I recently spent three months in the UK, on an extended work project. Normally I try to visit my children, who live in Melbourne, every six weeks or so, but given the length of my stay in London this wasn’t possible, so during the kids’ September school break Linda brought them to visit me there, instead. It was the children’s first trip to Europe, and we had a fabulous two weeks seeing the sights of London and Paris (including Disneyland – see my previous post Disney Rock).
London’s West End is a global epicentre for theatre and live-shows, and a visit to London without taking the kids to see a musical or two would not have been complete. On the second day of their visit I had booked for us to see Shrek – the Musical, a stage adaptation of the hit Disney animated film. I figured the children would enjoy it, seeing they already knew the story.
I bought tickets online for a children-friendly afternoon performance. I then proceeded to completely forget which session I had booked, and somehow it got into my head (and as a result into my Blackberry calendar) that we were going to the evening session. And on the day of the show we therefore spent the whole afternoon sightseeing, returning to the apartment where we were staying at around 5pm to get ready for our night at the theatre. The children were super-excited.
It was at this point that I retrieved the tickets from the cupboard, where they were still in the envelope in which they had been delivered, and “discovered” that the tickets were for that afternoon’s performance of Shrek. Which we had now, evidently, missed. The torrent of expletives that followed is something that no child should ever have to hear.
After I had calmed down a little, I tried to explain to the kiddies (recall, they were super-excited) that due to daddy’s teeny-weensy-tiny mistake we would not be going to the theatre that night after all, and perhaps they would instead prefer going out to eat some yummy spaghetti bolognaise?
Hmmm, nice try, but the look of disappointment on their faces said it all.
Plan B: rush down to the theatre – it was only ten minutes away – and see if I can buy some last-minute tickets for that evening’s show, perhaps thereby redeeming myself in the eyes of my children.
Which is how I came to be standing in front of the ticket booth of the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, London, at around 6.15pm on a mild summer’s evening in September 2012, explaining my predicament to a bored-looking ticket clerk: “I had tickets for the matinée but I got confused and thought it was for tonight and we missed the show and now my kids are so disappointed and I am such an idiot but maybe if you have some tickets for tonight I can buy those and I know they may not be the best tickets in the house and I know you are probably sold out but anything is better than nothing so please please please can you help me out here?”
I was babbling incoherently, dressed in shorts and sandals and a slightly worse for wear t-shirt, and out of breath and sweating from my near sprint to the theatre. Plus I hadn’t shaved for the past few days so I was sporting a terrorist-grade three-day growth. It is a wonder that the guy in the ticket booth didn’t immediately call security and have me removed from the premises.
With a bemused “whatever are we going to do with you” expression on his face – you know, the sort reserved specifically for naughty children – the ticket clerk told me: “Sir, we are unfortunately almost fully booked for tonight….”. My shoulders slumped and I must have looked visibly crestfallen at that news, because he immediately added: “….but, we have a box that is empty, which has six seats in it, so would you like that?”
Now, I remembered from when I had booked online that the box seats were the most expensive seats in the house. So my choice was stark: either shell out a small fortune for the box seats, or go back to the apartment and account to three incredibly disappointed kids. I timidly asked: “Umm, so, how much will the box seats cost then?”
The ticket clerk replied: “Nothing, you can just take them, seeing you did have tickets for the earlier show”. He paused, and then added with a half-smile on his face: “Anyway, we can’t have your children suffering because of your stupidity, now can we?”
All’s well that ended well. The children were absolutely delighted with the outcome: not only did they get to see Shrek the Musical as planned, but their inauguration into the world of West End theatre was from the plush surrounds of a private box. Like royals-in-training they were able to wave from on-high to the commoners seated in the stalls below, and during the performance they sipped on iced juices and munched fresh cupcakes (that is, until two of them fell asleep halfway through the performance – it was late, and they were jet lagged).
For some time after I kept thinking of my interaction with the saintly ticket clerk. I had no-one to blame but myself for the stuff-up. The tickets for the matinée show were clearly printed “non-refundable non-exchangeable”, and I had no expectation of anything other than having to buy new tickets for the evening show. The ticket clerk could have told me the price, I would have probably paid, and that would have been the end of this story.
Instead, the ticket clerk did something completely unexpected: he helped me out, even though he did not need to. He made my day with an unprompted, unasked for act of kindness.
As a child I was an avid reader of comic books. European classics like Asterix, Tin Tin and Lucky Luke were my favourites, but I would devour more or less anything in illustrated format: Archie & Jughead, Betty & Veronica, Mad Magazine, Star Wars, Josie & The Pussycats, Richie Rich, Biggles, Beano, Roy of the Rovers and every Superhero comic I could lay my hands on.
When I was around ten, I remember reading a comic in which Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk were teamed up to fight bad guys. At one point in the story the two characters meet in their “real-life” personas of Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. Unaware of Bruce (the Hulk’s) true identity, Peter (Spiderman) warns him that the Hulk is on a rampage, and encourages Bruce to leave town. However, Bruce is flat broke. So Peter gives Bruce his last $5 with which to buy a bus ticket. He tells Bruce that once when he had been in need of help a stranger had given him $5, and he was now simply repaying that debt.
A bit further along in the story, the Hulk steps in when he see a man being robbed. After demolishing the crooks, the Hulk picks the victim up, puts him back on his feet, and then gives him $5 to help him on his way.
The twist in the tale is that the man turns out (somewhat incredulously) to have been the same person who had previously given Peter Parker $5. In giving him money now, the Hulk was unknowingly completing a circle of good deeds.
A moral message that is comic-book simple, yet absolutely profound: if you do good deeds they will eventually come back to you. Spiderman and the Hulk indelibly etched this into my young and impressionable mind, in a way that no parent or school teacher could ever have done.
This idea of “paying it forward” is as old as the hills. It is a central tenet of all Judeo-Christian religions (“you reap what you sow”), and Eastern religions are chock-full of similar ideas, the most well-known being karma: the notion that your future is determined by your actions and the resulting reactions, in both this life and past ones. The moral construct of paying it forward is near universal and timeless, and can be found in writings from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times, in all Asian cultures, as well as in stories from the dark and middle-ages, and into the present.
Benjamin Franklin summed it up quite well in a letter he wrote in 1784:
“I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go through many hands…. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money”.
More recently the concept was popularised in the novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Hyde, and then made into a film of the same name, in which paying it forward was “codified” into a simple system: do three good deeds for others, being things that they could not accomplish on their own, in response to a good deed that someone does for you. In this way you will exponentially spread goodness through the world.
The book and film have in turn spawned the Pay It Forward Foundation, which in turn has now created, what else, the International Pay It Forward Day (April 23rd, www.payitforwardday.com, if you’re interested). It seems that in our sound-bite world, a noble idea has no real street cred until it gets its own nominated day on the calendar.
About a week after Shrek, I had booked tickets for the children to see their second London musical, this time Mamma Mia. It is set on a fictional Greek Island, where Donna, a 1970’s refugee from the big city, owns and manages a run-down tourist hotel. Her daughter Sophie is getting married and, unbeknownst to Donna has invited three men to the wedding – each of whom was at one time Donna’s lover, and each of whom could potentially be Sophie’s long-lost father.
The musical was conceived and written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the two male members of Swedish pop super-group Abba. The entire show consists of nothing but Abba hits. This means that anyone who was even vaguely alive in the 1970s and 1980s will instantly recognise the tunes and be able to sing along.
Perhaps for this reason Mamma Mia has been a huge theatrical success since it opened in 1999 – more than 42 million people have seen the show thus far, and it has earned over $2 billion dollars in worldwide revenues. The live-stage show also spawned a smash hit film of the same name, taking the music of Abba to an even wider global audience. As a result my kids, like so many other youngsters who have watched the film over and over and over again, can now sing an entire repertoire of Abba songs without even knowing who Abba is.
Anyway, I had booked six tickets to the show. It was quite heavily booked, and so the best seating configuration I could get were four tickets in the fifth row from the front, and two in the sixth row, immediately behind. At the last minute, however, it turned out that it was only the three children and me who would be going to see Mamma Mia that day, so I had two spare tickets.
On arrival at the theatre, I tried to return the spare tickets to the box office. “I am sorry sir”, the ticket clerk told me, “but the tickets are non-refundable”. I explained to him that I did not want a refund for the tickets, just to return them, and perhaps he could give them to someone else. “We do not resell tickets at the box office”, he politely told me.
I tried again: “Don’t resell the tickets, just give them away. At least let someone use them rather than the seats being empty”. The ticket clerk looked slightly confused at this odd request, and after thinking for a few seconds replied: “We cannot do that sir, because we are not full tonight, and I still have tickets available for sale”.
I told him if that was the case then I would give the tickets away myself. Now the clerk appeared a bit irritated with me, and curtly said: “What you choose to do is up to you sir, but like I said, we have tickets for sale, so you cannot give your tickets away inside the theatre; if you do I will need to call security”. He looked over my shoulder and signalled for the next person to come forward – clearly, he was done with me and my ridiculous notion of giving away perfectly good theatre tickets.
As I stepped back from the booth, an old man who had been standing patiently in the queue behind me shuffled forward, and I heard him asking if he could buy a pair of tickets for that evening’s show. I quickly tapped him on the shoulder: “Excuse me sir, if you want tickets for tonight’s show then please follow me to outside of the theatre; I have a surprise for you”.
The man was quite startled, and looked me up and down like I was a complete lunatic. But strangely enough he left the queue and followed me, until we were standing on the sidewalk outside of the theatre. I handed him the pair of spare tickets I had for that evening’s show, and said “Enjoy”. He studied the tickets suspiciously, obviously thinking I was a ticket-scalper of sorts, and said: “They certainly look genuine; OK, fine, how much do you want for them?”
I replied: “Absolutely nothing – they are spare tickets that couldn’t be used and for which I can’t get a refund. Isn’t it better that someone enjoys them, rather than the seats remaining empty?”
The expression on his face made clear that he now really did think I was a madman, so I simply turned around and walked away, leaving him holding the two tickets. An American lady who was standing in line out front of the theatre, who had listened in on my little exchange with the man, called out in a very nasal, whiney voice: “Oh My God, that is just soooo sweet”.
For the next couple of hours the children and I had a wonderful time watching the performance. They sang along, and clapped loudly at the end of each song.
At the end of the show there is a ten minute encore, which involves the lead cast members returning to the stage dressed in spandex skin-tight glitter suits, a-la Abba, and leading the audience in a rousing medley of Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo. The audience is encouraged to stand up, sing along, and dance. My children enthusiastically took to this idea, so they stood on their chairs and together we danced, sang at the top of our voices, and waved our arms in the air. It was fantastic fun.
While we were boogying away, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around. It was the man who I had given the two tickets to earlier – he had used the tickets, and had been seated behind us the whole time. Over the noise of the orchestra and a packed theatre belting out Abba songs, he shouted: “Thank you”.
I shouted back: “You’re welcome. Perhaps you can do the same for someone else one day – pay it forward”.
His eyes twinkled like he knew exactly what I meant. Shimmering confetti began falling from the rooftop, and he mouthed the words to me: “I will”.
And then we both went back to the serious business of singing Abba songs and dancing like children.