I received a reprimand on Twitter recently from a famous writer of a series of detective stories (in my critical opinion overrated, so there!), when during the last lockdown this individual urged us all to 'be kind', a concept I challenged. As I explained at the time, it seems easily confused with being soft, or weak, or letting people away with things. When I read of Boris Johnson's problems staying in a damp and unhealthy abode like 10 Downing Street, surely if I am being kind I would send him my best wishes along with a big chunk of my tax to help pay for his sofa?
I guess, when not feeling argumentative, that most people know what they mean by kindness. In my recent activity canvassing for a political party – all right, the SNP – I came across few examples of kindness amongst many voters in beautiful downtown Banchory. This is a superficially affluent small town which nevertheless has a well-used foodbank, but many of its citizens seemed to think foodbanks, rather than being an offence against a just society, were there simply to encourage the indigent. 'It's all those benefits they give to skivers,' one woman informed me, 'like free prescriptions, school meals and childcare! And no university fees! People should pay for those things themselves – there are too many families round here who have 10 children and then expect the rest of us sensible people to keep them'.
I asked if she was aware of any families in the vicinity with 10 children, and made my escape while she was thinking about it. It would have been useless to argue that denying children free school meals would make the innocent suffer for the inadequacies of their supposedly 'feckless' parents, not that there are many in my experience, simply people who have had bad luck and struggle to find their way around a complex benefits system. I know from experience how hard it is to climb out of poverty and deprivation – but then I am not claiming to be a kind person!
Regardless of the excellent election result for SNP, for me it's a relief it's over, as there is an unwritten rule between me and one of my best friends that we don't mention politics, since she is a paid up member of the (in my view) nasty party, and would vote for an aardvark if it were the Tory candidate. Actually, I might be tempted by an aardvark as they are sweet cuddly creatures, unlike *** (redacted!). Apart from her problematic voting habits, Fiona (not her real name) is herself sweet and cuddly, with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, she comes from the generation that believes 'the Gentry' are the only people fit to govern, as they have been bred to rule from centuries past – probably not a good idea to point out that many of them fought with Bruce to secure Scottish independence.
It's a bit like my hero, John Buchan, who had a similar belief in the magic of genealogy – he even wrote a fascinating semi-novel about it called The Path of the King
. His long-suffering family had to put up with entertaining individuals they considered crashing bores, because JB had discovered their ancestors had fought at Crecy. The late Mr B had a series of such aristocratic ancestors as his granny was determined to prove she was related to Sir Walter Scott – sadly for her, she wasn't. Latterly, my son had a go at tracing my side of the family, but predictably they were a set of peasants from the English Midlands who were regular inhabitants of the Workhouse. This is a pity, as my paternal granny always claimed to be descended from folk in the Scottish Borders, so I may have been fallaciously claiming Scottish ancestry. But regardless, my heart is in Scotland, and interestingly both I and my brother have ended up here, so who knows what family secrets remain to be discovered?
School for fighters?
According to Fiona, what also differentiates the Gentry is their beautiful manners – which assumes that even the Highland Clearances were carried out politely! I refrain from telling her that their role in feudal times (which often seem still to apply in Royal Deeside) was to become trained thugs who would fight in whatever war or crusade was happening at the time.
The custom in feudal Britain was to send young boys away from home at an early age to a neighbouring castle to be trained as killing machines – presumably removing them from the family was designed to destroy any empathy they had so they could become more lethal fighters. The system continues to this day with self-styled aristocrats who send off their kids to boarding schools for the same reason. Mr B endured one from the age of eight, describing it as the upper-class equivalent of being put into residential care. His experiences during the 1940s would hopefully today be tackled in the courts, but at that time, physical and mental torture was accepted as part of growing up to be a future leader. Nothing much changed since the 14th century.
Perhaps things have somewhat improved nowadays, but there still seems to be a type of boarding school-educated politician, who lacks empathy with those less apparently fortunate and would happily sacrifice anything, beginning with the truth, to achieve and hang onto power. Sadly, it seems hard-wired in some people's minds, people who are perfectly nice and reasonable in other respects, that a leader should be white, male, heterosexual, emotionally cold and confident – although also apparently well-mannered.
The Nordic countries, where there is genuine equality of the sexes, and women are frequently seen in positions of power, appear so much happier and healthier than we are. To follow their example, we need to discover a new archetype of leader, one who is collaborative, inclusive and thoughtful, rather than ready to grab a sword and go galloping off to the next battle.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant