Why my faith in human nature’s been reaffirmed

Watford Observer: Why my faith in human nature’s been reaffirmed Why my faith in human nature’s been reaffirmed

This past week, three things have reinforced my faith in the fundamental goodness of human nature.

First of all, I read that angry Twitterers complained they were "misled" into donating money to TCT (Teenage Cancer Trust) when 19-year-old bowel cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton recovered sufficiently, albeit temporarily, to go home from hospital.

Before you think I’ve completely lost it, let me assure you it’s not these twisted twits I’m praising. Quite the reverse - in fact I refuse to dignify their behaviour with a response.

What I find so admirable is when Stephen posted what he believed would be a farewell message on Facebook, it went viral and thanks to the generosity of people worldwide, £1 million was raised for TCT in just two days, a sum which has since exceeded £3 million.

Heronsgate residents Sue and David Formosa, who were among the founder members of TCT in the early 90s, tell me they are absolutely thrilled. 

"The sum raised is what it costs to open a teenage cancer ward," Sue Formosa tells me.

"Teenage cancer is particularly aggressive and teenagers feel very isolated if they are on wards with old people or children, but when they are treated with their peer group, they have a 15 per cent higher recovery rate."

Sadly, Stephen died on Wednesday.

I hope he died feeling justifiably proud of what he hah done for fellow teenage cancer patients. His tweeting critics should be ashamed of themselves.

Secondly, last Saturday I saw one of the most touching plays I have seen in a long time, An August Bank Holiday Lark, at Watford Palace Theatre, which left me more convinced than ever before that human decency and clog-dancing are worth fighting for.

Yes, you did read that correctly. If you had told me this time last week how much I could enjoy watching clog-dancing, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The plot of the play is straightforward enough; farm and mill workers of a Lancashire village are rehearsing their steps for the clog dance at the annual Rushbearing Festival.

Normally, it’s a happy, carefree occasion eagerly anticipated by everyone.

Of course, human nature being what it is, the festival isn’t entirely trouble-free.

Neighbours squabble over who pinched whose garden flowers for their hat decorations, girls compete for young men’s affections and the same young men annoy the squire by turning up at church the following morning seriously hungover.

Nevertheless, the celebrations unite and delight the whole community.

This year’s festival should be no different, except that it is August 1914 and the storm clouds of World War I are gathering.

Despite the villagers’ optimism the fighting will be over by Christmas, some suspect and the audience knows, that life will never be the same again. 

This is brought home by the play’s down-to-earth northern humour and by, of all things, clog-dancing, which is comfortingly rhythmic to listen to and a joy to see, but which here, gradually comes to symbolise something darker.

When bad news arrives from the battlefield, the villagers accept their lives will now dance to a different beat and very cleverly, the time-honoured clog-dancing sequences turn a deceptively simple play into a moving elegy for a bygone age.

By the time you read this column, the play will have moved on from Watford, but do try to catch it on its national tour, which lasts until June 14.

Unsurprisingly, the play is mainly being staged by northern theatres, so congratulations to the Palace Theatre for being one of only four venues in the South of England to recognise its brilliance. 

Finally, I was blown away by the energy and compassion of Julia Immonen, the stunningly pretty and leggy (jealous, moi?) Atlantic rower who spoke on Friday at a conference organised by the charity New Hope Trust, whose HQ is just outside Chorleywood.

Thirty-five-year-old Julia, (pictured above), a studio director with Sky Sports News, had never even sat in a rowing boat when she decided to get together an all-female crew to cross the Atlantic in December 2011, in aid of anti slavery charities.

Braving sea sickness, dehydration, equipment failure, sleep deprivation and agonisingly painful sores on their backsides, Julia and four others (their skipper bottled out two days before they set sail) made the 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic in 45 days, beating the previous record by five days, the first five-woman rowing crew to do so.

"My naiveté was a blessing. Had I known…..!" she says of her epic voyage, which she credits with helping her find the person within her "she never knew existed".

When she reached dry land, she was overwhelmed to find her family, friends, fresh bed linen, dry shoes and flush lavatories (she entertained us with a vivid description of what it feels like to balance on a toilet bucket while your boat is riding a 50ft wave).

She also came home determined to do more to help the victims of human trafficking and last year helped found the charity Sport for Freedom, which uses sports events to raise money to fight the international trade in the buying and selling of people. 

"I’m an ordinary woman who did something extraordinary," she says modestly.

"Two weeks before the row, I visited a safe house in Greece for women and girls, some as young as four, who had been held captive and sold up to 30 times per night to men. By comparison with them, my pain paled into insignificance."

What an inspiration. If only the world contained more people like Julia Immonen and Stephen Sutton, not to mention clog-dancers. I’m serious.

Julia Immonen’s book, Row for Freedom, will be published in October.

To make a donation, visit www.sportforfreedom.org or www.teenagecancertrust.org.

n Picture of Julia Immonen is by theyouareproject.com.

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