Many people are still devoted to public service without thinking of bonuses or other returns...

The Parliament is back in session after a long summer recess. If MPs hoped that the turbulence of the expenses scandal would be behind them, and forgotten, they were quickly disillusioned. They have received letters from Sir Thomas Legg, the retired civil servant who was appointed to review their claims. Many of them have been asked to explain their claims, or refund money. Many are aggrieved that Sir Thomas has apparently imposed retrospective limits on allowable claims.

You can see their point. Changing the rules after the event seems unfair. There is, however, little sympathy for the MPs, who are thought by the public — the electors who choose, and pay, them — to have been taking us for a ride.

No sympathy

There is similarly little sympathy for the City bankers, who seem to have learnt nothing from the financial crisis, and are once again setting aside vast sums for bonuses. Again, we, the taxpayers, who have bailed out many of the banks are displeased, to put it mildly. For many months we have been bombarded with news of behaviour, by people who should know better, that provides ever more depressing evidence of a lack of moral compass.

One of the advantages of living in a village is that it is possible to turn away from major national and international issues, and look at things in microcosm. Quite often that provides encouraging reassurance that things are not universally as bad as they sometimes seem.

In our village, we have been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of our local library. We moved into the village a year before the library opened, and the work of converting the building — a former gas company showroom — was well under way. At the time we found wry amusement in the reaction of some long established residents, who were hostile to the whole idea. “We don’t want a library. It might encourage people to read,” appeared to be the attitude. (I exaggerate, of course — but not all that much.)

The library came. It proved to be popular. People did, and do, use it, and reading has not brought disaster to the village.

One of the events arranged to mark the anniversary was a talk by Chris Jakes, the librarian of the Cambridgeshire Collection (a remarkable and continually growing archive of life in the whole county). In his talk he covered aspects of the life of our village during the 1960s, and brought with him newspaper cuttings and other evidence that showed that our recollections were not wholly invented.

Another event, a few days ago, was a talk by the county’s poet in residence, John Killick, who specialises in working with people with dementia, and encouraging those in its early stages to express their feelings by writing poetry.

These two events were, clearly, widely different, but they shared two characteristics. First, the speakers each demonstrated an infectious enthusiasm for the subjects of their talks. Secondly, the organisers, members of the staff of the county library service, were pleased to be organising them, even though the events took place outside the normal opening hours of the library.

In short, here were examples of people on quite modest salaries (by comparisons with bankers, and even MPs), doing jobs which they see as worthwhile, and not expecting large bonuses or unrealistic expenses.

Bleak scenario

I don’t think I am cynical by nature, but I must confess that on a number of occasions in the past few months I have felt cynicism welling up inside me. I am certainly not alone in this. Indeed, the almost daily diet of horror stories about the immoral, or at the least amoral, behaviour of people in responsible leadership positions makes this inevitable.

From the point of view of society, it is obviously unhealthy. If those in positions of leadership, and service, devote their energy to feathering their own nests, it will not be surprising if others follow their example, and if that happens we shall end up in a moral mess.

These are apocalyptic thoughts, and I am delighted and reassured to find good reasons to reject them, and to be reminded that there are plenty of people who are not greedy, and who take pleasure in what they do for its own sake.

Soon, there is to be a tea party in the local library, as another part of the birthday celebration. For a couple of hours the staff will be serving tea and biscuits instead of books. I am looking forward to it.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at:


Cambridge Letter: In perpetual motionDecember 14, 2009