Mary Kelly: We all remember reading Lord of the Flies but is it necessarily so?

A black man carrying a right-wing protester to safety calls into question the belief that civilisation is only a thin veneer, while, as we limp back to a new normality, I started my retail therapy at a bookshop to wean myself off making Jeff Bezos even richer

Patrick Huthcinson and his daughters Sidena and Kendal appearing on BBC Breakfast earlier this week after Mr Hutchinson made global headlines after saving a man, later identified as a retired detective, from harm during violent protests in central London last weekend. Picture by BBC Breakfast/PA
Mary Kelly

EVERY journalist at some time has been faced with the same charge: “How come you don’t report on any good news, it’s only the bad things you want to show.”

But despite much evidence to the contrary, most of us hacks actually love good news stories. Why else did we hear so much about Captain Tom, the centenarian whose strolls round his garden raised millions for the NHS and earned him a knighthood, by popular acclaim?

His story brightened the lockdown gloom and the daily reports of the mounting coronavirus death toll. Now, in the midst of all the protests and riots that’ve erupted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, another hero has transfixed the media. Enter Patrick Hutchinson, the black man pictured carrying a white right-wing protester across his shoulders.

He saw that the middle-aged man – subsequently identified as former London police officer Bryn Male – had become separated from his own mob who were there to “protect” statues. Instead of standing by while he was trampled underfoot or given a hiding, Hutchinson waded in and as his mates formed a protective ring. He slung the red-faced protester over his shoulder and took him to safety.

Mr Bryn looked suitably mortified and will have to do some explaining to his chums. At the time of writing he has not come forward to say thanks.

People like to see others behaving with decency and, according to a book I’m currently reading, there is far more good in human behaviour than bad. The central thesis of Humankind, by Dutch author Rutger Bregman, is that man is inherently good, despite a widespread belief that there’s only a thin veneer of civilisation in us and under pressure it will disappear. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, we're taught that human beings are by nature selfish and governed by self-interest,

We all remember reading Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s story of a group of British schoolboys who got stranded on a desert island and after fragile attempts at democracy, they descend into cruelty and murder once the mores of civilisation break down. It was fiction, but Bregman points to a real-life version which had a very different outcome.

In 1965 six schoolboys set off from Tonga on a fishing trip and were caught up in a huge storm. They drifted for eight days in the Pacific before spying land – a remote rocky island where they made camp. The boys, aged from 13 to 16, were marooned there for over a year, but did they eventually lose their “veneer” of civilisation?

No. They made a pact not to fight, organised themselves into a commune with a food garden, hollowed out tree trunks for rainwater, made chicken pens, a makeshift gym and a permanent fire to alert rescuers. They even managed to successfully set the broken leg of one of the boys when he fell over a cliff, using sticks and leaves.

Bregman’s book is full of interesting nuggets including evidence that in battle, most soldiers don’t fire their weapons because they don’t like killing. I’m keen to read his analysis of the Holocaust.

* * *

AS WE start to limp back to some kind of new normality, I started my retail therapy at the excellent No Alibis bookshop to wean myself off making Amazon’s Jeff Bezos even richer.

It felt a bit strange browsing books wearing plastic gloves, though given the shop’s well-known crime collection, it was probably appropriate. My first trip to Belfast city centre in 12 weeks felt a lot less jolly. There was only one other passenger on the bus and the main shopping centre at Victoria Square still had a lot of shuttered shops.

It’s understandable that retailers will want to offload last season’s stock, but it does give a jumble sale feel to the place. The Chamber of Trade has appealed to the public to give them time, and so we should. But shopping needs coffee breaks, so it probably won’t feel normal until cafés are open and that’s not long off. In the meantime, it would be nice if the city hall would open its grounds so that you could take a break with a sandwich while the sun shines.

We need a reimagining of the public space if we are to help the hospitality industry here to recover. It’s long overdue that we widen the pavements for cafes and bars to spill outdoors. There’s a proposal to close the Ormeau Road later this month to allow the pavements to be used by local eateries. Let’s hope it goes ahead – and may the sun shine.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access