Writer, performer and storyteller, Bernadette Russell, a recipient of one of our be kind signs, tells us about the experience of having a be kind sign in her window.
On Evelyn Street, Deptford, on the A200 towards Greenwich, stands our ordinary house. Its windowsills are gritty black as if there’s a secret volcano nearby spewing sulphur. We try to keep our windows clean on Evelyn Street but it’s a losing battle. The black dust comes from the road, which is often at a standstill.
I look out of the curtains and see stationary cars, mostly occupied by a solo driver. There they sit, thoughtful, resigned, melancholy, each listening to a playlist or radio station to cheer them up, or calling someone who loves them for consolation.
I imagine them singing: the “A200 Blues”, the “London-Under-Construction Blues”, the “Gentrification Blues”, the “Conversion of Industrial Spaces into Neat Little Flats that The Children Who Grew Up Here Can’t Afford Blues”. Sometimes the cars are joined by huge vehicles delivering concrete and bricks. They’re filled with determined people in hard hats who get scowled at by pedestrians, though it’s not their faults, they’re just doing their jobs. The huge vehicles make the congestion even worse, and no one is going anywhere, and our windowsills fill up overnight with dunes of dirty sand.
In Krishna News, our shop next door, a woman says to me “It’ll look nice when its finished” and then she collapses into wheezy laugh-coughs. We all laugh too; we know it’ll never be finished, not really.
It is always busy this road, especially at school-run time or at going-to or coming-from work time, it is always rush hour on the A200. It runs through history, nearby where it is said Elizabeth 1st stepped on Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak to save her dainty feet from Deptford’s mud, near where Marlow the poet-spy got himself murdered for some reason or another, near where compere extraordinaire Malcolm Hardee covered his modesty with balloons and started a comedy club which he ran like a SE London Fight Club. It runs through the present too of course, past dog walkers and fish and chip shops and Vietnamese restaurants and betting shops and foxes and feisty old ladies on mobility scooters and kids on skateboards and babies in strollers. The future is here too, with half built developments promising thousands of new homes, and unlit gyms waiting for their equipment to be delivered, and restaurants filled with upturned chairs like fossilised ribs of ancient unknown mammals; chalk boards waiting to be written on once the food and the staff arrive.
In our window we hung a sign, a beautiful one, like those found in posh East End art galleries, like one of those neon signs salvaged from a bankrupt circus snapped up by wealthy arty types, but not a sign you would expect to see hung in the dusty window of an ordinary house in Deptford, SE London. I worried that people might think it was another sign of gentrification, at first. A sign of the times, maybe.
“be kind,” says the sign.
The children pass it on their way to Deptford Park primary school, having been mufflered up at home in woollen scarves wrapped once, twice, thrice around until their necks were thick as professional body builders. “Why does it say be kind mum?” I heard the kids ask and their mum answered “Because that is a good thing to be isn’t it?”, without hesitation. “Yes, yes, yes, be kind, be kind, be kind” they chant as they tear down the road, tripping on their scarves, now half unravelled.
The 47 bus that runs from Catford to Liverpool Street, all hours, stops at the lights outside the house. I peek out of the window, I see all of the heads turn one by one away from their mobile phones to look at our sign, then take pictures, and I wonder how many instagram posts it has featured in and if any of the snappers ask themselves “ Why does it say be kind?”, and do they think about that afterwards, once they get home.
Later, it’s getting dark at 4pm, the fading light is augmented by random fireworks, cyclists in hi-vis, dipped headlights, and the melancholy light of the sun setting pink over MacDonald’s on Evelyn Street. In Deptford Park at dusk the trees trace the sky like tender witches hands, casting winter spells. I peek out of the curtains and see tired faces. I think about the cars: bought on credit, hire purchase, handed down from mums and brothers, rented from work, those little extra metal rooms we all cherish. But it’s now 6.23pm, and each of those drivers is stuck on Evelyn Street, unmoving, for the fourth time in a week. I hope if they see the sign “be kind”. I do see some of them looking up; are they wondering, “ What’s that in aid of?”. I hope they think about it as they wait for the lights to change.
Soon Christmas lights are turned on, every third window or so, helping us out around the darkest time of the year. I imagine our “be kind” sign makes sense now, because everyone thinks about kindness this time of year. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all. Joy to the world.
In the newspaper is a story about a homeless man found frozen to death on the street in Birmingham. In Krishna News, our shop next door, I said to Mr Patel that it reminded me of the story of The Little Match Girl and he said “terrible, it’s terrible” but we talk about people doing kind things to help each other too.
I notice Facebook filling with people pledging to Crisis, St Mungos, Battersea Dogs Home, Refuge Aid instead of getting or giving Christmas presents and cards. I notice lots of posts about kindness. The Big Issue seller outside Waterstones in Greenwich says he’s doing OK, he wishes everyone: “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” I go to Birmingham for work and a homeless man tells me he has been looked after so well that it has “restored my faith in the kindness of strangers”. On Christmas Eve someone shouts, “I love your sign! Be Kind!” and I go to the door and a man wearing antlers waves from the other side of the road.
Christmas comes and goes. The bins fill with unrecyclable paper. It’s Twixtmas (so very glad someone gave this a name, I love these days so much, they feel peaceful, no mans land days, out of time). Before January comes, and with it grim determination, resolve, gym memberships paid for by direct debit, promises made to ourselves and to others, things given up and given over and nobody daring to look at their bank balance; in this calm, I think about our sign, be kind.
Christmas is a great time to think about faith, it being a religious festival. I don’t have that kind of faith, I don’t believe in God, but I do have faith, faith in people to be better, kinder, and more compassionate. I have faith that my small acts of daily kindness make a small difference and that the sign hanging in our window in Deptford has provoked many conversations, thoughts, discussions and actions. I can’t prove it. I’ve chosen to believe it because I know the difference that 7 years of daily acts of kindness has made to me, I know because I receive messages every day from people who have joined me and whose lives have been transformed by giving and receiving kindness. I’m so proud and encouraged to have this sign.
At the end of Charles Dickens’ brilliant story A Christmas Carol Scrooge, having been transformed from a mean spirited curmudgeon into a warm-hearted philanthropist says this:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
As I peek out of the window on New Year’s Eve to see who is looking at the sign, I remember these lines. To honour Christmas in our hearts is not a bad idea, to be kind, peaceful, loving and open all year would be a very good thing for us all. Every year more people discuss Christmas and its meaning, that it’s not about gifts, gadgets and possessions, but kindness, compassion, love, peace and contemplation and that we should extend this kindness in all directions near and far.
This sign that glows in the window of Evelyn Street, one of the busiest roads in London, en route to school and work and home to thousands of people every day helps to remind us all of that. So let’s do just that: “be kind” every day, at every opportunity, because whatever the question, kindness is the answer.