During lockdown many people were furloughed and uncertain of their futures. Ian Donaghy, author, dementia campaigner and conference speaker, knew that the venues he usually fills with delegates, such as Harrogate Conference Centre, were now Covid-19 Nightingale Hospitals. Instead, he started writing stories of his experiences in dementia care, working with young people with learning difficulties, his time working in crime reduction for the Home Office, and about being a musician for 30 years in the North East, York (his home) and further afield. These stories turned into a book which features short stories, monologues and TedTalk-style chapters championing the power kindness plays in transforming people’s lives…
What have you learned from your experiences and how does it feel to be able to record those in this book?
I feel amazingly fortunate to have had such inspirational people and experiences in my life. The book contains encounters with legends like Sir Bobby Robson and world champion boxer Barry McGuigan, but it’s also about people, both growing up in the North East and since moving to York.
The book made me reflect and appreciate my story so far. Lockdown forced us caterpillars into a chrysalis stage where we could no longer go out ‘on the cabbage’ with our mates because the gardens were all closed. It has forced us to retreat, regroup and learn, ready to take to the air as butterflies knowing so much more about what we missed, what we haven’t missed and what we have learnt about who and what really matters to us.
How have readers reacted to the book?
It has been incredible. I have received emails, hand written letters and calls from people saying how the stories resonated with them and reminded them of people in their lives. People have loved that each story lasts the same time as a cup of tea. It has made people more aware of the kindness others have shown them and how their acts of kindness can have a life-changing effect on others. One lady wrote: ‘This little book is a reminder that the world is NOT broken.’ A man, widowed twice, said dipping into it every day had ‘unlocked’ him during lockdown.
I noticed a pattern that people bought one copy of the book online then three or four days later came back to buy five or 10 for friends and family. Then companies went mad for it, buying it and personalising batches with their own company logo and adding a personal message, then sending them out to their team who they may not have seen for a year to show them how invaluable and appreciated they are.
All ages have loved the book. It is being used for story time at schools as well as over afternoon tea and cakes in care homes. Kindness has no age limit. The book features my dear friend who died in 2018, sax player Johnny McGough, so I occasionally take a couple of copies for people to read on his memorial bench. Friends like Johnny made writing this so easy.
Do you think people are more understanding (and kind) since lockdown?
I believe Covid-19 has been a filter. The selfish ‘can I just get mine first?’ brigade showed their true colours early on but then communities came together. Every day I would see people walking up and down the street in pyjama bottoms with plates of dinner under tin foil cloches to provide a localised ‘meals on wheels.’ A garden at the top of my road became a food bank open to all to ‘help yourself’ – no stigma attached.
People are more aware of who lives down their street. It’s like going back to growing up in Tow Law in the 70s – everyone knew everyone and would just bob in with a cake they’d baked. It was a lovely time. I think people have realised that kindness isn’t just a hashtag to use willy-nilly. Kindness isn’t something to talk about. It’s something to BE about.
How did it feel to capture the attention of Private Eye cartoonist Tony Husband?
Tony and I have both admired each other’s work in dementia for years. He loved my book Dear Dementia: the laughter and the tears. To have the likes of Tony providing a cartoon for this book was amazing.
Who else has been attracted to the book?
It has also been enjoyed by writers such as Ian McMillan, Emmerdale’s Reece Dinsdale and even Sherlock and League of Gentlemen writer Mark Gatiss, who described my writing as ‘wonderful and inspirational.’ Badly Drawn Boy had his own bespoke copies printed too. I have been approached by a very large theatre about adapting A Pocketful of Kindness to turn it into a play. (My previous work The Missing Peace: One Play, Fifteen Endings was due to be make its debut at Jospeh Rowntree Theatre in York in April 2020, but Covid soon shut those curtains.) It is such an exciting time. I never thought that a few stories I wrote in my garden during lockdown, when all of my conference speaking work was cancelled, would touch so many lives.
Every day I am posting copies to France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. No publisher. No Amazon. Just a little book full of kindness – and word has spread.
What are your hopes for the future, post-lockdown?
I hope we have learnt from this experience, what matters and what doesn’t, who matters and who doesn’t, and to go easier on one another and be more kind. Kindness is in infinite supply and you never feel worse for being kind.
I am looking forward to speaking at conferences again, singing with my band ‘HUGE’ who are celebrating 30 years of making noise, and writing two more books that will make people smile: one about being a Dad and the other about combatting loneliness. But, most importantly, I hope that in 2021 the score reads: Covid 19: Kindness 21.
Get your copy at www.bigian.co.uk