The latest Madness of Crowds column looks at sponsored charity events:
The other evening I saw Eddie Izzard, the celebrated Jack-and-Jill of all theatrical trades, complete 43 nearly consecutive marathon runs. Obviously I didn’t witness him doing this in the flesh – it took him 50 days – rather, I sat in a well-upholstered chair in the desiccated warmth of my own home and watched his astonishing feat on television.
I witnessed Izzard jiggling along the verges of arterial roads, I watched him serving ice creams to fans from his special van, and then, as the long miles began to take their inevitable, crippling toll, I looked on while he writhed in agony beneath the competent hands of his sports therapist, Jo, as she massaged his legs on the unsettling coverlets of mid-price provincial hotels.
For infinitesimal moments I wondered why it was that Izzard chose to stumble-stump for day after day within inches of lorries vomiting fumes – but of course, I knew the answer: if he had gone off-road, it would have been impossible for his support crew of vans and rickshaws to remain with him, filming every pace of this very modern odyssey. On the one occasion when he did divert along a canal towpath, Izzard had to film his own progress using his camera-phone, wonky footage that duly ended up in the finished documentary.
Still, there was a grim fascination to the tale, the watching of which was itself a kind of endurance – I mean to say, he was mad to be doing it, and I was equally deranged to be watching him doing it, when there were thousands of things more profitable and enjoyable I could have been doing. There were further parallels between Izzard and I; while he was proximately solo – the only transvestite comedian to be running 43 consecutive marathons – in the wider scheme of things he was part of a crowded field, for not a day goes by without some celebrity or other embarking on a punishing go-round.
Nor is it the notorious alone who do such things; the great commonality of our nation – if such a thing exists at all – often appears to me to be bound together by nothing so much as a bizarre collective impulse to run, jump and skip about the place, usually en masse, preferably while dressed up as gorillas and waving little flags. From an anthropological perspective, an observer would be forced to conclude that if these inutile and painful exertions have any purpose at all, it must be a sacred one.
Such an alien philosophe would be right. There was a religious impulse driving Izzard on his round-Britain hobble, the same one that drags the rest of the Volk sportlich out on to the highways and byways: charity sponsorship. Sponsorship is the alpha and omega of contemporary beneficence – its sole commandment: Thou Shalt Sponsor (and be sponsored).
Do it, because not to do it is to be marked out as someone who is, ipso facto, both mean and mean-spirited – because it’s fun, isn’t it? Fun for the fundraisers, and fun for those for whom the funds have been raised. Fun even for the fund donors, for they can join vicariously in these noble achievements while funnily toggling their mobile phones so as to donate.
But what is sponsorship, really? My late mother was wont to observe that if people really want to help, say, dementia sufferers (as Izzard did), why don’t they do a sponsored bedpan emptying, or Complan-feeding, thereby killing two birds with one altruistic stone? The answer is that, by and large, the people who solicit sponsorship couldn’t give a toss about the eventual use of this money. It’s a colossal displacement activity, this charity sponsorship lark, for if all these kilojoules of energy were geared to the commonweal, we’d be living in a far happier and more equitable society.
Moreover, charity-sponsored events tranquilise those unquiet spirits who might question the prevailing status quo. Worse still, the activities that are sponsored decouple achievement from the realm of the meaningful. In place of martial prowess, we substitute speed-eating Melton Mowbray pork pies; in lieu of discovering new worlds, we pogo-stick along the M62; instead of agonisingly bringing news of a crushing naval defeat by the Persians just the once, Izzard scrapes his soles over the bitumen again and again – ad tedium, and ad nauseum.