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Maureen Lipman: we all need a shoulder to whine on

The beautiful enigma of empathy and our capacity for creativity are what define us.

A word in your ear: we have an instinctive need to listen
and share but also to seek compassion.
Photo: Phil Willis/Millennium Images

What makes us human? The beautiful enigma of empathy is the first human quality that comes to mind. We grit our teeth when we’re told to “walk a mile in my shoes”, “put yourself in his place”, “eat your chard – they’re starving in Africa”, but the prompt is always necessary. Empathy is a rare quality, as we discover when life makes us look for a shoulder to whine on. And unlike generalised kindness, which most people possess, it involves a subtle shift of priorities that only comes, like perfect pitch, as a gift.

Most actors and writers have it in spades, possibly because they need immediate access to the emotions of others. Maybe the membrane between the characters we play and write and our own selves is sometimes so wafer-thin that identification bleeds in. Empathising can become obsessive and those politicians and philanthropists who devote their lives to it often seem unable to feel it for their own families. “I don’t feel terribly grandfatherly towards my grandchildren,” said a friend. “Well, learn to,” I replied tartly, “because they’re the ones who’ll decide which home you’re going into.”

But are we alone as a species in feeling empathy? I watch David Attenborough programmes with the reverence I’d give to God. The elephants that return to the scene of the poacher’s crime each year to grieve for their murdered; the nursing cat, high
on hormones, suckling orphaned ducklings; the Labrador that waits daily by the bay to swim with a lonely dolphin. Are they not displaying instinctive, shared compassion?

No, I need to look further to find the quality that marks us out and makes us human. Could it be the awareness of our own mortality? A moment stands out in my own life, during my husband’s decline from multiple myeloma. It’s a crisp April day and I’m wheeling him through a north London park after laboriously springing him from the hospice. Bundled up in an oversized overcoat, an unlikely tweed cap on the vulnerable head where soft black hair once sprang, he surveys the silver birches fringed by blue crocuses, the flying Frisbees and the shuffling spaniels, and turns radiantly to me: “Look at it all. It’s all just . . . wonderful, darling . . . isn’t it?’’ I feel, empathise with the nostalgia, pain and joy behind his words . . . and his jolting realisation that his time is up.

With this memory comes the reminder that he left a legacy. Not just a family, who will leave their own, but more than 250 plays for television and screen, written, perhaps unconsciously, against the ticking of the clock. With, as Andrew Marvell said, “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”.

That brings me to our next, and possibly most important quality: creativity. Touring a play around England recently, I filled my days exploring the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Millennium in Sheffield, the Holburne in Bath, marvelling again at the human need to paint, pot, sculpt, stitch, decorate, pin to a wall, use in war, use in worship, steal, acquire, display. Back in town, the Colombian exhibition at the British Museum is a catwalk, fashioned from pure gold, dating back to the Incas. To them, a trove of everyday decorative artefacts; to ambitious Spanish warlords, a coveted stash, worth killing for, to bankroll Europe.

One doesn’t need to be a creative genius, of course, to create. The letters written from a trench, a boarding school or a far-flung land, the crocheted baby bonnet, the antimacassar destined to sit invisibly beneath an aspidistra all its life – all these sprang from the same spark of creativity. So, too, did the crystal radio, the scratchy voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a disc collated by an owlish BBC boffin, and the delicately coloured-in birdwatching book. I have a treasured Florence Greenberg recipe book, pages stained with onion tears, which transports me back to the thousand gracelessly received meals my mother cooked for us. I have the 19 scrapbooks she kept of my career: every show I acted in, from Doctor Faustus at Newland High School to Oklahoma at the National; every small triumph and every puffed-up interview I ever gave.

There is such a strong need within us to say: I made this. I was here. This is my mark. Think of me.

The dictionary says creation is “to bring into being or form out of nothing. To bring into being by force of imagination.” I don’t entirely discount the bowerbird’s need to build an elaborate shrine of beads, glass and twigs, but that, like Jane Russell’s pneumatic bra, is for procreation, not posterity.

Yes, I think what most defines us as human and distinguishes us from other species is our creativity. And that’s what ultimately makes us divine – darling!

PS: I haven’t even started on the human sense of humour because, to me, it’s there in all of the above. In a theatre, laughter indicates an audience’s understanding (empathy); humour flashes unexpectedly like sun through our awareness of mortality; it powers some of the most serious creativity – and to explore it in full, I’d need 700 more words and as many jokes.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State