Distinguished colleges built centuries ago in distinctive honey-coloured stone line the streets of the city I call home. Behind their walls clever people read, think, talk and dine in style from world-class wine cellars.
On the pavements outside, damp duvets, cardboard and food packaging pile up in doorways, marking the spaces where some of the city’s other residents live and die.
Oxford is a place defined by contrast. This kind of inequality isn’t just a source of anger or embarrassment, depending on your point of view. It’s bad for all of us.
A few years ago*, an Oxford academic attracted the attention of the Inland Revenue. A fellow of Lincoln College, he enjoyed the comfort, status – and brandy – his position afforded. But an encounter with a cleaner disturbed him, triggering a chain of events that led to his investigation by the authorities.
One icy day, a domestic assistant came to his room. Financial constraint meant she was wearing only a single layer of thin clothing. He was moved, and wanted to help relieve her situation, but the recent purchase of pictures for his college room meant he had nothing to give her.
The experience changed him, his spending habits – and arguably those of people across centuries and countries since who heard what he did and followed his example.
His name was John Wesley, and his response was to set and stick to a limit on his yearly spending. In the first year of this practice, his income was £30 and his expenditure £28. The following year his income doubled to £60 but he kept his expenditure at £28. The year after, his income rose to £90, but he spent only £28, giving away more than double the amount he chose to live on.
This pattern continued throughout his life. It even landed him in trouble with the tax commissioners, who became suspicious that a man of his means had so little silver to report on his annual return.
He replied, ‘I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the [silver] plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.’
Lived Wesley’s way, increases in income lead to a rise in the standard of giving, rather than the standard of living.
Inequality is complex and requires concerted, structural change – and much more time and expertise to analyse than I have here. But something I do know about, as a former fundraiser, is the impact of people who have chosen to walk the same journey of generosity as Wesley.
I’ve never forgotten the student who gave away her entire inheritance – enough money to buy a house outright.
Or the man who loved to confuse his colleagues, busy investing their bonuses in properties and yachts. When asked how he was going to spend his, he smiled and stayed silent, never letting on that every month he quietly gave away a third of his earnings to alleviate other people’s poverty.
Or the couple who responded to a genocide by cancelling the holiday of a lifetime and giving the money released to the relief effort.
If promotions and pay rises come, they normally lead to an increase in expectation, a transition to a more expensive brand, and a different lot of Joneses to keep up with. That’s why some of those with the highest incomes live in overdraft, convinced they still don’t quite have ‘enough’. That’s a word that interests me, and an idea I’ve written about here.
But what if a person who gets richer makes a deliberately different choice? What if they refuse to upgrade the restaurant they eat in, but instead increase the amount they tip, and the number of people they invite along?
Life’s too wild and good to be shaped solely by what we happen to earn or what ideas and ideals influencers have successfully sold us.
We get so busy capturing and curating our lives, searching for the right angle and applying the right filter.
But what if the real adventure isn’t on show, but happening in secret?
Under the radar, there are people among us living lives of subversive, extravagant, radical generosity. Their actions are driven by a belief in the profound value of the ‘other’, and a desire to bridge the gaps and gulfs between us.
From what I’ve observed, there’s little more beautiful.
* actually more than 250 years (but that’s weirdly recent for Oxford)