The Gift: Rev Richard Coles toasts kindness

The Saturday Live presenter praises the power of saying 'thank you'

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Thank you. Two words that mean so much but which, when left unsaid, can create a lifetime of regret. It says much that’s good about us that we can feel that missed expression of gratitude so deeply. Listeners to Saturday Live, the Radio 4 programme I present with Aasmah Mir and JP Devlin, will know what I mean.

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Thank Yous” began with a phone in; listeners were asked for stories of people who had done them a good deed, but whom they had not been able, for one reason or another, to thank.

It was like striking oil, for we were almost overwhelmed with calls from people who had nursed, sometimes for decades, a feeling of regret that they hadn’t expressed their gratitude for an unexpected good turn, or gift or blessing. So many came in that we held them over for the following week, and then the following week and then the following week, and so on. A regular feature was born, and it went from striking oil to striking gold. Television has now picked up the theme with BBC1’s The Gift

Some of our “Thank Yous” are dramatic: the gratitude expressed to an unknown man who tried to keep a motorcyclist involved in an accident alive using CPR. Although he couldn’t, he did enough to ensure a successful organ donation, which saved the lives of three other people.

Other stories are oblique. David called to say thank you to an anonymous university accommodation officer whose allocation of rooms in Halls of Residence shaped countless lives and friendships, including his – he met his wife this way at Warwick in 1979 and they lived happily ever after.

One of my favourites was a very recent call: from a man who had been in intensive care with a life-threatening condition and about as miserable as you can be, although he was no longer in immediate danger. Able, at last, to think beyond the horizon of mere survival and with his appetite returning, he realised he had a tremendous desire for a piece of toast. Not much to ask for, you might think, but in fact it was, because hospital regulations forbade the deployment of a toaster in intensive care.

A piece of white bread with an icy pat of unspreadable butter on its yielding crumb arrived; better than nothing, but not what he wanted, or so he told the nurse on duty. And she, without making any fuss, went off to a staff kitchen and returned with a slice of toast, done to a turn, spread with butter, just beginning to melt into its golden perfection, and made a miserable patient for a moment blissfully happy.

It was a lovely story and lots of listeners responded, one of them not to us but direct to that nurse, Rosie, whom she’d recognised. Rosie got in touch with the programme and we were able, for the first time so far, to hear not only from the recipient, but from the doer of a good deed. It was great to talk to her, not only because it completed the story, but because it reminded us that the NHS is full of people like Rosie who, day by day, through simple kindness and thoughtfulness, can make an enormous difference to people who are struggling. And – as she noted – we need to hear that, when so much of what we hear about the NHS is bad. 

Not just the NHS, of course. It is too easy to lapse into the expectation that the world is going to the dogs, and unlikely to oblige us, if it notices us at all. And if we’ve lapsed into that view, it’s not surprising that these stories should move us so much – partly because gratitude is unexpected in a thankless world, but mostly because they speak so powerfully of kindness, of generosity, of selflessness, offered for no particular reason other than wishing to add to the sum of human goodness.

Human badness, heard of more often, breaks over us in waves. No wonder cynicism so often prevails; no wonder, then, that these little messages, crackly on a phone line, broadcast in hope rather than expectation of their reaching the Good Samaritans they’re addressed to, make cynicism seem just a little less persuasive, restore the spirits of even the most jaded, and remind us that good happens. 

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The Gift begins on Tuesday 10th February at 9pm and Saturday Live airs on Radio 4 at 9am