Editorial: Those little generosities

Former Norwich man Roger Button and his wife Valerie, who now live in Florida.
Former Norwich man Roger Button and his wife Valerie, who now live in Florida.

Scrupulous politeness hardly accounts for the endearing story of Englishman Roger Button's attempts to find someone to thank for relief parcels sent from Southland to the malnourished British after World War II.

This is more than a stirling example of manners. It serves as a reminder of how much a little straightforward generosity can matter.

That is a lesson that countless aid agencies, to this day, strive so hard to convey. Small gifts can not only be met with gratitude, but they can have sometimes quite profound benefits, not the least of which is the abiding realisation that someone out there cares enough to act.

Mr Button spent decades hoping he would one day get to shake the hands of the Southlanders who sent the parcels after the war. After saving hard, he and his wife, Valerie, will at last visit Southland in December when, as a result of making his wish known to the Times, they will meet at least one of the wartime donors.

That would be Ross Harrison, who as a Dipton schoolboy biked hither and yon collecting tinned fruit and meat - as you did back then.

Mr Harrison is the first to say that he was one of a great many, but that is sort of the point: he is able to represent that large group.

During the war, it was commonplace for mothers and children to prepare parcels for troops and prisoners of war, especially in Germany. It wasn't just about sending fruit cakes and knitted socks. It mattered that the donors felt that they were part of the war effort, quite apart from the fact that the parcels were very well received.

After the war, malnourishment was still very much a problem in Britain. New Zealanders were constantly reminded of the financial and dietary problems facing Britain in 1947, perhaps partly to keep the dominion impressed by the need to endure the privations of rationing and send aid to the struggling mother country.

Some advertisements gave the impression that the British were, simply, starving. Southland doctor G B Orbell returned in September that year to give his own perspective. He said the British had plenty of bread and potatoes, but it was not a balanced diet and, if anything, the people were on the flabby side.

He also found them mentally sick and was struck by the extent of heavy smoking - a habit he understood to have been developed during the bombing and a sign of the nervous condition of the people.

That was a visitor's perspective. Young Roger Button's memories of Norwich are nothing if not personally vivid. He tells of asking his mother, after she had given him a little bread and jam, for some more. She said it had to be saved for his father so he would have the strength to work.

The bottom line, folks, is that he and children like him were hungry. The parcels from Invercargill came as a "wonderful surprise".

Nowadays there is hardly a citizen who isn't assailed, regularly, by calls to contribute to a legion of worthy causes. Sometimes the sense of urgency and aching need is compelling and we do act out of sincere and urgent sympathy. Other times, it's rather more dulled and dutiful, particularly when the benefits are liable to seem distant and, shall we say, indistinct.

That's an illusion. Little generosities that we dispatch over the horizon tend to gain significance, not lose it, on arrival.

Charity begins at home, they say. This should never be taken as meaning that that's where it ends.

The Southland Times