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Be Kind, Rewind: Bernadette Russell on Kindness and Storytelling

Bernadette Russell is an author, theatre maker, storyteller and journalist. In 2015 she was nominated as one of the Southbank Centre’s Changemakers for her project 366 Days of Kindness and this year was chosen as one of the recipients of People United’s #BeKindSigns in response to her kindness campaigning. She is a columnist for Balance Magazine London and her books are published by Orion and Ivy Kids. Bernadette writes for Run Riot ahead of World Kindness Day.


Monday 13th November is World Kindness Day and I am throwing a party in honour of that at Arts Admin (Toynbee Studios). It’s free; there’ll be FREE party food, activities and kindness-themed entertainment from me and fellow storytellers Heather Burton, Jules Craig, and Vanessa Woolf, poetry from Dan Thompson and a new song from Ant Dewson. It’s also the launch of my new book The Little Book of Kindness (Orion) and all profits from sales and donations will go to SE London based homeless charity the 999 Club. It’ll be mega fun and funny. But also serious, because we are trying to change the world. Yep, really, we are. 

The Little Book of Kindness I hope serves as an inspiration to practise daily kindness, with stories and loads of practical fun ideas to help you change your life and the world around you. This is the (v short) story of how I came to write this book.

Back in 2011 I was at the Edinburgh Festival with a play I had written. It was the morning of 7th August and I was in The City Café on Blair Street, chatting with my friends about that day’s plans. Behind us on a TV, the news was on. We saw London in chaos: a double decker bus on fire, live footage of people kicking in shop windows and looting, riot police, broken glass everywhere, groups of people running down the street, smashing everything up in their paths, setting buildings on fire as they ran. We couldn’t take our eyes off it. We called home and checked in on friends. Later when things calmed down the response got nasty; most of the blame piled onto the young and the poor.

I came back to London as planned, wondering what to expect. Everything looked the same. But nothing felt the same. 

I went to see Mr Patel who runs the shop next door. He said his cousin’s shop in Croydon had been ruined. I thought about all the other messes we were in, from environmental troubles, to wars and conflict and famines and endangered species and … the list went on and on. I asked myself what could I do in a world with such troubles in it? On that day my answer was: there was nothing I could do that would make any difference at all.

The next day, 18th August 2011 I was in the queue at our local post office. In front of me was a young man. I overheard him say he’d forgotten his money, and that he’d been hoping to post his drivers licence application. So I said “I’ll pay for it.” It cost me a bit of loose change, no big deal. He said thanks very much and he went on his way.

I thought about what had just happened. I thought maybe what I had done had cheered him up a bit. So I decided right there and then to do a kind thing for a stranger every day, for 366 days, as it would cover a leap year.

I wanted to see if kindness could change the world.

But this wasn’t a 'project' even though much later, after the most inspiring, joyous, life affirming, terrifying, nerve wracking, transformative and wonderful year of my life, it did become many things (including a blog, a theatre show, an exhibition, an installation, a radio documentary, and so far three books!). I learnt a lot. I got to know my neighbours. I spent too much money and I got really good at speaking with strangers. I learnt that the world has way more good than bad in it.

But also I began to understand what we’re up against. With the news we are presented with a story that delivers a message of fear and hopelessness. That tells us our fellow human are bad, mad, not to be trusted. This story is told relentlessly, with relish – “look at how awful we humans are, look at the mess we’ve made.”

Our fiction stories often rehash the same narrow range of stories from a particular perspective with the same kind of heroes (think Superman) and villains (any kind of “other” to that). I believe all of our stories are important, and agree with Ben Okri, master storyteller who said this: “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick.... Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.” 

We need to hear all the stories, the many rich and varied experiences that being human entails, we need stories of human triumph, courage, endeavour and innovation to counter the other kind. We need to create platforms for those stories to be told and step aside if need be to give someone else a turn to tell theirs. We need to buy and subscribe to solutions driven journalism outlets (there’s plenty out there).

But we can take action too, because all human beings are storytellers. Let’s pay attention to the stories we do tell, every time we speak, every time we post or repost something on Facebook, send a tweet: why not make it an inspiring story? Or a funny one? Or a positive one? This small action can help change the world: because what we need right now is hope. It is hope that will deliver us to a brighter future, not fear. Hope doesn’t mean ignoring our present challenges but asking, so what can we do about this? And then setting about doing it, with the confidence that your fellow human beings are behind you.

So be kind to yourself and come to our party on the 13th, on your own, or with friends, I promise you’ll have a great time. You can contribute by sharing your story, which we are collecting on the night, by writing about an act of kindness you have carried out, witnessed or received, and join in with the millions of other people across the world who are celebrating kindness.


Bernadette Russell’s World Kindness Day Party is at Arts Admin (Toynbee Studios) on Monday 13th November at 7.30pm

Her latest book The Little Book of Kindness is available now.