t have to worry about feeding or clothing my children.  I might not take them abroad on holiday, but I’ll find money for music lessons.  I have a hugely privileged life.  There are so many people in the world who suddenly find themselves displaced, who lose everything.  People who find that all they have are the clothes they stand up in and whatever they’ve packed ready in their minds to sustain them.  I hope I am never tested in that way.  If I ever am and I have a sandwich in my pocket, will I share it with the stranger standing next to me?  I honestly don’t know.  I hope I would, but there would definitely be a part of me wondering if it was a good idea or not.  It wouldn’t cross Duncan’s mind to even think about it.  I saw him share the last cigarettes in his packet time and again, knowing it would leave him short for the morning.  His wife, Linda, scrimped and saved for a car so that they could drive to storytelling gigs.  Duncan gave it away.

Now is not the time for hoarding.  When the temptation is strongest, that is when it is most important to be able to let go, to pass things on.  When there is a shortage of toilet rolls, then that is the time to open your cupboards and leave spare rolls tied to your neighbour’s door!  We’re lucky.  My husband has been furloughed and is still being paid his salary.  Although there is the temptation to tighten our belts, to put some money by for next year, when work might be more scarce and prices might have gone up, it’s not the right thing to do.  We are able to pass our money on, to keep paying for music lessons, to pay to go to online events, to buy food from local traders.  Duncan used to say ‘money’s round because it goes round’. As long as it does still keep going around things will keep going.  When money (and everything else) gets hoarded, that is when things get hard for everybody.  A dam in one place, leads to a drought somewhere else.

Linda gave me a beautiful gift.  She said, ‘Well, Amy, not all storytellers are Travellers.  You’re more of a henwife.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.’

I think that’s one of the biggest compliments I’ve received.  She’s right.  I admire Jack and Duncan – and I tell both their stories – but I am nothing like either of them.  I am not a Traveller.  While I admire so many things about Duncan and definitely aspire to his generosity, the most important thing he taught me was not to be like him, but to be more myself!  Jack’s mother, or the henwife down the road – now then, that is an archetype that fits far more comfortably.

So, my house is cluttered, full of books, memories, pictures and paints.  There are herbs outside and hanging from the ceiling.  Feral hens roam the garden.  I’ve put down roots.  I know the land here and its stories – though there is always more to learn.  I’ve always been rather eccentric and I wander the hills muttering to myself as I think my way through stories – though now everyone has headphones on and mobile phones, suddenly, people don’t think this is strange anymore!

My door is open to Jack as he travels on his adventures.  The kettle is always on.  I can There’s always an ear to listen, a food parcel for the next stage of the journey and stories to map the way ahead.

Ducan looking sharp

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