One Christmas morning a few years ago, an army chaplain decided to join some squaddies in their armoured vehicle for a routine patrol in downtown Baghdad. As they drove through the dry dusty streets, they were only too aware of the possible dangers that they either saw or imagined in every person or pile of rubble that they came across. As usual, they drove at walking pace.
Within about ten minutes, they found themselves surrounded by a silent crowd.
They soon realised that there was nothing to fear because the “crowd” consisted of about 20 skinny-looking, shabbily-dressed young children. They had that beige monochromatic look that we are all used to seeing in television reports – thin dusty faces, sand-matted hair , barefoot with beige and white ripped clothes. These were street kids.
The chaplain signalled the driver to stop. The children came closer and closer, until some were actually touching the hot metal of the vehicle’s bodywork. The chaplain, being the good man that he was, always carried sweets – not chocolate, because that tended to melt in these temperatures – just a paper bag full of ordinary boiled sweets.
He leaned out of his window, held the open bag of sweets and smiled at the kids.
The children all held their hands out – obviously not quite trusting the smartly-dressed British Officer, but gradually, one-by one they started to come towards the chaplain and his sweets. Eventually, there was a bit of a rush and within a minute, all the sweets (and the bag) had gone.
Gradually, the laughing children dispersed and their excited chatter left with them.
The armoured car remained parked until all of the children had disappeared and the street was back to the familiar grown-up adult bustle of diggers lifting the rubble of bombed houses, squeaky wheelbarrows and arguing workers with shovels and picks.
The chaplain had enjoyed the moment. The sound of childrens’ laughter reminded him of his own children back home. He imagined his young son’s and daughter’s squeals of delight that very morning as they opened their Christmas presents without him. He felt sad but at the same time, he felt warm inside and felt that he had just been given a small taste of Christmas.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a girl of about 11 sitting on a pile of rocks, just a few feet away from him. He waved at her – but nothing. She just stared. He felt his pockets but he had no more sweets to give.
He decided to be silly and started to pull faces at her. He rolled his eyes, stuck his tongue out, stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers. His driver remained “eyes forward” – he knew that it was best not to look at an officer – chaplain or not- who was making a prat of himself.
Gradually, the skinny little girl began to relax, became a bit more confident. Soon she smiled began to look a little bit more animated. After a few more minutes of the chaplain’s silliness, she was laughing.
Two minutes later, the girl stood and walked slowly towards the vehicle. The chaplain noticed that she had both arms down by her sides – as if she was trying to conceal something. For a brief moment, the chaplain felt a slight “frisson” of alarm, having heard of child bombers being told that they could detonate a bomb without any harm coming to them.
Nevertheless, he stepped out of the vehicle and stood – waiting for her to approach.
She stopped only an arm’s length away and looked him straight in the eyes and continued to smile.
The chaplain could now see quite clearly how underweight and probably very hungry she was. He thought about two things simultaneously. Firstly, whether she was a bomber and whether there was anything to give her to eat on this Christmas morning – but he had nothing useful to give. She continued to stare.
Her cheeks were hollow but her eyes shone like diamonds.
Slowly, the girl stretched both arms towards him with two clenched fists turned downwards. Her gaze never left his face. Then she turned her clenched fists so that they were pointing upwards.
Then…she opened her hands, palms-up.
As she opened her hands, he was surprised to see that there was a boiled sweet on each palm. She smiled the broadest smile and nodded, indicating that he should take one of the sweets.
She didn’t move or flinch as he reached out and took a sweet. “Thank you,” he said.
She didn’t understand what the English soldier had said to her. All she knew was that ten minutes previously, he had given all of his sweets away to the other children and she had accidentally taken two sweets.
She thought that she would give one back to the soldier, so that he too had a sweet.
That small, simple act of generosity by a hungry little Muslim girl reminded the chaplain of what we call “the Spirit of Christmas” is all about.
The Inequality and Iniquity of Growth.
This Christmas there will be millions of puzzled and sometimes hungry people staring at their televisions. Their hunger is easily explained – they are poor but what will confuse them will be the newsflashes showing smiling people shopping and talking about ‘Tablets’ at £500 each, Champagne, and a million other expensive items and yes…even Christmas turkeys!
Then they will see celebrity chefs cooking Brussels sprouts with pancetta, more champagne, the perennial debate about goose fat versus oil on roasties and how we’ll ALL be ‘over-indulging’ and falling asleep on the sofa! An alien world which some will have tasted but sadly, too many – especially children, will never inhabit.
This (to them) is a ‘make-believe’ world of plenty. They know it exists somewhere near them but it is like the parallel universe of science fiction….there but impossible to access.
They see shiny, smug politicians saying words about ‘the recession being over’….something the poor haven’t been too acutely aware of because what the politician calls ‘recession’ and ‘austerity’, they call “LIFE”.
‘The economy’ appears to be doing very well! …………..By the way….what is that?
The disparity between the most affluent Brits and the rest is hurting the economy. This chasm between rich and poor appears to have become an unacknowledged issue, primarily as the result of too many of the Cabinet belonging to ‘the Affs’. It is apparent that few understand that everyone (up to middle class) has seen their income stagnate, whilst wealthy households have really thrived.
Note: I propose to dispense with euphemisms such as “the well-off” and “society’s disadvantaged”. Let’s stick to rich and poor.
Bonuses, higher salaries, higher profits and exceptional stock market gains are flowing almost exclusively to the already-rich. Proportionately, however, the affluent household ‘spend’ represents much less of their money than that of low and middle-income consumers.
One of the priorities of this government should be to engineer a much broader spending base – one which encompasses the poor……allowing them to actually participate in the economy.
Currently, there is a very distorted picture of consumer spending because it is driven by the rich. The poor and the poorer are doing their best to keep up but inevitably need to borrow in order to spend – thus making themselves even poorer. Meanwhile, many rich are gaining profits from bank or lending company shares which are fueled by the poors’ accelerating poverty….but the rich have something else which the poor have never had: OPTIONS or CHOICE!
One very profitable option this year has been the stock market – but once the markets have calmed down (which they will!) and gains are no longer eye-wateringly high, the affluent (As and Bs) will stop spending or at least, cut back dramatically.
THAT will have an immediate and devastating effect on this virtual economic recovery. SO, it is in the government’s interest to sustain the recovery illusion by keeping interest rates low and Quantitative Easing flowing to the banks so that , from an investment point of view, the equity markets (stocks and shares) remain the only game in town, so that the rich retain their mega spending power for as long as possible – at least until May 2015!
That is a very dangerous game for any government to play.
This is the phenomenon which has created and is sustaining the ever more bitter ‘CLASS’ debate and is in danger of feeding Populism and ultimately, major unrest.
Income Inequality and not airports or trains should be the government’s priority.
There is now little doubt that in spite of government policy, the United Kingdom’s economic growth is picking up….as it is everywhere else (Global Economy!)
NOW, while the mini-recovery lasts, would be a good time for the government to tackle the INEQUALITY OF GROWTH which is not an iniquity but the iniquity of modern times.
A six-minute Christmas.
I possess neither the gift nor the burden of faith and never will but I hope that you enjoy this. It’s my favourite.