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The power of courtesy

One remarkable incident in his boyhood set the tone for the future life of Desmond Tutu, the recently deceased Archbishop of Cape Town.

Rev David Clarke
Rev David Clarke

Tutu won the Nobel peace prize in 1984 for his work opposing the South African apartheid regime, but the conviction that apartheid could be overcome was formed as early as his ninth year.

He and his mother were standing on the street when a tall white man in a black cassock swept past and, seeing Tutu’s mother, tipped his hat.

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It was a stunning moment for young Tutu that a white man should have extended this basic courtesy to a black woman, and made young Desmond feel that the ‘impossible was possible’.

The man in the black cassock was Trevor Huddleston, an early critic of apartheid in South Africa, author of a seminal book, ‘Naught for your comfort’, and later Bishop of Stepney in London, and even later in Mauritius.

In Bedford, Huddleston’s birthplace, there is a bust in his honour, on the base of which is inscribed the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston’.

A similar act of courtesy brought comfort to the disgraced Oscar Wilde.

The world of the brilliant leading playwright of the Victorian era came crashing down when he was convicted of acts of gross indecency.

The subsequent prison sentence broke his health, but his time in prison produced a fine poem, ‘The Ballad of reading Gaol’ and a work of reflection entitled, ‘De Profundis’.

In the latter, he wrote of a touching display of courtesy which lightened his darkness.

‘When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen (a gentleman whose name Wilde omitted) waited in the long dreary corridor, that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and so simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by.

‘Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek’.

Noting that he had never spoken to the gentleman about his action, he added; ‘I store it in the treasure-house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think that I can never repay. It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears’.

The write Hilaire Belloc was surely right when he wrote, ‘Yet in my walks it seems to me/ The grace of God is in courtesy’.

We could do with a little more of it in our brash, confrontational society.